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Buddhistdoor View: The Morality of Lies and Falsehoods

Hogeweyk, a Dutch care home for people with dementia, is an entire village that provides a façade of normal life for its residents. From medaesthetics.wordpress.com

Some weeks ago Buddhistdoor published a report about Hogewey Care Centre, a Dutch care home for people with dementia that in 2009 built an entire village that provides a façade of normal life for its residents. The village, “Hogeweyk,” comes complete with a restaurant, gardens, and health workers who assume fictional personas such as that of neighbors or shopkeepers, to help the residents function as if they were still living in conventional society. Dementia care centers elsewhere are also adopting a similar methodology of simulated normality, such as Grove Care in the British city of Bristol.

The Hogeweyk model raises an interesting question about what it means to tell lies or to create falsehoods, ostensibly for the benefit of others. From the perspective of care homes like Hogeweyk, it’s unproductive to remind patients of the “normal” world that they can no longer enjoy and which would only intensify their distress. It truly seems more helpful to provide a therapeutic outlet that might enable dementia sufferers to tell their attendants (who are trained specialists) about the buses they used to catch, or the streets down which they used to walk, even if that outlet is based on fabrication.

In this sense, the falsehood of Hogeweyk differs from the typical deceptions we encounter in everyday life because it has an ethical purpose based on compassion and care. Yet even well-intentioned lies can be morally ambiguous and have unintended adverse outcomes—a white lie is sometimes not even told for the benefit of the person being lied to, but for the liar’s own peace of mind. Telling an emotionally fragile person that their recently deceased loved one is still alive to avoid giving them the potentially devastating truth could have catastrophic consequences. A child questioning the existence of Santa Claus might justifiably ridicule the adult who persists in defending the myth.

Conversely, more misanthropically inclined people might adhere to a somewhat mean-spirited and disingenuous commitment to “telling it as it is” by delivering superficially truthful statements in a callous or hurtful way, without regard for the feelings of others or the context. This is the opposite of a white lie, and can be just as counterproductive and harmful. “Life is characterized by suffering,” the Buddha stated honestly, and since then his teachings have often been misunderstood as being pessimistic. But not only did the Buddha offer a real, practical solution to this truth, he was also infinitely compassionate; he was never an insensitive or hurtful person even when communicating great truths.

In everyday life, it’s usually advisable to tread a middle ground between lying for convenience and unskillful truth-telling. For the Buddhist, this middle ground is known as “skillful means.” In the Lotus Sutra skillful means are famously a concept indicating the Buddha’s ability to teach according to the inclinations and capacities of each being. The well-known 84,000 Dharma gates described in the Pali Canon (later adopted by the Mahayana) was intended to illustrate how many methods of teaching the Buddha had at his disposal, perhaps implying that anything in life can serve as an entryway into spiritual practice.

The concept of skillful means has since been expanded upon in popular Buddhist culture to mean something that is “handled well.” This is an incredibly broad category since the situations in which a Buddhist must necessarily apply compassion and wisdom are endless, and include relatively common contexts such as comforting a child over the death of a loved one or defusing a heated confrontation between friends, as well as more sensitive situations such as handling an emotionally distressed person spewing verbal abuse, or comforting someone who has just accepted that she is extremely disliked. Dealing with these situations requires not merely the blunt instrument of the truth, but the deftness of knowing when and how to wield it.

Skillful means are flexible because human life and relations are messy, subject to chance and circumstance, and riddled with hypocrisies and contingencies that can’t be anticipated by neatly laid out doctrines and philosophies. Therefore, while we should seek to tell the truth whenever possible, what happens when we are confronted by shades of grey? When telling the unvarnished truth is not always the most skillful or ethical thing to do?

Another good example of skillful means (perhaps less dramatic than that of Hogeweyk) is the case of a child in hospital who was unresponsive to a counseling pastor. The counselor decided to use a plush toy, which he imbued with a name and personality, inviting the child to interact with it rather than directly with himself. It helped to give the little girl enough emotional and mental space that she felt comfortable relating her pain and anxieties to the toy, although it was obvious even to her that the pastor was creating a “fiction.”

For a situation as serious as coping with dementia, it becomes clear that extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary skills—skills that many of us might not possess. More often in our everyday lives we encounter a muddled morass of human vulnerabilities that need to be treated sensitively, and this will sometimes mean the need to employ fictions or, put more bluntly, lies. The question is how skillfully and ethically such fictions are deployed.

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Dutch Home for Dementia Sufferers Provides Simulation of Normal Life (Buddhistdoor Global)

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