On some of the problems with “white lies”

A correspondent wrote the following to me:  “I like your idea of truth groups, and I would be willing to join one if it could accept my white lies.  I know that you allow lying for self-protection, and that is good.  Occasionally, I lie to protect others.  When my elderly grandmother asked me if I liked the pudding that she made, I lied to protect her feelings; and I am glad that I did.”

(To learn more about the idea of “truth groups,” please read the last section of Chapter 6 of Part I of my essay Against the Lie; or, for a quicker summary, read this post.)

I suspect that in this individual’s comment (which I include with his permission), he is expressing the general sentiments of many other people as well.  But I would contend that “white lies” are not necessarily as harmless as they might at first appear to be, and that a person’s desire to retain the ability to keep telling them does not necessarily provide a good reason to avoid joining a truth group whose members agreed not to tell any “white lies.”  The following story might help to illustrate why:

Let’s say that I make some pudding for you, and you actually think that it’s barely edible; but, to spare my feelings, you tell me that it is absolutely fantastic, the best pudding you’ve ever tasted, the best in the world.  And I make my pudding for various other people, and they all tell me pretty much the same thing.  I’m getting rave reviews from everyone who eats my bad pudding, because I’m “lucky” enough to be surrounded on all sides by a bunch of “nice people” who all supposedly want me to “feel good” about myself.  Everybody’s happy, right?

Well, because of everyone telling me that, I decide that pudding-making is my true “calling” in life, and I decide to leave my secure, well-paying job so that I can pursue my “calling.”  I pour much of my personal savings into finally realizing my dream of opening an upscale gourmet pudding shop in a high-rent district of town (since I’m so confident that people are going to love my pudding because of what everyone has always told me).  I pour even more of my savings into expensive TV advertising.  Because of that advertising, I initially get a lot of people coming to my pudding shop.

I make a practice of going around to the tables at which the customers are seated and asking them if they are enjoying my pudding—since I make customer satisfaction a top priority.  And because they’re all such “nice people,” they all tell me that yes, it’s absolutely fantastic, the best pudding they’ve ever tasted, the best in the world.  Unfortunately, they’re not quite “nice” enough people to want to keep paying for my bad pudding; and so most of them don’t come back a second time.  So I’m not getting very many repeat customers.  Meanwhile, people are gradually learning by word-of-mouth (imagine that this is the pre-internet age) that I make pudding that not only looks like shit, but also tastes like it.

So I notice that there is a tapering-off in the number of people who are coming to my pudding shop.  But because of the fact that all of my former customers told me that my pudding was wonderful, I assume that the reason for the tapering-off must have something to do with “the bad economy,” and the problem was that they couldn’t afford to pay the high prices I’m charging for my gourmet pudding.  So, I try lowering the prices I charge.  But after a while I find that doing that hasn’t brought in more customers, so now I’m actually bringing in less revenue than before.  Meanwhile, however, because of having lowered my prices, my pudding has lost its cachet status among the trendy types who thought that because I was charging such high prices for my gourmet pudding, it must really be something special (even if they never exactly enjoyed eating it).  So, when I try raising my prices back to what they were before, I bring in less revenue than ever.  Eventually my gourmet pudding shop goes out of business.  To make matters worse, all of the resulting financial pressures on my family precipitate what becomes an extremely nasty divorce, as a result of which my ex-wife gets custody of the children.  And all of my old friends—those “nice people” who were once happy to flatter me endlessly about my pudding—end up taking the side of my ex-wife and believing the false things she says about me, so they all blame me for the divorce and generally refuse to have anything more to do with me.

The moral of the story is this:  I was not getting accurate feedback about where I stood in the world with respect to other people.  And as a result, I became unable to make good decisions for myself.  Yes, the story involves some degree of exaggeration; but I honestly don’t think the types of events that I am describing in it are as exaggerated as some people would probably like to think.

And I additionally submit that if you used your imagination, you could come up with a nightmare scenario like this for the telling of any so-called “white lie”—at least, if you were to assume that all persons would be consistent in their telling of that same “white lie.”  Or, perhaps those of you who support “white lying” are secretly expecting that not all persons will act consistently, and you are figuring that someone else will sooner or later take on the role of the “meanie” who will finally do me (what is actually) the favor of informing me, in response to my question, that I don’t in fact make good pudding—so that you, in effect, will get to be the “good guy,” and that the “someone else” will get to be the “bad guy.”

But why should you get to always be the “good guy”?  Maybe that “someone else” would prefer that the “bad guy” or “bearer of bad news” role be spread around and shared more than it is, so that he could get to be in the role of “good guy” more often than he currently is.  Why is one person forced into the undesirable role of “bad guy” because of his willingness to be honest in response to someone’s question, so that another person can be free to be dishonest—and, in exchange for that dishonesty, be rewarded with all sorts of mutual (but ultimately artificial) “niceness” and “friendliness” and “good feelings”?  Is our society trying to reward honesty or punish it?  Which is it?  Discussing the matter in these terms helps to show that when you start scratching the surface of the “white lying” that is supposedly done for the sake of others, there is invariably a great deal more selfishness—including socially destructive selfishness—involved in people’s telling of these “white lies” than they wish to admit to.

