Saturday, August 22, 2015

When it is OK to lie

I recently read this article, but Jacob Henricson, in which he vows to give up all lies except the simplest little white ones like “Yes, you look good in that dress.”  The objective sounds great in the abstract, but I think it falls down in practice.  At least the way he frames it.

There is a fundamental flaw in his logic.  He puts all lies outside his “little white ones” into the category of statements that support a faulty system or conceals a shameful act.  For example, the CEO lie to shareholders that supports the stock value long enough for you to get your bonus.  Or the lie to your spouse that you only showed on in the Ashley Madison hack because friends at work played a practical joke on you.  He quotes James Stockdale’s book where he says that if you know you can’t lie later, you have a strong disincentive not to do the shameful thing in the first place. It leads to a virtuous life.

Now I agree with this as it stands.  But there are several categories of lies in between the little white ones and the ones that hide shameful acts.  Committing to give up the shameful act lying is a virtuous objective.  And leaving out the little white lies from the commitment is also virtuous. 

There are other categories of virtuous lies as well. I like this list from the Talmud. It includes things like creating peace and harmony, showing humility, protecting someone from harm, a traditional practice (like the exaggerations during haggling in the bazaar), and so on.

An important caveat in the Talmudic version, which I also agree with, is not to let this become a habit. There is a slippery slope of unethical behavior that begets bigger lies and misdeeds later (such as this research, which I blogged about before).

As usual, the answer is thornier than it seems at first glance