In 1973, Pew Research asked the typical American whether it is okay tell “white lies” or “harmless lies” that were intended to spare the feelings of the lie’s recipient. Over 79% said that this type of lying was morally wrong.
In 2015, the question was asked again. This time, there was a steep drop, as only 43% said that this type of lying was morally wrong.
Unfortunately, America’s wealthy seemed to do its part to tilt the trend. In 1973, wealthy participants weighed in at 89% to say that this type of lying was wrong. By 2015, only 27% of the wealthy considered this wrong.
This change manifests itself in a lie told about charitable giving. In 2002, Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy published a research study titled: “Charitable Giving: How Much, By Whom, To What, And How?” that gave wealthy participants a $200 reward for completing an extended survey of their financial views with an emphasis on charitable giving.
I was intrigued by a footnote relating to the carrot offered to the wealthy to induce their participation. When the $200 offer was made, the researchers offered the wealthy individuals a choice–they could receive $200 outright, or have $200 donated to a charity in their name.
Guess what 84% chose? Give me the cash money.
And here is where the lie comes in: Of the respondents that opted for the money, 72% said something to the effect of: “I’ll donate the money that I receive from this interview to the charity of my choice.” The catch? They didn’t do it!
And they had no intention to do so. A follow-up interview revealed that a slight majority, 58%, confessed that they signalled the money would be used for charitable purposes because they wanted to avoid social awkwardness and the appearance of being greedy.
Why are we are at this point where the economic elites feel the need to tell a white lie when merely asked about how to distribute the proceeds from an oral contract?
Because the upper class has adopted a social code of what Charles Murray calls “ecumenical niceness” and “non-judgmentalism” which he defines as follows:
“Children are supposed to share their toys, not hit one another, take turns…to be nice. And, by and large, the children of the new upper class grow up to be nice. But they are also taught that they should respect everyone else’s way of doing things, regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, cultural practices, or national original, which leads to the crucial flaw in ecumenical niceness. Non-judgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new upper-class culture. The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for non-marital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals.”
The flaw in the child-rearing of the budding economic elites is that niceness is increasingly being treated as a first principle when it does not deserve that elevation. Honesty–which at a minimum involves the rejection of lying, stealing, and cheating–is the first principle, and niceness should be taught as a second principle so that the sharp edges of honesty are not harsher than necessary under the circumstances. Niceness ought to be a secondary social grace, not a substitute for goodness.
As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden put it, integrity is like pregnancy. You either got it or you don’t. There is no spectrum. If you are willing to lie about a so-called small matter, you are signalling that it is no small matter after all because if it were inconsequential, you wouldn’t feel a compulsion to lie. And if you don’t think there is something wrong with what you’re really doing, then you wouldn’t feel the need to substitute the truth with a white lie.
On matters like this, I am lucky that I had my father teach me that when people come out of nowhere to request impositions of me, I am under no obligation to make them feel comfortable. When someone asks you if you’d like to donate to charity, you can say “No.” That’s it. You still have integrity. If someone only likes you to the extent that you give them money when asked, it’s not a friendship–it’s a transactional relationship that will sour as soon as the funds dry up on your end. This advice was a critical bludgeon against the Catholic guilt that runs in my DNA.
You can donate later. You can compound the money and donate at the end of your life. Or, you can spend the money for yourself on the money that you receive from the survey. Someone asking you a question doesn’t entitle them to a right over you unless you assent.
It bothers me a heck of a lot that little white lies are not only tolerated, but are increasingly accepted as a basic social skill. If slight social discomfort makes you willing to lie, what does that say about your threshold for engaging in deception?