THIS principle respecting the observation of truth in the common intercourses of life cannot perhaps be better illustrated than from the familiar and trivial case, as it is commonly supposed, of a master directing his servant to say he is not at home. No question of morality can be foreign to the science of politics; nor will those few pages of the present work be found perhaps the least valuable which, here, and in other places,1 are dedicated to the refutation of those errors in private individuals that, by their extensive sway, have perverted the foundation of moral and political justice. Not to mention that such speculations may afford an amusement and relief in the midst of discussions of a more comprehensive and abstracted character.
Let us then, according to the well known axiom of morality, put ourselves in the place of the man upon whom this ungracious task is imposed. Is there any of us that would be contented to perform it in person, and to say that our father or our brother was not at home, when they were really in the house? Should we not feel contaminated with the plebeian lie? Can we then be justified in requiring that from another which we should shrink from, as an act of dishonour, in ourselves?
Whatever sophistry we may employ to excuse our proceeding, certain it is that the servant understands the lesson we teach him, to be a lie. It is accompanied by all the retinue of falsehood. Before it can be skilfully practised, he must be no mean proficient in hypocrisy. By the easy impudence with which it is uttered, he best answers the purpose of his master, or in other words the purpose of deceit. By the same means, he stifles the upbraidings of his own mind, and conceals the shame imposed on him. Before this can be sufficiently done, he must have discarded all frankness of speech, and all ingenuousness of countenance. Some visitors are so ill-bred, as not immediately to take this answer without further examination; and some, unknown to the servant, are upon such unceremonious terms with his master as to think themselves entitled to treat the denial with incredulous contempt. Upon either of these suppositions, the insolence and prevarication of the servant must be increased, or his confusion rendered more glaring and despicable. When he has learned this degenerate lesson upon one subject, who will undertake that it shall produce no unfavourable effects upon his general conduct? But it is said, "This lie is necessary, and the intercourse of human society cannot be carried on without it. My friend may visit me at a time when it would be exceedingly inconvenient to me to see him; and this practice affords a fortunate alternative between submitting to have my occupations at the mercy of any accidental visitor on the one hand, and offending him with a rude denial on the other."
But let us ask, from what cause it is that truth, upon the simplest occasion, should be so offensive to our delicacy, and falsehood so requisite to soothe us? He must, in reality, be the weakest of mankind who should take umbrage at a plain answer in this case, when he was informed of the moral considerations that induced me to employ it. In fact, we are conscious of caprice in our mode of deciding respecting our visitors, and are willing to shelter our folly under this sort of irresponsibility. Would it be worthy of regret if we compelled ourselves to part with this refuge for our imbecility, and to do nothing which we were ashamed to be known to do?
A further argument which has been urged in favour of this disingenuous practice is that "there is no other way by which we can free ourselves from disagreeable acquaintance." Thus it is one of the perpetual effects of polished society to persuade us that we are incapable of doing the most trivial office for ourselves. It would be as reasonable to tell me "that it is a matter of indispensable necessity to have a valet to put on my stockings." If there be, in the list of our acquaintance, any person whom we particularly dislike, it usually happens that it is for some moral fault that we perceive or think we perceive in him. Why should he be kept in ignorance of our opinion respecting him, and prevented from the opportunity either of amendment or vindication? If he be too wise or too foolish, too virtuous or too vicious for us, why should he not be ingenuously told of his mistake in his intended kindness to us, rather than suffered to find it out by six months enquiry from our servant? If we practised no deceit, if we assumed no atom of cordiality and esteem we did not feel, we should be little pestered with these buzzing intruders. But one species of falsehood involves us in another; and he that pleads for these Iying answers to our visitors in reality pleads the cause of a cowardice that dares not deny to vice the distinction and kindness that are due to virtue.
Vide Appendices to Book II, Chap. II.