Volume 32, Issue 1, Spring 2018
S. K. Wertz
Little White Lies
A Pragmatic Defense
Samuel Johnson has an interesting comment on consequences and the telling of “white lies.” For example “Sick People and Children are often to be deceived for their Good.” David Hume apparently endorses this concept in one of his letters. Both Johnson and Rousseau anticipate Kant’s argument about consequences in that one is to tell the truth under all circumstances. Hume, I argue, would take issue with this claim in that there are cases (like the two above) that warrant telling white lies. Elsewhere (second Enquiry) he speaks about “harmless liars” who indulge in “lying or fiction . . . in humorous stories.” And he says “Noble pride and spirit may openly display itself when one lies under calamity [defamation or slander] or opposition of any kind,” especially if the opposition puts one’s life in grave danger, so one’s self-preservation is threatened. Under situations like these, lying is justified. In regard to fiction, if lying is for the purpose of entertainment and where “truth is not of any importance,” it is permissible. These cases are discussed in some detail, and they offer, along with their analysis, a pragmatic defense of Hume’s position.