COMMENTARY: Trust Is More Important Than Truth

A study titled “Parenting by Lying” reveals that most parents lie to their children, even though they tell their kids lying is wrong. The parents surveyed said they didn’t feel guilty because their lies were intended to accomplish legitimate parental goals such as getting a child to stop crying or protecting a child from feeling bad or sad.

Reviewing the wide range of casual or careless lies told by parents to change behavior or manipulate emotions supports the observation that “the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.”

Although honesty is an important virtue, I’m not a truth-telling fanatic. Truth can sometimes be ethically sacrificed for another ethical value. Thus, it’s sometimes OK to praise a gift you dislike or choose kindness over candor.

My bedrock premise is that trust is more important than truth.

Playing with the truth is like playing with fire. So-called “white lies” (lies told for a noble purpose or lies that don’t hurt anyone) are sometimes justified, but telling lies of any sort for any reason is always precarious because of their tendency to destroy trust.

Thus, before you decide that your noble intentions justify a lie, ask yourself: “If the person I lie to finds out the truth, will he or she thank me for caring or feel betrayed?” In other words, is the lie likely to damage trust?

Here are some other guidelines:

  • Be sure the benefit you’re trying to gain by lying is important enough to risk a loss of trust.
  • Don’t lie if you can accomplish your noble goal without lying (remember, necessity is not a fact, it’s an interpretation).
  • Be careful that the lie doesn’t cause serious unintended consequence (e.g., telling a child that a monster will take him or her away could generate serious long-term anxiety).

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 8

  1. Edie Young

    I wholeheartedly agree that there are times that a “white lie” is better than the truth, but it should be used only to help the intended listener. Having raised a bundle of children (my own and several others) and cared for dying relatives and friends, I’ve told a few to maintain a feeling of safety and trust. Examples: to a 3 year old, “your puppy is going to Heaven” and to a dying friend with ALS “the addition we’re building for you is a TV room so you can watch the large screen more easily.” Of course neither was true, and the in-home hospital room became an absolute necessity soon after it was constructed. But sometimes the love and trust that you will care for and about the other person demands that you allay their current fears. Trust IS most important! Edie

  2. Lynwood fox

    I would say that lying never causes gain no matter how small or noble the lie may appear. When we are deceived in any way , it becomes more difficult to make good informed choices and deal with the challenges we may face. Truth should always be presented with care and kindness .

  3. Daniel Olson

    I have always felt lieing was wrong. no matter the cause. I mean if a friend or girl friend asks you if this makes them look ugly, you should be honest. its better to make them feel a little down and change outfits then look like a fool. although with eddies example of a child, i can agree something like that is fine. but i disagre with the tv room one. each their own as long as it dosent betrey trust.

    1. angela

      I have told my children the truth about Christmas and what its real meaning is. I tell them there is no santa or easter bunny or toothfairy. They deserve to know whom the credit goes to.

  4. Ann

    When my husband and I were dating he told me that I smelled very nice. I was pleased as I loved the perfume that I was wearing. After we were married, I came home and the dinner was burning, I said “Can’t you smell that burning” his answer was NO. “I can’t smell”. What do you mean you can’t smell, I have never been able to smell.
    I said, what about the time you told me that I smelt nice, his answer was, I had friends who told their girl friends that and they seemed to like it. Well, it may sound trivial, but I was so upset. My thoughts on the matter, if you are willing to tell an untruth about this, what else are you willing to lie to me about.

    This what would seem trivial matter to another has stuck with me for 47 years. Silly maybe, but I still feel the same.

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