July 2, 2015 9.34 am This story is over 100 months old

White lies and definitive ties – Is it ever okay to lie?

When is lying okay? Kate Taylor debates the philosophy of lying, and questions how reasonable we’re being when we decide it’s okay.

Over the last couple of weeks, me and my partner have had several debates over the philosophy of lying. Ethically, morally and practically speaking, most would answer that telling a falsehood is a bad idea. Except when… exactly.

My other half didn’t see it quite this way, and left me dumbfounded in the middle of the park after telling me he wouldn’t tell the kids an altered version of our plans to stop them getting wound up and upset.

I would hate to be presumptuous, but most parents I know have told their offspring they’re off to do a boring and menial task when dropping them off with grandparents/child minder when in actual fact they’re totally off on a rare night out and are really looking forward to it.

To my darling, this is a no no. Why not just explain the truth in a rational manner? Still dumbfounded. So he decided to give me an essay to read in the form of a little book by Sam Harris entitled, you guessed it, ‘Lying‘.

Now, in his book, Harris de-constructs everything from white lies to spies lying. He notes that there are indeed times when lying becomes necessary, as his old lecturer Ronald A. Howard states in the Q&A section, in the case of Nazi’s at the door and Anne Frank is in your wardrobe, you are probably going to lie and say she’s not in.

But then he talks about the story of Buddha and the man that killed a thousand people. Buddha does not avoid the murderer, but confronts him and says “I know you are going to kill me, but first would you cut off the large branch on that tree?”

He does so and thus the Buddha says, “Thank you, now could you put it back on?” The murderer is suddenly enlightened to his wrong doing and becomes a monk.

Howard extends to saying that there are times when lying is a more ethical option than say, violence, but that we have to allow for the hypothetical that with Anne and the Nazi’s, it may be possible to be truthful and prevent her demise.

The philosophy student in me was delighted with this book, my everyday self was tempted to lob it out of the train window next to where I was reading it.

Sissela Bok says that “the test of publicity asks which lies, if any, would survive the appeal for justification to reasonable persons.” Personally speaking, I love the fact my children believe in Santa Claus and fairies and yes, timelords.

Under the test of publicity, I think most ‘reasonable persons’ wouldn’t have a problem with my four and seven year old believing as such.

Yes, I do ponder at times just how reasonably minded my love is, but in all fairness he is in general a much kinder, more thoughtful person than I am. He does not believe in Santa. Not even timelords.

I agree that a large proportion of lying, with a little thought and skill, could be avoided; but then one could argue that by avoiding at least parts of the truth is as bad as weaving a false narrative, a ‘politicians answer’.

Sam Harris ends his essay by asking ‘How would your relationships change if you resolved never to lie again? What truths about yourself might suddenly come into view? What kind of person would you become?’

I’m not sure in this would necessarily be for the better, and this is a society which supposedly values the truth. What about cultures that see things differently? Should lying be abhorrent globally in all forms, or is it holding human nature too high above the food chain?

Kate Taylor is a sociologist, mother and tea and cake lover. When not working in sociological and marketing research with her company, Galilee Research, Kate can be found talking about political philosophy on the school run.