White lies

Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty

More from Sam Harris’ essay, Lying. In this long section, the author dissects a few of the touchiest situations, and affirms the critical importance to our relationships that we find a way to be truthful.

…But what could be wrong with truly “white” lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding — these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.

And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality — and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.

A primal instance:
“Do I look fat in this dress?”
Most people insist that the correct answer to this question is always “No.” In fact, many believe that it’s not a question at all: The woman is simply saying, “Tell me I look good.” If she’s your wife or girlfriend, she might even be saying, “Tell me you love me.” If you sincerely believe that this is the situation you are in — that the text is a distractor and the subtext conveys the entire message — then so be it. Responding honestly to the subtext would not be lying.

But this is an edge case for a reason: It crystallizes what is tempting about white lies. Why not simply reassure someone with a tiny lie and send her out into the world feeling more confident? Unless one commits to telling the truth in situations like this, however, one finds that the edges creep inward, and exceptions to the principle of honesty begin to multiply. Very soon, you may find yourself behaving as most people do quite effortlessly: shading the truth, or even lying outright, without thinking about it. The price is too high.
A friend of mine recently asked me whether I thought he was overweight.

In fact, he probably was just asking for reassurance: It was the beginning of summer, and we were sitting with our wives by the side of his pool. However, I’m more comfortable relying on the words that actually come out of a person’s mouth, rather than on my powers of telepathy, to know what he is asking. So I answered my friend’s question very directly:
“No one would ever call you ‘fat,’ but I think you could probably lose twenty-five pounds.” That was two months ago, and he is now fifteen pounds lighter. Neither of us knew that he was ready to go on a diet until I declined the opportunity to lie about how he looked in a bathing suit.

Back to our friend in the dress: What is the truth? Perhaps she does look fat in that dress, but it’s the fault of the dress. Telling her the truth will allow her to find a more flattering outfit.

But let’s imagine the truth is harder to tell: Your friend looks fat in that dress, or any dress, because she is fat. Let’s say she is also thirty-five years old and single, and you happen to know that her greatest desire at this moment in life is to get married and start a family. You believe that many men might be disinclined to date her at her current weight. And, marriage aside, you are confident that she would be happier and healthier, and would feel better about herself, if she got in shape.

A white lie is simply a denial of these realities. It is a refusal to offer honest guidance in a storm. Even on so touchy a subject, lying seems a clear failure of friendship. By reassuring your friend about her appearance, you are not helping her to do what you think she should do to get what she wants out of life.

There are many circumstances in life in which false encouragement can be very costly to another person. Imagine that you have a friend who has spent years striving unsuccessfully to build a career as an actor. Many fine actors struggle in this way, of course, but in your friend’s case the reason seems self-evident: He is a terrible actor. In fact, you happen to know that his other friends — and even his parents — share this opinion but cannot bring themselves to express it. What do you say the next time he complains about his stalled career? Do you encourage him to “just keep at it”? False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose.

3 Comments

Filed under Perfections, Speech

3 responses to “White lies

  1. Anonymous

    I found this very interesting and thought provoking. Thanks Lynn.

  2. sue

    this is interesting in the face of the ‘non-harming’ thing because sometimes the truth can make people feel like they are kind of hurt… especially in close relationships where the person is well known, warts and all…

    • Yes, Sue. If a loved one keeps asking a question that begs for a dishonest answer, it may be time to find out why the question keeps being asked. Inquire directly about what’s behind the question. Are they having doubts? You can reassure someone that you accept them completely without reinforcing their (possibly skewed) self-image.

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