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Alan Ryan Professional Liars PREAMBLE: WHAT IS THE SUBJECT? MY TITLE IS A COME-ON, BUT IT SU GGESTS THE ISSU E S THE PAPER embraces. The notion of a professional liar suggests someone who tells lies for a living, perhaps someone who tells lies well, with conviction and with aplomb, certainly someone whose stock in trade includes the capac­ ity to utter the well-judged falsehood. The sort of example I have in mind is the beau ideal of a British civil servant according to Lord Armstrong’s testimony in the Spycatcher case: someone who is “economical with the truth” when he must be, who is not on such an occasion likely to squirm with embarrassment, nor to bluster out of a feeling that he is not carry­ ing with conviction. He may even have a fastidious sense that he ought not to presume too far on his audience’s credulity, lying to them in a tone that suggests that he certainly intends to deceive them, but that he does not propose that they should feel utterly foolish. A finance minister or one of his officials discussing the prospects for a devaluation of the currency might well pride himself on lying thus. The paper does not explore the notion of the well-told falsehood in the detail I would like, but relies on the thought that there might be such a thing as the well-told professional lie to explore a veiy small part of the obligation to tell the truth and to lie under certain conditions as it attaches to the performance of certain professional roles. Obvious professions include doctors, lawyers, and politicians, and doubtless university teachers, too. I say a lot about the first, something about the second, a little about the third, and maintain a decorous silence about the last. I take it that we all know rather too much about the fibs by which we prop up the morale of students and colleagues. ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SOCIAL RESEARCH VOL. 6 3 , NO. 3 (FALL 1 9 9 6 ) social research Vol 71 : No 3 : Fall 20 0 4 733 Such novelty as is possessed by what follows lies in my attempt to pursue the plausible but indistinct thought that to sort out our ideas of when lying is permissible or perhaps even mandatory we must under­ stand what relationship the passing of information and disinformation is serving. Lying within marriage offers an example. The “little white lie” is acceptable to a nonsevere (relational) moralist because he or she takes the survival of a marriage as a proper goal, and thinks the reply “absolutely hideous” will not help it, even if it is the honest answer to the question, “What do you think of my new suit?” Severe moralists will deny it—William Godwin springs to mind as an example of a man who would have destroyed a marriage rather than hide the truth about his sentiments. But severe moralists come in several flavors; Kantians are severe for other reasons than severe utilitarians. A severe moralist who was also what I am calling a relationship moralist would have to give as his grounds for wishing the truth to be told even at the cost of the marriage some such thought as this: the badness of a marriage in which the parties did not disclose their deepest feelings with absolute spon­ taneity is so awful that any relationship that cannot be sustained on that basis ought to expire forthwith. “Green tweed; what a question!” The rest of us, I think, would feel that it was precisely the marriage relationship that imposed especially strict duties of truth-telling in many conditions and the obligation to lie intelligently in others. This paper inspects the connection between kinds of truth-telling (lie-telling therein included) and the relationships in which they are embedded. I begin with a quick glance at some familiar answers to the question why we ought to tell the truth and not lie in general, not to say anything novel, but to get some obvious ideas about the point of truthful and untruthful speech into the open for discussion. LYING: THREE THEORIES OF THE DUTY TO TELL...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 733-752
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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