Is There Such a Thing as a “White Lie?”

Category: Moral Question of the Week, Weekly Columns

White Lie from Adam and Eve

This week’s “Moral Question:” Is there such thing as a “White Lie?” I suggest there is and that lying is just like most everything else…it’s NOT black or white; it’s gray. For instance, would you lie to a killer if he asked you “which way did that guy in the green shirt go?” Or, if your wife asks how she looks in that new dress, is there ANY other answer but, “Beautiful, as always, darling!”

What say you?

  • Onisha Ellis

    Lying is always black or white, the reason one lies is the gray area.

    • Bruce Sallan

      @onishaellis:disqus – technically you are correct, of course but like mosts things in life, I believe there IS a gray area!

      • Onisha Ellis

        I think gray areas should exist in our mind while we formulate what we believe. Besides, gray is a boring color.

        • Bruce Sallan

          @onishaellis:disqus – do you tell a killer where their victim has run?

  • Onisha Ellis

    How will the killer know if I am telling the truth? Will he assume I am lying and go in the opposite direction?

    • Bruce Sallan

      Oh well @onishaellis:disqus – we can continue a dialogue on the next (or previous) Moral Questions…thx for your comments!

  • Stan Faryna

    I’m going to attempt not to break balls (or otherwise) with this comment.

    There are profound, inescapable moral problems related to the acts of slander, gossip and perjury. Repent that which is done and renounce it forever more.

    Are we obligated to speak to a killer?

    Are we obligated to give an answer to a problematic question about a new dress?

    I have always tried to avoid speaking to killers and SO’s about new dresses, etc. [laughing]

    My ex-wife used to ask me (too often) if she was pretty or looked younger than she was. I often took the opportunity to give her a kiss on the cheek, tell her I love her, and then say, I’m late for work as I ran out of the bedroom.

    Regarding fashion, one can easily get subscriptions to smart fashion magazines and intelligent editorial opinion. Or you can share links every now and then. One of my favorite make up youtube artists is

    Regarding killers, I try my best to avoid them.

    • Bruce Sallan

      YOU clearly “get it” @faryna:disqus!!!

  • David Weber

    “What say you?” — now you’re quoting Bill O’Reilly, in his ritualistic invitation to listeners to weigh in on topic x, y or z?

    This is actually a very challenging question. Books have been written to attempt to work through it.

    As far as I can tell, for every argument one may make to support the (occasional?) white lie, a solid counterargument can be made. The two arguments likely originate in two different ethical paradigms– Well, I don’t want to be Mr. Buzzkill and go all academic … just sayin’.

    Whenever the topic of white lies comes up, I think of five things.

    First, there is no such thing as a “white lie.” A lie is a lie is a lie, period — a statement uttered (or written) with the INTENTION to market the truth of “x” when “x” is in fact untrue. The “whiteness” of a lie is only a reference to the PERCEIVED seriousness of the circumstance or condition lied about. Usually we are talking about perception by the person TELLING the lie. The number of times a liar, when caught in the lie, says, “But it was only a ‘white lie'” or “I lied, yes, but it was about a minor issue” is surely greater than the number of times a person on the receiving end of the lie says, “That’s OK, you told me what was merely a ‘white lie'”!

    Second, I remember when I first heard the term “white lie.” I was about five years old or so. My mother was talking on the kitchen phone with a friend, let’s call the friend “Mary.” At a certain point, my mother said, “Oh, Mary, I have to get off the phone, the doorbell just rang.” I had heard no doorbell and said as much to Mom when she hung up.

    “Oh, that was just a white lie,” she said. You have to realize that my father, primarily, had taught me N*E*V*E*R to lie, and indeed, my mother seconded that unconditionally. And in fact, I really don’t remember actually lying until I was as old as 6 or maybe 7…well, maybe I did learn to lie by the time I started primary school, so let’s say I was no older than going on 6 when I first told a lie. (I remember the feeling I had that first time … I can’t recall what the lie was about, but I said whatever it was I said, my dad or mom or both believed me, and I thought, “Hmmm, this lying thing is pretty cool, I think this is going to work for me in the future.” Indeed, three decades later, I was all, “Ann, honey, it’s not YOU, it’s ME,” but that’s another story.)

    I asked what a “white lie” was and she explained that it’s one of those times when a “small lie” is OK in order to prevent hurting someone’s feelings. But even then, I “got” intuitively what I didn’t learn in any academic or philosophical sense until I was in my 40s: There is no such thing as a “white lie.”

    Third, I was talking with a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, in a bar in Hong Kong in 1983. In the course of the conversation he brought up S.E.R.E. training, which included simulated prisoner-of-war experiences such as being tied up and interrogated and so on. He commented how realistic it felt. I said, “I guess the most difficult part was dealing with the physical pain, I mean, you were used to the comforts of home and then suddenly you’re wet and hurting and so on for day or two at a stretch.”

    He said, “Actually, well, that WAS difficult, yes. But the HARDEST part was lying to the interrogators. At The Boat School” — which is the nickname grads give the U.S. Naval Academy … don’t call it “Annapolis,” by the way, they’ll tell you that Annapolis is a town, the Naval Academy is the school — “it was inculcated into us again and again and again, ‘An officer NEVER, EVER lies,’ and you can actually get thrown out of the academy if you are caught having told a lie a civilian may think is insignificant. We go to extraordinary lengths to make sure we never lie, to the point that it may SEEM we are lying yet technically we are not.

    “For the S.E.R.E. scenarios, though,” he continued, “we were told we HAD to lie. But every time I would try to lie, I couldn’t help think, ‘Maybe I am NOT supposed to lie now, maybe if I lie, the instructors will put it in my permanent record that I lied, and I may lose my commission!’ So it really got to me that I lied; and after S.E.R.E. I would sometimes feel bad because now I had to admit to myself that I was a liar.”

    He was adhering to the strictest sensibility about lying, i.e., a lie is a lie is a lie and none of it is what a “good” person does. By the way, I’m not suggesting that all service academy graduates think that way, I am just telling one graduate’s very interesting story.

    Fourth, in my doctoral program, I had a professor I’ll call Jack who at one time mentioned during class, “The worst thing in the world to me is lying. It is a violation of everything that the human species has the gift of speech for. If spoken language is ultimately a way of enable two or more people to bridge between their interior selves, a lie uses the tool without leading to the result. I would rather figure out a way to tell the truth in a compassionate, supportive way than lie.” And indeed Jack lived up to that standard of behavior. To play armchair shrink for a moment, I think that Jack regretted terribly the way he had operated during his first marriage, chasing skirts and not giving full attention to his fatherly responsibilities. Lying was part and parcel of that, and I think that when he re-married and started another family, he promised himself he would not make the mistakes he had originally made, and that meant not only not putting himself into situations he would have to lie about, but not lying generally.

    Fifth, we tell “white lies” primarily to make ourselves “look good.” To “look good” may on occasion or in part involve making a statement INTENDING to “sell” some idea as true — if someone “buys” it, you “look good.” I have discovered that to the extent, as I get older, that I worry less about “looking good,” I lie less.

    • Stan Faryna

      An amazing reflection, David.

      • David Weber

        Thanks very much!

      • Bruce Sallan

        @faryna:disqus – I haven’t a clue who this David guy is!

    • Bruce Sallan

      I read it very carefully, David…but where is the 3rd and 4th “things?”