Why white lies aren’t as innocent as you might think

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If somebody you dislike invites you to their house for drinks, is it morally acceptable to blankly refuse, ruthlessly stomping all over their feelings by doing so?

Lying is a near-universal sin among humans. As selfish animals for which some kind of personal gain is usually the priority, society would cease to function if nobody told each other the truth. Trade agreements would fail, employment would become untenable, and personal relationships would crumble like a squeezed croissant.

It simply isn’t possible to get along with each other unless we’re honest. And yet, white lies – those little deceptions that are usually for the sake of the recipient’s feelings – are considered by many as an appropriate and just action. Why upset someone unnecessarily when we can express a small white fib?

Though seemingly innocuous, white lies can be equally as insidious as their black counterparts, for a number of reasons.

Erosion of trust

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Trust is the foundation of all human relationships, which when taken away, totters like an alcoholic during a bender, waiting for the inevitable crash.

Any kind of lie, white or otherwise, comes with a risk of being discovered. If that happens, trust is diminished, weakening the relationship in turn. Having a conversation with somebody after you’ve found out that they’ve lied about something is unpleasant, and soon enough, you probably won’t want them around at all. Every word that leaves their lips has become tinged with doubt; every action a little more questionable. Their once stellar credibility has been darkened.

Over time, lying destroys human connection, even when acted out of supposed beneficence. Every time you tell an obvious white lie, the person is forced to reevaluate how trustworthy you are, causing serious damage to the relationship.

While you may not want to form a relationship with certain people, lying to them is still a bad idea because they might squeal to others about your lack of authenticity, tarnishing your reputation. It’s tempting to make up a false excuse in response to the unwanted drinks invite mentioned above, but if the little white lie is recognised, your good social standing may be at risk, which is an absolute requirement for survival in our socially-driven species.

You’re depriving people of the truth

White lies can be imbued with arrogance. What makes you so confident that the recipient of the lie can’t handle the truth? Deceit takes away their freedom to make an informed decision about the matter concerned – it’s hardly fair that you make that decision for them, like some kind of unwanted parental figure. Their choice may be entirely different to yours.

As naturally subjective creatures, our understanding of the truth isn’t always accurate, but it’s a damn-sight closer to the truth than a lie. Though white lies can have the benefit of preventing hurt feelings, as adults we should be fully aware that life is tough, and sometimes pain is required in order to learn and grow. Lying to protect someone’s feelings is treating them like a child who doesn’t have the mental capacity to deal with adversity.

In addition to this, a person who discovers that they’ve been lied to might start regarding themselves as someone who doesn’t deserve the truth, instilling a destructive unworthiness in which they doubt their own ability to make decisions.

Lies persist

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” —Mark Twain

“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar” —Abraham Lincoln

White lies aren’t told and then conveniently forgotten. They remain for a lifetime. If you’re a consistent white liar, you’d better have an amazing memory, otherwise you will be caught out eventually. Having to quickly remember and repeat lies can be a  stressful experience; worse still, more lies may be needed in order to support the original, creating a gargantuan, sticky web that requires more and more work to maintain. Telling the truth requires none of this.

You’re acting like a fraud

“Every liar says the opposite of what he thinks in his heart, with purpose to deceive.” —Saint Augustine, The Enchiridon

We each have our desires and preferences, and going against them feels undeniably wrong. Truth, on the other hand, is like swimming with the current. Forgoing a white lie can be undoubtedly uncomfortable, but at least you’re acting in the way that is most agreeable to you; in a manner that is 100% you.

The soul that resides in your fleshy ensemble is beautifully unique, giving rise to one-of-a-kind expression and behaviour. Lies impede your originality, slowly turning you into a boring conformist, living a life that everyone else is happy with aside from you.

Lying also burdens us with cognitive dissonance, that disagreeable feeling we get when our actions don’t match our beliefs. Routine liars are likely to experience this unnecessary, guilt-ridden discomfort whenever they lie, with each deceitful sentence being accompanied by a jolly good bit of mental self-flagellation.

Self corruption

Bad habits are easily formed. One small white lie, seemingly harmless, leads to another white lie, eventually assembling an unstoppable 2-tonne snowball of destructive deceit. Indulging in wrong-doing becomes quickly comfortable, making other types of immoral behaviour effortless. Slowly but surely, your once grand character is warped into that of an unloveable scoundrel, with whom nobody wants to take on a lovely dinner date.

We’re being selfish

Though lying is often distressing, telling white lies can also be extremely uncomfortable, because you’re revealing a potentially unpleasant truth to the recipient. We might selfishly decide that we’re prefer the discomfort of the lie over the discomfort of the truth.

The truth might also have drastic, life-changing consequences, which we’re not willing to undertake. Consider the wife who has long fallen out of love with her husband, yet continues to declare her love for him daily, because she doesn’t want to destroy his feelings or face the reality of a painful divorce. Though this is perhaps a little extreme to be classified as a white lie, some part of the deception is to protect the husband’s feelings, while deterring an agonising breakup. She’s selfishly lying in order to achieve her own purpose.

Society suffers

Honesty is the glue that holds society together, and lying the crowbar that can pry it apart. We learn what’s acceptable from others, so each lie becomes tacit approval to copy the behaviour. With enough people lying, nobody can truly trust anyone, and society crumbles into non-cooperative anarchy, Mad Max style.

Given the complexity of our world, it can also be difficult to predict the full effects of a lie. Every situation contains a plethora of factors and outcomes that cannot be determined and calculated by our paltry brains. A small white lie might result in detrimental long-term effects that can’t possibly be guessed.

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Lying, white or otherwise, can have far-reaching and devastating effects on our lives. The only time that lying is acceptable is to deter a serious, immediate threat to somebody’s life, as when an axe-murderer asks whether you’re hiding their intended victim, or when a ledge-skirting, suicidal stockbroker asks you whether their life is worth living. Aside from these extreme and (hopefully) rare situations, it’s better to tell the often uncomfortable truth.

White lies are a short-lived solution, with the potential to diminish your integrity, and the integrity of society as a whole. Honesty, though difficult and requiring a good deal of courage, is truly the best policy.