The One Where I Told a Little Lie

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

Can you go through life and never tell a lie?

Honesty is the best policy. But it's a policy -- not an unbreakable rule.1

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 working toward my (first) Ph.D., I taught several 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 papers I was grading. Afterward, I used the student ID numbers to match the term papers with their 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 particular 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?


  1. That was told to me by Joe Girard (1928-2019), who was listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as "the world's greatest salesman."

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."