Find Enlightenment

There's No Such Thing as a Little White Lie
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Jul 98
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

A white lie is allegedly one which is done for someone's good and which harms no one.

There's no such thing. The philosophical view that allows people to think that lies can be harmless is one which counts the self as nothing morally interesting.

Some individualists sometimes say that they can lie without hurting anyone. This is a mistake and a philosophical contradiction on their part, and should not be taken as evidence that a philosophy of individualism can consistently permit lying under any but the most dire circumstances.

So where is the harm in a lie that, for example, no one ever finds out about and that does a someone good? For example, where is the harm in telling someone that you didn't come to his party because you were sick, when in fact you think that the person has an obnoxious sense of humor and you didn't want to subject yourself to it? Obviously, the party host isn't directly harmed if he never finds out, even if you can make the case that telling him might help him curb his antisocial habit and be happier in the long run.

The harm is to the person telling the lie. Lies introduce falsehood and inconsistency into one's mental life. And they are practice for more lies. The more you lie, the easier it gets and the better you get at it. If you do not take strict measures to control the temptation, lying can become a habit to the extent that situations frequently require you to decide not only how to phrase an answer to a question but even whether or not to lie about it.

There is no question that one single lie does not lead to a life of crime, or even to a dishonesty habit. But yet every lie carries some risk with it. And there are actually very good reasons to lie on the rarest of occasions, so they must be chosen carefully. One of philosophy's most famous examples is this: a neighbor bangs on your door saying that a murderer is chasing him. You let him hide in your attic. Unfortunately, the murderer comes snooping, shows you a picture casually and asks whether you have seen the person. Should you tell her the truth, or lie to save your neighbor from likely death? You say you have been away for a few weeks and just got home to your very busy life and haven't been out much. The murderer then tells you that the person she seeks is a criminal, and she would appreciate it if you didn't call the police or tell anyone else. You say that you won't, and you're too busy to bother about other people's business anyway.

Was this the right thing to do? Immanuel Kant's answer is half right, although his reasons are fundamentally opposed to individualism. Kant says that you certainly don't owe the murderer the truth, but you do owe it to yourself to hear yourself speak the truth.

Kant didn't consider a number of relevant factors. First, in general we would rather not allow such an easily preventable death of a fellow human being. Second, we would rather not encourage people who wish to murder by helping them with information. Third, we would rather not have murderers in the neighborhood at all, so we would not let on that we know what is going on so that we have a chance to call the police. In a society in which people intent on murder knew that for the most part they could simply ask people the whereabouts of their victims and be given directions to them, the murderers would have the upper hand.

While it is arguable that you owe yourself the truth, I would argue that in this situation the right thing to do is lie. A very serious and irreversible harm will be done if you blurt out the truth, and a life will be saved if you lie. But here, we are focusing on whether lying does harm even when it is for a good cause.

Yes, this lie does harm, again to the the liar and for the same reason. The harm that will be done to your refuge would be much greater, and so the lie does a tremendous amount of good. But a lie is a falsehood and an inconsistency, as far as your rational faculty goes. A small risk of harm in exchange for a huge certain harm is a rational choice, but the lie nonetheless does you some harm. The only question is how well you have prepared yourself for this lie in advance and what you will do with your newfound knowledge and power after the lie?

Moreover, this lie does less harm than the lie told to the party host. The lie is told to the murderer once, and as soon as you are out of her grasp you can stop telling the lie. But in the case of the party host, you have to maintain your front with him pretty much for the rest of your life or as long as you might run into him again.

In addition, this again is practice. It is not necessarily practice in the sense of getting good at fooling people, although that may happen too. The real harm is not in getting good at lying, but in getting comfortable with lying, with seeing it as a possible option in any given situation no matter how small, and generally being at odds with reality instead of being able to read it off to people as though reading straight from a book.

Since situations do come up that are as serious as the one we mentioned, and you will have to lie on those occasions to prevent some terrible wrong, it is best to be prepared for this by NOT having a history of lying.

Find Enlightenment at