White Lies?


Is lying always wrong? Of course not. There are plenty of occasions when it would be impolite, cruel or even dangerous to tell the “truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. There is the well-known phrase from the Thatcher era about “being economical with the truth.” Then there’s the quote from William Blake (the man who wrote “Jerusalem”) “A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.”

My own feeling is that there isn’t a simple division between truth and lies. It isn’t a straight either/or in most cases. There are shades or gradations of truthfulness and of course there are all sorts of reasons why someone doesn’t tell the exact truth. Here are just a few examples:

A friend has just bought a new dress and clearly is very taken with it. In all honesty you think it looks dreadful and does nothing for her appearance. What do you say? Unless you want to offend your pal you try to think of something non-commital. “Very nice” sounds feeble but you try to say something about the colour or the style that doesn’t sound too critical.

There are plenty of occasions when we don’t tell the exact truth to spare someone’s feelings. “I’m sorry I can’t come to your party I’ve a prior engagement,” (Of course I’m not the least bit sorry and all I have planned to do on the night of the party is to wash my hair and read a library book!)

On what sort of occasion would it be right to tell an out-and-out lie? The instances that spring immediately to mind are all from adventure stories: someone is fleeing for his life from a pack of armed assassins and is hidden in your house. Are you justified in telling the would-be murderers that he is not there? Of course you are!

In a recent story of mine an old lady writes to her sister saying she can’t come to visit her at Christmas because she has an invitation to spend the day with her daughter and her grandchildren. What she doesn’t mention is that she has told her daughter she has an invitation from her sister and so can’t come. Fortunately the two of them aren’t on speaking terms so there is no chance of the deception being found out. My old lady is then free to do what she really wants which is invite several of her elderly friends round to celebrate together.

A more serious dilemma comes when a patient is very ill and near to death. If the person asks how long he can expect to live what should a doctor say? I’ve always thought that in a situation like this I would want an honest answer telling me how much time I had left.

But if I were faced with telling a loved one they had only a short time to live, what would I do? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard so many tales of granddad or grandma being fooled into thinking they were getting better and could look forward to going home, when all the medical staff and the relatives knew they had no chance.



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