Brian Answers: What Would You Lie About?

Today’s Ask Me Anything question arrives courtesy of longtime reader Jo Eberhardt:

What is the one question you wouldn’t answer honestly, no matter what?

This question is especially interesting to me, because as it happens, I’m a very honest person. Maybe it’s just my upbringing, but for whatever reason, I’ve been honest nearly to a fault ever since I was a little kid. This, in turn, has made me think a lot about the ethical foundations of honesty, and when lying really is acceptable.

I can think of two major reasons for telling the truth.

First, there’s trust: the more honest people are, the more they can trust each other. And trust has a wide array of benefits, from personal relationships (like marriage) all the way up to international diplomacy. Without trust, society falls apart.

My second reason is more nebulous, and would be harder to defend in a pinch, but here it is: I believe there is something inherently beautiful, or noble, about the truth. I feel that one of the great purposes in life is to understand the universe, and to that end, truth is a step forward and lies are a step backward.

With that in mind, I would say that lies are justified when the ethical good they can do (or the harm that the truth could cause) outweighs the benefits above. The classic example (at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law) is if you’re hiding some innocent person in Nazi Germany, and the Nazis come banging on your door, asking if you’re hiding anyone. Of course you lie, because the need to save a human life is vastly more important than anything else in that situation.

That’s an extreme example, but it can act as a guide for thinking about ethics.

(To be clear, I’m not nearly as saintly as all this makes me sound. I certainly have lied for no other reason than to cover my own ass. Not too often, and I’m not necessarily proud of it, but it does happen.)

So. That was a long-winded philosophical monologue in reply to a simple question that I haven’t even answered yet: “What is the one question you wouldn’t answer honestly, no matter what?”

The short answer is that I can’t think of a single specific question I would never answer honestly. Rather, it’s a whole class of questions that I would lie about, according to the guidelines above. So much depends on context, and especially on who’s asking.There are very, very few things I would lie to my wife about; there are many more things I would lie to a stranger about, though still relatively few.

Not sure if that was a satisfying answer, but I’m afraid it’s the only one I have. Thanks for the question, Jo!

Tomorrow is the last “Brian Answers” post. I’ll respond to questions from Shaila and Adam about immortality (w00t!).


9 responses to “Brian Answers: What Would You Lie About?

  1. I was raised Quaker, and Quakers place a premium on always telling the truth. However, in situations like the one above, the ideal Quaker solution would be to deceive the Nazis without actually telling a technical lie. i’ve later come to think that this is a rather academic distinction, but there it is.

    I used this in one of my mystery stories, where three characters who can’t lie misled people about whether they’d seen somebody or not by telling the literal truth.

    As I say, I’m not sure this is a distinction that really matters, particularly since the underlying point of the stories I was raised with wasn’t really so much “Quakers are more moral than anybody else” as “Quakers are more clever than anybody else.” 🙂

  2. I was musing over this question to myself, out loud, and my friend overheard me. Her answer: “Have you read the terms and conditions?”

  3. Nice answer. Or non-answer. 🙂

    I’m also an incredibly honest person — and if I have a good reason for wanting to not tell the truth, I’d rather deflect or mislead than tell a direct lie.

  4. I have a problem with the question I need to answer at the arbitration hearing. Why did I lie regarding the load details to drive pass a certain stop

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