Monday, November 2, 2009

A White Lie

Everyone knows the phrase; even worse, too many people habitually practice the white lie. Depending upon an individual’s conscience, a white lie may be defined in one of two ways: (1) a “little” lie rationalized by self-interest for convenience’s sake, or, ironically, (2) a lie born of moral necessity and ethical compulsion. One often tells the former kind of white lie, seldom the latter.

The former, a white lie as “a ‘little’ lie rationalized by self-interest for convenience’s sake,” suffices for what the savage herd means by “white lie.” By that definition, three terms are key: “white,” “rationalized,” and “convenience.” “White” implies relative harmlessness, viz., that in certain circumstances “a ‘little’ lie rationalized by self-interest for convenience’s sake” produces less harm than the absolute truth, and so one tells a white lie as “the lesser of two evils,” the other "evil" being truth. For instance, your boss asks, “How are you coming along on that project?”, and you reply, “It’s coming along well,” when the truth is that you have procrastinated, or you have fallen behind schedule, or you haven’t even begun the task and you say to yourself, “I’ll get it done, but to tell my boss the truth would just create more problems so I will tell him/her a ‘white lie’ to avoid further exacerbation of the problem and thus mitigate potentially unpleasant effects of the absolute truth. If I told the truth, that could make things worse, so I will choose ‘the lesser of two evils’ and tell a 'white lie.'” Another example of “a ‘little’ lie rationalized by self-interest for convenience’s sake” might occur in a familial setting, when the wife asks the husband about how his job is going, or a parent asks a child how he is doing in that difficult class, and the husband replies thusly, “Everything is fine at work,” when in fact things are going downhill, or the child says, “I’m doing better in the class” when he got a “D” on yesterday’s task. Again, such “white lies” stem from self-interest and pain-avoidance, the lie being less painful than the truth, at least in the mind of the one who tells the white lie.

In such examples, one sees easily the meaning of a white lie “rationalized.” The liar contemplates the potentially adverse effects of a lie versus the truth and then makes a decision to lie because, in his judgment, the lie is less harmful than the truth. Such rationalization of the white lie derives from a compromised ethical construct, an intellectual paradigm of a warped conscience from whence springs errant volitional decisions and actions with moral import. In other words, based upon mere human judgment and without any real moral conviction, compulsion, or justification, the liar superimposes his own deficient value judgment upon a white lie versus the truth and rationalizes that to lie is “better” than to tell the truth. The liar imagines that the white lie harms neither the liar nor the person to whom s/he lies and is in fact a protection of the liar.

By the above examples and exposition, a lie is “white” if it protects a person from the undesirable effects of truth. We reiterate, such a white lie derives merely from a self-centered desire to avoid unpleasantness and inherently rests upon no absolute moral grounds to justify the white lie; the white lie is merely a rationalized self-defense mechanism against painful truth.

We should also note that, the more one tells white lies, the easier they roll off the tongue, and the more habitual they become, increasingly debilitating an already compromised conscience until white lies become an ever darkening hue, ever darkening the heart as well. Not everyone who tells a white lie is a pathological liar, but every pathological liar was first a white liar.

The other kind of white lie derives from moral necessity and ethical compulsion. For example, a family of four has been involved in a terrible automobile accident, the father, mother, and big sister having died in the crash while a six-year-old boy’s life hangs in the balance. He is conscious enough to ask the attending physician, “Where’s my Mommy? Where’s my Daddy? Where’s my sister?”, but in the physician’s judgment, the little boy’s critical condition is so fragile that, to tell him, “Your Mommy, Daddy, and big sister are dead,” might threaten the child to the extent that efforts to save his life might be diminished because of the psycho-somatic trauma of the truth. In such a case, the child’s survival constitutes a higher moral necessity and ethical compulsion to protect his life; moreover, the heroic physician has no egocentric interest in, or self-serving interest from the white lie but rather an altruistic motive for the child’s well-being. Both philosophy and theology defend such a white lie.

In philosophical terms, a philosopher who presupposes absolute morality would defend the noble physician who told a white lie to the suffering child. Soren Kierkegaard would designate that doctor as “a knight of infinite resignation,” viz., the physician found himself dangling upon the horns of a dilemma, caught between two conflicting but unequal moral principles: telling the truth, or telling a lie to protect the child psychologically in hopes of saving his life. When conflicting ethical principles converge upon a thinking individual whose mind is ethically tethered to absolute morality, circumstances demand his will to choose one or the other moral principle above the other. The wise moralist not only sees and feels the dilemma but also discerns and acts upon the correct moral principle, not that he chooses the lesser of two evils, but that he chooses the greater of two goods. Corrie Ten Boon was “a knight of infinite resignation” when she lied to the Gestapo to protect innocent Jews, as was Rahab the Harlot, who indeed lied to the Canaanites when they asked, “Have you seen those two spies?” At that moment, Rahab found herself in a moral dilemma: “Do I tell the truth, or do I protect Joshua and Caleb, good men, from evil men?” Rahab made the right decision, choosing the higher of two moral principles. Indeed, the doctor, Corrie Ten Boon, and Rahab told lies that were truly “white.”

So the next time you are tempted to tell a “white lie,” ask yourself, “Am I telling a ‘white lie rationalized by self-interest for convenience’s sake' merely to avoid the painful consequences of truth, or am I truly caught upon the horns of a moral dilemma? Do I see, not inevitable pain and unpleasantness for me because I tell the truth, but do I see two vivid but conflicting moral principles colliding, and do I have the discernment and wisdom to choose the higher and better moral principle and thus become ‘a knight of infinite resignation.'”

Often we find ourselves telling the first kind of white lie, which is not white at all. May God grant us grace, wisdom, discernment, and courage if we ever have to tell the second kind of white lie.