“When in doubt, tell the truth.”
— Mark Twain
Some time ago, I was embroiled in a bit of a sticky situation between some friends of mine and some other friends of mine. The first friends had asked me, unbidden, if I knew something about the situation of the second friend; the second friend and I had talked about this very thing just days earlier; so I told the first friends what the second friend had said. As it turns out, the second friend had, for whatever reason, lied to the first friends about that very thing, and the lie was thus revealed.
Now, second friend probably had personal reasons for the deception; it was a messy situation, and second friend was having a lot of problems at the time. Nevertheless, the landmine blew up on me, even though second friend’s problems were NMB–Not My Baggage.
But I didn’t come here to talk about that. I came here to talk about courage.
I’ve generally held a zero-tolerance policy toward people who aren’t honest with me or with those around me. I’ve walked away from a few friendships because the friend in question is dishonest, or shows a pattern of dishonest or untrustworthy behavior.
Yet, at the same time, i don’t always believe that honesty of and by itself is a moral virtue. I believe there are times when it is acceptable to lie, and even times when it is unethical not to lie. (Trivial example: It’s 1930, Berlin, you’re hiding a family of Jewish refugees in your basement, the Gestapo knocks on the door and asks if you know the whereabouts of any Jews.)
So it’s not the lie itself that has the moral value; it’s the context. Given that, then when, exactly, is it acceptable to lie? What ruler can you use to measure the ethical value of a lie?
I’ve been spending a great deal of time thinking about that, and I’ve had something of an epiphany.
It’s not actually a lie, per se, that ticks me off. It’s what the lie represents. And specifically, it’s what the lie reveals about the liar’s courage.
Courage is a virtue. In the hypothetical case of a person hiding a family of Jews from the Gestapo, it requires greater courage to lie than it does to tell the truth. The lie is an act by which the person hiding those refugees stands by his principles–that wholesale genocide is wrong.
In thousands of ways great and small, everyone’s courage and dedication to the things they claim to believe in are tested, all the time. In the case of the situation involving my friends, telling the truth would have required the greater courage; the situation was messy, and standing up to that mess unflinchingly might have jeopardized the beginning of a romantic relationship. Few things are more fragile than a brand-new relationship in its earliest stages; I can appreciate why someone might lie in an attempt, however misguided, to protect such a thing, though it’s a short-term and flawed strategy at best.
Regardless, the lie betrayed a certain lack of courage, and it’s that which destroyed all chance of a continuing friendship betwen that person and I. A person who lacks courage can’t be counted on when things are difficult. Anyone can be honest and act with integrity when it’s easy; it’s the way people behave when things are hard that really matters, and it’s whether you can count on someone when things are hard that is the true measure of a person. Courage is a cardinal virtue; a person who has courage can be trusted, can be relied on.
Courage is rare precisely because it is difficult. When it comes right down to it, it’s altogether easy to act without courage; and whichever way one chooses–courage or cowardice–tends, over time, to become a habit.
All this was brogught back to mind recently, when I perused my journal and discovered this post. What, I wonder, does it reveal about the poster’s character?