When is it all right to tell a lie? And when isn’t it all right to tell a lie? Hmmm (I’m scratching my head). “That depends,” I might answer. “Depends on what?” you ask. “That’s just it,” I answer. “It depends.” Bill Clinton had this problem as well, depending on what the meaning of “is” is.
So let’s step back and do what any college sophomore would do: Redefine the question. Is lying the same as not telling the truth? And is lying a greater sin than not telling the truth? Or are they equally abhorent?
As a language student in Mexico, I lived with a host family – Julian and Lupita – whom I liked a lot. And when I returned to Puebla for another two weeks of immersion, I asked to live with them again. That wasn’t possible and I was assigned to a different family. Six months later, when I made plans for a third immersion, I was again assigned to Julian and Lupita. And during that immersion, I spent Cinco de Mayo visiting with the woman who had been my landlady six months before.
As we were visiting and watching the parade on her television, she abruptly asked me: “Why didn’t you ask to live with me this time?” Her question caught me by surprise. My mind shifted into panic mode: How to answer her question. I didn’t want to lie, because I dislike lying. And I didn’t want to tell the truth because it would offend or wound her. Telling the whole truth would answer her question but it wouldn’t result in any good or remedy. So, I told some of the truth and left out other parts.
“I didn’t ask the Institute to assign me to anyone. I let them assign me where they thought best.” The answer satisfied her and we continued to visit and watch the parade.
My answer was technically true as far as it went. But what I didn’t tell her, was that I wrote to Julian and Lupita months in advance because Lupita had told me she would ask the Institute to place me with her if she knew when I was returning. The whole truth was that I didn’t enjoy living in the woman’s household as much as I enjoyed living with Julian and Lupita. That was my personal preference but it was the kind of truth that causes pain without anything good. All the same, I felt some guilt.
Was my story a lie? Well, yes and no. In a legalistic sense – were I under oath in court – my story was less than the whole truth and could be counted a half-truth, a “white” lie. To a legalist, I told a lie. I deceived the woman. My defense is that I deceived her to spare her pain. Which was the greater good?
Flat out lying, fabricating or prevaricating falsehoods for the purpose of deception is clearly wrong. But telling less than the whole truth falls into moral ambiguity. Was it better to tell the whole truth about why I preferred to live with Julian and Lupita even if it gave offense? Or was it better to spare the woman the pain of rejection because my personal preference is what it is?
That’s the problem with life’s ambiguities; it’s usually a conflict between two or more of our positive values. I value integrity and telling the truth. But I also treasure compassion and try to avoid giving needless pain, physical or emotional. There was nothing the woman could do to change the outcome of my choice; it was purely personal on my part. So the whole truth – my preferences – would have impaired our friendship and not bettered her life.
Sorting out the greater good is the crux of it whether or not to withhold the truth. Do the ends justify the means? If we are about to tell a lie (or withhold the truth) perhaps the best test of the lie is to ask ourselves to whom are we lying, and why? Are we lying to deceive another; or are we deceiving ourselves? It’s been said that once we have learned to lie to ourselves, all other lies are easy. Our lies may harm others, but we must recognized the fact that our soul is the first casualy of our lies.