In connection with this question of incentives and what sort of behaviors and characteristics we want our society to be promoting, let’s suppose that a formal “white lie” exception has been made to a formal rule against lying that everybody in society has agreed to live by.  Now, imagine that a grandmother makes pudding for her two grandkids.  She asks how they like it.  In reality, they both hate it.  The first grandkid quietly says, “It’s (gulp) . . . good.”  His brother, the second grandkid, exclaims, “Oh my God, Grandma, this is breathtakingly delicious pudding!  I have never eaten pudding that was as good as this before in my entire life!  Or any other dessert for that matter!  Or any other food for that matter!  You have outdone even yourself, which I never dreamed you’d be able to do, because I didn’t think your pudding could possibly get any better than what we’ve been lucky enough to be graced with in the past!  But now it has!  Never in my whole life have I felt as much pleasure as I do right now eating this wonderful pudding!”  Because the second grandkid does this sort of thing so frequently (and because the grandmother actually finds it gratifying instead of annoying), the grandmother decides to rewrite her will so that the second grandkid will inherit her entire estate, instead of it being split equally between the two grandkids as it previously would have been.

Now, would the “white lie” exception apply to both grandkids, or only the first one (on the arguable grounds that the first one, unlike the second one, was trying to do as little “white lying” as he could possibly get away with)?  On what principled basis would a distinction between the two be made?  If it is posited that a principled distinction can be made, and that the exception would not apply to the second grandkid, how, in the absence of a social climate that was generally hostile to insincere flattery, could he realistically have been deterred from engaging in the flattery—especially in a way that could offset the reward he received for having done so?  And, if a principled distinction cannot be made, wouldn’t an incentive be created for the first grandkid to act more like the second, setting up a kind of “competition” to see who can be the best flatterer?  Do we really want to be encouraging the creation of a whole bunch of unctuous Eddie Haskells in our society?

Much of “white lying” is done to “smooth things over” between people, and to “avoid conflict” or “defuse conflict.”  But when you engage in “white lying” for these reasons, ask yourself:  Am I really doing it because I want to help or protect the other person in the exchange, or am I doing it simply because I see it as “good policy,” that is, as more conducive to my own personal advantage?  Because if it’s really only some self-serving “good policy” that is involved, then I would suggest that it’s actually not “good policy” from a societal perspective, and that there are other kinds of “policies” that a society could effectively “enact” that would be far more rational and beneficial from a societal perspective—which means that in the long run, the average individual would find them preferable as well.

It’s admittedly true that the paying of insincere compliments (as well as sincere ones) to other people, whether the compliments be solicited or unsolicited, often helps to “smooth things over” and “avoid conflict”; but then, so does the “greasing of palms” through bribery, and we still have laws against that.  In other words, it is not obvious that all forms of “conflict” necessarily should be “smoothed over” and “made to go away.”  In the case of the first grandkid in the story I just told, we might suppose that considerably more “conflict” was introduced into his relationship with his grandmother because of his having been written out of her will—and that would have occurred precisely because of all of the “good feelings” and “smoothing over” produced by his brother’s bombastic and shamelessly insincere flattery.  That thought ought to serve as a reminder that the “conflict avoidance” or “conflict elimination” and “mutual good feelings” that people are frequently seeking for themselves might actually be unfairly coming at someone else’s expense.

Even if a particular person has especially tender feelings, I still don’t see any reason to make an exception for “white lying” in order to protect his or her feelings.  If everyone is honest and no one engages in insincere flattery, then it won’t take very long before that person learns not to ask questions the honest answers to which he or she is emotionally unprepared to handle—which is actually a very good lesson for that person to learn as quickly as possible.  That is not to say, however, that when one person asks for another person’s honest opinion, this should be viewed by that other person as giving him an “opportunity” to spew all of his stored-up venom at the person who asked the question.  (And, furthermore, it should go without saying that I am most definitely not suggesting that people ought to go around offering their insulting “honest opinions” even when other people didn’t ask for them and don’t want to hear them.)

If a person asks if you like her pudding, and you do not, you can just say, “No, not really,” or “No, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t,” without launching into an excruciatingly comprehensive account of all the reasons why you think the pudding is bad and making clear just how much you hate it.  In other words, one can be as nice as possible subject to the constraint that one also be honest at the same time—primarily by not saying everything that is on one’s mind.  Additionally, a person might choose to call attention to some related reaction that he or she had that is both complimentary and sincere, on the assumption that this would be of interest to the person asking the question.  For example, if someone asks you if you like how her pudding tastes, and it turns out you do not like the taste of it but you do think it has a very nice texture, an appropriate response might be, “It has a very nice texture, but the taste of it doesn’t really appeal to me.”

