The One Where I Told a Little Lie

Can you go through life and never tell a lie?

Honesty is the best policy. But it’s a policy — not an unbreakable rule.

If most of us weren’t honest most of the time, social life would be impossible. Nobody would ever believe anyone else. We couldn’t cooperate, have relationships, or depend on anyone for anything.

But I’ll be honest: I think that lying is occasionally okay:

  • When you’ve got a clear reason to do it.
  • When you’re unbiased because it doesn’t promote your own interests.
  • When it contributes to the welfare and/or happiness of others.

Here’s an example. It’s the one where I told a little lie.

When I was in graduate school, I taught several undergraduate classes as an associate instructor. And like all teachers, I liked some students better than others.

To avoid biased grading of term papers, I told my students to put their names only on the title page. They put their student ID numbers on the title page and on all the other pages.

Before grading the papers, I tore off the title pages so that I wouldn’t know whose work I was grading. Afterward, I used the student ID numbers to match the term papers with the title pages and the names of the students.

So all the grading was completely blind. No favoritism.

That’s what I told the students. But I lied. And I make no apologies for it.

It’s true that I did the first pass without knowing whose papers I was grading. But after I matched up the title pages and got the names, I made a second pass through the papers.

If I knew that a student was working very hard, I often added notes of encouragement or explanation. Once or twice, I raised a grade slightly. Nobody ever got downgraded. But if some students were doing their best and just needed extra help, I gave it to them.

So I stand by my belief that honesty is the best policy. And like most policies, it has exceptions.

What do you think about it?

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The One Where I Told a Little Lie

  1. Jim Grey says:

    I have a strong desire to see more people working as software developers who are not white men under age 40. In initial recruiting, I work very hard to source a diverse candidate pool so that there is a greater chance someone who isn’t a white man under age 40 ends up in the running. But if I’m ever challenged with accusations of bias or (reverse) discrimination, I will absolutely say that I chose the most qualified candidate from the applicant pool — which will be true.


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