Black Lie

by Kristie LeVangie

Newton’s 3rd Law taught us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Rensis Likert trained us that any collection of responses has two opposing sentiments at either end of the continuum.

And I trained my children to always look at both sides of every situation.

So am I surprised when my daughter asks me thought-provoking questions out of the blue? I mean she IS a researcher’s offspring, you know? She has a knack for getting to the core of understanding. It makes her both brilliant and intellectually dangerous…in a VERY good way.

Last week, she hit me with this question:

“Mom, is there a such thing as a ‘black lie’? I mean there is a ‘white lie’, but I’ve never heard anyone use the term ‘black lie’. Is there such a thing and what would that even look like?”

I put on my serious contemplation face and started the wheels a-turnin’.


Well, I’ve never heard anyone use the term “black lie.” But it goes to reason that it must exist. We have black and white magic.   In Western culture, Black and White represent the dichotomy of good and evil. Black-and-White in visual art is expressed in monochromatic shades of gray from very light (white) to very dark (black). Some people “look” at things in black and white. This naturally assumes there is a polarization in thought.

First, as all researchers would do, I went in search of the term’s origin.

I discovered it was first referenced in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1741.

“A certain Lady of the highest Quality … makes a judicious Distinction between a white Lie and a black Lie. A white Lie is That which is not intended to injure any Body in his Fortune, Interest, or Reputation but only to gratify a garrulous Disposition and the Itch of amusing People by telling Them wonderful Stories.”

A black lie would then need to be an opposite on the continuum from a white lie. Choosing the right scale can make all the difference.

To dissect the definition, we may wish to classify a black lie based on its intention. If a white lie is not intended to injure, then a black lie must be one that is intended to injure. It must be a lie to hurt someone’s feelings, reputation, chances at success, or even one’s emotional well-being?     A black lie would require a total disregard for another’s feelings. “Black” would seem to imply an absence.

This line of thinking would naturally lend to the assumption that there are shades of gray (no reference to the book…lol) all along the continuum as well. Gray lies would then also have that capacity oftentimes be very hurtful.

But…so can white lies, should the person lied to find out they were indeed lied to.

Degree of injury would be quite a subjective measure. Some people tend to have a softer disposition than others, and further emotional injuries will often fade in time. Devastation now may equal growth at a later moment in life.

Should the continuum then be result? According to The Gentlemen’s Magazine, a white lie would be created for the purpose of entertainment or “amusing others”. By this, a cocktail exaggeration would be a white lie meant to amuse guests with stories of wild ridiculousness. A black lie then would mean to sadden or bore guests?

Perhaps the continuum isn’t result at all, but instead the amount of exaggeration. If a white lie is an exaggeration for amusement, would a black lie be void of exaggeration at all and therefore seeded in only truth?

By modern definition, a white lie would imply that the falsehood is intended to spare another’s feelings. Should the continuum be motive? Rather than a small trivial mistruth to spare another, would a black lie seek to tear them completely down? Would it be the most serious aggression imaginable?

In my professional life, I run into these philosophical dilemmas every day. If research is to seek the ultimate truth, science teaches us that the measure by which to get at that truth must be objective. But the real world is not necessarily confined by absolute truths.   Humans and their behavior are most certainly not confined by absolutes. And sometimes it takes human insight and philosophy to ponder the deeper issues in social science. The science of classification then gives way to the art of discernment, and while we may never know if we are right, we will know we have applied a level of thinking and evaluation that merits a fresh view.


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