Today, I'm writing Part Three of my mini-series on honesty. (If you're interested, read Part One and Part Two.)
Last time, I talked about little white lies, which some people say are okay to tell. Other people think you shouldn't tell lies, even little white ones. So the question remains: when is it okay to tell lies?
The traditional example of "when it's okay to lie" comes from Immanuel Kant, who wrote a special appendix about this topic in one of his books. The example is this. Your friend--let's call him Hans--is inside your house, when someone knocks on the door. You answer the door, and see Gottileb, the local axe murderer. "Hi, I'm here to kill your friend Hans!" Gottileb says, showing off his axe. "Is he inside your house right now?"
The question: Is it okay to lie in this situation?
Most discussions about lying come down to this. People think you should never lie, unless something really bad will happen as a result of telling the truth.
Kant still insists that it's never okay to lie (or do anything else that is bad). In the above situation, he says you should say something like, "I refuse to tell you where Hans is." That's not a lie, right? But it's also not doing a bad thing by betraying your friend.
So that's one answer to the question of what to do in situations where it seems like telling the truth could be tricky: say something else. Change the topic, or say something on-topic which is true, but less dangerous to say. Those are both good ways to get out of a tricky situation without lying.
Of course, you don't want to push it to the extreme where you're playing word games and twisting the truth with every word, which is tantamout to lying. But I'm sure you already knew that.