(featured image: Will Temple/Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Our morality is not quite so black-and-white as we sometimes like to believe
One of my earliest memories, I must have been four or five, is when my mother, to her embarrassment, forgot her hairdresser’s appointment. As she rang to make a new one, she made up an excuse for missing it, involving a wholly fictitious sudden illness of my baby sister. “Isn’t that lying?”, I asked her as she put the phone down. That was the moment my moral compass acquired the notion of the white lie.
I like to think that I have not abused the concept in the many years since that time, but I would be lying if I said I have never used it. (Strangely, I cannot quite recall any particular instance at this very moment, though that may well be a case of motivated amnesia.) Nevertheless, the lesson my parents and other educators tried to instil in my youthful person – that lying is wrong – still dominates my sense of morality, and that view is one I most likely share with the vast majority of my fellow humans throughout the ages, regardless of their nationality or culture.
Lying is wrong, except when it isn’t
It is not hard to see why lying seems to be universally condemned. A community in which lying would be the norm, or more precisely, in which adherence to the truth was optional (so you would never know whether someone was truthful or not) would have a hard time functioning effectively. Trust would be non-existent, and cooperation or long-term plans (for which one needs to be able to rely on promises others make) would be almost impossible. The evolutionary imperative to be trustworthy, and therefore to be truthful, is as obvious as it is strong.
But at the same time, it is odd that we seem unable to consistently apply this. Psychologist Bella DePaulo found that it is not untypical for people to clock up a couple of lies every single day. These could be like my mother’s white lie and the ambiguity of “No, your bum doesn’t look big in this (…well it depends what you call big, I’ve seen bigger)” to technically-not-a-lie like “Yes, I did go to Harvard (…but as a tourist)” and being economical with the truth, all the way to full-blown lies (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). In almost all situations where we – or ‘someone’, let’s not get too personal – resorts to deception, there is some kind of justification, extenuating circumstances that take the sharp edges off, and soothing the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise be experienced when breaking one’s moral code. Sometimes this relates to what is being said or implied (perhaps the untruth is not that far from the truth, or it could very well have been true). Sometimes it also relates to the result (another person’s welfare is enhanced or safeguarded).
Levine focuses specifically on deception, and takes it out of the laboratory setting and into routine interaction, where things can be much fuzzier. For example, a liar’s motives may not always be clearly either self-serving or benevolent – is false praise inspired by concern for the target, or for the deceiver’s own reputation? The nature of the relationship (if, indeed, there is one) between the deceiver and the deceived is also likely to play a role in the judgement. Everyday lies are found to be well-reasoned, intentional acts, and justified when telling the truth would have little or no instrumental value, and would harm the target.
It seems there is some system to this second justification. Despite broadly condemning deception as a rule, people actually perceive it as ethical when it prevents unnecessary harm, according to new research by Emma Levine, a professor of behavioural science at Chicago University. When benevolence and honesty are in conflict, the former seems to have the upper hand, and functions as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
To establish how people concretize unnecessary harm in practice, she asked some of the research participants to give examples where they would they prefer to be lied to (e.g., when their dog died through being hit by a negligent driver, being told it died peacefully in its sleep). Others were asked for concrete instances where they themselves would consider lying as ethical (e.g., temporarily withholding distressing information from a friend, to avoid compromising her result on an imminent exam).
From this input, the author distilled eight distinct community standards over three dimensions (the deceived person, the subject and the context). People consider it acceptable to lie to people who are emotionally fragile, do not have the capacity to understand the truth, or are at the end of their life. Lying is considered as ethical if it concerns subjective or trivial information, or information about what cannot be controlled. And it is also OK to lie if the truth would disrupt special events or moments, or if it would embarrass someone in front of others. The avoidance of unnecessary harm is a common thread across all eight.
Levine then empirically tested the framework in two ways. Presented with prepared scenarios and vignettes, participants took different perspectives to judge the right action (as deceiver – “I should lie”, observer – “Others should lie”, andtarget – “Others should lie to me”). In addition, she asked participants to relate real situations in which they – perhaps reluctantly – deceived another person, and rate their actions according to the same key variables (whether telling the truth was instrumental, and whether it would cause harm). This confirmed the validity of the unnecessary harm framework.
Her conclusion is that there are clear conditions under which people systematically endorse (and indeed practise) deception. In those circumstances, people consider deceiving another person as more ethical than honesty, and people prefer to be lied over being told the truth.
While, superficially, morality may seem to be a matter of somewhat simplistic and rigid rules – like lying is wrong – our personal ethics appear to be much more nuanced and pragmatic. In practice, we are quite capable of considering the consequences of strictly applying those rules, take into account the trade-offs involved and, where necessary, at the very least bend the rules.
But this research focused on unnecessary harm to others. What of the self-serving white lie from the beginning of this piece? Arguably the very same reasoning is at play here. The instrumental value of revealing that my mother plainly forgot her appointment was very low: it is hard to see what material benefit it would have given the hairdresser. At the same time, telling the truth rather than pretending my sister was ill would have led to uncomfortable embarrassment for her.
Perhaps, deep down, we are all utilitarians.