In the essay “The Ways We Lie,” (40 Model Essays) by Stephanie Ericsson, the author makes several over-arching generalizations. One of these generalizations is that we all lie, and this is most likely true. Another is that all lies harm someone, and that we should strive to live our lives with total honesty. But what is total honesty? What is total anything? Life does not exist in absolutes. Nothing is black and white, or entirely right or absolutely wrong. There is a middle ground to everything. Existing in the world is a compromise. Progress occurs in the center of things. So what does it mean to achieve total honesty? If I tell a lie, do I become a dishonest person?
We all, in fact, lie; however, there are many varying degrees of lies with a wide spectrum of intent. The scale ranges from innocent, protective, and well intentioned, to deliberate, harmful, and malicious. We are all guilty of white lies told, perhaps, to preserve someone’s feelings, or to protect a loved one from a difficult truth. These lies indicate sensitivity toward the feelings of others. We are almost all guilty of telling deliberate and harmful lies, on occasion, as well. Telling these sorts of lies does not necessarily make a person dishonest.
Being an honest person has much more to do with the virtue by which we live our lives. Telling a lie that protects another displays empathy for another’s well being, an inherently decent trait. We can remain as principled and upstanding members of our society, while simultaneously dabbling into being untruthful. Since we all tell lies, there has to be some other distinction about what makes a person honest.
Our society and culture dictate the line that separates honesty and dishonesty. Virtuous behavior is dictated entirely by the standards and laws of a people. That line begins to be crossed if our lies and the actions and behaviors that accompany them become overwhelmingly malicious, hurtful, or illegal. An honest person tries to live a life of integrity, striving to live well, free from knowingly causing harm against others. A dishonest person tries to “get over” on society by lying, cheating, and stealing for their own betterment with little or no regard to anyone who may be hurt by their actions.
If everybody lies than this cannot be the value by which we measure honesty. The essay asserts that our acceptance of lies is a cultural cancer. There is absolutely no question that we need to seek out truth, question authority, and not believe every double-talking politician selling lies through their teeth. But gentle lies, told in the spirit of love and well being, may very well be a part of what keeps civilized life intact. One of the primary points of the essay is that there is no lie that doesn’t harm somebody. Upon reflection this may very well be true. On some barely noticeable level I may incur a modicum of harm by telling a lie to protect another; however, we all have a level of tolerance inside of us, some amount of pain we are willing to endure, to protect and enrich the lives of our loved ones. Sacrifice of self for the betterment of another is the essence of a virtuous life, the foundation of an honest person.