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.