Justin Li


Truth Value

2009-02-27

I used to lie a lot. For most of my elementary school education I was at an British international school. After 6th grade, however, my dad transferred me to a local Hong Kong school. While the school was still mostly taught in English, I was simply unused to the style of education and the amount of tedious work. My bad Chinese, which was the reason I transferred (to patch up) in the first place, was a particular burden. Looking back, I can heardly believe what I did back then: pretending to have headaches, on-purposely turning in the wrong notebook, finishing only half the homework before turning it in.

Luckily, after two and half years of what is easily the worst years of my life, I transferred to an American international school, which is ultimately why I'm in the US now. While I don't do the same tricks anymore, I still retain the "training" I got from that period. I am still a very smooth liar. I can maintain the complex web of information flow most of the time, making sure I don't tell the wrong person the wrong thing. Sometimes, I still lie before I have thought the situation through.

Since entering high school my memories of those deliquent years have faded a lot. I never keep contact with my friends from that school, and memories of the physical location and the times I spent there are generic. Becoming more and more a scientist and philosopher, I've often held knowing the truth above all else. A few recent events, though, have made me ponder the value of truth. Specifically, under what circumstances is it okay for one to lie?

Consider these situations:

It's hard to say what truth is being weighed against in the first case. There is no obvious benefit from telling or not telling the truth. In the second case, truth is being weighed against your personal happiness; in the third case, against your friend's personal happiness.

If I was the "other person" in all three cases, I would unhesitantly prefer to know the truth than be left in the dark. To me personally I see no good coming out of ignorance. Happiness can be found again, and only in knowing what is actually out there can you make the correct decision.

Being the person holding the truth, though, makes things a little different. In the first and third case, I would still tell the truth. I can see this as selfishness - when only other people's happiness is involved I tell the truth. For the second case, I do not fear the rejection so much as losing what I already have. People tend to pay more to prevent loss than to gain the same amount.

Perhaps it might be more prudent to ask first whether they would like to hear the truth. In the first case it wouldn't matter - it is clear what the lie would be about, and that is tantamount to telling the truth. In the second and third case though, asking first is a possible strategy. "I have something to tell you. You may not like it, but I would like to offer you the truth. If you don't want to hear it, I won't tell you, but I wanted to let you know that I didn't deliberately hide it from you."

Admittedly, I don't do that all the time. It takes a lot of integrity and courage to do so, more than what I have. More often than not, I will withhold the truth, and not let them be aware I even know something. Instead, I will do something to let them discover the truth themselves, or work to have their mind made up first, before revealing anything.

But isn't withholding the truth still lying?

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