The Invention of Lying

We saw the film, The Invention of Lying. The premise is a human society exactly like ours except nobody has the ability to lie; so everyone believes everything anyone says; there isn’t even a concept of “truth” since its opposite doesn’t exist. Apparently, there isn’t even fiction; TV and movies feature only history. And one major aspect of our own culture is absent in this one: religion, being, of course, impossible here. (However, there is still crime; bit of a puzzle, that.)

Anyway, Ricky Gervais plays Mark, basically a loser; but apparently a mutant who eventually accidentally discovers his ability to utter an untruth, with positive consequences for himself. This quickly resurrects his finances and failed screen-writing career. Soon, his mother is dying, and very frightened at the nothingness to come. So to comfort her, Mark delivers his biggest whopper: there is life after death. This is overheard in the hospital; pretty quickly there is a media sensation, and a huge crowd gathers on his lawn, wanting to hear more of Mark’s startling revelation. Mark duly appears to reveal that the info was told to him by the Man in the Sky, who controls everything. (Who knew?)

And then, after an hour setting up this pretty wacky but intriguing premise, the film basically, well, drops it – and reverts straight to being an absolutely predictable formulaic story focusing on Mark’s effort to get the girl, as against his (superficially) more attractive rival, complete with the standard scene where she’s standing at the altar with Mr. Perfect, and Mark is in the back of the church. This seems particularly silly here, inasmuch as Mark has become fantastically rich and successful, a huge celebrity, and, indeed, the prophet of the Man in the Sky – the church features a huge stained glass window depicting Mark delivering his gospel! And yet she still sees him as a loser! Huh?

Of course he gets her in the end. And of course, in the clinch, Mark virtuously refrains from exploiting his Power of Mendacity to get her.

This film is basically about free will. Everyone except Mark is unable to lie, so their truthfulness is devoid of moral import. Only Mark has free will; only Mark has the choice. So when he chooses to forego the lie that could get him what he wants, this is a consequential moral choice. It encapsulates the gut moral dilemma we face every day. It’s easy to do the right thing when there’s no personal cost. But usually there is a cost, and we have to decide whether to pay it. And when we do decide to pay it, is it because it’s just the right thing to do, or because we calculate that it’s ultimately more in our self-interest?

(A plug for my book: it actually explores this issue in some depth.)

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