When is a Lie Better than the Truth?


A Wave reader in West Ocean City writes:


Dear Dr. Hurd,

As a mother of three, I was delighted with last week’s article [Lying Can Be Hazardous to your Mental Health, 4/5/06]. I have tried to impress on my children that lying is a lot more than just ‘bad’ or a ‘sin’; I have tried to teach them that the long-term effect of lying can be stressful and emotionally unhealthy. I applaud your practical point of view! My question is this: Are there any conditions under which it is OK to lie? For example, you see TV cops lying to criminals to get them to confess, and I am sure there are other circumstances where a lie is justified. Can you clarify this for me (and for my kids)?


Dear Wave Reader,

People cannot be faulted for lying when they have no choice. For example, you mentioned the TV cops lying in order to get criminals to confess. If lying is instrumental in bringing a lawbreaker to justice, so be it. It’s up to the accused to not give in if they really are innocent. The same could be said for any type of criminal. What’s wrong with lying to Osama bin Laden? When criminals introduce physical force into the equation, then all bets are off. The greater good of bringing people to safety or saving an innocent life outweighs the respect that comes with telling the truth.

Are there situations in everyday life where it’s OK to lie? There are certainly innocent situations, such as lying to someone about a surprise party. The special condition attached to this scenario is that you know full well that they’ll know the truth in the near future. You’re counting on them to be happy that you lied to them. There is no fraud or illicit gain, and you’re doing something that you believe they’ll enjoy.

There are also situations where people are just rude or fail to mind their own business, such as a stranger asking unnecessarily personal questions. I don’t see any problem with lying under these conditions. You know for a fact that the information being requested is none of their business, and you have no desire to form an ongoing relationship with them. It doesn’t make sense to lie to people whose trust you value and appreciate. But with strangers, it simply doesn’t matter.

A lot of people ask me if it’s OK to lie to children. For example, if a child asks a question about a subject that you feel is inappropriate for his age, should you lie? I suggest not, because other options are available. You can simply say to the child, ‘That’s something we can’t talk about right now. There’s more you have to understand and we’ll talk about it in a few years.’ Or: ‘That’s personal between mommy and daddy. Some things are just that way.’ Postponing or deflecting is better than outright lying.

And there’s a bigger picture here: When you lie to your children, you’re teaching them that the truth can be changed simply by moving words around, while in reality, of course, it just isn’t so (apparently a lot of politicians were lied to as children’).

Also, beware when kids ask a question that’s more sophisticated than you expect—they’re likely more aware of the truth than you realize. For example, ‘Was I adopted?’ If the answer is yes, and you never said anything on the subject, don’t you think there might be some reason why the question comes up now? Lying in this situation would be a terrible mistake.

It’s very easy to rationalize a lie. For example, I wrote at the start of this article that it’s OK to lie if you don’t have a choice. Law enforcement officials dealing with terrorists or other violent criminals don’t have much of a choice when physical safety is involved—somebody might die if they don’t lie. But in everyday situations you might rationalize by saying, ‘Oh, I have to lie, because I don’t have a choice. She’ll be really angry and upset if I tell her.’ So what? Just because somebody might be angry or upset is no reason to lie. It’s just heaping one insult on top of another. It’s a lot healthier to face the music and live in reality than to play ‘let’s pretend.’ Another common rationalization for lying (and being found out) is, ‘I was only joking.’ This is the coward’s way out. Jokes can be funny, but falsehoods to people you care about are not.

So, there are, indeed, certain occasions when the truth doesn’t matter as much as your physical safety or personal privacy. Beyond that, honesty still remains the best policy. It not only grants you immunity to the threat of ever being ‘found out,’ but also secures the trust of those who matter to you. That’s more precious—and psychologically beneficial—than the short-term advantage a lie could ever bring.