Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Time Out: A Lying Prevention Technique

As ethicist Michael Josephson puts it, "How many times do you have to lie to be a liar?"

I imagine that many of us would reply, "More than I have!" but that's hardly an objective standard. Josephson and many others have noted the extent to which we justify lying, which is probably the most common ethical infraction. Do these lines sound familiar?

I didn't lie. I just didn't tell the whole truth. [In other words, I deceived.]

I didn't lie. I just told a fib. [Which is what I call a small lie; a.k.a. a lie that I tell.]

I didn't lie. I just "fudged" the facts a bit. [See the above.]

Some lies are justified. If the Nazis ask you where Anne Frank is hiding, they don't deserve the truth, but then that's an easy call. A more difficult one is what to say when your spouse, friend, or significant other asks you if you like the new jacket that is obviously a treasured purchase. Honesty then collides with caring and while many would say, "It looks nice," the safer - and more honest - approach is to say, "I'm sorry but I really don't think it is right for you."

Diplomacy can involve holding your tongue but it can also require telling the truth with sugar on it because not to be candid is unfair, unethical, and harmful. When we lie for the sake of kindness, we frequently justify it by pretending that being brutally honest and insensitive is the only available alternative.

In our defense, there is a factor that is seldom considered: Time.

When pressed for a response, we may blurt out falsehoods or tired phrases that are the equivalent of lies because we have not had the chance to formulate an honest but caring response.
Since assembling the right words can take time, we need to stall by saying, "Please give me a few minutes. I need to sort out how I feel about this." Those are not weasel words. We do need to organize our feelings and the way we'll describe them.
It is sad to say, but many a lie has been told - and credibility subsequently lost - because a good person didn't take a few minutes out to word the truth.


Rowan Manahan said...

Couldn't resist allowing some luminaries of the past comment on this one Michael:

"A lie is an abomination unto the Lord and a very present help in trouble" (Adlai Stevenson)

"The system of organised lying on which society is founded." (George Orwell)

"Four-fifths of the perjury in the world is expended on tombstones, women and competitors." (Lord Thomas Dewar)

Michael Wade said...

I'll add those to my quote bank, Rowan. Good stuff!