Ask the average Jill and Jacob on the street what the moral norm regarding lying is and most will probably say something that boils down to “it’s bad, don’t do it.” This reaction holds typical even if Jill is an Episcopalian and Jacob is a rabbinical student. It holds true even if you happen to encounter Josephina, who happens to be a devout Catholic, or Juan, who just happens to espouse agnosticism. In fact, whether you approach Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, Wiccans, bowlers, businessmen, panhandlers or vegetarians, the likelihood remains that almost all will respond to your query by saying something like; “yes, well society condemns lying,” or even, “my Pop would whip my hide if I told a lie,” in short, with the entirely anticipated negative. It would seem as if each respondent were guided by some unseen celestial bandleader to create a unity of spoken outrage against lying, sort of like a verbal funnel, whipping its mantra throughout the stratosphere.
But, is that really the moral norm regarding lying?
It is most certainly the knee jerk reaction to most respondents when asked what is morally correct regarding truth-telling. After all, most of us consider morality to be the province of church teachings and most, if not all forms of religion, espouse truth-telling. However, morality can also be considered a function of what is considered good, ethical, behavior.
Perhaps the real moral norm, the societal norm, as regards lying is schizophrenic. Beneath the knee jerk coda to always speak the literal truth resides an unspoken corollary, specifically to attempt to be kind, adaptable, politic, humble and work for the common good.
Certainly, most of the above are considered, good and ‘moral,’ qualities, possibly not the ‘politic’ and adaptable ones, but the others, almost assuredly. It can also be argued that while Pop might certainly have beat you black and blue for lying, it’s equally possible Mom would have had a quick smack for your hind end, if not, then at minimum she could be expected to administer the silent treatment, besides enforcing the no dessert for a month corollary, if you told dear Great Aunt Abigail just exactly what you thought of her blue hair when she asked you.
Your argument that you were only being true to your exact feelings, speaking your ‘truth’ when you told her it looked like the toilet bowl before you flushed down the cleaner would have seemed at best unkind, not to mention a tad arrogant, in short the opposite of kind and humble.
Obviously, then there is more than one quality wherein resides the bigger quality of morality. When different ‘moral’ qualities impinge, each seemingly dictating a different form of behavior, it can be hard to really say which should win. It might be said, in fact, that society’s true compass as regards a moral norm is a tad wonky, asking us to perform verbal and mental tricks the physical equivalent of which would rival a yoga master, otherwise why would there be such words as spin and polite truths.
So, what is the moral norm as regards lying? Don’t do it, that is unless the moment dictates following a separate and at least momentarily preferable morality, society’s norms at their most schizophrenic.