Are Little White Lies Okay?


As my daughter was getting ready for a date, I told her she looked beautiful even though she had a pimple on her neck.

Q1 Analysis

This is a Q1 violation if you believe that lying is always wrong or you believe that you must always be completely honest with your child.

Q2 Analysis

This is a Q2 violation if you would want to be told the truth in a similar circumstance, and may be a violation if you know that your daughter wants to be told the truth.


Most people do not wish others to speak the truth at all times. Unwelcome truths might include, "Even if you try your best, I don’t think there’s any way you’ll succeed," "That outfit you made looks cheap," and "What an average baby."

But are these "little white lies"? A little white lie might be a lie where the untruth has no significant negative impact (and, possibly, has a positive one), the truth would have a negative impact, and the truth does not have significant ethical value. "I’m happy to help you" could be a little white lie. Neither "I didn’t take the money" nor "Sorry, Mr. Axe Murderer, Fran isn’t home" are little white lies (because the truth of the matter is ethically very significant.)

Despite what some may think, lies of omission are not automatically white lies. "I never said I wasn’t sleeping with your sister" is an admission of deception by omission, not something an honest person would say.

You might also consider some kinds of nonverbal communication to be little white lies. Smiling at someone you aren’t actually happy to see, for example.

If a lie does qualify as little and white, is it moral to tell it? The answer depends largely on Q2. If you would want to be lied to in a given circumstance, then you might justify lying to another in that same circumstance. Before deciding if you would want to be lied to, you need to consider whether the lie is for your benefit or for the speaker’s. Would you want someone to lie to you purely to save themselves embarrassment? You should also consider how you would feel if you were lied to and then found out the truth. If discovering that you were lied to would make you mad, you probably didn’t really want to be lied to.

Which of the following would you consider to be morally allowable little white lies? Are they white lies at all? And do the circumstances in which the lie is told make a difference?

You are encouraged to leave your answers to the questions posed in this post in the comments section. This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at and See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.

Posted on September 3, 2010 at 10:31 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: 2Q

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