Truth and Consequences
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we tell our children
-with apologies to Sir
We're having a little problem with lying at my house: My daughter,
Sophie, won't do it.
"Do you like my new bike?" asks her schoolmate. Sophie, age
8, is paralyzed into muteness by her conscience. Her friend
"Couldn't you find something nice to say about it, like the
color?" I ask. I am thinking of the story about Judy Garland,
who, after seeing a pal in a terrible play, swept into her friend's
dressing room with the line, "How do you do it, my dear, night
But this will not do for Sophie, who knows a fraud when she
hears one. No, a lie is a lie; she's a total Kantian on this
subject. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that truth-telling
is a "perfect duty," one so basic that it cannot be overridden
by other valuesnot even saving the life of a friend, let
alone sparing someone's feelings. In Kant's formulation, if
asked outright, a person would be obligated to tell a murderer
the whereabouts of his intended victim.
Of course, many have responded to Kant with the penetrating
philosophical counterthrust: "Oh, come on!" Or, as moral philosophers
Daniel Maguire and A. Nicholas Fargnoli put it in their book
On Moral Grounds, "Very simply, Kant would not be the
man you would want to stand between you and someone intent on
murdering youat least if Kant knew where you were."
In fact, Maguire and Fargnoli use Kant's stance on lying to
explore the limits of the quest for universal moral principles.
"Universalization is an unrealistic and inaccurate abstraction
that passes over the fact that there are exceptions to valid
moral principles," they write. "To protect other values, like
the life of an intended victim or a legitimate secret, exceptions
to truth-telling must be made."
Most of us, I suspect, are utilitarians on the subject of
truthfulness, deciding whether to lie based on the possible
consequences: Trivial fibs that hurt no one are acceptable;
whoppers that injure others are not.
I point out to Sophie that even the commandment seems to make
this distinction. It does not say, "Thou shalt not lie"; it
says, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." This, I explain,
means that it's a major sin to deceive when the consequences
for another person could be grave, such as in a court of law,
or when the teacher asks, "Did you break the computer?" But
lies that do no harmsuch as telling your grandmother you
would indeed like the purple sweater she's knitting for youmight,
perhaps, be tolerated.
Sophie remains unconvinced. She would not be upset if she
received the purple sweater; she would even wear it to please
her grandmother. But she does not want to lie about it.
At some intuitive level, I think she senses that the utilitarian
approach to lying has its own limits. Judged one instance at
a time, any "harmless" lie may be trivial, but the habitual
telling of white lies may ultimately lead to undesirable consequences.
Philosopher Sissela Bok makes this point in her book Lying:
"The failure to look at an entire practice rather than
at their own isolated case often blinds liars to cumulative
harm and expanding deceptive activities. Those who begin with
white lies can come to resort to more frequent and more serious
ones....The aggregate harm from a large number of marginally
harmful instances may, therefore, be highly undesirable in
the end- for liars, those deceived, and honesty and trust
To Bok, all lies are dangerous because the practice of telling
even the smallest of them may seep into general use, corrupting
the fibber and ultimately the very fiber of discourse. She underlines
this tendency of lies to "spread."
I think Sophie fears this spread and the impact it may have
on her own identity as a person of integrity. Truthfulness is
an organizing trait for herat the heart of the way she
In this, I suppose, she is a true believer in what philosophers
call "virtue ethics." As such, she does not focus on each particular
decision to dissemble or speak the truth; rather, she cultivates
the virtue of honesty to the point where it is second nature.
As University of Texas Philosophy Professor Richard Solomon
writes, "The honest man is not so much one who refrains from
lying, much less one who resists the temptation to lie because
he or she knows that it is wrong to lie; he or she just...does
Sophie is a child so conscientious that she berates herself
for not being truthful when one of her classmatesnow a
hypersophisticated 8-year-oldposes the taunting question,
"Who still likes Barney?" and she cannot bring herself to admit
publicly that she is still among the purple guy's fans.
When she brings this dilemma to me, I try to let her off the
hook. Barney, I point out, is not a person. It would be wrong
to deny liking a real-life friend, but Barney is a dinosaur.
"Maybe sometime," I say, "you'll feel comfortable enough and
strong enough to tell your friends what you really think, but
Barney will not be hurt if you don't stand up for him."
A few days later, Sophie and her buddy are having milk and
fish crackers at my kitchen table when I overhear the following
"You know when Trevor was saying, 'Who likes Barney?'" my
daughter reminds her friend. "Well, I really do kind of like
There is a moment of silence. Then her playmate grins with
relief. "I do, too," she admits.
This is the last time I presume to counsel Sophie about deception.
Through her, I have come to realize that, just as lies may spread,
so may honesty. The worldeven the world of the playgroundneeds
its truth-tellers. They open a space for the rest of us to confront
our own fears and moral shortcuts.
Besides, there is something bracing about having a child who'll
give you the straight goods, even if it means she's not prepared
to commit to such popular kid effusions as, "You're the best
mommy in the whole world!" After all, she hasn't met all the
other mommies, and, even compared against myself, she might
easily point out that I've been known to give her some awfully