Essay No. 62:
White Lies: A lie is the uttering of what we know to be false with intent to deceive. Note the two elements. A novel is not a lie, for, though it is fiction, it does not intend to deceive; the ancient teaching that the earth was flat was not a lie, because it was not then known to be false.
Can a lie ever be justified? Some would say never. But the question is not so easily answered: Take a case like this. A friend, in times of persecution and danger, takes refuge in your house and begs you to hide him. You take him in, and promise you will not reveals his hiding-place to his enemies. They come to your house in search of him and ask you if he is there.
What are you to do? If you say yes, you break your promise and betray your friend; if you say “no”, you tell a lie. Difficult, is it not? Probably most would agree that a lie in such circumstances would be what is called a white lie; that is, an innocent lie.
In this example, there is a conflict between two loyalties: between loyalty to the truth and loyalty to a friend and a promise. The lie will be condemned or justified according to which of these two loyalties comes first in one’s mind.
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But what are we to say about the white lies so common in polite society? For example, someone whom you heartily dislike pays you a visit. How do you meet him? You tell him you are delighted to see him (lie number one). When, after a pleasant chat he rises to go, and you tell him you are sorry he cannot stay longer (lie number two), and that you hope will soon come again (lie number three). and so on. White lies of this kind are told every day by good and even religious people; people who would scorn to “tell a lie”.
Well, such white lies are also due to a conflict between different loyalties. There is, again, loyalty to strict truth, and loyalty to kindness and politeness. To tell the strict truth on all occasions may sometimes mean sinning against charity. Is it better or be rude and unkind in loyalty to truth, or to sacrifice truth to the law of kindness and politeness? It is not easy to decide.