White Lies

Back­ground: As can be seen from some of the com­ments on this post, many peo­ple in the LessWrong com­mu­nity take an ex­treme stance on ly­ing. A few days be­fore I posted this, I was at a meetup where we played the game Re­sis­tance, and one guy an­nounced be­fore the game be­gan that he had a policy of never ly­ing even when play­ing games like that. It’s such mem­bers of the LessWrong com­mu­nity that this post was writ­ten for. I’m not try­ing to en­courage ba­si­cally hon­est peo­ple with the nor­mal view of white lies that they need to give up be­ing ba­si­cally hon­est.


Mr. Pot­ter, you some­times make a game of ly­ing with truths, play­ing with words to con­ceal your mean­ings in plain sight. I, too, have been known to find that amus­ing. But if I so much as tell you what I hope we shall do this day, Mr. Pot­ter, you will lie about it. You will lie straight out, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, with­out word­play or hints, to any­one who asks about it, be they foe or clos­est friend. You will lie to Malfoy, to Granger, and to McGon­a­gall. You will speak, always and with­out hes­i­ta­tion, in ex­actly the fash­ion you would speak if you knew noth­ing, with no con­cern for your honor. That also is how it must be.

- Ra­tional!Quir­rell, Harry Pot­ter and the Meth­ods of Rationality

This post isn’t about HMPOR, so I won’t com­ment on the fic­tional situ­a­tion the quote comes from. But in many real-world situ­a­tions, it’s ex­cel­lent ad­vice.

If you’re a gay teenager with ho­mo­pho­bic par­ents, and there’s a real chance they’d throw you out on the street if they found out you were gay, you should prob­a­bly lie to them about it. Even in col­lege, if you’re still fi­nan­cially de­pen­dent on them, I think it’s okay to lie. The minute you’re no longer fi­nan­cially de­pen­dent on them, you should ab­solutely come out for your sake and the sake of the world. But it’s OK to lie if you need to to keep your ed­u­ca­tion on-track.

Oh, maybe you could get away with just shut­ting up and hop­ing the topic doesn’t come up. When asked about dat­ing, you could try to evade while be­ing tech­ni­cally truth­ful: “There just aren’t any girls at my school I re­ally like.” “What about _____? Why don’t you ask her out?” “We’re just friends.” That might work. But when asked di­rectly “are you gay?” and the wrong an­swer could se­ri­ously screw-up your life, I wouldn’t bet too much on your abil­ity to “lie with truths,” as Quir­rell would say.

I start with this ex­am­ple be­cause the dis­cus­sions I’ve seen on the ethics of ly­ing on LessWrong (and ev­ery­where, ac­tu­ally) tend to fo­cus on the ex­treme cases: the now-cliché “Nazis at the door” ex­am­ple, or even dis­cus­sion of whether you’d lie with the world at stake. The “teen with ho­mo­pho­bic par­ents” case, on the other hand, might have ac­tu­ally hap­pened to some­one you know. But even this case is ex­treme com­pared to most of the lies peo­ple tell on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Widely-cited statis­tics claim that the av­er­age per­son lies once per day. I re­cently saw a new study (that I can’t find at the mo­ment) that dis­puted this, and claimed most peo­ple lie rather less of­ten than that, but it still found most peo­ple lie fairly of­ten. Th­ese lies are mostly “white lies” to, say, spare oth­ers’ feel­ings. Most peo­ple have no qualms about those kind of lies. So why do dis­cus­sions of the ethics of ly­ing so of­ten fo­cus on the ex­treme cases, as if those were the only ones where ly­ing is maybe pos­si­bly morally per­mis­si­ble?

At LessWrong there’ve been dis­cus­sions of sev­eral differ­ent views all de­scribed as “rad­i­cal hon­esty.” No one I know of, though, has ad­vo­cated Rad­i­cal Hon­esty as defined by psy­chother­a­pist Brad Blan­ton, which (among other things) de­mands that peo­ple share ev­ery nega­tive thought they have about other peo­ple. (If you haven’t, I recom­mend read­ing A. J. Ja­cobs on Blan­ton’s move­ment.) While I’m glad no one here is thinks Blan­ton’s ver­sion of rad­i­cal hon­esty is a good idea, a strict no-lies policy can some­times have effects that are just as dis­as­trous.

A few years ago, for ex­am­ple, when I went to see the play my girlfriend had done stage crew for, and she asked what I thought of it. She wasn’t satis­fied with my ini­tial non­com­mit­tal an­swers, so she pressed for more. Not in a “try­ing to start a fight” way; I just wasn’t do­ing a good job of be­ing eva­sive. I even­tu­ally gave in and ex­plained why I thought the act­ing had sucked, which did not make her happy. I think in­ci­dents like that must have con­tributed to our break­ing up shortly there­after. The breakup was a good thing for other rea­sons, but I still re­gret not ly­ing to her about what I thought of the play.

