Rebirth of Reason


White Lies
by Joseph Rowlands

One variant of dishonesty comes in the form of so-called 'white' lies. These are lies told in order to make someone feel better or not be confronted with a painful truth. You might tell someone that you like their cooking, or that they look good in that dress, or that they haven't gained weight. These are lies that used in order to spare the feelings of another.


It's interesting to note that this characterization of lies follows the traditional moral distinction between selfish actions and selfless actions. A normal lie is one made for your own benefits, at the expense of the person you are lying to. You may lie to a competitor in order to sabotage his efforts and allow yourself to win. A student may sabotage another student, or a coworker may sabotage another in order to gain a promotion. The normal lie hurts others to help yourself.


The white lie is viewed as the opposite. It is made with the intention of helping the other person. You might tell someone that his boss really likes his work and even told you about it, making him feel appreciated. Or you might tell someone that her late husband never cheated on her, to make her feel good about her choices and have positive memories.


This distinction of selfish and selfless isn't quite right, though. It assumes that the benefits of lying are always zero-sum. A selfish lie helps you and hurts another, while a selfless lie hurts yourself and helps others. But interests between people overlap. You might gain when others gain.


White lies are generally not made as some kind of altruistic gesture. They are made in order to benefit the liar. If you tell your romantic partner that the dinner she prepared tastes great, even though it doesn't, the purpose is probably to avoid a conflict and to move on to more intimate activities. White lies are often aimed at benefiting yourself.


Even in places where the lie doesn't directly benefit you, such as telling someone that their lost loved one never cheated, it may be told because of the value that person has to your life. When you care about someone, you want them to be happy and healthy. Far from being altruistic in nature, white lies are often made to benefit yourself.


This doesn't means that a white lie, or any other lie, objectively benefits your life. This is simply about motivations and intended beneficiaries. The idea is that white lies are better because you intend to help someone instead of helping yourself, regardless of whether you are objectively helping or hurting. This moral distinction is not sound, though, since white lies are often an attempt to help yourself and others. We can identify a white lie as one intended to benefit the target of the lie, but this doesn't determine the moral validity of the action.


To consider whether a white lie is morally valid or not, we should consider principles of honesty and how a white lie differs in its expected effects.


There are a number of principles related to honesty. For instance, acting on false information will lead to failure. Someone who is lied to and acts on that information will rightly blame the liar. And if they do act on the information and fail, they may become alerted to the fact that one of their premises was wrong, which can allow them to discover the lie.


A white lie differs from a normal lie in terms of these expected consequences. With a normal lie, you need to fear that the target of the lie will discover the truth. If you are lying at their expense, they will resent your action and view it as an attack on them. If you lie to a coworker in order to make them look bad to their boss, they will view you as an enemy.


A white lie doesn't usually have this same effect. If someone found out that you lied to them in order to spare their feelings, they are more likely to see it as an act of kindness instead of harm. It's still possible that they will be unhappy about the lie, but they may be more forgiving if they think the motivation is kindness.  They won't necessarily believe that your interests are in conflict with theirs. You probably won't be viewed as an enemy. This means the costs of a white lie are significantly lower than that of a harmful lie.


A white lie is still a lie, though. It is false information about the world. One of the implications of this is that the false information may be acted upon, with negative results. If you tell someone that they look good in and outfit that they don't, they may purchase it and wear it, causing adverse side-effects. If you tell someone that you like the meal he prepared, he may continue to cook it in the future.


These are two different effects. The first effect is that if the victim of the lie acts on it, the victim may be harmed. If that ends up being the case, it hardly matters that the lie was 'white'. It still hurt them, and they will still resent you for it.


The second effect is that you may be harmed when the target of your lie acts on the information. If you lie about a meal being good, you may be forced to endure it over and over again. If you lie about an outfit looking good, you may have to see it worn frequently. This is one of the most common side-effects of a white lie. You hurt yourself in the process. It is usually better to be truthful, which can still mean being polite.


This is particularly true in relationships. If you start to tell white lies when there are problems, you can't provide information to the other person that you are unhappy with things. Each problem makes the situation worse, and the information is not available to the person who cares and would like to improve things but isn't given the chance.


There are other ways a lie can have adverse effects. If discovered, the victim of a lie may be unhappy that you thought so little of him or her that you had to lie in order to spare his or her feelings. The resentment doesn't come from harm caused by the lie, but in the judgment that made the lie seem necessary.


A lie may also leave someone unprepared for the truth. Telling someone that her boyfriend never cheated on her may quiet her existing suspicions, making it more of a shock later when she finds out the truth. The emotional turmoil may be partially blamed on the liar.


People also resent lies because they distort the world. If you find out that your romantic partner cheated on you and didn't tell you for years, that is all time that you will end up feeling was wasted and based on a lie. The values gained in that period will be overshadowed by the changed perspective.


Related to this topic is whether a cheating person should inform his or her partner. Some would claim that they'd be happier without knowing. They may even think it themselves. But many people will realize that they've been living a lie, and would prefer the truth so they can make their own decisions.


A different kind of consequence of lying is that the liar himself must maintain the illusion of the lie. He has to keep track of the details in his head, and make sure disconfirming evidence is not seen or acquired. Maintaining any lie takes effort, and the more a liar lies, the harder it is to maintain them all.


So when we look at the expected consequences of a white lie, we can see that there are plenty of negative consequences. While a white lie may not be as damaging as a harmful lie, most of the negative consequences of lying still exist. The degree of the costs may be reduced, as the cost of being discovered is not as high, but there are plenty of reasons to avoid even white lies.


Looking at in from a different perspective, there is a value in relying on the truth. Honesty is not just the avoidance of lies. It is when someone recognizes the value of telling the truth, focuses on what's real, and communicates facts to others. This approach lets you concentrate on acting on the best information you have, and providing the opportunity for others to also act effectively.


The tendency to tell white lie rests on the assumption that the truth is problematic and that some people are better off living on falsehoods. Instead of trying to find ways of communicating without hurting feelings, they attempt the short-term easy path of lying in order to avoid the immediate consequences. But each lie they tell makes it more difficult for the truth to ever come out.


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