Mom, is it ever ok to lie?

My son and I have been talking about lies and truth lately. (No big shock there.) We had both concluded, independently, that we don’t like “white lies,” or, in fact, any lies at all, and that authenticity is really important to both of us.

Yesterday, he asked me whether there were any circumstances in which it would be ok to lie. As I thought about it, I found the writings of both Mohatma Gandhi and Marshall Rosenberg coming to mind. Here is some of what Gandhi had to say:

I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor.

Self-defence….is the only honourable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation.

Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.
And Marshall Rosenberg tells us that sometimes the protective use of force is called for, but never punitive use, and that the protective use of force is neither a method of communication nor a way to teach a lesson (or help someone learn). It is a way to prevent harm.

I’m not sure yet if it’s a metaphor, or if lying and force are more literally equivalent. But lying is clearly a way to change someone’s behavior or response to match your agenda, rather than her own. The policeman at my door would presumably prefer to follow her own agenda with accurate information about the situation, rather than basing her choices on a lie. The same is true for the next-door-neighbor who wonders how our homeschooling is going.
What I’ve noticed is that there are situations that might well result in harm to me or my loved ones if I were to tell the truth. In the case of a neighbor, personal questions may result in harsh judgements or gossip. For the police officer, there may be a danger of corruption. Then, of course, there is the famous example of the Nazis at the door, asking if you’ve seen the little Jewish girl.

So the answer I gave my son was that in self-defense (or defense of another), I think it may be ok to lie. “Oh, good,” he told me. He’s so cool. :)

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