Sunday, 12 February 2012

The truth... with no salt.

From a Lifehacker "Ask the Readers" column entitled "When Is It Appropriate to Fake a Phone Call?":
Sometimes we want to be ignored, and our phones do a great job at isolating us from the world. But is it appropriate to fake a phone call just to ignore someone, or should we approach that confrontation head on?
 I was a little disappointed (yet not surprised) when I first read this.  My immediate reaction to this is never-even-though-I-may-do-it-myself.  Appropriateness is only one of the reasons why we do things and although my opinion is that it is not really appropriate to do it, I may find myself resorting to such measures occasionally.

It's basically lying, right?  We all know lying is wrong.  I think most of us think that lying is wrong "just because".  It almost is.  There's not much more to the wrongness of lying beyond the lying part.  Lying is wrong because it's an untruth.  Truth is valuable is untruths are not.  Untruths in the place of truths, i.e. lying when someone thinks you are telling the truth, is harmful.

We all live our lives based on information:  information we take to be true.  When driving through the city, you assume that it is true that the traffic lights are going to be helping you, the other drivers and the pedestrians take turns moving through the same space.  You assume that the information your teachers and/or parents tell you is true.  If you read a non-fiction book or article, you assume the information is correct and true.  In all these cases, you can see quite clearly that, if the assumption of truth was misplaced, obvious harm could be done to you or the ones around you.  There would be traffic accidents, wasted time and money, broken trust, embarrassment, and more incorrect assumptions that could lead to further harm.

But maybe we don't need to worry about minor "white lies"?  Perhaps not.  There's no obvious immediate harm done when telling someone that "those pants don't make you look fat" or in pretending to be in a conversation on the phone to avoid an unpleasant situation.  In fact, there are immediate rewards for doing so:  compliments always make people feel good, and it's great to avoid discomfort, particularly social discomfort.

However, white lies build up.  The more people dishonestly tell you that those pants look good on you, the more likely you are to wear them in situations in which looking good is your goal.  If actually looking good is required in these situations (and not merely thinking that you look good), then you will not only fail but perhaps do so without being able to understand the reason why afterward, increasing your chances of failing again in the future.

I'm certainly not advocating complete universal honesty.  And I'm not going to stop telling you your pants look amazing.  But suggesting that such socially necessary lying might be appropriate because of practical concerns is certainly inappropriate.  If we are going to lie to others, the least we can do is be honest with ourselves when we do it.  It's a lie.  It might lead to harm.  It might be contributing to a greater harm than we think.  Take responsibility for your choice.

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