While the concept of lying appears simple at first, upon consideration one is able to imagine any number of situations in which lying would not appear to always be wrong, thus creating something of a quandary for anyone attempting to argue in favor of ethical and honest behavior, especially in the corporate world. The problem to be investigated in this essay, then, is the problem of determining if lying is always wrong, and the implications of the answer to that question. In order to address this problem, one may examine certain relevant, well-known instances of lying in which an argument can be made for either side, such as the padding of resumes with misleading or false information, or James Frey's repackaging of a novel he wrote into an ostensible memoir.
James Frey wrote a book-based roughly on his own experiences but embellished enough that when he first shopped it around to publishers, he marketed it as a piece of fiction. It was soundly rejected, so he tried again with the same book, but this time telling publishers it was a memoir. It was picked up by Random House, and Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces, became "a best-seller when Oprah Winfrey endorsed the book as one of her Oprah's Book Club selections," to the point that "there were 1.77 million copies sold in 2005, a figure that made Frey's book the number-one seller of the year" (Jennings, 2009, p. 69). Following its publication and success, the website The Smoking Gun investigated the claims made in the book and found that many of the crucial elements of the book were either fabricated wholesale or embellished beyond the point of recognition, leading to a public uproar that resulted in an angry Oprah chastising Frey on television and a $2.35 million settlement for those people who felt they were duped.
While at first glance the case of James Frey may appear as a kind of ethical gray area because the line between memoir and fiction can be so murky, the fact is that Frey committed an outright act of dishonesty because he knew his book would get picked up if sold as fiction (a fact not mentioned in the Jennings case study). Thus, it is not as if Frey always intended the story to be taken as a kind of dramatized memoir, but rather understood from the beginning that it was much more fiction than reality. That fiction only became a lie once he began telling other people that is was true, so the case of James Frey actually provides a fairly clear-cut argument in favor of honesty, considering the brutal public reaction once his lies became clear. (Of course, this argument only goes so far, because like any person sufficiently famous in America, the fallout from this scandal has not precluded Frey from receiving more writing contracts, the $2.35 million settlement was likely less than he made from the book sales in the first place, and A Million Little Pieces remains a best-seller.)
Frey's case offers some lessons on short-term vs. long-term perspectives in decision making, because his dishonesty was eventually uncovered precisely due to his success. In the short-term, the decision to market his novel as a memoir was likely made in order to make money and succeed at selling a book, with little thought at to how that claim might stand up later. He had already been rejected before, so Frey was likely not imagining that he would become so successful so rapidly. Thus, Frey's case reveals the number one difficult which arises with lying, which is that the longer a lie goes on, the more detailed and robust the maintenance of that lie must be. While it is not impossible to maintain a lie over the long-term (as will be seen in a moment), it requires far more skill and cunning than it does to make up a story about how you are so strong and tough that you can quit alcohol and crack cocaine cold turkey. Frey's dishonesty relied not only on no one bothering to check any of the claims that he made, but also on Random House forgetting that it had previously rejected the same story when it was labeled fiction.
Frey's case bears some small resemblance to two other stories of professional dishonesty, although these latter cases provide a far more problematic picture of the dynamic between truth and lies than Frey's fairly clear-cut instance of intentional fraud. Somewhat akin to Frey (un)creatively padding his life story to make it more worth spending money on, a "2006 study by a group of executive research firms showed that 43% of all resumes contain material misstatements" (Jennings, 2009, p. 36). Perhaps to most dramatic example of this is "what may be the longest running case of undetected resume misrepresentation," in which "Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), resigned after twenty-eight years as an administrator" after it was revealed that "she had no degrees from any of" the schools she listed on her resume, and in fact, did not have a degree at all. The one sliver of truth on her resume was that she did, at least, attend "Rensselaer Polytechnic as a part-time nonmatriculated student during the 1974-75 school year" (p. 36). Ms. Jones had begun at MIT in an entry-level position that likely did not require a degree, but as she moved up, she found the need to pad her resume. Apparently when she was appointed dean of admissions "she wanted to disclose her lack of degrees" but "she had gone on for so long that she did not know how to come clean with the truth" (p. 37).
Ms. Jones case offers a problematic conception of the relationship between honesty and dishonesty, because her motivations for lying and the context in which it was done allows one to find a number of reasons why she could have been justified, not least of all because the positions which she worked required a degree even when their requisite tasks could clearly be accomplished without one. In this case, the degree requirements were actually superfluous, so Ms. Jones' actions dishonesty served to placate this largely irrelevant technicality. This same dynamic can be seen at play in the case of Dianna Green, "a senor vice president at Duquesne Light" who "had worked her way up through the company and had been responsible for handling the human resources issues in Duquesene's nine years of downsizing" (p.37). Demonstrating the often imaginary value added by an MBA, Ms. Green was "fired for lying on her resume by stating that she had a master's degree in business administration when, in fact, she had no master's degree" (p. 37). Once again, an organization lost an apparently valuable employee because that employee lied in order to bypass an artificially and unnecessarily constructed barrier to better employment. Thus, the cases of Ms. Green and Ms. Jones reveals instances in which lying is only wrong in that it violates the imaginary moral code subscribed to by any given organization, and not wrong in the sense that it ends up violating someone else's autonomy or causing them physical, mental, or financial harm.
For context, James Frey made up a story about how masculine and strong he was in his fight against alcoholism and then sold that story as memoir, ostensibly so that other addicts might have an inspirational story, and indeed, Frey's book was heralded as a tale of someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Frey profited immensely off of the gullibility of people and allowed dangerous ideas to become popularized, such as the idea that addiction can be overcome through sheer grit, or that someone can undergo major oral surgery without anesthetic. Frey provided false information not only about himself, but about serious issues that affect millions of people. This is likely why Oprah eventually responded so strongly, because while the embellishment itself was rather uncreative and apparently false to anyone with a small degree of critical thought, the fact that it was magnified and multiplied via her book club to affect millions of credulous readers and viewers made the embellishments far more damaging. Thus, Oprah probably learned to vet her authors far more carefully, and indeed, after the James Frey debacle, she refrained from recommending non-fiction books for some time, likely wary of a repeat.
In contrast with James Frey, Ms. Green and Ms. Jones, only provided false information about themselves and evidently performed their respective jobs so well that they managed to rise to the top of their respective organizations. If one wants to further complicate the idea of lying, one can note that Ms. Jones worked in education, which meant that she was likely not paid nearly as much as if she had chosen to work in the private sector, and Ms. Green was "known widely for her community service" (p. 37). This is not to suggest that either of these…