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Legitimate Grounds for Lying
I would like to say something on behalf of lying. Some people believe that lying is always wrong, but surely that is not true in all situations, and I would like to say which ones justify lying. There may be others I have not thought of. I do think that lying is prima facie wrong, meaning that the first presumption should be it is wrong to lie unless there is some good reason that overrides that presumption.
The obvious cases seem to be spying for a country that is in the right, as in spying against Nazi Germany in WWII or after Hitler’s rise to power, and in doing police undercover work against dangerous people. Of course that doesn’t mean that spying on just anyone suspected by someone for no good reason is right and that lying to them is therefore right. But the point is that if the spying or undercover operation itself is right to do, than any lying necessary in order to do it successfully is also right to do. That does not cover lying for some personal or other purpose extraneous to the investigation or that itself is wrong, such as lying to a criminal’s wife or sister in order to sleep with her.
Other candidates for obvious cases are “social lies” or “white lies” to spare people’s feelings from being hurt for no good reason. In some cases they will also fall under one or two of the principles below. But if your child is going out on his/her first date and looks as good as s/he can, I think it is right to say they look pretty/handsome even if they don’t. It does good (by making them feel good and perhaps giving them some confidence in their appearance, which may actually help them appear more attractive to others) without doing any harm and without any chance of your being proved to be lying. This is different from the case where you think your child is inappropriately dressed or made up and will be ridiculed by peers or others, in which case lying would end up doing harm, particularly more harm than good, and unnecessary harm. When lying will do more good than harm – that is when the benefits outweigh the burdens in doing the “utilitarian calculus”, there is still the presumption against lying unless the amount of harm prevented or the amount and significance of the good achieved is substantial enough to override the obligation to tell the truth.
There are five other cases where I believe lying is justified, and if not justified entirely, at least reasonable. Four of the five presuppose you will not (likely) be caught in your lie, for it is silly, and normally worse to lie if you are going to get caught prematurely than to tell the truth. “Prematurely” means “before the lie has served its purpose”:
1) What I call the Clinton principle: if people ask you a question that is none of their business, and either your refusing to answer or your giving any answer other than a lie, will let them know the correct answer, it is okay to lie.
2) If telling the truth will get you in trouble you do not deserve, then it is right to lie. This happens in at least a couple of different ways. The most common one is a parent or spouse asking you a question in an angry way, such as “You didn’t do…., did you!?!” where the offense does not deserve the condemnation and/or punishment they will dole out for the truth.
The second way this occurs is if the truth will make or allow them to mistakenly infer you committed some punishable act of which you are innocent. When I was in first grade, I went with my mother to my school for a child/parent PTA meeting, and we were encouraged to show our parents our classroom. I was very excited, and wanted in particular to show my mother this really amazing device they had in the classroom that let you write on it and then erase it and write other things on it that could also be erased. It was like magic to me, and it was called a blackboard. I was sure my mother had never seen anything like it before. So I showed her how you could write with chalk and then erase it. She said they had those when she was in school too. I was astounded. The next day in school, the teacher asked whether anyone had come into the classroom the night before. I raised my hand. I was the only one to raise my hand. She said I had ruined the blackboard by writing on it in crayon. I said I didn’t write on it in crayon, I had used a piece of chalk. She pointed to some crayon marks on the board that would not come off. I said they weren’t mine. She said I was lying because I had already admitted having come into the room and no one else had come into the room, because no one else raised their hand about coming into the room. Even at age 6, I knew that was idiotic logic because having been there didn’t mean I did the wrong thing while there, and no one else’s admitting to being there didn’t mean they weren’t, and because it did not have to be anyone from our class in the first place. But I got the punishment. That did not teach me to lie, but I have seen that same sort of thing occur sporadically over the years, and have even heard people tell others not to admit to some harmless act because the person asking the question will take it as an admission of guilt or incriminating evidence about something altogether different from it. And I think that is good advice in those cases.
Sometimes both these kinds of cases occur in one question, such as when your significant other asks if you spoke with or saw someone today (or during a trip, or whenever), and your saying “yes” will meet with an accusation of being unfaithful either because they think you shouldn’t be talking with the other person or because they think that if you talked with them or saw them, you must also have slept with them.
3) The following one is difficult to word, because it is more about its being stupid not to lie than its being right to lie. The lie will be wrong in one sense, but reasonable in another sense. It is a case of lying to protect yourself from receiving a deserved, but unwanted, punishment that you will get for telling the truth, and where the punishment for lying and having done the act is not any worse than the punishment for just telling the truth. If telling the truth will do you no good at all, and lying might help, then it is reasonable to lie, particularly if being caught in the lie is no worse for you than telling the truth would have been in the first place. The example of this is in police and court movies where the suspect is either on the witness stand or in the interrogation room and is told something like “Did you murder Jones? And remember, if you lie, you will be charged with perjury (or obstructing justice).” Now why would anyone admit to murdering someone as opposed to denying it even if that meant one would not only be punished for murder, but for lying? The punishment for murder and lying is not going to be significantly worse than it will be for just murder, so you may as well lie, if there is even a chance you might not get caught.
