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Tell Me Lies, Tell Me White Little Lies

by The Ethics Centre
10 February 2016
Most of us understand lying is unethical – we teach our kids to tell the truth, call out political dishonesty and so on... But what about ‘white’ lies? Do they exist at all? Are they permissible?

Your kid wants to cook you a lovely meal – you take your first mouthful and battle to keep it down. “Do you like it?” they ask, doe-eyes starving for approval. Do you choke it down, or tell the truth?

A friend has been working hard to lose weight. Dieting, exercising… the whole works. For the first time since the diet you go out shopping together. Your friend emerges from the changing room in a shirt that’s two sizes two small, beaming. “What do you think? Looks great, right?”

German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man” (and he probably meant the same of women). Kant famously argued that every lie is unethical because the dignity of every person stems from their reason – because lying undermines a person’s ability to make a well-reasoned judgement it actually undermines their human dignity.

And yet we sometimes feel tempted, even obliged, to tell a white lie. Intuitively, we seem to know the difference between ‘bad’ lies and ones that are ok. But what is a lie? University of California professor Gerald Dworkin defines a lie as follows: “John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false and intends that Mary believe X”.

If we had all the time in the world, we would tell a white lie or tell the truth in a way that was tactfully worded?

This definition of lying includes white lies. We accept that white lies are, in fact, lies. What makes them different is that they’re well-motivated and harmless. Following the form of Dworkin’s definition, we might say, “John tells Mary a white lie if he says, X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X because believing X is both harmless and protects Mary from a hurtful truth”.

That’s logic-speak for saying a white lie is a distinct kind of lie told for the benefit of the person being lied to and in the belief no harm will arise from the lie. But are these little lies ethical?

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Consequentialists would argue it depends on the consequences – if telling a lie brings about more benefit than harm, then the lie is ethical. What’s tricky here is that we can’t know for sure what the consequences of a lie might be. In Lying, Sam Harris writes, “By lying, we deny our friends access to reality – and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate”.

Virtue ethics reminds us to think about how individual actions come to define our character and form habits. If our motivation for telling a white lie is to avoid an awkward or unpleasant encounter, is this developing a casual attitude to the truth? Would we be comfortable being known as the kind of person who doesn’t always tell the truth?

Do lots of white lies make us a liar?

Research suggests people are more likely to lie when they are short on time. It’s worth considering whether, if we had all the time in the world, we would tell a white lie or tell the truth in a way that was tactfully worded? This might not guarantee we’ll never lie, but it does tell us which we think is ethically preferable.

There is one exception to all of this – when the person asking us the question knows the answer isn’t going to be true. Sometimes “how do I look?” doesn’t actually mean “appraise my physical appearance”, it means “please give me a compliment”. Language is only one way in which we communicate and we often know what answer someone is after when they ask a question. We’re not obliged to indulge someone who is fishing for a compliment, but if we do, we’re not lying.

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