Sunday, April 10, 2011


Today in Elders' Quorum, the topic was honesty. Through most of it, the teacher said fairly uncontroversial things, which was good because the Stake President was there.

Near the end, however, he brought up the subject of why people think it is OK or necessary to lie. The obvious ones came out quickly (e.g. to get ahead, to conceal something, to hurt someone), but I think that there are many reasons that I lie that seem less malevolent.

1. Humor: Sometimes lying is funny. I have been known to tell people that I used to be a World Champion African Stick Dancer but broke my knee in the 7th grade (when I was being chased down by an angry group of Tanzanian rebels)... and it would go on from there until it got so ridiculous that the person I'm talking to realizing that it is a lie. You would be surprised, by the way, on how far you can get before people will call you on it. You would be astounded on how much farther you can get if you insist on it even after they call you on it the first time. I think this is funny but harmless.

2. Convenience: Sometimes it is just easier to say one thing when another is more accurate. For example, I sing in a choir that meets twice a week in the evenings. Often, I'm asked by people if I'm free during that time. If I say I have choir, this often leads to a longer conversation about my choir that I don't want to have because I have other things to do. In fact, they probably don't even care to know about my choir, but they are obligated to ask if I mention it. So I usually tell people I have class, though technically it's not like a class that you register for and stuff.

3. Telling stories: It is relatively common to hear people say that you shouldn't let the truth get in the way of a good story. I don't mean that you should tell stories that are completely not true and pass them off as truth, but oftentimes the details just get in the way. So if a story is actually about my brother-in-law's second cousin's dog, in my version, it will usually be my cousin's dog. Or if the timing of a story would require less explaining if the whole thing happened over the course of a week instead of a month or a day, it will happen over a week. (If the most important part of the story is that it happened over a week, then I don't change that part, but if explaining the characters or setting of the story is noncrucial, and it turns a 15 second story into a 30 second story, I think an adjustment makes everyone better off.)

4. Avoiding hurt feelings: People sometimes call me and I'm still in bed and I try really hard to have a normal voice when I answer the phone, but usually I fail. Then they ask if they woke me up, and I say "No I've been up for a little while now." This makes them feel better and it makes it so we don't spend the whole conversation with them apologizing for pulling me out of bed. Really, I reject about 90% of the calls that come through my phone. If I answer, you shouldn't feel bad; you should be flattered that I wanted to talk to you. You are more important than sleep or anything else that I could be doing right then. (On the other hand, if you call and I don't pick up, you shouldn't feel bad either. I don't like talking on my phone if there is anyone within 20 feet of me, so if I don't answer, I'm probably in some crowded place (like class or something).)

I'm sure that there are lots of other justifications. My general view was that when it comes to lying, I follow the "no harm, no foul" principle. However, remember how I said the Stake President was there for this meeting? After my comment, he raised his hand and pretty much called me to repentance. All of his words were generally addressing the quorum, but he just looked straight at me the whole time.

He seems to think that Honesty is a virtue unto itself and that we should try to be completely honest even when our dishonesty is not hurting anyone. I suppose I can see where he is coming from. I need to think about it a little more though.


Meridith said...

I agree. I kept quiet during our lesson on honesty, but I think there are several circumstances in which it is appropriate to lie.

I must need to repent as well.

Gil and Marin said...

These are great reasons to lie. I could add a few myself: (1) to make a point (this is the third time I've tried to return this item at wal-mart); (2) to add emphasis on how much you like something (the best lemon meringue pie I've ever eaten); (3) to show how much you want someone to have a good life (I'm praying for you); (4) to avoid taxes (just kidding. I totally tricked you--this isn't a good reason to lie).

Christian said...

I will say the more situations and the more casual you get with bending the truth for ease of conversation, the easier it gets to define ease more and more broadly and be being generally less honest and in some sense less yourself (or at least your honest self) around people.
That said, I think there's totally space for temperance and moderation, even in lying, allowing that some lies really can be better than telling the truth.

Momma said...

I think it is important to be honest in all your dealings with your fellow men.
So when I am the dealer, you can be confident in my honesty.
Likewise, if I make a deal with you. Particularly if you are a fellow man. Umm --or a manly fellow.

Man o Steel said...

I always get in trouble with this issue (four times off the top of my head and twice with girls). Wikipedia has an article on virtue ethics that voiced most of my thoughts on the issue.

mlh said...

I totally got out of teaching this lesson, which was more nail-biting to prepare for than anything else. 100% honesty is really, really hard. I think a lot of it comes down to golden-rule kind of stuff and then tracing the consequences of the lie. For example, I once spent a very entertaining Sabbath pretending I was a Slovenian exchange student at Jamie's ward, which was a delight and harmless...until I moved into that ward next summer.