Is It Ever Okay to Lie?
To help others be honest, we must make it safe to tell the truth.
Posted Mar 05, 2018
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was jailed by the Nazi regime in 1943 for his participation in the Resistance. Later the Nazis uncovered his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler and shipped him to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was executed in 1945. While he was incarcerated he often worked on the book he intended to be his magnum opus, Ethics. The unfinished manuscript was first published in 1949, and Bonhoeffer’s ideas about how to be a moral person in trying times remains relevant. In one particularly notable passage, he considers what it means to tell the truth.
Parents encourage their children to always tell the truth, yet they do not reciprocate. We recognize that part of being a parent is serving as a buffer between the child and the outside world, and that means that a parent may have good reasons for not telling a child exactly what is going on. To ‘tell the truth,’ then, means different things depending upon the situation. Parents must teach a child to be truthful; it is not something that is ingrained from birth. Parents also teach children the different ways to be truthful. Every parent is invariably placed into situations where the children are technically telling the truth (that outfit is indeed ugly, that man really does look like the family dog) but the situation does not call for that level of truthfulness. Parents and other authority figures must help children realize the different forms that telling the truth can take and to model what it means to be truthful.
Bonhoeffer offers the example of a teacher in a rural school who asks one of his pupils, “Is it true that your father comes home drunk?” This is in fact true; the child’s father is an alcoholic, and everyone present knows it. At the same time, however, telling the truth for the child does not mean owning up to this fact in front of everyone. The child is confronted by their allegiance to their family and to the necessary but abstract concept of truth, and it is no surprise that in such situations the child will most often side with family.
The teacher fails the child by not creating the conditions under which telling the truth would be possible. Bonhoeffer’s lesson remains deeply relevant to clinicians and all others in a position of privilege and authority. As part of my clinic’s mental health assessment, we ask clients a barrage of questions, from the banal (what are your hobbies?) to the serious (have you ever been raped or sexually assaulted? Do you use drugs?). While I rely on these assessments when I begin working with a client, I realize that an initial intake session is not the best place to elicit truthful answers to such questions because that initial encounter is too brief to create the conditions for the truth to emerge.
Many of us have been placed in situations where it didn't feel possible to tell the truth. Maybe we didn't trust the person who was doing the asking, didn't feel comfortable in the setting, didn't know how they would take it, or all of the above. We of course don't want to encourage others to be deceptive, but we also must examine ourselves to see if we create conditions that make it possible for others to tell the truth. We've seen something like this emerging in the sexual assault allegations fueling the #MeToo movement. Too many women didn't feel comfortable trusting the authorities or the public with their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault because they didn't think they would be believed. We can and must do better, both as individuals and as a society.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1995) Ethics. New York, NY: Touchstone.