Loathe to Lie


    Miriam and her husband provide advice on what to do when you're caught in someone else's lies. 

    Dear Miriam,

    I just found out that a friend of mine lied about something to a mutual acquaintance and asked me to cover for her. What should I do?

    Loathe to Lie

    Dear Lie,

    It would be disingenuous for me to say that lying is, unequivocally, a bad thing, given that I lie to my kids approximately 1,287 times a day. My lies are things like, "We're out of cookies," or, "The TV has to go to sleep now because it's so tired," or, "This is medicine," when I'm obviously in the kitchen eating candy that I don't want to share. I've only done that last one once, but still. Lying has a time and a place, and without knowing the details of your friend's lie, it's hard for me to wholeheartedly condone or condemn what she said.

    What is easy to condemn, though, is that your friend put you in an uncomfortable position. If she had warned you in advance and asked if you'd be willing to cover for her, then you could decide on your own. If she had asked your advice about whether or not this was a lie worth engaging in, you also would have had more agency to control the situation and your role in it. As it is, though, you now have to choose between the friend's confidence, the acquaintance's trust and doing what you think is right.

    It would also be disingenuous if I didn't tell you that my husband is looking over my shoulder right now as I write this. Typically, I write these columns during the day while he's at work, or while he's going through our daughter's arduous bedtime routine with her, but tonight, this is cutting into our extremely limited waking hours without kids, so he's making advice giving a family sport. In the spirit of not lying and all, I figured I should really describe the whole scene. 

    He says, "You need to decide which of your choices make the world a better place. You can lose some reputation points if people stop trusting you, but that's just part of the calculus. The Jewish value of peace might be above the Jewish value of truth at all costs. I don't know if this is true, but I think all of the forefathers lie or spread misinformation in the Torah. Abraham lies and says Sarah isn't his wife. Jacob lies about his identity and pretends to be his brother, Esau. He's not a forefather, but Joseph, when his brothers first saw him in Egypt, didn't say who he was." (Part of the aforementioned bedtime routine includes paraphrasing the Torah for our almost five-year-old, so all of these examples were on the tip of his tongue.)

    Before the acquaintance has a chance to approach you about whatever information is going around, talk to your friend in more depth. Find out why she felt compelled to lie and what is at stake regarding your role in the lie. If someone's safety or well-being is at risk, I believe that lying is both understandable and acceptable. However, in what may be the first-ever practical application of my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I can point you to Immanuel Kant and his belief that lying is never permissible. There's also a lot of non-Kantian gray areas between going along with whatever frivolous lies come your way and having to reveal to the "murderer at your door" the whereabouts of an intended victim.

    Another option is to say to your friend, "I can help you out this time, but please don't ever put me in this position again." Or, less agreeably, "I won't reveal that you were lying, but I also can't affirm what you said." Then, if you are approached by the acquaintance, you can be pleasantly noncommittal and get on with your life. My husband's closing thoughts are, "It depends on the details," so now, with all this, it's up to you to figure out whether to prioritize the human relationships or your relationship with objective truth.

    Be well,