I was struck by two things this week that called into question the old adage "Honesty is the best policy." One was a television show on Randy Pausch, the professor from Carnegie Mellon University who recently gave his last lecture to his students after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
You may have heard about his new book, "The Last Lecture," or seen the seven-minute speech on YouTube that's making the rounds. (Thanks, Steve Morrison, for sending it my way!) It turns out that Pausch's last lecture is actually a message for his kids on "what really matters in life."
If there were only three words he could leave for his kids, they'd be "tell the truth." And if he could add three more words, they'd be "all the time." (I wonder if this would hold true if Pausch's wife asked the dreaded question "Does this make me look fat?")
Another story that made an impact on me this week was about an affidavit that had been kept in a lockbox for years (until a subject had died). The affidavit contained a confession revealing that a wrong man had gone to prison. The attorneys involved in the case were bound by the attorney/client privilege not to reveal this information.
So, here are two incidents on opposite ends of the spectrum - for good reason. I'm guessing we were all taught that honesty is the best policy. Sometimes in an effort to be sensitive to another's feelings, though, we water down the message. Or leave out some details. The "spin cycle" gets out of control. And then it becomes a habit to cover things up.
Enter the "little white lie." This is allegedly a lie that is done for someone's good and harms no one.
For example, where's the harm in telling someone you didn't come to his party because you were sick, when in fact you think he has an obnoxious sense of humor? Sounds pretty harmless, huh?
The harm is to the person telling the lie, according to philosopher Carolyn Ray. 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 don't take strict measures to control the temptation, says Dr. Ray, lying can become a habit. However, there can be very good reasons to lie occasionally. One of philosophy's most famous examples follows.
A neighbor bangs on your door, saying a murderer is chasing him. You let him hide in your attic. Unfortunately, the murderer comes snooping, shows you a picture and asks whether you have seen the person.
Should you tell the truth, or lie to save your neighbor from likely death? You say you've been out of town and just got home. The murderer then tells you 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 you won't.
In this situation an irreversible harm could be done if you blurt out the truth, and a life could be saved if you lie. Yes, this lie does harm to the liar as was pointed out earlier. However, it does less harm than the lie told to the party host in our earlier example. The lie is told to the murderer only once. But with the party host, you have to maintain your front pretty much the rest of your life - or as long as you might run into him again.
The real harm is not in getting good at lying, but in getting comfortable with lying - seeing it as a possible option in any given scenario. Since situations do come up that are as serious as the murderer example, you may have to lie on those occasions to prevent some terrible wrong. For this reason, it's best to be prepared for this by not having a history of lying.
Some experts have different accountabilities depending upon the relationship. "Some lies are acceptable, but not on a daily basis and not with the people you love," says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist. "If you can't get honesty from your spouse, who can you get it from?"