More Noble to Tell a Small Lie Than...

As children, most of us were told by our parents and other grown-ups that we should always tell the truth. We were taught that lying was bad. Now that we’re a little bit older, the lines aren’t quite so clear.

How many of you have told a small fib in order to get a discount at the amusement park? When asked how you are, how many of you responded that you were fine when, in fact, you were anything but fine?

Are these lies culturally and ethically acceptable? When, if ever, is it okay to tell a lie? Should we always tell the truth, no matter what?

The Truth Can Hurt

The movie may not have been Oscar-worthy material, but Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian did offer one very valuable piece of wisdom. Robin Williams, playing the role of Theodore Roosevelt, said:

“Sometimes it’s more noble to tell a small lie than to deliver a painful truth.”

In the context of the story, “Teddy” told the other residents of the museum that they would all return to life the next evening. However, he knew that the powerful amulet that gives them life would not be accompanying them on their trip to the Smithsonian. As such, they would be stored away forever and would never again return to life. Was this a noble act in allowing the others effectively to indulge in a collective ignorance on the matter? Would it have been better if Teddy told them the truth?

A similar conundrum arises when it comes to the topic of mortality. If Goldie the Goldfish reaches the big fishbowl in the sky, how do you explain this death to a small child? Even more troubling, how would you explain the death of grandma to the same small child? This young one may not be able to grasp the concept of mortality.

Little Lies to Keep Moving Forward

Even getting beyond children, many people tell little white lies to their friends, peers, and colleagues for a myriad of reasons. Instead of saying that they were fired from their jobs, they may say that they were laid off. This may help to maintain a temporary happiness and minimize the possibility of an awkward conversation for all parties involved.

Similarly, you may be tempted to tell a small lie in order to further your career. You may artificially inflate your resume, giving potential employers the impression that you can do the job when you are, in fact, not at all qualified to do it. After being hired, you may prove yourself and you may indeed be good at what you do, but it’s a lie that got you there.

And let’s not forget about the little lies we tell ourselves. You may take an overly optimistic viewpoint on a situation, partly in hopes that that the self-fulfilling prophecy will bring your high hopes to fruition. Is that wrong?

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

The reason why you may believe it is more noble to tell a small lie than to deliver a painful truth is that this may result in a better overall outcome. You could be saving someone from unneeded stress and grief, since they may not be able to do anything to reverse the circumstances anyhow. However, this brings up the issue of whether the ends justify the means.

This is the justification that the government may have for covering up a secret in the interest of public safety. If they are planning some sort of sting operation on a terrorist organization and are asked what they have planned, you can understand why they couldn’t spill the beans, right? In doing so, they would alert the terrorist organization and their plans would effectively be foiled.

If you agree with Teddy Roosevelt, then you may also agree that it would be acceptable to kill one person if it meant that thousands could be saved. That’s debatable. In the end, you have to choose who you are and make decisions based on your own standards for ethics and morals. Is it okay to lie? Under what circumstances?