“Does this dress make me look fat?”
Ah, the classic scenario in which bae asks you if her dress compliments her figure. The question translates roughly to the command, “you’d better tell me that I look good”. Gentlemen: regardless of how she may look, if you know what’s good for you, there is only ever one correct answer.
In the best case scenario, white lies allow us to remain respectful, sensitive, and benevolent towards the emotional welfare of others with zero negative consequences. The problem is that we can rarely be certain about when or how a white lie will yield negative consequences. Hollywood has made a decent bankroll on plots in which Liar McPantsOnFire tells a white lie for short-term gain. That white lie then snowballs into a catastrophe of deception, and in the end, Mr. McPantsOnFire is forced to confess and pleads with his romantic interest to not think he’s a complete loser (he is).
Reality tends to be a bit more savage than those entertaining-yet-cheeseball flicks. If I tell a close friend that he’s got a great shot at landing a job at that fortune 500 company, and in fact, I know that he has no chance at getting the job, then to what extent am I responsible for his emotional suffering when he inevitably gets rejected?
It’s easy to wash my hands of any and all responsibility in this scenario. I could say that I was just trying to be supportive and that he shouldn’t be so naive… and I might be correct in saying so. But if I had been tactfully honest with my friend, telling him that I think he should improve his education, certification, networking, and professional skills before applying to a fortune 500 company, he very well may have heeded my advice, and in doing so, my honesty may have prevented his high hopes and the subsequent emotional pain of his rejection.
Now, I’ll try to get a bit more technical and hopefully not bore you to death. There are three main components of ethics: intention, action, and effect. Intention refers to a party’s conscious personal reason (or set of personal reasons) for carrying out an action. Intention is based on a party’s will to bring about an effect (or set of effects). Action refers to a party’s physical movement (or set of physical movements), which can be accidental or deliberate. Effect refers to the change in reality that is directly caused by an action (or set of actions). In moral evaluation, some believe that only intention matters, others believe that only effect matters, and other others assign varying values to two or three of the components. Very few believe that only the action matters, as this position is virtually impossible to defend. Like most people, I tend to believe that all three are significant, with the greatest value placed upon intention.
Now let’s examine how each component helps us better understand the morality of me telling a white lie to my friend who has no chance at landing the fortune 500 job. My intention in telling the white lie was to be supportive and encouraging about his job prospects. At face value, this checks out as A-OK. My action of telling the white lie is deliberate and successful. The morality of the action is less clear and very much debatable. The effect of the white lie is the most obvious issue here. Because he trusted my input, he went into the interview with high hopes and left with his dreams crushed.
If intention were all that mattered, then my white lie seems as moral as the life of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, that’s not gonna work here. It’s clear that I played some role in the production of negative consequences – namely, the emotional suffering of my friend, and thus, intention alone doesn’t get me off the hook.
The action itself is the execution of my intention. Again, there’s no telling what sort of effects my white lie may have caused. Maybe the interviewer would have been so thrilled by my friend’s enthusiasm and confidence that he would have decided to hire him despite his lack of qualifications. Since we can’t see into the future, and there’s no telling what sort of effects an action may produce, it’s tough to say what sort of significance should be assigned to the action itself. I am not looking to write a book on the moral significance of action today, so for the time being, I’ll leave this alone.
The effects are the clearest evidence we have in this scenario. While it’s true that it could have played out in any number of ways, the fact is that I contributed to my friend’s dreams getting crushed. In hindsight, is there any way for me to have known what sort of negative consequences my white lie may have caused? If I were not the best thinker in the world – and I’m not – then maybe there really was no way for me to predict the degree of emotional suffering my white lie would cause. If I were the best thinker in the world, I could have easily figured out the potential risks associated with it.
And that’s the fine line between a moral white lie and an immoral white lie. Thinking things through will help you understand the potential risks associated with telling a white lie, reshape your intentions, and may prevent you from crushing your friend’s hopes and dreams. On the other hand, telling bae that she looks great in that dress will not only make her feel better about herself, it may also save your life.