On White Lies and the Lies that We Tell Ourselves

07/20/2006 06:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A study came out last week indicating that American love to lie to themselves. Actually, that was a white lie but according to the survey, most Americans have no problem with white lies. No lie this time, in late June an Ipsos poll on public attitudes was taken. Over fifty percent of the 1000 people interviewed indicated that they believed that it was always wrong to lie. Nevertheless, more than two out of three respondents claimed that white lies were morally permissible. Sixty five percent of those questioned believed that there was nothing wrong with mendacity when it was used to spare someone's feelings, as in saying your sick when you do not feel like going out with someone. The survey made it transparent that many abide by the contradictory creed, "It is always wrong to lie and it is not wrong to tell a white lie."

The results of this poll have already undergone a good deal of analysis. With good reason, some claim that Americans hold one view in theory and another when it comes to concrete situations. However, there is one form of deceit that the study did not tap into which may of signal significance with regard to both our behaviors and attitudes around the issue of truth telling. If the Ipsos study reveals anything it is our inclination to pull the wool over our own eyes. And for people who would like to think that they worry about matters moral, our capacity for self-deception may be more of a cause to fret than our apparent willingness to tell fish tales.

Once again, the vast majority of Americans have no qualms about telling lies to cushion emotions. These so-called white lies are always described as though they were acts of altruism. However, in her minor classic Lying, Sisela Bok argued that more often than not, white lies are an expression of self-interest. On Bok's account, when I tell someone a lie in order to spare his or her feelings, I am also and perhaps primarily doing myself the favor of not having to deal with the anger and or pain of the person whose feelings I am sparing.

For example, I have a friend who like almost every other person in America has decided that he needs to write a novel. The past few months, he has been sending me snippets of his work. Soon he will call me to ask for my assessment. I may be wrong, but I am afraid that he will become quite upset if I tell him the truth - namely, that I think his prose is clichéd and juvenile. Perhaps I can spare him and myself distress by beginning to tell myself that no matter what the quality, his writing is therapeutic. Once more, I am no Faulkner, so who am to judge his scribbling? And it won't do either of us any good to rattle our relationship. In other terms, maybe it would only be a white and so permissible lie to tell my friend that his novel is 'well, ahem.. promising."

Randy Cohen, who formerly wrote comedy for the Letterman Show but has long since gone on to become the ethicist at the /New York Times Magazine/ recently told an AP reporter, "I'm a big fan of lying. Not only is lying justified, it is sometimes a moral duty," Cohen continued, "An obvious example is when you're lying to protect someone from serious harm. But much less extreme cases often call for lies." Perhaps like my friend and his manuscript? Sounds good to me.

For Cohen and many others of his Utilitarian bent, when you are deciding about what action to take you have to reckon up the consequences. If the consequences on one side have great weight- such as losing your job and not being able to take care of your family, a lie can very quickly begin to gleam white. It is easy to see how when the stakes are high enough, a CEO might lie to shareholders about the health of a company and convince him or herself, that this was just a white lie, a slight exaggeration that will be made true when the company turns an important corner in the next quarter.

But again, the Ipsos study hints that we have a deep-seated propensity for lying to ourselves. The moralists who give moral passes to white lies ought to be wary of the possibility that we might be predisposed to lying to ourselves about what kind of lies we are telling. Furthermore, they ought to give some thought to the question of who is to decide whether a lie is innocuous or not, the person telling it, or the person on the barrel end of the blarney?