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Truth and Consequences

Miriam Schulman
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we tell our children to deceive.
-with apologies to Sir Walter Scott.

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 is hurt.

"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 after 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 values—not 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 you—at 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 harm—such as telling your grandmother you would indeed like the purple sweater she's knitting for you—might, 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 more generally."

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 her—at the heart of the way she perceives herself.

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 not lie."

Sophie is a child so conscientious that she berates herself for not being truthful when one of her classmates—now a hypersophisticated 8-year-old—poses 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 conversation:

"You know when Trevor was saying, 'Who likes Barney?'" my daughter reminds her friend. "Well, I really do kind of like Barney."

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 world—even the world of the playground—needs 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 bad advice.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 10, N. 1 Spring 1999.

Nov 10, 2015