I've seen a lot of pushback against dishonesty in the EA and LW communities (this post and this post), and some promotion of radical honesty, but I don't think I've ever seen a steelman of lying. I recently spoke with a rationalist friend about this, and it seems that some of the most basic arguments for lying seem to be simply skipped over. Although they may seem a little tongue-in-cheek, and I, of course, see the value of honesty in virtue ethics/ game theory contexts, I think arguments against lying tend to simply ignore these fairly obvious and rational reasons to lie. 

So, as someone with a history of lying (mainly as a teenager) that I'm neither ashamed nor proud of, and a few lovely friends who haven't dropped the ball like I have, and are committed lifelong compulsive liars- allow me to offer five reasons to lie:

1. Lying can be highly efficient. Imagine I want to sleep with someone, but my girlfriend doesn't want me to sleep with someone. This would seem to be a dilemma where our interests clash, but then I realise, aha! My girlfriend doesn't really not want me to sleep with other people, she just doesn't want to find out that I've slept with other people (actually true, I've asked her). If only there were some way of fulfilling both our preferences?! My friend, there is a way: the noblest of lies! Whether in the workplace or in a marriage, the truthful man is imposing countless inefficiencies upon himself with his childish adherence to honesty.

2. Lying is theatre, Lying is fun. Being your 'authentic self' can be interesting, and radical honesty can be refreshing if you've spent a lot of your life being forced to be inauthentic, but honesty clearly limits the scope of self-expression for someone with a decent imagination. Drawing a firm line between theatre/storytelling (where lying is okay) and real life (where it isn't) seems bizarre and horribly unnatural. As Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage", so why limit our creative outpourings to such a narrow sliver of human interactions as theatre? If you've ever had to travel through a new country, telling everyone you meet the same old story about how you're a student on a gap year, you'll very quickly get bored, but lying gives you a chance to be a persecuted politician, a failed astronaut, a fishmonger on a sabbatical, or a 19th-century traveller who has been mysteriously transported to the present. If you've never tried telling a stranger an elaborate lie about yourself, honestly (well...), you have lived a deprived existence.

3. Lying can make you sound better than you are. As a man of modest achievements and questionable merits, I often feel embarrassed when describing myself to others, especially in elite, high-status communities like the EA/ rationalist community; but there is a tool available to the low-status man- the self-aggrandising lie! For example, I told many of my friends in primary school that I invented the Double Decker chocolate bar. For a 9-year-old with no major achievements to my name, I could finally experience the status of an inventor, a child prodigy, a boy who has made a difference to the world! And all without having invented a thing! Talk about win-win.

4. Lying is a social lubricant. The classic defence of lying here- if someone asks you: "Does my bum look too big in this dress?", you don't want to be honest and respond: "Yes, you look like a whale who has swallowed another, much larger whale." (Assuming, of course that this is the actual visual effect created by the dress). You could remain technically honest and weasel out of it by saying: "Compared to the Alcyoneus galaxy, it's positively minuscule", but lying is clearly the optimal strategy here. It gives you the ability to either say: "No, it looks just wonderful" (a little boring, but effective) or to dazzle your interlocutor with a change of topic, and say: "Did you know that I'm actually personally responsible for the demise of the semi-colon?".   

5. Lying is excellent mental exercise. According to personal experience, and a peer-reviewed meta-study I just made up, the mental skill required to maintain multiple different, often contradictory lies with various individuals and social groups keeps you constantly on your toes, and probably prevents dementia or something. One of my best friends, despite his mind being addled by a marijuana habit, still manages to maintain fairly contradictory versions of the last decade of his life with interlocking friendship groups. Bonus points if you have completely different personas and life stories in different languages.

I'm sure we can think of other brilliant reasons to try adding a few more lies into our lives, but these are some examples to start with.

Edited to stress that the dress comment is in fact an honest perception. 

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Unfortunately, all of life is a virtue ethics/game theory context.

It's true that virtue ethics and game theory permeate through our experiences, but much of life is comprised of single-shot games, or situations where utilitarian calculus (or even just selfishness) overwhelms virtue ethics. 

I can't tell if this is intended as satire, or just pretty weak arguments.   

It's intended as a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of laying out five basic arguments for why lying is desirable.

I do find that satire works better if you're not sure if it's intended as such, but I should stress that it's not intended as satire in the sense that I don't think these are valid arguments and fundamentally disagree with them.

