By Rabbi Mike Uram and Emma Levine
Imagine you walked into a Sunday school class at your local synagogue, church or mosque and you saw the teacher having conversations with children about honesty. I am guessing that most of us assume that the various religious traditions would discourage the telling of lies.
In a Jewish context, you would be half right. There are countless statements in Jewish tradition that assert that telling the truth is a universal principle that should be upheld (See Ex. 20:7, Ex. 20:13, Ex, 23:7, Lev. 19:11, Pirkei Avot 1:18 just to get you started).
And yet, there is another strain of thought in Judaism that suggests that honesty is not always the highest value. In fact, some white lies told to protect the dignity of people are not just allowed, but preferable. The most famous example of this is a debate between the students of two sages named Hillel and Shammai (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 16b).
There is a tradition of telling every bride that she is beautiful and graceful. A debate arises about what to say if the bride is not in fact beautiful. Shammai argues that one should tell the truth while Hillel counters that no matter what, you tell her that she's beautiful. The focus of this debate is really about what to do when forced to choose between the competing values of honesty and protecting the honor and feelings of another person. Hillel emphasizes kindness and dignity in a way that suggests that white lies are sometimes necessary.
There is new research that has begun to reinforce the idea that prosocial lies (white lies) are actually beneficial for society. I have invited Emma Levine, a 4th year PhD. student at the Wharton School of Business, to share some of her findings below:
Surprisingly, across dozens of studies, I've found that deception is often perceived to be ethical and can even have relational benefits. For example, in a recent article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, my coauthor, Maurice Schweitzer, and I examined how prosocial lying affects judgments of moral character. In these studies, participants completed experiments in which they interacted with a partner who had the opportunity to tell them a prosocial lie. In these studies, if the partner lied, the participant earned more money than if the partner was honest. In every study, partners who told lies that helped others were judged to be more moral than individuals who told the truth.
In related work, I've found that prosocial lies increase interpersonal trust, the willingness to be vulnerable in a relationship. Importantly, across my research I find that individuals who tell prosocial lies are perceived to be deceptive. In other words, lies that help others are still considered lies. However, prosocial liars are also perceived to have good intentions, which drives perceptions of moral character and interpersonal trust. In other words, people weigh benevolence more heavily than honesty when forming judgments of others' character and trustworthiness. The willingness to tell a little lie that helps others actually boosts relational closeness, rather than threatening it.
These findings challenge the assumption that people dislike and penalize deception. In fact, people often reward others' kindness, even when it is accompanied by a lie. Furthermore, there are many instances in which people actually want to be deceived. In ongoing research, I find that many people want to be deceived, for example, when there is no potential for critical honesty to change or improve their behavior. For instance, people often say that they would not want to know if they looked unattractive in a particular outfit if they do not have time to change their clothes. If they have time to change, they'd prefer the truth.
These findings highlight the complicated relationship people have with deception. Of course some lies, like lies that intentionally harm others, are always judged to be wrong. But, people also deeply value discretion, protection, and kindness, which sometimes goes hand-in-hand with deception.
Emma's research and our ancient wisdom serve to remind us of a lesson we all know: Being a good person and building a better world are not accomplished through a simple catch-all rule like 'tell the truth,' rather it is accomplished through a deep search for wisdom mixed with the personal discipline to apply that wisdom to real-life situations.
In the case of telling lies, it seems that we can be guided by two principles: 1) Tell the truth whenever we can (and by implication, avoid situations and behaviors that we would not want people to know about). 2) When someone's personal dignity is at stake, we can tell prosocial lies (white lies) that not only protect another person, but also serve to express our love and care for them.
While this balance may not always be easy to maintain, it does honestly express how most of us would want to be treated.
The Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? Beit Shammai says: [One describes] the bride as she actually is. Beit Hillel says: "A beautiful and graceful bride." Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: What if she is lame or blind, shall we still say to her, "A beautiful and graceful bride?" But the Torah said, "You shall distance yourself from matters of falsehood." Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your view, if one made a poor purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or denigrate it in his eyes? Surely we would say he should praise it in his eyes. From here the Sages said: One's disposition must always be pleasant towards people. - Ketubot 16b
Emma Levine is a 4th-year PhD student at the Wharton School. Her research explores how people make inferences about others' motives and how this influences moral judgment and trust. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.