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The Honest-to-Goodness Truth

By Patricia C. McKissack, Atheneum Books


When her mother catches her in a lie, Libby is punished and vowed “From now on, only the truth.” Libby begins to blatantly tell the truth about everything and everyone, and soon enough, Libby’s friends become angry with her. But since she thinks that she’s doing the right thing, Libby finds it hard to understand why her truth-telling turned out to be a bad thing. It takes Libby being on the receiving end of truth-telling for her to understand how the truth can be hurtful, and she proceeds to make amends with her friends. By the end, Libby learns that while she should not lie, it is not always necessary to blurt out the whole truth either and there is a right and wrong way to tell people the truth.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Ronteau Coppin

The story raises many questions about lying and telling the truth, especially with regards to the conditions under which it is permissible to lie. In this interesting story, Libby decides to tell the truth, no matter what. In reading this story, it is quite evident how issues of morality and consequences concerning truth are raised. Additionally, the reader is able to question the nature and value of truth. Given that the central point of this story is never to lie and always to tell the truth, it is imperative to understand the main philosophical approaches to lying and telling the truth, namely deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics.

One of the most famous philosophers, Immanuel Kant, supports deontology, which asks us as rational people to do our duty despite what the consequences might be. So in regards to lying and telling the truth, Kant would say that people should always tell the truth as he believed lying to be morally wrong. In the story, Libby starts out with a lie and then vows always to tell the truth, and her doing so satisfies Kant's imperative. Essentially Kant thought that lying undermines one's moral worth and causes others to act differently or irrationally because they have been denied access to the truth. Furthermore, he argued that lying individuals could not be trusted because one would never know whether they're lying or telling the truth. When Libby blurts out the truth all the time, it is easier to believe her because all she speaks is the truth, but is it right for her to do so just because it's the truth? Should she have taken into account people's feelings? A utilitarian would say Libby ought to.

Utilitarian ethics is another philosophical approach to lying and truth-telling which says that one ought to balance the pros and cons, or in other words, the benefits and harms. So if a lie would do more good than it would bad, then one ought to lie, but if it does more bad than good, then one ought to tell the truth. Basically a utilitarian would weigh the outcomes and then make a decision. In the case of Libby's truth-telling, a utilitarian would say that she was in some cases morally wrong because she hurt her friend's feelings, as when she called out Ruthie Mae's holey stockings. But at the same time, telling the truth could be seen as a greater good than being concerned about someone's feelings, as when Libby tells her neighbor that the garden looked like a jungle. Either telling the truth or sparing someone's feelings is a personal choice based on what a person determines to be the greater good. But what if someone’s personal choice for the greater good regarding lying is misinformed in a given circumstance? Is there any way for them to know how to better choose a greater good? A virtue ethicist would say the identification of a “greater good” is pointless because lies are morally wrong.

Virtue ethics says that lying is morally wrong because it opposes the virtue of honesty. Additionally, it focuses on the development of character so if an action, namely lying, doesn't make one a better person then doing that action would be morally wrong. In the story, Libby's mother somewhat represents the virtue ethicist position as she doesn't appreciate nor does she value her daughter's lying. It's almost as if she does not want Libby to become tainted with telling lies. But is the “always tell the truth” position right? What if lying actually makes her a better person? For example, in the instance in which the elderly neighbor asks Libby about what she thinks about her garden, should Libby have lied in the form of flattery just to spare the old lady's feelings? Is it possible that a consideration for someone else's feelings can make one a better or more virtuous person?

Though it seems that these three philosophical approaches (deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics) to lying and telling the truth are tangled within each other, The Honest-to-Goodness Truth allows children to explore many aspects of truth in a fun and self-reflective manner.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

By Ronteau Coppin

Truth and Punishment/Consequences

When Libby is punished for lying to her mother, she vows “From now on, only the truth.”

  1. Do you think Libby should have vowed always to tell the truth? Why or why not?
  2. If she never got caught, do you think Libby would have continued to lie?
  3. Is lying only wrong if you get caught?
  4. If there were no consequences, would lying be okay?

Truth regarding Someone’s Feelings

Ruthie Mae tells Libby that what she said was mean and all of Libby’s other friends are upset with her.

  1. Why were Libby’s friends mad at her?
  2. Do you think that Libby began to change her truth-telling only because she lost her friends? Should she have known better?
  3. What harm can be caused by being too truthful?
  4. Does it even matter if the truth is mean, or if it hurts?
  5. Should the truth be “watered-down” so as to spare someone’s feelings?
  6. Does that become a lie?

Libby tells her teacher that another student didn’t do his homework.

  1. Do you think it was right for Libby to do that?
  2. Is there a difference between telling the truth and tattling on someone?

Libby’s mother tells her that “Sometimes the truth is told at the wrong time or in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons. And that can be hurtful. But the honest-to-goodness truth is never wrong.”

  1. What do you think her mother means?
  2. What is the “honest-to-goodness truth?”
  3. Why didn’t Libby understand what her mother meant?
  4. Do you think Libby really needed to experience a hurtful truth herself to finally understand why her friends were mad at her?

Choosing between Truth & Fiction

  1. Which is easier: telling a lie or telling the truth?
  2. Is it always necessary to speak the truth?
  3. Can the truth ever be wrong? In what sense?
  4. Is there ever a good reason to lie?
  5. What about lies that are not deceptive, like flattery? Are those wrong too? Why or why not?
  6. Why do we tell the truth? What are our reasons for telling the truth?

The Nature of Truth

  1. Is not telling the truth automatically lying? Is there a middle ground?
  2. Is there actually a time or a situation where deceit is not only allowed, but necessary?

This book module deals with ethics, specifically friendship. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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