Rebirth of Reason

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Post 0

Wednesday, December 3, 2014 - 8:00pmSanction this postReply

The most common lie is that which one tells himself; lying to others is relatively an exception.


             Friedrich Nietzsche

I wonder if we can call some of these lies - the ones we tell ourselves - white lies and others black lies.   I know that too often people tell themselves they are less than they are, and tell themselves they can't achieve things they can. I'd say those were the black lies.

In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.


              Samuel Johnson

We all know that most people tell white lies out of a fear they won't be liked or will upset someone.  When we are stronger in our sense of who we are, more secure in our self-respect, and more accepting of ourself and others, we won't have that fear of criticism, and then we won't find ourselves motivated to tell white lies. And, we'll surprise ourselves as we find that it is much easier to say what we like or dislike than we would ever have thought.

We live a lie when we misrepresent the reality of our experience or the truth of our being.


           Nathaniel Branden

Words can't express how much smaller and less vibrant and less alive the world is without this man who passed away today.

Post 1

Saturday, December 6, 2014 - 11:01pmSanction this postReply

A good example of the harm from a white lie are those poor people at the beginning of each American Idol season, whose friends told them that they were good at singing... and then they get publically humiliated on national TV.

Post 2

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 12:51pmSanction this postReply

In Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, Tara Smith treats the morality of white lies in some detail. That is on pages 100–104. She opens with the claim that Ayn Rand “would reject [a] type of lie that people often approve of, white lies.” The insinuation is that Rand rejected as immoral all lies falling under the class white lie. There is no citation given by Prof. Smith to Rand’s writings to support the attribution of this view to Rand. Smith proceeds to give her own arguments in support of the conclusion that all white lies are immoral. Her arguments do not succeed in establishing such a sweeping conclusion.


There is a case of a white lie by a protagonist in Rand’s literature. I think it is not one bit a moral flaw. I’ll quote the lines from Rand’s 1936 issue of her We the Living. She did not revise these lines in her 1959 edited reissue of the novel. The lie occurs pretty late in the story. Kira’s parents and most everyone else in Leningrad (name recently changed from Petrograd due to death of Lenin at this stage of the story) are starving and freezing. Kira’s lover Leo is lately making money in the black market, so at the time of this scene, Kira is relatively well off. Galina is Kira’s mother.


Galina Petrovna came in with a bundle under her arm. “Good evening, Kira . . .”

. . .

Galina Petrovna asked: “Isn’t Leo home?” “No,” said Kira, “I’m expecting him.”


“I’m on my way to evening classes,” said Galina Petrovna, “and I just dropped in for a minute. . . .” She hesitated, fingered her bundle, smiled apologetically, and said with a strained nonchalance: “I just dropped in to show you something, see if you like it . . . maybe you’ll want to . . . buy it.” “To buy it?” Kira repeated, surprised. “What is it, Mother?”


Galina Petrovna had unwrapped the bundle; she was holding high in her outstretched arms an old-fashioned gown of flowing white lace; its long train touched the floor; Galina Petrovna’s smile was timid, hesitant. “Why, Mother!” Kira gasped. “Your wedding gown!”


“You see,” Galina Petrovna explained very quickly, “it’s the school [where she teaches]. I got my wages yesterday and . . . and they deducted so much as my membership in the Proletarian Society of Chemical Defense—and I didn’t even know I was a member— and I haven’t . . . . You see, your father needs new shoes—the cobbler’s refused to mend his old ones—and I was going to buy them this month . . . but the Chemical Defense and . . . . You see, you could alter it nicely, the dress, it’s good material, I’ve only worn it . . . once . . . . And I thought, if you liked it, for an evening gown, maybe, or . . .”


“Mother,” Kira said almost severely, and wondered at the little jerking break in her voice, “you know very well that if you need anything . . . .”


“I know, child, I know,” Galina Petrovna interrupted, . . . “You’ve been a wonderful daughter, but . . . with all you’ve already given us . . . I didn’t feel I could ask . . . and I thought I’d rather . . . but then, if you don’t like the dress . . . .”


“Yes,” Kira said resolutely, “I like it. I’ll buy it, Mother.” . . . “I was going to buy an evening gown, anyway,” Kira lied. (403–4)


The character Kira was not just like Ayn Rand. But constructing Kira as more conventional or normal than Rand was not at all a move plausible for Rand to make. And Rand kept this white-lie element in the revision, though she was culling things out for the revised edition, with a fine-tooth comb, to try not to contradict her mature philosophy as of ’59. Rand’s pattern with Kira was to make the heroine less normal than Rand, not more. For example, at one point, she has Kira say that she doesn’t read poetry, whereas Rand later made no secret of the fact that she herself read and appreciated some poets.


