By Christine A. Scheller
The phone rings. As you pick it up, your partner says, “I don’t want to talk to so-and-so.” Sure enough, so-and-so is on the line and you have a decision to make: Do you tell a little white lie, or hang your partner out to dry?
“The real danger comes in the risk of becoming a ‘liar,’ because lying is likely to become a habit and even a way of being with the world,” says author and Fordham University ethicist Charles C. Camosy. So, how do we dispel with the excuses we make about telling our little white lies? See if these resonate with you:
But... I don’t want to hurt so-and-so's feelings. “First, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with telling people things they don't want to hear, or with not saying anything at all,” advises Camosy. Then, he advises, act in such a way that you aren't tempted or required to lie. For me, that meant establishing a habit of saying, “He’s not available right now” instead of, “He’s not home” when unwelcome calls came in for my husband. Once the habit was established, I didn’t have to think about it again. I just did it.
But... little lies aren't a big deal. Consequentialism and utilitarianism (with their ends-justify-the-means reasoning) can affirm lying, says Camosy, but virtue ethics -- which prioritize character-based reasoning -- categorize lying (even a little) as an extremely destructive and negative practice. And virtually all religions and systems of belief follow the virtue ethics philosophy. Bottom line: Lying is a big deal in most ethical and religious systems. If we adhere to any of those, we’re on the hook to tell the truth.
But... everyone does it. Do you hear your mom’s voice ringing in your ears? She’s saying, “I don’t care what everyone else does. You do what’s right!” ‘Nuff said.
But... it’s too much trouble to always tell the truth. My friend Kathleen Sommers advises acting with integrity and intention. “Ask yourself, 'Would my honesty be meant to harm, hurt or help?'" she suggests. "Even when our intentions are good, we need to tread carefully."
"If I don't have something nice to say, I don't say anything at all,” says my other friend, Lisa Shephard. “But if you are a true friend and you want my honest opinion, I will tell you the truth.” So, when requesting someone’s opinion, be sure you really want it. And when you're asked for yours, be sure you’re prepared to live with the consequences of giving it.
But... telling the truth will do more harm than good. The truth can be hurtful, so you do have to be careful how you use it. “[Some] people use the idea that they're ‘always honest’ as an excuse to be thoughtless, tactless and cruel,” says Brian Howell, associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College. “Is it a ‘lie’ if someone asks, ‘What do you think of this haircut?’ and you say, ‘Wow! That's such a new look! It's a real standout!' But that takes more thought than just saying, ‘I don't like it. You look like a prisoner of war being treated for lice.’ Love and compassion are more important -- and rarely incompatible with -- ‘honesty.'"
But... this person doesn’t deserve the truth. “Some claim that not all falsehoods are lies,” Camosy says. “For instance, some might define a lie as ‘telling a falsehood to someone who is owed the truth.’ If one knows that one will use the truth to do serious harm or injustice, then perhaps they are not owed the truth and telling them a falsehood is not a lie.”
That’s where lying gets tricky. But those kinds of lies are rarely of the little white variety. Those lies are more likely to be the type a mother tells an intruder in an effort to protect her children. Perhaps if we reserved our falsehoods for those rare occasions, we wouldn’t have to worry about becoming habitual liars.
As for me, I have the telephone thing down, but I need to work on replacements for the clothing and hair fibs: “That’s different!” “How interesting!” “My, what a change!” Call me a skeptic though, because if lines like that were said to me, I’d hear every one of them as an unadulterated, “I don’t like it.” But maybe without the sting.