As an adolescent my parents immersed me in the old time gospel religion. I’m grateful that memorization of scripture was a part of my indoctrination. To this date I am able to dredge from my memory biblical verses (often contradictory) to confound true believers. Of course, memorizing psalms and commandments was obligatory. I began to be aware that the ten commandments were ideals to strive for and live by. The fact that no one is able to completely follow these demands no longer bothers me.
Recently my brother-in-law posed an ethical question that involved one of the commandments. As a physician, he was asked by the family of a terminal patient to lie about the unfavorable prognosis. This evoked a spirited discussion about telling lies. In a previous blog I suggested that without truth there can be no trust. Without trust the fabric of society becomes frayed. Yet, lying is frequent and studies indicate that everybody does it. The commandment says, “Thou shall not bear false witness.” I always believed that this meant that one should not tell falsehoods. Why would a knowing God demand something of his children that they find very difficult to do? I went back to read the commandment again and found it to be more specific. It is not a blanket condemnation of telling untruths. It only condemns the giving of false testimony against another person.
To single out a specific form of lying suggests that there might be a variety of falsehoods. Some might even have positive moral value. Persons who hid Jews during the nazi regime had to lie about their activity. I believe that everyone would agree that telling a lie to save someone’s life or prevent severe bodily harm to another may be an act of virtue. This is in sharp contrast to malicious falsehoods deliberately designed to be destructive to another person. In my opinion such activity is clearly wrong and merits condemnation.
There are so many ways we distort the truth. Little white lies are usually harmless. Haven’t most of us used these as explanations as to why we could not meet some social obligation? Children blame the dog for eating their homework. Then, there is the grand deception perpetrated upon our children in the form of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Furthermore, to avoid hurting someone we tend to not be candid. Rarely would we tell someone that they are ugly. Flattery might be included as a distortion of the truth. Also when someone is bragging they are usually twisting the facts. As a wise men once said, “The older I get the better I was.” Studies indicate that aging people tend to cast their lives in a more favorable fashion than they really were. I have observed that insecure males often embellish their exploits to impress women. We could mention many other types of lying and the motives for not being truthful. Each of you can create your own list.
During our conversation my brother-in-law made an interesting comment. Since all of us engage in telling little harmless lies, perhaps we should teach our children that white lies can be appropriate but should be used sparingly. Also children need to learn the difference between lies that serve as social facilitators and lies that are destructive and malicious. This seems more realistic than telling them they should always tell the truth. What do you think?