Whether you are a villain or a good person is for you and you alone to decide: you are worth precisely what you want.
~ André Comte-Sponville

We talked earlier about how being good can be hard. And yet…. And yet…. At the same time as potentially being hard, being good can feel so right. As Will Smith says, “Think of yourself as two people, and one of them is inside of you, and he’s a scorekeeper. And he keeps score of your idea of the world. … And when you have a conflict with your scorekeeper, that’s unhappiness. Happiness is being completely in sync with your own perception of goodness.”

White lies are bad for the soul.

White lies can harm your soul. Every time we take an action, we strengthen the neural pathways for that action. Why would you want to strengthen the neural pathways of deceit?

Alvin talks here about how showing yourself personal commitment can strengthen your emotional core. While lies can be like worms. One won’t phase you, and you can just brush it off your pant leg. But a whole bunch of them can … well, you get the picture.

Imagine a seesaw. “One should see the world, and see himself as a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed the scale is tipped to the good – he and the world is saved. When he does one evil deed the scale is tipped to the bad – he and the world is destroyed.” ~ Maimonides (from here. Related: this and this.)

Every time a person makes a white lie, a person’s inner scorekeeper says, “Huh?” We are people and we use some types of defense mechanisms, so our brains would need to give that “huh?” an answer. And the answer can be, “It’s ok that I white-lied – I need to / I was in rush / It doesn’t hurt anyone anyway.” Or the answer can be, “No, that’s wrong. I feel wrong about it, and I don’t want to feel wrong. I won’t white-lie next time.”

People are always doing things to be in sync with their beliefs about the goodness of themselves. Whether it’s rationalizing something away or belittling the importance of being good or just adopting an attitude of not-caring. And the simplest thing to do to be in sync with your own perception of goodness? The easiest thing to do is to be good.

How can you decide whether to white-lie or not?

You could decide very logically, “Is the worth of the white lie worth more than the harm of it?” Almost an economic approach. When has it been worth it to say to yourself, “No, I’m not a bad person?” Why would it ever be worth it to put yourself into a situation in which at the end of the situation, you have to reassure yourself that you actually weren’t being bad? …. If you have to reassure yourself (even it it takes a nanosecond and even if the thought is semi-automatic), then your mind already knew that you had done the wrong thing. Why would you ever take an action that embeds into your brain that you are ok with sometimes doing something that feels a little bit wrong?

Another way that you could decide whether to white-lie or not is that you could decide from a very principled stance, “Is that something I do?” Here’s where our earlier discussion of self-regulation and creating new habits resurfaces. Perhaps your self-regulation for yourself is that generally you do not white lie. It’s just not worth the thinking about it. It’s just not worth the questioning of your core principles. (I’d recommend putting the “generally” in there because on the extreme side if it’s a question of life-or-death vs. a white lie, of course you’d white-lie. An extreme position just makes it easier to fall later. I just had a talk with a friend about rarely using the words “always” and “never.”)

“Everyone tries to define this thing called Character. It’s not hard. Character is doing what’s right when nobody’s looking.
~ Anonymous (from this set of quotes)


2 Comments

  1. Posted Tuesday February 13, 2007 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Senia–

    This is wonderful writing and fun to read. You’ve managed to include so many PP topics and neuro-research, too. William James + Roy Baumeister mixed with philosophy and positive emotion while on one’s best behavior = “sigh”

    Well done!

    :-) Sherri

  2. Posted Wednesday February 14, 2007 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Hi Senia,

    Thanks for the link! Wow, that was a pretty old post of mine…even I’d forgotten about it! :P

    I’ve always had problems with white lies…I just find it hard to tell one, and I think your post explains just why.