If, as Prof. Smith maintained, Rand came to the view that all white lies are moral failings, Rand must have gotten to that (exorbitant and wrong) view after 1959. Or Rand had been neglecting to integrate the Kira situation for a white lie with her own entirely general proscription against them.

Post 3

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 2:07pmSanction this postReply

I particularly like the way Joe finished his article on white lies: "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."


When someone feels like the truth would be problematic in a given situation, then they are likely to feel it would take an extra effort to communicate that truth.  Sometimes they just don't want to put out the effort.  And sometimes when they decide that the person will be better off with a white lie, they are just sparing themselves the extra effort, or avoiding a conflict, or seeking to avoid being less well liked. 


And when Joe writes: "Instead of trying to find ways of communicating without hurt feelings...." he says a lot.  It implies that there are far more ways of communicating in a given situation than just telling a lie or hurting feelings.  If, in our culture, we were taught better interpersonal communication skills, most of the white lie business would just go away.  If everyone's self-esteem were a bit higher, the rest of the white lies would go away.

Post 4

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 3:19pmSanction this postReply


Steve, are all white lies moral failings or not?


Kira needed higher self-esteem? If self-esteem is a cardinal moral value, isn't a deficiency in self-esteem a moral deficiency?


Rand and Branden were too quick to pronounce "low self-esteem." I don't think Kira suffered from such a failing or any other moral failing in the smoothing over she did with her mother by a white lie in that situation. And I think the author was on the perfectly moral, decent beam with that white lie.

Post 5

Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 4:36pmSanction this postReply


"...are all white lies moral failings or not?"

I'd say, "No." 


Is it a moral failing when we say, "Good day" to someone when it doesn't feel like a good day to us?  No, it isn't a lie, it is a social ritual not intended to be a factual statement.  Sometimes white lies are more emotional communications (or rituals) than statements of fact.


Kira's motivation was to help her mother feel as if she was offering value for value.  Kira said, "I like it. I’ll buy it, Mother.” . . . “I was going to buy an evening gown, anyway,” - she could have said, “Thank you, Mother.  It is beautiful.” . . . “I might need an evening gown, anyway,” and not told a lie but accompished the same purpose.   And the purpose wasn't to deceive.



I said that better interpersonal communications would eliminate most white lies.  That is the case the this Kira example would fall in (if it were a real life scene and not a literary exposition).  This would NOT be an example of a need for higher self-esteem. 


With body language and tone of voice, Kira (if this were real life), could have accepted the gown without any lie.  I suspect that Ayn Rand chose to have Kira lie in this scene as an act of generosity towards her mother and as a way of highlighting her mother's desire to be offering value instead of begging.  I don't believe that there is anything in that scene that is an example of a moral failing.


If self-esteem is a cardinal moral value, isn't a deficiency in self-esteem a moral deficiency?


I view self-esteem as the outcome, the result, of certain ways of using ones mind, of choices made over time. Each of the individual choices can be examined as an act that is ethical or unethical and to what degree.  (Notice that I've changed your terminology from "moral" to "ethical" since a value is what we act to gain or keep and ethics is about the actions.  There is no question that self-esteem is a value.  Does it make sense to describe it as a "moral value"?  As a "cardinal moral value"? 


It doesn't make sense to me to view self-esteem as a virtue.  High self-esteem is the result of the practice of what are virtuous acts (e.g., the practice of personal responsibility), but those acts are causes of self-esteem, and not the self-esteem itself.  It isn't possible to have high self-esteem by simply willing it - it isn't a choice in that sense - or the product of a single act.



Rand and Branden were too quick to pronounce "low self-esteem."


I haven't focused on what Rand said about self-esteem, but I suspect that her understanding isn't as accurate or as sophisticated as Branden's was (later on, after they split).  I do know that Branden, when I knew him, didn't "pronounce low self-esteem" as a moral failing.  It wasn't the way he thought.  He looked for the causes of low self-esteem and almost always from the prospect of seeing what dynamic the person could change to bring their self-esteem up. 



I find a bit of discomfort at looking at anything as a "moral deficiency" or a "moral failing."  Not because I'm opposed to passing judgements, and not because I don't think that there are a great many people whose lives exemplify moral deficiency and failing.  But because to come to that conclusion about a person always arises (one hopes) from evidence of unethical behavior.  If I have such evidence, lets say someone engages in fraud, or bullying, or tells lies frequently, then I don't need to say anything about "moral deficiency" as a generic, because I can nail them with their specific failings.   Does that make sense? 


(Edited by Steve Wolfer on 6/08, 9:34am)

Post 6

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 1:07amSanction this postReply



Yes. Interesting and much to ponder. Thanks.

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