This book explores the distinction between selflessness and
self-interestedness, between acting for one's own advantage and
acting, even when disadvantageous, for reasons of duty or
conscience. This apparently straightforward contrast (exemplified
in the difference between rational-choice models in economics and
holistic models in social anthropology) is a source of confusion.
This is so, F. G. Bailey argues, because people polarize and
essentialize both actors and actions and uphold one or the other
side of the contrast as concrete reality, as the truth about how
the social world works. The task of The Saving Lie is to
show that both versions are convenient fictions, with instrumental
rather than ontological significance: they are not about truth but
about power. At best they are tools that enable us to make sense of
our experience; at the same time they are weapons we deploy to
define situations and thus exercise control.
Bailey says that both models fail the test of empiricism: they can
be at once immensely elegant and quite remote from anyone's
experience in the real world. And since both models are "saving
lies," we should accept them as necessities, but only to the extent
they are useful, and we should constantly remind ourselves of their
limitations. The wrong course, according to Bailey, is to promote
one model to the total exclusion of the other. Instead, we should
take care to examine systematically the rhetoric used to promote
these models not only in intellectual discourse but also in
defining situations in everyday life.
The book strongly and directly advocates a point of view that
combines skepticism with a determination to anchor abstract
argument in evidence. It is argumentative; it invites
confrontation; yet it leaves many doors open for further
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