The Grey Ethics of White Lies
The problem with deception is that it entails asserting one’s will over another. In the case of “white lies”, the deception is supposed to serve the one being deceived. Yet, it is still an act of domination. It is a violation of trust in the autonomy of others, and an imposition of one’s desires over other people. One cannot freely determine one’s destiny without accurate information about the world. One who is delusional may exert an incredible amount of force, but they will not be exerting their true will, and their effort will be misdirected.
Consider the Lunar Baboon comic. We see the dad demonstrate his power to his son. The power is that of transformation, but of what? In the most generous interpretation, we are seeing the hat itself become transformed. When the guy is sad and has no confidence in his hat, the hat is ugly. However, once it has been recognized by the dad as being awesome, it is transformed into an awesome hat. The relationship between the guy and his hat is changed, and the guy begins projecting his confidence and enjoyment of power outward, which in turn changes everyone else’s relationship with the hat: it is now an awesome hat.
What if only the guy is transformed? What if the hat is still ugly, and the guy merely believes it to be awesome? Then the guy has been transformed into a fool. This may cause harm. Emboldened by the comment, he may continue wearing the hat with supreme confidence. Imagine him going to a dinner date or an interview wearing the hat, fully convinced that it is awesome. The date or interviewer may reject him based on that alone, for they do not want to bet their future on a fool. If the guy had been given space to realize on his own that the hat was ugly, then he may have been able to correct himself and demonstrate good sense. Unfortunately, he was given a false sense of consciousness, and his force is wasted on delusions.
Imagine a child who has broken a vase, and blames it on the dog. Why does the child do this? The way I see it, the child does two things simultaneously. First, they attempt to transform reality and bend it to their will. In an act of creation, the child invents a world where they do not make clumsy mistakes and have done nothing to disappoint their parents. This only works totally if the child lies to themselves and believes it. When reality becomes unbearable, the only way to exert and enjoy power is to create one’s own reality.
The second act of the child, whether they care to invest in creating their own reality or not, is to enforce their own will and exercise their own power. The child of course wants to eliminate their parent’s capacity to punish them, and through deception is able to manipulate their authority in a direction that benefits the child. Whether or not a lie is well intentioned, if it is used instrumentally, the intention is ultimately to remove one individual’s capacity to act and replace it with their own. The power of the deceived is robbed from them and appropriated towards the ends of the deceiver, whether or not those ends include the best interest of the one being deceived.
So, is it ever moral to tell a lie? Well, is it ever moral to remove someone else’s agency and replace it with your own? For most people, I imagine the answer is yes. Using violence in defense of yourself or others is an extreme act of disenfranchisement and domination, and yet most people would probably find it acceptable under some circumstances. Deception must be balanced with other moral considerations, but it must also be used with the clear-eyed understanding that it breaches the agency of others. A white lie generally implies that you do not trust the deceived to use their power wisely.
Paradoxically, there are instances where lies may actually improve agency. The classical example of this is the coach who promises his star player that a magic pendant will guarantee the team a win, only to reveal after the game that the pendant had no magic after all. The win came from the complete confidence granted to the player by the lie: The magic was within you all along. The coach’s lie is a gamble, made without the player’s consent. Because of this gamble, the player is able to exceed their own abilities, and exert even more will and power than they would have been able to otherwise.
But what if the gamble had failed? What if the player, sure of their victory, takes it easy and throws the game? The coach would ultimately be responsible for the loss, as well as for violating the autonomy and trust of the player. So, is the gamble worthy? Is it moral if it succeeds, and immoral if it fails? Personally, I don’t like judging morality by a coin flip. Is it moral if you’re highly certain the gamble will work, or if the gains and losses are clearly skewed in a positive direction?
I’m not so sure. The classic thought experiment in this regard involves lying to a crazy axe murderer about the whereabouts of their victim, only to accidentally lead them to the victim, who is then axe-murdered. To me, this doesn’t seem like an immoral deception, even though it leads to a bad outcome, because I don’t really care about violating the agency of the axe murderer. The people who sheltered Anne Frank’s family are clearly heroes, even though they lied to the Nazis on a regular basis, because we don’t actually care about violating the Nazis’ agency.
The coach example is difficult for me to form a strong opinion on, partially because the stakes are so low. Unfortunately, there are historical examples of warriors being told they were immune to bullets, like during the Boxer Rebellion. In this case, the practice clearly comes off to me as monstrous, pushing people to their own deaths. However, one could imagine terribly skewed odds, where death is near-certain unless the lie is made. To me, this comes down to the ordering of moral considerations. I can imagine as a leader, it would probably feel worth it to sacrifice the warriors’ trust and consent for the chance that some of them survive. It’s an incredible violation of autonomy, and the warriors may hate you for the rest of their days, but at least they’ll have that choice.
The vast majority of lies are not that serious. In fact, most people lie constantly throughout the day without even thinking about it. These maintenance lies are mostly used to keep things running smoothly and reduce hassle. You don’t want to make someone repeat themselves so you tell them you heard them; you don’t feel like arguing about their mustache so you tell them it looks great; you don’t want to ruin the flow of conversation so you promise to text them later, and so on. These should generally be amenable to the same framework we put the big lies under, but they’re so minor it hardly seems worth it. I personally feel it’s admirable to minimize these sorts of lies, with an eye to balance expediency, conflict, safety, and respect.
Then, there are lies with special properties. Santa Claus is an incredible example of this: We have institutionalized lying to children in our culture, because it facilitates a sense of wonder and traditions that bring joy. It may also facilitate a rite of passage, teaching children how belief functions, how lies are meant to be used, and how to form an independent identity. It also has some fraught elements, like the formation of collectively held lies that nobody believes but everyone pretends to believe to preserve the structure. Fortunately, we have another Lunar Baboon comic to help illustrate this.
Besides surprise birthday parties and Pinocchio’s nose, I can’t think of much more to say about lies. If you have your own thoughts on lies, especially lies with special properties, please comment. If you get me to respond with a comment chain that’s longer than the actual article, you get a prize. The prize is more incredibly long comments.