In Season One of the TV show The Good Place, Chidi Anagonye, an ethics and moral philosophy professor, faces a dilemma when a colleague asks his opinion about a new pair of boots. Chidi clearly dislikes the boots, which are a garish shade of red and encrusted in crystals, but to spare his colleague’s feelings, he says that he loves them.
Chidi immediately regrets lying and begins obsessing over his moral failings, even as his exasperated girlfriend reassures him, “Sometimes we just lie to be polite.” Eventually, Chidi can no longer bear the guilt and confesses his true feelings to his colleague: “The boots are terrible, and hideous, and I hate them!” The colleague is clearly hurt by the revelation.
For Chidi and some other philosophers, the obligation not to lie trumps all other moral imperatives, including not hurting someone’s feelings. Few people actually adhere to such a strict prescription for honesty, however. Lying is an accepted part of daily life, from our automatic response of “good” when asked how we are, to the praise we give when a friend asks if we like her awful new haircut (or pair of boots).
“For me, a world in which people could know the truth that mattered to them would be a great world,” Freshman says. “We’d have less discrimination and more equity.”
We’d also have more hurt feelings. For most of us, a world without lies would deliver an immediate blow to our self-image, says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University. “Living with the truth means you would get more honest, brutal feedback about your work, the way you dress, the way you kiss – all kinds of things like that,” he says. “You would realise that people don’t pay as much attention to you and you’re not as important and highly qualified as you think you are.”
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