If Something is Not True, Does That Make it a Lie?

Lying is wrong. Even as children we are taught that it is wrong to lie. But sometimes there can be confusion as to what constitutes a lie. The fact that we have terms like ‘white lie’ show how easy it is to forget that lying is objectively evil or look at it as the ‘lesser of two evils.’

Other questions come up when it comes to lying, such as: Is anything that is untrue necessarily a lie? Do I have to tell someone the truth, even if I don’t think I should? What if something bad will happen if I tell the truth? Recently on Go Ask Your Father™ Monsignor Stuart Swetland tackled some of these big questions related to lying.

On whether something that that is untrue is necessarily a lie, Msgr, Swetland said, “There are social conventions. I mean, if around a campfire I started to say, ‘Once upon a time…’ everybody now knows I’m telling a story. And stories have their own internal logic.”

He also pointed out that, especially when it comes to stories, just because something didn’t literally happen doesn’t mean it is not true. He explained, “I learned this moving to the Midwest, there is a great way that some Native Americans will start to tell a story. They’ll say, ‘I’m going to tell you a story. It never happened but it’s true.’ And if you think about it, there’s lots of stories that never happened, but are true. Most good novels are that way. They never happened but they’re true. They’re reflecting upon and giving insight into the human condition.”

This line of thinking applies not only to stories, but also to other social conventions. For example, Msgr. Swetland said, “Fans speak untruths all the time. Every fan thinks their team is the best. But obviously only one of them is correct. … But that’s just the convention of what it means to be a rooter for your team. That’s just part of what fandom is. And that’s OK, we understand that’s not lying. That’s inside the social convention of what it means to root for a team.”

After outlining these examples of situations in which something that is not true is not necessarily a lie, Msgr. Swetland also pointed out that there are certain situations in which it would actually be wrong to tell the truth. However, in these situations the answer is not to lie, but to simply refuse to disclose the information.

“If someone doesn’t have a right to some truth, you should never tell them that truth,” he said. “As a college president, I’ve got to tell people all the time that I can’t tell them something. I get calls from parents or others, and they’ll ask questions about how their children are doing. And by law, the child is over 18, so unless I have written permission from the young adult I cannot disclose how they’re doing or disclose their grades. That’s not something I can do legally under the privacy laws in place in American higher education law. Just like the doctor cannot disclose about an adult patient to another patient without permission from that person.”

Another common question that comes up when it comes to lying is whether you should tell the truth and allow someone to get hurt or lie to protect someone. While Msgr. Swetland has addressed that topic in the past, he also pointed out that while lying is always evil, there are situations in which someone’s culpability is lessened.

“The problem of duress does speak to the freedom of an individual,” he said. “If a gun is pointed at your head, your freedom has been in a significant way impaired, and you may not be acting freely. The kidnapped person who speaks something, who reads a statement or whatever, they’re doing that under duress. They’re not freely choosing it. A lie, to be a lie, has to be freely chosen.”

In all circumstances, when it comes to lying Msgr. Swetland’s advice was, “You don’t do evil, even if you think good will come of it. Because it just makes you an evil doer. … We should still do the good and we should never choose evil.”

Listen to the full conversation below and tune-in to Go Ask Your Father weekdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.