P R E C a U T I O N a R Y P R I N C I P L E

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What we call 'white lies' are those untruths which we tell in order to minimize harm, embarrassment or distress. In doing so, we moderate what we and others know, think or feel. We usually tell white lies to help others, though it may also be for our own benefit. Often, both we and others benefit, for example in the way that white lies help sustain our good relationship. If you add up the all the harm that telling the truth would create and subtract the harm caused from telling a white lie, then this gives some measure of the net benefit of the white lie. We could hence define white lies as 'Untruths that reduce net harm'. This is a little coarse as it can be really helpful for us and harmful for others and still come out as a positive. What might be called altruistic white lies may be defined as 'Untruths that reduce net harm to others'. This is more likely to fit into the common understanding of white lies being 'good' (ie. of benefit to others). An even purer form of white lie is one that is only ever helpful. This can be simply defined 'Untruths that do no harm'. The important aspect of such lies is nobody is harmed, so the net harm is always guaranteed to be zero or only ever helpful. Types of white lie

Here are a several types of lie that we typically describe as 'white'. Outright lies
White lies may be completely opposite to the truth, For example, when a person thinks their partner's clothes are unattractive but still says they 'look good'. Outright lies may be somewhat exaggerated in order to negate any suspicious of the truth. Hence a person may say 'you look absolutely wonderful' rather than simply 'you look good'. Softened truths

Sometimes we try to tell the truth but end up avoiding the whole truth, for example saying that some other clothes might be more appropriate when the truth is that we hate the clothes being show us. Softened truths often include qualifiers that seek to reduce the impact of the truth, for example when a person says that they prefer different clothes or that the clothes are not very flattering. Careful omissions

There are also white lies of omission, where there is a clear opportunity to say something but comment is avoided, for example where a person makes excuses to leave when comments on clothes might get invited. Omissions may be made using methods such as changing the subject, feigning confusion, passing the buck to someone else, excusing oneself to leave or simply avoiding being there in the first place. Gray lies

In an obvious metaphor, 'gray lies' are not as pure and selfless as white lies. The principle also implies there are many shades of gray. In practice, almost all white lies have some shade of gray in them. There are also black lies that have no white in them (ie. the liar does nothing to help the other person). Reasons for white lies

Why do we tell white lies? Here are several reasons.
Avoiding distress
A common situation where 'white lies' are told is where you have negative feelings about someone else or think they are wrong in some way. Knowing that telling them about these thoughts would cause distress, you tell white lies. We also tell white lies to reduce our own empathetic distress. When we value the happiness of others, telling them the truth can be uncomfortable. Women in particular, who tend to put more emphasis on relationships, are more likely to tell white lies. Avoiding harm

We may also tell white lies to avoid harm to others, for example where we know a friend has told a relatively harmless lie to another person, we back up what they have said. We may also avoid telling harmful truths about them, for example not telling their manager that they left work early one day. Sometimes such lies are not particularly white, but we frame them as such because our intentions are good, for example when we protect a friend who done something that is clearly wrong. Telling white lies to avoid harm to oneself is even less white. We may tell ourselves that the...
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