Honesty: good. Hurting people: bad. So when should you speak up?
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?"
With almost everything we say, the near truth, the white lie, the better-left-unsaid, it seems to me that we can steer a pretty clear course, humanely, if not always according to Kantian principles (and remember where Kant left us when the murderer knocked at the door), by following the Buddhists. Their principle is, before you say anything, ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it useful?
I am not a Buddhist. I don't even feel comfortable asserting that. It's like saying, "I'm not a supermodel," suggesting that although you might have mistaken me for one because of some obvious points of similarity, I want you to know that I am actually not one. Certainly, I am no further from being a Buddhist than I am from being a supermodel. But I know a good idea when I hear one. Of course, the first time I heard this, I thought not "Good idea," but "My God, I will never be able to speak again." I was able to edge up on it by thinking about what good advice it would be for the people I saw in my psychotherapy practice. I thought about what good advice it was for my sister, too. And it wasn't too late to suggest it to my mother, either. And at some point—maybe when a friend asked me if I thought her husband was cheating on her (I did and he was) or when another asked me if I thought she was the best candidate for a certain job (I thought she wasn't, but she got it anyway and I was glad)—I started taking my remarks through those three arches. I do see them as these glimmering arches in a flat, desertlike landscape; I see my remarks as a rather tattered caravan: the not unkind, possibly necessary truths in front, looking good; the unkind truths next, trying to look better than they are, moral banners flying; and the kind, possibly necessary but definitely not true ("Yes, honey, I think if you practice every day, you could be the best trombonist in the sixth grade") bringing up the rear, hopeful and worthy of consideration.
The arches now save me a lot of time, and they make some sentences completely impossible. I have also decided, in the interest of continuing to be who I am and to have a life, to allow myself to shoot for two out of three. Even this helps. The merely true ("If you and I were the last man and woman on earth, the human race would die out") can't even get to first base. It means I have to take a look at the kind, to make sure that it's useful or true, too, and that I'm not just lobbing a big gumdrop ("Oh, I had no idea you were so gentle and modest, Mr. Trump!") to suck up or make myself look good. I have to keep in mind that manipulation is not a necessity, unless you choose to live your life like you're a reality-TV contestant, in which case, what the hell do you care for kind or true? Even useful turns out to require some real thought. (Useful to whom?)
Mark Twain wrote in "On the Decay of the Art of Lying": "An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered." Let us have less of Kant, more of Twain, and put absolutely useful first, kindness second, and let truth show a respectable third.