It’s a lie: honesty not necessarily the best policy

Matt Brophy

Thou shall not lie. It is not only Judeo-Christian commandment, it’s a moral prohibition shared across religions and cultures. It’s bad to lie. It’s wrong to lie. It’s immoral to lie. Truth is we all lie. Lying is part of being human. It is, at times, the most reasonable course of action. On some occasions, it can even be ethical to lie.

Lying is part of our culture. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy – these are all lies we tell to children. We fabricate stories to excite their wonder. We lie to protect their innocence. Death, sex, disco – some things young children shouldn’t know about. It’s amazing how many lies my parents told me to not spoil my childhood. For instance, it took me several years to realize my dog “Fluffy” wasn’t actually at a dog wedding (Apparently she’s in some utopian dog commune in France).

All of us lie in everyday life, though we might not realize it. These are the little white lies. When we’re having a bad day and an acquaintance asks us how we’re doing, most of us respond with “fine,” “okay,” “not bad.” Yet this is not the truth. We just know if we answer “pretty crappy,” the person will feel obliged to ask why. It’s not likely you’d want to launch into a list of grievances, nor is it likely they’d want to listen.

Then there’s nonverbal lying. We’ve all walked down the hall and pretended not to see a person walking in the opposite direction whom we know. Both examples show lying is just a common and innocuous part of our social practice.

Not only can lying be harmless, it can even be kind. Consider the questions: “Do I look fat in these pants?” “Isn’t he an adorable baby?” “Size doesn’t matter, right?” “Aren’t my biweekly columns good?” Sometimes, confronted with tough questions, lying is the kinder course of action.

If our minds were transparent, like the minds of women are to Mel Gibson in “What Women Want,” we might be flattered at times. More often, though, our self-esteem would take a beating. Insults sting more than compliments gratify. Maybe that’s good for the men who think they are Mel Gibson, but for the rest of us, people’s inner judgments, criticisms and thoughts might prove both disturbing and devastating.

Sometimes we stupidly want the truth when we shouldn’t ask for it in the first place. A friend of mine once asked his girlfriend how many people she’d slept with. She responded, “With or without spring break?” Sometimes it’s better not to know the truth. We all have insecurities, and humans were never meant to know the unabashed truth. You think you want the truth? You can’t handle the truth. (Sorry, I had to get it out of my system).

Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth depends on your relationship to a person. If someone is invasive in your life, you have a right to lie to them. For instance, if a telemarketer disturbs you at home, and you pipe up, “No hablas ingles,” or if you’re a girl in a bar and a questionable guy asks you for your number and you lie and tell him you’re a lesbian, that’s likewise your right – though maybe that only happens to me.

One also has a right to lie in some cases when confronted by a pointed question, where the refusal to answer would represent a tacit admission. Some commentators argued that former President Clinton had a right to lie about his affair with Monica Lewinsky in order to maintain his personal privacy. While this is debatable and his behavior is morally condemnable, it seems at least a plausible argument that it was between him and his family, and he therefore had a right to lie.

To expect honesty in some situations is naive. Breaking up with someone is all about what is efficient and will hurt the person the least. I explained this to my sister in a recent phone conversation. The guy she had been dating broke up with her, and she called me, distraught and confused over his explanation. I advised she not torment herself trying to figure it out; a person tells you the least painful thing you need to hear to accept it’s over. For example, “It’s not you, it’s me,” or “I swear it has nothing to do with your hunchback; I’m just emotionally unavailable right now.”

Despite the kindness of some lies, some people believe lying is wrong in all cases. Immanuel Kant condemned all lying as evil. Lying is disrespectful to a person’s humanity, treating someone merely as a means to an end. He reasoned if there were a world in which everyone were to lie when it was beneficial, no one would believe anyone, and the “truth” would have no purchase. Thus, this resulting practical contradiction reveals that lying is wrong and should always be prohibited.

However, there are times when lying would be a far lesser evil. Consider the hypothetical example where you’re harboring a woman who’s just left her abusive boyfriend. If he shows up at your door asking if she’s there, it’d be a far better thing for you to lie and misdirect him. If you told the truth or refused to answer, you might imperil your friend. In this case and others, lying is the right thing to do.

Generally, however, lies are destructive. There’s a saying, “When a man lies, he kills some part of the world.” Lies compromise the trust that is necessary for maintaining strong communities and human relationships. They compromise their intimacy and solidarity. Lies build walls between people – even if the person being lied to never would find out the teller of the lie knows the truth. Therefore, we should treat the prescription, “Thou shall not lie” as words by which to live. Yet we must always remain cognizant of the truth: Lies play a vital role in our world.

Matt Brophy’s column runs alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]