I think they generally are valid arguments, and I do think that if you want to advocate for very strong honesty norms, you should address these simplistic arguments for why people lie.

I allow the reader to make the more nuanced case for when and why each of them do or don't apply.

I see I'm not the only downvoter, so I'll try to stay positive on this.  There are plenty of contexts where lying is desirable, from a consequentialist perspective - it sometimes IS legitimately expected to be a better long-term outcome than strict truth-telling.   But it's somewhat rare, and not as simple as your post makes it seem.

It's an added complexity over telling the truth, because you need to keep a counterfactual consistency in your head to support the lie.  So MOST of the time, it's not worth the cost, even aside from the potential harm from either being caught or the epistemic contamination caused in others.  Oh, and yourself - as a human, telling lies too often makes your weak little brain forget they're lies, and you'll much more easily believe falsehoods.

The truly adversarial cases do justify lying.  Hiding innocent victims from evil oppressors is trivial (though it gets complex if that's all you're doing, rather than actively fighting the oppression).  Social smoothness in casual or group settings often requires lies, or at least avoidance of controversial statements.  I'd recommend keeping them simple, and more denials of importance than direct (false, in your belief) predicates.  

The private discussions with long-term partners ("do I look fat"?) can often be better handled by evasion ("you're always beautiful to me") or actual honesty (with details of how you differentially perceive the person now vs yesterday - sometimes that's actually useful information, asked rationally).

Also, remember that lies are FAR more effective if you haven't publicly stated your preferences for lying in those contexts.

Thanks for the positivity! Much appreciated. 

I think the counterargument to your "added complexity" point would be that this complexity might be a good thing (returning to the 'theatre/ fun' point and the 'mental practice' point in the piece), so I would only consider it a cost if you're trying to simplify your social interactions. I personally tell the truth almost all the time now, but this is partly just out of laziness- I struggle to harness the energy or creativity to weave and maintain interesting webs of deception (it was both easier and more fun to lie when I travelled more and didn't have a full-time job). On the other hand, I also suspect that it's mentally more difficult to be radically honest than to lean towards the 'mostly honest' part of the spectrum of honesty/ dishonesty. 

I'm not sure if people who lie are more likely to believe falsehoods, actually. It seems plausible that liars could be better at detecting deception. 

I deliberately wanted to avoid the 'truly adverserial cases' here- I find that the debate around honesty is too closely anchored to the premise that 'lying is always bad' (but what about the murderer at the door?) and I wanted to make the case there might be rational and fairly obvious reasons to lie.

Having said that, I do think honesty norms are generally good, especially with colleagues, close friends and partners- I'm probably more honest than the default in my culture, and would bring a child up with fairly strong honesty norms, at least until they were old enough to weigh up the trade-offs themselves. 

But I also think that, when people lie, they should do so with a sense of playfulness, which probably inspired the tone for the post. 

Just a clarification before I bow out of the discussion: I didn't mean that liars are more likely to believe other liars, they're in fact less likely (though perhaps less likely to believe truth-tellers as well, which is a separate problem).  

I meant that it is very common to start to believe some of your own lies, and this is epistemically very harmful.  The mental effort of splitting your beliefs into "real" and "expressed" modes is hard to overstate, and the brain seems to have evolved such that it's easier to convince people if you believe your statements yourself, and therefore to self-deceive in many situations.

Doesn't this also imply that those who are 'justifiably lying', such as the case of "hiding innocent victims from evil oppressors", are deceiving themselves too? 

(Since they also have limited human faculties.)

If so, how can we be sure there isn't another layer of deception underneath?

Of course, yes.  Justifiable lying has costs and risks, just like any other reason for lying.  The word "justifiable" only indicates that the costs are less than the value, in the eyes of the decider.   The fact that it's sometimes necessary doesn't mean it's not harmful.

How can we be sure it's sometimes necessary if there could be another layer of deception underneath? (due to the aforementioned propensity of human's mind where lies induce more lies)

My models of morality and of bounded rationality make me highly suspicious of any claim of surety.  But in this case, I'm also unclear on what you're asking.  Perhaps if you can give two examples, one on each side of the line, we can generalize from there.  Or, more likely, we'll disagree on something and identify an underlying disagreement in our models.