Yes, there are prob­a­bly things I could’ve said in that situ­a­tion that would have been not-lies and also would have avoided up­set­ting her. Sam Har­ris, in his book Ly­ing, spends a lot of ar­gu­ing against ly­ing in that way: he takes situ­a­tions where most peo­ple would be tempted to tell a white lie, and sug­gest­ing ways around it. But for that to work, you need to be good at strik­ing the del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween say­ing too lit­tle and say­ing too much, and fram­ing hard truths diplo­mat­i­cally. Are peo­ple who lie be­cause they lack that skill re­ally less moral than peo­ple who are able to avoid ly­ing be­cause they have it?

No­tice the sig­nal­ing is­sue here: Sam Har­ris’ book is a sub­tle brag that he has the skills to tell peo­ple the truth with­out too much back­lash. This is es­pe­cially true when Har­ris gives ex­am­ples from his own life, like the time he told a friend “No one would ever call you ‘fat,’ but I think you could prob­a­bly lose twenty-five pounds.” and his friend went and did it rather than get­ting an­gry. Con­spicu­ous hon­esty also over­laps with con­spicu­ous out­rage, the sig­nal­ing move that an­nounces (as Steven Pinker put it) “I’m so tal­ented, wealthy, pop­u­lar, or well-con­nected that I can af­ford to offend you.”

If you’re highly averse to ly­ing, I’m not go­ing to spend a lot of time try­ing to con­vince you to tell white lies more of­ten. But I will im­plore you to do one thing: ac­cept other peo­ple’s right to lie to you. About some top­ics, any­way. Ac­cept that some things are none of your busi­ness, and some­times that in­cludes the fact that there’s some­thing which is none of your busi­ness.

Or: sup­pose you ask some­one for some­thing, they say “no,” and you sus­pect their rea­son for say­ing “no” is a lie. When that hap­pens, don’t get mad or press them for the real rea­son. Among other things, they may be op­er­at­ing on the as­sump­tions of guess cul­ture, where your re­quest means you strongly ex­pected a “yes” and you might not think their real rea­son for say­ing “no” was good enough. Maybe you know you’d take an hon­est re­fusal well (even if it’s “I don’t want to and don’t think I owe you that”), but they don’t nec­es­sar­ily know that. And maybe you think you’d take an hon­est re­fusal well, but what if you’re ly­ing to your­self?

If it helps to be more con­crete: Some men will re­act badly to be­ing turned down for a date. Some women too, but prob­a­bly more men, so I’ll make this gen­dered. And also be­cause deal­ing with some­one who won’t take “no” for an an­swer is a scarier ex­pe­rience with the asker is a man and the per­son say­ing “no” is a woman. So I sym­pa­thize with women who give made-up rea­sons for say­ing “no” to dates, to make say­ing “no” eas­ier.

Is it always the wis­est de­ci­sion? Prob­a­bly not. But some­times, I sus­pect, it is. And I’d ad­vise men to ac­cept that women do­ing that is OK. Not only that, I wouldn’t want to be part of a com­mu­nity with lots of men who didn’t get things like that. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind when I say to re­spect other peo­ple’s right to lie to you.

All this needs the dis­claimer that some do­mains should be lie-free zones. I value the truth and de­spise those who would cor­rupt in­tel­lec­tual dis­course with lies. Or, as Eliezer once put it:

We be­lieve that sci­en­tists should always tell the whole truth about sci­ence. It’s one thing to lie in ev­ery­day life, lie to your boss, lie to the po­lice, lie to your lover; but who­ever lies in a jour­nal ar­ti­cle is guilty of ut­ter heresy and will be ex­com­mu­ni­cated.

I worry this post will be dis­missed as triv­ial. I si­mul­ta­neously worry that, even with the above dis­claimer, some­one is go­ing to re­spond, “Chris ad­mits to think­ing ly­ing is of­ten okay, now we can’t trust any­thing he says!” If you’re think­ing of say­ing that, that’s your prob­lem, not mine. Most peo­ple will lie to you oc­ca­sion­ally, and if you get up­set about it you’re set­ting your­self up for a lot of un­hap­piness. And re­fus­ing to trust some­one who lies some­times isn’t ac­tu­ally very ra­tio­nal; all but the most pro­lific liars don’t lie any­thing like half the time, so what they say is still sig­nifi­cant ev­i­dence, most of the time. (Maybe such dec­la­ra­tions-of-re­fusal-to-trust shouldn’t be taken as ar­gu­ments so much as threats meant to co­erce more hon­esty than most peo­ple feel bound to give.)

On the other hand, if we ever meet in per­son, I hope you re­al­ize I might lie to you. Failure to re­al­ize a state­ment could be a white lie can cre­ate some ter­ribly awk­ward situ­a­tions.

Edits: Changed ti­tle, added back­ground, clar­ified the sec­tion on ac­cept­ing other peo­ple’s right to lie to you (partly cut­ting and past­ing from this com­ment).

Edit round 2: Added link to pa­per sup­port­ing claim that the av­er­age per­son lies once per day.