4) Lying is right if the lie will do significant good or prevent significant harm that the truth will not, particularly where what you are lying about is not wrong in the first place. My example for this is teaching children to ride a bicycle – children who are afraid you will let them fall and who say “You won’t let go of me, will you!” in that voice that lets you know that if they think you will let go of the bike while they are on it, they will not get on it and not learn to ride it at all. And I am talking about children to whom you cannot tell the truth by saying “I will not let you go until I know you can ride. I will not let you fall.” All they hear is that you will let go when you think they can ride, and that means they will crash and die, and so they won’t get on the bike. These are usually children who have had a bad experience with an adult (such as their father or mother) letting go of them too soon, and their getting hurt, particularly if the adult then also became angry with them for being so childish or for crying or being afraid.
Now since this is a case where they will obviously find out you lied, there are some important things you have to do to minimize the repercussions of that for them. What I do in these cases is to hold the bicycle up by the seat, not the handlebars. That allows me to tell whether the child really is balancing on his/her own or not, so that they are not likely to fall immediately upon my letting go, which would be a terrible thing, not only because they would perhaps get hurt, but because they will then distrust you (as they should) and you will have gained nothing in the process to help them learn to ride. When I think they are consistently balancing, I take them onto the grass where any fall (and there will be one) will not be as hurtful. Then I let go.
Always they get fifteen or twenty feet or more before they notice you are not with them, and they look back to see where you are, and they fall. They get up really angry that you let go and that you lied to them about not letting go. I say “Yes, but look how far you got on your own. You can ride the bike by yourself, and you won’t fall if you don’t look back for me. You can ride; you did it. You got all the way from where I am to where you are on your own. You were riding your bike all by yourself.” It takes a few seconds for that to sink in, and then every child I have taught this way, except one, has said “Oh! Can we do it again? Help me get started.” And from then on they can ride on their own, and all that is left to do is to teach them how to start themselves, after you have started them a time or two and let them ride all over on their own. I think that is a justified lie.
Of course, it would be better to be able to tell the child, “I will hold onto you until I know you can ride on your own, and then I will let go.” And a child who trusts your judgment will accept that without (too much) fear, but a child with too much fear or who has trust issues with regard to the adult’s competence, will not allow you to do that and still get on the bike.
5) Lying to protect yourself or others from a wrong act by evil people, such as protecting people from the Nazis in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, or lying to protect yourself from them or from someone whom you just witnessed commit a heinous crime and who will likely want to kill you if s/he knew you were a witness.
Honesty requires trusting the judgment of the recipient to react to the truth in a reasonable and decent way. While lying is to be generally condemned, there is a behavior just as reprehensible that tends to foster lying in the first place -- undeservedly harshly punishing one for telling the truth; this is the crux of the problem in principles 1,2, 4, and 5 above. To be able to tell someone the truth, you need to have confidence in their accepting it properly. If the person asking the question will not likely handle the truth in a reasonable way, it is lunacy to tell the truth if you might be able to get away with the lie. The teacher above in the blackboard issue or the jealously accusatory kind of boy/girlfriend does not deserve the truth, because as Jack Nicholson’s famous line goes, they “can’t handle the truth.” Parents who berate and excoriate their children for honestly admitting mistakes or having done the wrong thing far beyond the merits of the act the child did, and with no sensitivity or appreciation for the child’s honesty, do not deserve to have the truth told to them, and most children will begin to lie to them to avoid their unfair, over-reaction to the truth.
It is sometimes difficult to know whom to trust with the truth. Let me tell two stories about telling children the truth, one where it worked out very well and the other where it didn’t.
1) At the apartment complex in which I lived, some children were playing outside on the steps and one of them slipped and got the back of her ankle scraped by the edge of the step. It was bleeding and needed bandaging. Some other parents and I were outside at the time and we did not know where she lived, but we decided that we needed to give her some first aid before having her take us to her apartment. We needed to clean it off, and apply an antiseptic, and a bandage. This was in the days when iodine, and mercurochrome, and merthiolate were the normal household antiseptics. The little girl was afraid it would burn, and one of the mothers said it wouldn’t. I thought that was a bad lie to tell because it was going to be obviously a lie and we would lose the kid’s trust for anything else. I also thought the kid was old enough to handle the truth, and so I told, that wasn’t quite right, and that it was going to hurt for a minute but it would be okay. I asked if she were okay with that. She said “Ok” and we applied the merthiolate, and then the bandage. Then we took her home and found her mother.
2) One of my neighbors had to take her daughter to the hospital to have blood drawn prior to a surgical procedure that would be done the following week. The kid was around four years old and I met them at the hospital to try to be of help, since the father couldn’t be there. I was pretty good with kids and had worked with them in hospital situations before. When they came in to draw her blood with a needle and syringe, the kid wasn’t having any of it. Before they all clamped her down to force her compliance, I had the brilliant idea to let her see them take blood from my arm to show her it was no big deal. That was a mistake! When she saw that, they just about had to pull her down from the ceiling. She did not react to the truth the way I thought she would.