Photo: Thinkstock
I am opposed to lying. I am. I am opposed to lying on one's résumé, lying to beat the opposition, lying to conceal one's wrongdoing. I'm opposed to journalists making things up because they are too venal or too lazy to discover the truth. I am opposed to lying to do others harm, blackening someone's name or religion or practices through misinformation and innuendo. I am opposed to the crazy Holocaust deniers, and I am opposed to people who study the environment or child development and then go ahead and say that there is no global warming or that children raised by same-sex couples are less healthy than children who are raised by heterosexual couples (there is and they aren't).

But. There is the small lie, what behavioral scientist Wendy Gamble of the University of Arizona calls pro-social lying: lying to protect or help someone. And right next door to this is the other kind of not-bad lying: self-enhancement—lying to avoid embarrassment or punishment, not intended to hurt anyone else. If you are Immanuel Kant or Sissela Bok, both of whom know something about lying, every kind of lying erodes society because it means that one does not treat others as one wishes to be treated, i.e., without deception. On the other hand, Kant was the kind of guy who really felt that if a murderer came to your house demanding to know where your sister was, you should tell him the truth, thus serving the higher moral good of truth. I am glad that Immanuel Kant does not live in my neighborhood. Sissela Bok, on the other hand, would seem to be a pretty great addition to the neighborhood: elegant and, while fiercely moral, reasonably attentive to the practical. (And her writings about the dangers of exposing children to violence as entertainment will make you think twice about letting them watch anything except National Velvet and SpongeBob SquarePants.) Sissela Bok—unlike most women I know—would not even stoop to the white lie.

I am not opposed to white lies. I was raised by a woman who routinely said "Oh, I'd love to" when she didn't, and "Oh, I can't possibly" when she could. Colds, flat tires, sudden headaches, and sick children were regarded by my mother (and now, I'm sort of sorry to say, by me) as necessary moral speed bumps that made it possible to navigate social life. My father was the kind of guy who routinely told the truth ("Yes, that makes you look fat." "No, I don't give a damn." "No, you're not mistaken; you're an idiot"), not out of high moral principle but because it suited him; tact and the kindly gloss did not. He didn't have many friends, but people asked his advice in professional matters—because of that famous bluntness. And I seem to have wound up with my father's inclination to tell the truth and my mother's wish not to hurt people's feelings. Sometimes this leaves me stammering. And it has made me a great admirer of Judy Garland not only for her spectacular talent but also because after she saw a friend in a terrible play, she is supposed to have come into her friend's dressing room smiling, and said—without resorting to even the whitest lie—"How do you do it, my dear, night after night?"