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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

White Lies

White Lies

White Lies

Real Eyes Realize Real Lies

Kelly Shi

According to a study published by University of Massachusetts, most people cannot go 10 minutes in a conversation without lying. Yet, at the same time, most people would prefer not to be deceived themselves.  Given how much we lie, should we really hold that honesty is the best policy?

In some situations, lying might be the ethically better choice. Many of these situations occur in daily life, and many of us resort to telling “white lies” to navigate these situations. Since they concern trivial matters and are usually well-intentioned, perhaps some white lies are justified. But when are they justified? And how? 

It’s difficult to answer those questions without considering context first. Your motivation for lying in one situation might differ from your motivation in another. For example, some situations involve social rituals such as answering “fine” when someone asks how you are. Even on bad days, most people elect to tell that white lie because their motivation is to uphold social norms. (Or perhaps, their motivation is to keep interactions with acquaintances at a bare minimum - especially on a bad day.) The decision to answer “fine” when you are not actually feeling fine might also be justified by the culturally shared understanding that asking  “How are you?” functions mostly as a greeting. 

Either way, motivations for telling “white lies” can change when the context changes. Consider the dilemma you’re put in when a friend asks if you like his new shirt that is as ill-fitting as it is horrendously patterned. In this situation, your relationship with your friend is an important factor to consider. If he is a close friend, you might decide to dole out some much-needed fashion advice. In fact, he might even count on you to give it.  But if he is not such a close friend, your interest in maintaining goodwill in your friendship might outweigh your urge to express your real sartorial opinion. Furthermore, if your friend is known to be particularly sensitive to criticism (however constructive it may be), your white lie might be justified by your intention to spare your friend’s feelings and keep the peace. 

Unfortunately, some dilemmas are more serious than questions of daily etiquette or clothing choices. Perhaps you’re torn about how to respond when your friend asks for your opinion about his or her significant other. On one hand, for your friend’s sake, you want to express your worries about questionable patterns of behavior that you’ve noticed in their relationship. On the other hand, you don’t want to risk starting any drama, especially about a matter that does not concern you directly. What should be the deciding factor in more serious situations like this one? Would a lie in this case still count as a white lie?

What do you think? Can you think of other factors to consider when deciding between being completely honest and telling a white lie? When do you think white lies are justified, if ever?

Kelly Shi is the Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. 

Feb 7, 2016