“Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, regret, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.”
Harris argues that all forms of lying should be avoided in all scenarios. White lies are no exception.
Lying deprives others of the truth, of having a solid understanding of their reality, and of making the best decisions for themselves. Lying creates stress and guilt for the liar since they must keep track of their lives, adversely affects their relationships (you cannot be close to somebody who you lie to), and prevents them from being themselves.
Harris defines lying as:
“To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.”
There are two types of lying: by doing, or actively constructing a lie, or by omitting, by failing to correct others’ misconceptions when you stand to benefit from it.
The downsides of actively lying (acts of commission) and failing to correct others when they are wrong (acts of omission) are the same: you set up a deception that you (presumably) benefit from.
White lies are no exception. Although the liar is convinced that they are doing it for ‘good reasons’, they fall into the same traps as any other lie.
“What could be wrong with white lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all of the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealing with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding—these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.”
Lying deprives somebody of access to reality which you have. Same is true even in everyday scenarios such as when somebody asks you if they look good in an outfit (when they do not) or if they should pursue that career in music (when they clearly should not). Instead of lying, reply honestly but tactfully.
“We are often tempted to encourage others with insincere praise. In this we treat them like children—while failing to help them prepare for encounters with those who will judge them like adults.”
In order for a lie to be successful, it must never contradict reality. This requires more lies to prop up previous lies.
“Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality… Tell enough lies, and the effort to keep your audience in the dark eventually becomes unsustainable.”
Once a liar is caught, even if they are forgiven, the act is rarely forgotten, and they are not truly trusted again.
And even if you do not get caught, people can often suspect that something is fishy.
“While you may be spared a direct accusation of dishonesty, many people will conclude, for reasons they might be unable to pinpoint, that they cannot trust you.”
Committing to always tell the truth is liberating. You can truly be yourself without any cover-up.
And if you are tempted to cover something up, committing to honesty forces you to hold a mirror to yourself: what are you disguising about yourself and why?
“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. Knowing that we told the truth in the past leaves us with nothing to keep track of. We can simply be ourselves in every moment.”
Honesty is an opportunity to strengthen relationships, even when it is difficult.
“Think of all the opportunities for deepening love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding that are forsaken by white lies of this kind. When we pretend not to know the truth, we must also pretend not to be motivated by it.”
There is one scenario where lying is acceptable: when it is the lesser of the sins you must commit in a scenario. Lying is acceptable when the alternative may be violence. If you are in a situation where you’d normally have to behave violently in self-defense but can instead mislead your attacker with words, it is a net good.
“A total prohibition on lying is also ethically incoherent in anyone but a true pacifist. If you think that it can ever be appropriate to injure or kill a person in self-defense, or in defense of another, it makes no sense to rule out lying in the same circumstances.