I mean, there's ALWAYS more layers of human-level modeling of each other.  Whether that layer is deception, honest mistake, or shared truth-seeking becomes really hard to know or use after a few levels.

My models of morality and of bounded rationality make me highly suspicious of any claim of surety.  But in this case, I'm also unclear on what you're asking.  Perhaps if you can give two examples, one on each side of the line, we can generalize from there.

Well this is an interesting dilemma. 

I can't provide 'two example on each side of the line'  because I've only ever heard of activities related to "hiding innocent victims from evil oppressors" from third-hand sources, who also have fallible minds probably containing multiple lies. Nor can I tell exactly where the line is because I've likely also self-deceived in some capacity.

Considering the real situation of adults circa 2022, where everyone likely has deceived themselves with at least a few lies, how could this conversation continue?

Lying is a social lubricant. The classic defence of lying here- if someone asks you: "Does my bum look too big in this dress?", you don't want to be honest and respond: "Yes, you look like a whale who has swallowed another, much larger whale."

That's not being honest--that's just being mean. If you really want to present an uncharitable view of honesty, maybe at least make the statements you claim to be honest actually true? For example, the response "No, it's your fat that does it," is also rather unkind but has the advantage of maybe being true.

Good point- I should have stressed that the overwhelming and undeniable visual effect from the bum in the dress was that of a whale swallowing another larger whale, such that saying anything else would be dishonest in spirit.


Lying is a good way to hide your intentions. That way, it allows the listener to guess and doubt what your intentions are. As the liar, it allows you to effectively gauge statistically what tendencies people seem to demonstrate when it comes to sensitive ambiguous situations. For instance, if you want to find out what percentage of the population are truly racist, you can lie about things that would give racists excuses to be racist against you.

Everyone single racist in this world will lie about being racist, whether they are aware of it themselves or not. Less than a hundred years ago, it may not have been the case since overt racism is accepted. Now we've moved on to "Just don't say racist words." That's something very easy to do. Not saying a few words doesn't mean your actions are not going to be racist. Racists are defined through their actions. If you want to see those racist actions in action, you have to give them a very good reason to act racist against you. For hardcore racists, you don't even need good reasons, just being born of the wrong nationality will get you there. But for borderline racists, they need a bit more to nudge toward certain tendencies. The test is to see whether they have the awareness of knowing what those tendencies are and their moral implications. Nationalism is a close cousin of racism. A lot of the underlying tendencies in both areas overlap. The behaviors are the same but spelt under different pretense, just a matter of whether geopolitics are involved which can complicate the relations of the entities involved. Both are just a form of tribalism. Every conflict in history is a marker of how far we have come as a single human race. It's hard to plan for the future when you don't even understand the present.

One of the most fascinating things I've learned is that upon learning about the process or having their own behaviors revealed to them, some people just double down even harder. It seems that their ego wouldn't allow them to do anything else otherwise. I used to not like these people, but I've since developed empathy for them seeing just how many people are affected by this, which it's really difficult to say that they have any control over this innate process because this is neither beneficial to themselves or others in modern society where co-dependency rules over our entire lives. You need healthcare when you are born, and you need healthcare when you die. You need people to produce the food that you eat everyday. You need people to produce all the content you consume everyday. Maybe a couple of centuries ago it would've been because of actual resource scarcity. It is essentially a form of coping mechanism. Part of what they are trying to cope is the lack of understanding. By dismissing it, they give themselves an excuse to not put in the work to understand. Coping with the implications of not understanding through simplification. In the end, you still don't understand but at least you have successfully fooled yourself into either understanding it or not needing to understand, whichever simplification ends up working for you specifically. If don't make it open ended, you may never get the correct distribution of the simplifications as you introduce bias into the variables you are testing.

Very good point. If we want to build a better model of an individual's behaviour or the dynamics of a social group, lying can be an invaluable tool.


Yeah, in other words, if you know people are going to lie when you ask them "Are you racist?" You have to lie to them to find out whether they are racist or not by asking them indirectly. I mean you don't necessarily have to lie to get your answers indirectly, but sometimes there are no other options. That's why you see psychology tests do these weird little experiment where they try to hide the intention of what hypothesis they are trying to test from the subjects. I learned everything I know about this stuff from things that were done to me. They made me jump through these hoops, and I thought why not make them jump through hoops too?

Mr ChatGPT, does my bum look too big in that dress?

Not sure what your point is here...