Monday, March 28, 2005

Liar, Liar -- But No Hell Fire

Woo-hoo. The Practical Mormon is going to allow digging through some private email -- and at the same time explain why lying's not a sin!

Here's a transcript of a recent discussion, responding to a question about how to deal with a child who sometimes lies. The Practical Mormon writes:

Nearly everyone I've ever met -- and if I've met you, you're included, even if I really like you -- lies at times by omission, by puffery, by blaming, by bragging, by playing the victim, by shirking, by flattery, by pretense, by concealing, by covering for others, by covenant breaking (which includes gossiping, coveting, taking offense easily, and failing to sustain people you've covenanted to sustain), and -- rarely -- by flat-out, knowingly, misrepresenting the truth.

These are such common human traits that -- had I not known one friend who (to my knowledge, at least) doesn't do any of 'em, not even the flattery one -- I'd say that dishonesty is inescapable in mortality.

TPM's correspondent replied:
I agree with you about the many ways people can lie, but I take issue with the point about lying "by omission." I don't think honesty is an excuse for rude behavior.

To which TPM reponded:
Oh, I completely agree with you on the subject of rude behavior, though I continue to categorize lies by omission as lies. More to the point, I think that from an eternal perspective, unkindness is a greater sin than lying.

To my mind, lying is neither a sin nor a virtue, anymore than red is a sin or a virtue. It's a description of behavior that may or may not be sinful. I lie all the time about St. Nick, the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny. And my whole ward joins me in lying every time we have a ward Christmas party. I lie when I put makeup on my face to hide a zit. I lie when I tell a story and leave out the details that don't serve the purpose of my tale. I lie when I tell a joke, read fairy tales to my kids, or when I write a book of fiction. The difference between me and most folks is that I simply don't think lying -- in and of itself -- is wrong.

Here are some other instances when I'd have no ethical trouble at all with lying:

1. When a person with a big nose asks me if her nose looks big. Ditto for anything else that a truthful answer wouldn't fix. If I'm at church with someone who wants to know if her ugly shoes are ugly, she ain't getting a truthful answer from me. What would be the point?

2. When someone wants an answer to a question that's none of their business. I weigh 165 on my driver's license. I'm dreaming. But what's accomplished by my upping that number every time I renew my license? Blah-blah-blah. Mind your own business.

3. When the truth would endanger an innocent. If a psycho were to hold a gun on me and demand to know the location of my kid, for the purpose of depriving that kid of life or virtue or family, I'd lie my head off. And I wouldn't feel the least bit guilty. I don't owe psychos or terrorists a truthful answer.

Oh, there are thousand more.

As far as I'm concerned, the only time lying is a sin is when it's used to extract unearned gain, or to dodge deserved consequences. It's a sin, in my mind, to steal cookies (unearned gain), and it's a sin, when caught with those cookies, to blame one's little sister (evading deserved consequences).

It's likewise a sin to lie on one's resume (unearned gain), and to kill your wife when you're caught lying about getting into medical school (mark hacking...I mean, evading deserved consequences).

All the other little lies we tell -- from the Prophet Joseph denying the practice of polygamy (a combination of "none of your business" and defending the very existence of the Church) to pretending we didn't hear that noise our mother-in-law made in the bathroom (an important time to lie by omission!) -- all those lies are required to defend what we hold dear and to live peacefully in a world that contains Other People.

Nobody asks in a recommend interview "Have you lied?" You're asked if you're honest in your dealings -- which to me (and you're free to interpret the question any way you'd like) means Do you pay your taxes, Do you keep your contracts and commitments, Do you accept deserved consequences, and Do you avoid unearned gain. Nobody cares whether I lie when I compliment the bishop on his scary new haircut. [And to those who think evasion isn't lying, I say, you're lying. It's no less a lie to say "Um, it's a STUNNING haircut" (tangent: ain't "stunning" a terrific word?) than it is to say "Um, sure, great haircut."]

No comments: