Is it ever acceptable to lie?

When I was a kid, my mother (who loved to cook and bake pies and bread) clipped intriguing recipes out of newspapers and magazines. One evening, she prepared "Swedish meatballs" for the first time, and expectantly watched us try it.

When I was a kid, my mother (who loved to cook and bake pies and bread) clipped intriguing recipes out of newspapers and magazines. One evening, she prepared "Swedish meatballs" for the first time, and expectantly watched us try it.

My sisters and I took a bite, grimaced, and said the food was disgusting and that we would not eat it. My father reprimanded us, told us to be grateful for this wonderful dinner, and told my mother "It's delicious, my dear." My mother then tried the meatballs, said: "Oh my goodness, this is disgusting," and removed the special entrée. We children, and my father, were clearly relieved.

I've always remembered this episode because it is the only time I can recall my father telling a lie. He taught his children to be honest and always tell the truth, and as far as I recall he practiced what he preached (except for this Swedish meatball incident). Yet he told my mother that this terrible meal (something must have been wrong with the recipe or one of the ingredients) was delicious, and he was prepared to force it down so as not to hurt her feelings.

Through the ages, theologians, philosophers, ethicists, and moralists have debated whether it is sometimes acceptable to tell lies. Some assert that lying is never acceptable. Others argue that a lie told to avoid unnecessarily offending someone (the "little white lie") is reasonable. A friend in Los Angeles (philosophy major at Harvard) thinks that lying to avoid giving offense is wrong. He believes this excuse for lying simply opens the door to finding various justifications for not being honest. For example, if the desired goal is a good one, why not tell lies in order to achieve the goal? He thinks that making lying "acceptable" under certain circumstances crosses the line, and makes subsequent deceptions simply a matter of rationalization.

A woman friend thinks it is sometimes acceptable to lie to avoid hurting someone's feelings. For example, if someone gets a new haircut and it looks ridiculous, and asks your opinion, you can be evasive in your response or lie to avoid hurting the person's feelings.

Who is right? My belief is that most male philosophers and theologians who assert that only absolute truth is acceptable have never been asked by their wives "does this dress make my rear end look big?" Similarly, most women who take this position have probably never had their husbands ask how they look in their new lime green and hot pink-checkered golf pants.

My Harvard-trained philosopher pal, I am confident, would honestly tell his wife that her behind looked big if she asked him and he thought this was the case. Faced with such situations, the intelligent ophthalmologist will do what I do-pretend not to have heard the question.

Working world

In business, surveys indicate that the vast majority of executives believe it is wrong for their employees to lie to them, but one-third approve of their employees telling untruths to their customers and one-half think it is acceptable to lie to safeguard the company.1 In medicine, it used to be common that physicians would lie to "protect" their patients, and not tell them if they had a fatal disease such as untreatable cancer. Today, physicians and nurses continue to wrestle with the ethics of lying to patients.2

But there is a common problem with ophthalmologists lying to avoid giving offense during employee performance evaluations. Physicians often give employees uniformly glowing evaluations, even when they think an employee has some obvious flaws that should be addressed. They do this to avoid inflicting distress, hurting feelings, or provoking tears.

The problem with this approach is that it deprives the employee of an opportunity to learn and improve in his or her job.

Also, I have seen cases where the ophthalmologist-employer eventually becomes so resentful or disappointed because of the unspoken flaw that he or she terminates the employee. In those cases, the previously (falsely) positive evaluations might come back to haunt the employer if a wrongful dismissal suit gets filed. My opinion is that it is best to be scrupulously honest (while being supportive and diplomatic) in annual performance appraisals.