Yes, as an alternative to that, one might conceivably say nothing more than, “It has a very nice texture,” and then let the pudding-maker draw the appropriate conclusion about the taste on her own.  But I think it would be desirable to discourage evasive responses like that, since I think that if a person asks a question, others ought to be able to assume that the person is seeking an honest and direct (but still polite) answer.  The entire world should not have to constantly walk on eggshells around certain persons to accommodate their insistence on asking other people inappropriate questions (by which I mean, questions to which they do not genuinely want to hear the respondents’ honest answers), with the result that persons who are seeking honest and direct answers to their questions find it difficult to get them.  But when only some of the respondents think in this way, so that most respondents continue to offer insincere compliments, while a minority of them do not, the persons asking the inappropriate questions never learn the lesson that they ought to be learning (namely, that they shouldn’t be asking questions such as that); instead, the lesson they learn is that most people are “nice” while the rest are just “mean” or “unsociable.”  What’s worse, the persons who are determined to ask those sorts of inappropriate questions may even feel justified in trying to teach their own “lessons” to the people who were simply being sincere with them, in order to “get back” at them for being such “mean” people.

The only type of situation that I can think of in which so-called “white lying” might be justified is when you’re dealing with the sort of person who first asks for your honest feedback (which happens to be negative) and then gets angry or vengeful toward you if you actually do give it, or even just say that you would prefer not to give your opinion.  (And perhaps telling a lie would also be justified even if you were merely unsure whether or not the person would react in an angry or vengeful way if you responded honestly or refused to give your opinion, because of your not having had previous dealings with the person.)  However, I would view that not as “white lying” per se, but rather as a justifiable lie which would fall under the privacy/autonomy exception to the rule against lying which I discuss in the final section of Part I of my Against the Lie essay (and which can also be found here).  Viewing it in that way helps to eliminate any possible confusion in the mind of the person telling the lie, by making clear that the lying in such a case is being done purely for reasons of legitimate self-protection, and not out of any falsely “beneficent” motives.  (And even in this situation, I still think it would be preferable for a person to insist on not giving his or her opinion, and take the chance that negative consequences might ensue; and then just deal with them if they did ensue, at least in instances in which it was assumed that those potential negative consequences would not be especially severe—and perhaps even in instances in which it was believed that they might be.)

Even though I am opposed to all insincere compliments, whether solicited or unsolicited, I am not necessarily opposed to the giving of a sincere compliment just because it is unsolicited.  I do believe that the giving of sincere unsolicited compliments can be very valuable in certain instances.  It can be very helpful, for example, to tell a person that he shows talent at something and to encourage him to pursue that talent.

But a problem arises when these sorts of unsolicited compliments—even if they’re sincere—become expected of people, and they feel compelled by social convention to constantly offer them.  I do not believe society as a whole benefits from making the giving and seeking of compliments into a normal, routine, and obligatory practice, as our society has effectively done, such that doing so is deemed to exhibit “good manners.”  Even with all the complimenting, both sincere and insincere, people still get offended, and still have hurt feelings; it’s just that it comes about as the result of other people not being as effusive in their complimenting at some times as they are at certain other times.  But the same basic messages end up getting conveyed as would have been conveyed if no one had ever stopped being sincere in the first place.

For example, imagine that on one occasion, a person hosts a dinner party and everybody (of their own accord) says highly complimentary (and sincere) things about the main dish.  At the next dinner party she hosts, the compliments about the main dish are much more tepid (and insincere).  She concludes disappointedly that the guests must not have liked the main dish at the second dinner party.  So notice that the result is the same as if, at each of the two dinner parties, she had simply asked the guests if they liked the main dish, and each time they gave a sincere answer.  But also notice the obvious but still very important difference:  When the compliments were unsolicited, she got that same result even though she never asked them whether they liked the dishes or not.  Perhaps she didn’t want their honest opinions on either occasion; perhaps she is one of those persons I mentioned above who has “especially tender feelings.”  But that decision was never left to her.  In other words, they in effect forced their “honest opinions” on her whether or not she actually wanted to hear them.  Maybe she would have preferred it if no one had made any comments about her food on either occasion, so that on both occasions she could have held out the same reasonable hope (but not certainty) that they enjoyed each of the dishes equally, by not finding out their true feelings.  I do strongly believe that people ought to have that right to remain in a state of ignorance about such matters if they so choose.

So again, observe that according to our current supposedly “polite social convention” that encourages and, in effect, even compels the indiscriminate giving of compliments, people’s feelings are in fact not being spared.  And the only possible way to even try to avoid the hurt feelings that necessarily result from that particular social convention is to use insincere flattery to make up for the difference in enthusiasm on any two occasions—which is the practice more popularly known as “white lying.”

