When it is okay to lie to yourself?


When it is okay to lie to others?

That depends on the motive. Is it for personal gain? Is it to protect yourself or someone else from danger? Or to spare someone's feelings? Or to play a practical joke on someone? These things matter which is why "Thou Shalt Not Lie nor Bear False Witness" fails as a moral instruction. It's a one-size-fits-all, all-or-nothing commandment that doesn't take circumstances into account. As I'll show later, in some cases lying is not only socially permitted, but required.

Bearing false witness - Not too many cases come to mind that justify bearing false witness. I suppose if a dangerous criminal were about to exploit a legal loophole and go free, bearing false witness would be morally justified. For example: a rapist & murderer is apprehended but because of a police blunder, the strongest incriminating evidence becomes inadmissible in court because it was obtained without a search warrant. As a result, all criminal charges are dropped against the suspect despite mountains of evidence, including DNA and videos the rapist made himself, that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the accused is guilty. So basically, he'll be set free to rape & kill again because of a malfunction in the legal system. At this point I think it would be ethical to lie in court under oath, plant evidence, and forge signatures on legal documents in order to keep the criminal incarcerated. Bear false witness to your heart's content! We shouldn't release a violent murderous psychopath into society merely because a cop screwed up. Ideally, we'd get Dexter to handle the situation :-)

Lying to spare someone's feelings - Generally, I'm opposed to this. The classic example is lying to a female friend or significant other who asks "Does this dress make me look fat?" or "Do I look good in this dress?" I have to assume that she wants me to answer honestly, because if not, why did she even ask the question? If I think the dress looks ugly or silly, I will tell her so but in a polite, sensitive manner. I would rather she be upset and not wear the dress than proudly walk around in a foolish outfit that people secretly mock behind her back.

A hypothetical case where I think it's ethical to lie for the sake of someone's emotional comfort is as follows: I am visiting an elderly woman who is on her death bed, dying of some incurable disease. The hope of recovery is zero. Death is expected any day but a week at most. I've just learned minutes ago that her adult son was murdered last night while being robbed. The elderly woman is completely unaware and in the course of our conversation casually asks "So how's my little boy doing? Did he get that promotion at work?" Now, what possible good can come of telling this dying woman the truth? If I'm honest, she will die in emotional agony and misery instead of peace. In this particular case, I think it is ethical to lie and say that her son is fine and got the promotion.

Lying for personal gain or profit - This is the realm of psychics, astrologers, televangelists and other swindlers who bilk unsuspecting people out of their hard-earned cash. Obviously that's bad and immoral and wrong and all that, but it is possible to lie for personal gain without doing anything immoral. Almost everyone does it during a job interview or on a resume. For example, you're applying for a dream job and you meet the requirements: You're educated, knowledgeable, responsible, hard-working, and experienced. You're fully qualified except... applicants with less than 5 years of experience will not be considered and you have 4.5 years. I don't see anything wrong with lying in such a case and claiming that you have 5.

Lying to children - A budding young artist labors for hours to paint an abstract picture. He proudly presents it as his greatest artistic achievement and asks me "Do you like it?" It just so happens that I don't like it. In fact, I think it's hideously repulsive. At this point I have three choices: I can lie, I can tell the truth, or I can evade the question by asking a question in return or by giving an answer like "My opinion shouldn't matter."  In this particular case I'm against evasion because I'd be doing the child a disservice by not providing him with honest feedback which he needs to develop as an artist. If I lie and say that I like his art, the child will act on my feedback and produce more of the same hideous crap with subtle variations. If I say that I don't like it (no matter how gently and politely), the child's self-esteem will suffer and his parents will hate me because in our society, we're supposed to praise a child's artistic efforts no matter how little talent they have. So it seems this is a no-win scenario.  

What if a 7-year-old girl is thrilled about her new dress and her mother asks me "Doesn't she look pretty?" In my opinion, the dress is not pretty and neither is the girl. What should I do? Chances are, everyone has always lied to this girl about whether she's pretty or not. Most adults consider it cruel to tell a little girl that she's not pretty, even if she really isn't. So her entire life, she's heard nothing but praise about her appearance. Should I participate in the lies? Or should I be the bad guy that ruins her day with honesty? It seems that in certain situations such as this, lying is not only socially permitted, but expected and required. In fact, being honest in a case like this would be a major faux pas. To further complicate things, imagine that it's the girl's birthday and she's surrounded by friends and relatives.  I'm put on the spot in front of everyone to give my opinion of her new dress, which she just got from her mother as a birthday present. I pretty much have to lie.

When is it okay to lie to your own children? Most parents would say "When it's for their own good" but parents who say this assume that their lies will result in good. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Real-life example: A number of children go blind during every solar eclipse because of their parents' over-protectiveness. They lie to their children, hoping to scare them with words like "Don't ever look at the sun no matter what. You can watch the eclipse on TV but it is never safe to look at the sun with your own eyes. If you do, you'll hurt your eyes and go blind!" The child initially believes this but then sees a group of adults looking at the sun through sunglasses for several minutes. So the child reasons "Dad said it's never safe to look at the sun... but those grown-ups are watching the eclipse with their eyes and they're fine. I guess dad didn't know that it's safe as long as you're wearing sunglasses."

The child finds a pair of sunglasses, puts them on and stares at the sun for half a minute. He winds up with permanent retinal burns and near-complete blindness. It turns out that the group of adults he saw was watching the eclipse with special sunglasses that were made expressly for the purpose of looking at the sun. Ordinary sunglasses don't block enough infrared light. Since the retina has no pain receptors, the child slowly cooked his eyes without even realizing it.

So even well-intentioned lies can backfire and cause the very problem a parent was hoping to avoid in the first place. If only the parent had been honest and admitted that there are safe ways of watching an eclipse with your eyes, the child may have opted for one of those safe ways and his eyes would be unharmed. Click here to read how common sense can lead to blindness.

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