The First Rule

I have been working on a new post which is tipping the scales at 3000 words and is approximately 45% finished. You are not going to be spared from it, but I decided to post something else (instead of nothing) for two reasons: 1- If I don’t post, it’s easy to keep not posting, and before you know it the blog is one of the billions of dusty, abandoned blogs that pollute the web, and 2- I am going to prime you with short posts so when I actually do drop a massive one on you, you’ve got some free time saved up.

This is the first in a series of five* posts semi-detailing the things I have learned in my life. In my life I have learned more than five things, but only five have the distinction of being so steadfastly true that they have graduated from mere things what you might call rules. By the time I write about the fifth, it might not be the last one – not too long ago, there were only three.

1- Don’t lie.

This seems obvious. But when things are so commonly accepted they can disappear in to the background, and therefore need to be raised time and again.

Everybody knows that they are not supposed to lie. And very few of us think it is ok to lie, until the moment we decide it is ok to lie. So when we find ourselves in a position that makes lying tempting, we lie. And then we justify it by fabricating some ad hoc “code” which permits the kind of lying we just did, which makes us feel better about it. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal to us, since we’re the authors of whatever code retroactively permitted the lying. Take a step back though, and you realize that when everyone is just deciding willy-nilly when lying is ok, what we have is a world constantly lying at its own convenience.

So should we never lie? I recently read Ronald Howard’s Ethics for the Real World, which is not a philosophical look at the pioneering MTV reality show but rather an excellent look at how to apply ethics to our daily lives. Howard does not tell you when you should lie, if ever, but just offers scenarios (Would it be ok to lie to a murderer about a potential victim’s whereabouts? Would it be ok to lie about whether you like a friend’s novel?) designed to provoke real thought and help the reader construct – as in actually write down – a code she can actually stick to. I admit that it sounds pretty square, but thinking about these things ahead of time can help stem the casual bearing of false witness that seems like nothing but ends up making us feel like we’ve forfeited a tiny part of our true selves.

I had the Don’t Lie rule long before I read this book, of course, so what good was the book? Well, before I read it, the Don’t Lie rule had a million exceptions – I just hadn’t thought of them yet. Now it only has three.

What about the putatively harmless lies that get told the most: so-called “white lies?” What’s wrong with those? Are they harmless, even if no one finds out? More pointedly, does your wife look fat in that dress?

Best-case scenario: Your wife does not look fat in that dress – in fact she’s in the best shape of her life –so your answer is an honest, flop sweat-free “no.” If best-case is not her case, then it’s tempting to minimize friction by lying and telling your wife that she doesn’t look fat in the dress. But think about what she is asking you – if it really is about the dress, she is trusting you to tell her how she looks, in private, before she parades around in public. If the dress is not flattering but you give her the impression that it is, you are setting her up for public embarrassment, which is undoubtedly worse for her.

Maybe she does look a little fat in the dress, as well as in everything else she has worn since you bought her the Omaha Steaks subscription. She is asking you a question to which she probably already suspects the correct – and painful – answer. So it’s tempting to lie, which will make her feel better about the twice-baked potatoes for about a week, until she starts feeling insecure again and asks you the same question again, only one pound heavier. What we’re doing in that case is saving ourselves a little awkwardness at the expense of a loved one’s well-being, and at the expense of our own integrity.

Secrets are a stealth form of deception that is rarely thought of as lying; we even laud and brag about our ability to “keep” them. But the “teller” puts the “keeper” in a terrible position by asking him to keep a secret. If Janice tells you that Lois is going to get laid off – but don’t tell anyone – and Lois confesses to you that she fears for her job, what do you do? You can’t get out of that situation without betraying someone, and the only way to avoid getting in that situation is to refuse to keep secrets, which you have to do before the juicy tidbit is vouchsafed to you. So you miss out on a little gossip about who in accounts payable is banging whom in accounts receivable – big fucking deal.

To keep my promise of brevity from being a lie, I will wrap it up.


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