However, the result of resorting to insincere flattery as a “solution” to the problem of “hurt feelings” is that to the extent that the persons engaged in the flattering aren’t very good at it, their “white lying” won’t succeed at doing what it’s supposed to do (since the difference in enthusiasm will still be apparent to others); but to the extent that persons are very good at it, it creates an entirely different kind of problem—the same basic problem I already tried to illustrate using my “gourmet pudding shop” story.  To return to the “dinner party” example:  If we suppose that the guests at both dinner parties were all expert “white liars,” the host would have been completely unable to get honest feedback about her two dishes even if she actually wanted it and explicitly asked for it.  So is the recipient of a compliment actually being either protected or benefited—as is generally assumed—by this routine and indiscriminate giving of unsolicited sincere compliments, if the practice needs to be coupled with a great deal of unsolicited insincere flattery in the attempt to make it even tolerable?  Exactly who is benefiting from this state of affairs in which a steady stream of compliments, composed of an uncertain mixture of sincere and insincere ones, is forcibly circulated throughout society?  I submit that when you take a step back from the whole arrangement to gain better perspective, the answer seems to be no one.

Some readers might object that if the host of the dinner party was very, very, very insistent that she actually wanted her guests’ honest reactions to her two dishes, then they would have surely provided her with their honest reactions.  Maybe.  But in that case, just how much “insistence” would she have needed to display before they finally gave up their resistance and came to believe that she was actually serious when she said she wanted their honest reactions?  Would she have had to get down on her knees and beg?  Or scream at them?  Or break down in tears?  And more importantly, how could she ever know with any certainty that she had indeed crossed that secret magic threshold level of “insistence” with her impassioned antics?—given the fact that we are operating on the assumption that our hypothetical dinner party host has chosen to invite a pack of expert liars to her house (even if their expertise supposedly only extends to “white lying”).

Incidentally, this problematic situation is a product of the fact that, as I indicated earlier in this article, many people are in the habit of asking questions that they should not be asking, since they are unable to emotionally handle honest responses to their questions.  (And there are plenty of others who are happily willing to encourage and enable that bad habit of theirs.)  The frequency of this bad habit has in turn had the effect of habituating the members of society in general to assume that when a person asks other people some question about what those other people think of him, he’s probably not really seeking an honest answer, and would be outraged and offended if he were to get one—so they don’t give him one.  But since everyone is more or less aware of that general background assumption, the person who is asking those sorts of questions will know—just as everyone else knows—that the answers to his questions will likely not be sincere ones.  So the person will keep up his futile search for validation and reassurance by continuing to ask other people the same sorts of questions, over and over again—even “compulsively,” one might say.  And that is because even though he fears receiving sincere answers, he also finds that receiving insincere answers does not make him feel any better about himself, and does nothing at all to raise his self-esteem—not really—precisely because of the fact that, in his heart of hearts, he is perfectly aware that the answers he’s getting are likely insincere, and therefore likely also worthless.  So we once again discover that when we step back to take a look at the big picture, we see that the practice of “white lying” is not able to achieve its alleged purpose—namely, the promoting of “good feelings.”  (It is, on the other hand, quite effective at helping people to become accustomed and desensitized to the practice of lying.)

The upshot to this entire discussion is that the social value of “white lying” is—at best—dubious.  Given that fact, I fail to see why an exception to the truth groups’ rule against lying ought to be made to accommodate the practice of “white lying”—especially when one considers the very real possibility that the entire “honesty culture” strategy might fail as a result of accommodating the practice, since an exception such as that would be very difficult to contain on the basis of any consistent principle, and so would likely end up serving as the proverbial exception that swallows the rule.

I wish to make one final point.  It is certainly true that, at first anyway, not offering as many compliments and as much flattery (whether sincere or insincere) as other persons were offering would make one’s own life more difficult and less “smooth” than it would otherwise be.  But I never claimed that joining a truth group would make one’s life more “comfortable,” or make it easier for one to “fit in” with the general society—at least, not initially.  The purpose of forming truth groups would be to create a different kind of culture; and at first, that would necessarily mean not “fitting in” perfectly well with the dominant culture.  Members of truth groups would need to be willing to make limited sacrifices for the sake of achieving a goal larger than their own immediate advantage—and do notice how careful I was in designing the “minimum core rules” for the truth groups to ensure that the sacrifices that members would be expected to make would only be limited ones (so that, in other words, no one would be asked to join any “martyrs’ brigades”).  If a person is not willing to make even such limited sacrifices, then quite frankly, the idea of joining a truth group will not appeal to him or her no matter what accommodations were made, and no matter how the rules and the exceptions to those rules were designed.