Comment: Sex, lies and conning the man with the hamster

Thomas Sutcliffe on not telling the truth
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The Independent Online
A friend of mine hit a moral pothole the other day. Having promised to buy her children a hamster she arrived at the pet shop just before closing time to find the owner adamant about the animal's release date. He had resolved, for reasons to do with hamster psychiatric health, not to sell any of the animals until they had reached a certain age, presumably the point at which they would be mature enough to survive being strapped to a kite or forcibly dressed in an Action Man Navy Seal wet-suit.

The cut-off date was the following morning - a mere fifteen hours away. The children's faces fell, at which point my friend declared that she had to work the next day and wouldn't it be possible to bend the rules just a little. This was not true, but it had the desired effect - the hamster was handed over to its new life of tormenting affection.

Unfortunately the thrill of new livestock was eclipsed by the far greater excitement of Mummy's Lie - a scandalising contradiction to the nanny's Kantian injunctions against all species of falsehood. There followed an awkward philosophical debate about the difference between lies which hurt people and lies which don't.

Learning how and when to lie is part of all children's education - even if the tuition is rarely quite as explicit as that. Indeed, you could say that the ability to discriminate between gradations of lie, to make the rather difficult judgement about when a lie ceases to be justifiable, is one marker of achieved adulthood. This is not quite as cynical as it sounds: a recent Hollywood movie, Liar, Liar explored the impossibility of life without social prevarication of any kind.

In the storyline, a shyster lawyer is subjected to one of those useful Hollywood enchantments and becomes incapable of even the smallest deviation from the truth. The result is a catastrophic candour, in which social performance and private instincts collide. He tells people exactly what he is thinking and, as a result, his world collapses.

The film wasn't in favour of lying, of course - it was in favour of the lead character changing his inner life in such a way that truth was no longer a liability to him (Kant would have enjoyed this movie, I think). But the comedy only worked because the audience could recognise the farcical horror of being deprived of the lie as a daily utility, a way of smoothing awkward corners off the world.

To say that all politicians are liars, then, is not to join in the callow dismissal of the entire profession (though that is how such a phrase would usually be deployed). It is simply to make the redundant point that all politicians are people, even if they are people with a particularly sharp need for the ability to leave things unsaid. The most meticulously truthful politician is likely, at one time or another, to have left a false impression undisturbed.

The moral question, then, is not whether politicians lie (the answer to that being that they probably lie a bit less than the rest of us - because they are scrutinised so closely) but what kinds of lie they tell, and to what ends those lies are bent. And those questions are surely at work in the current scandal over President Clinton's peculiar method of relieving the cares of office.

If, like many people, you believe that the President is lying when he says there was no sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky there are two possible ways of judging his behaviour (his behaviour in lying, that is, which is distinct from the behaviour which - allegedly - made the lie necessary). Either he is cheerfully amoral and his conscience didn't even show up for a wrestling bout, or he has assessed the lie in such a way that it outweighs the truth.

It isn't difficult to imagine how such a justification might evolve - "I am a popular and successful President while my enemies are corrupt in their strategies and sinister in their purposes. Impeachment or resignation would gravely damage public confidence in the democratic processes. I will not jeopardise the future of my country simply because I feel squeamish about a departing from the truth, particularly when the matter concerned has no bearing on my abilities as a leader. Indeed, now I come to think of it, it is nothing less than my patriotic duty to deny everything. I know it looks a bit grubby, but wipe away all that dirt they've been throwing, and you'll find it's a white lie really".

Unfortunately, one lie is never enough, and other consciences may not prove as easy to armlock into submission. The sight of the President's secretary, emerging into a harangue of journalists with a look of bewildered terror, suggested that she had managed to preserve her innocence in office to a quite amazing degree. So it proved, if the New York Times is to be believed, and her decent anguish at being forced to choose between disloyalty and dishonesty should at least make Mr Clinton check his moral calculations again.

White lies do not generally put other people on the rack. Unfortunately too, for the President in this case, the media take a childlike attitude to lying rather than an adult one. The implicit assumption in many reports is that if the President is proved to have lied he will have to go.

But what is intriguing about the unfolding scandal is the evidence that the American public no longer accept such simplistic demarcations. Polls appear to show that even many of those who believe he has lied about Monica Lewinsky continue to support him. That will be taken in some quarters as proof of falling standards of public decency, but I'm not so sure.

While politicians and journalists like to pretend that all lies are equally black, (and even President Clinton implicitly accepts the rules in the manner of his responses) the public are grown- up enough to know that they come in infinite shades of grey.

If his brass neck holds, the President may yet make a getaway under cover of that moral haze.