The Jewish Ethicist: Intention to Mislead
In representing my firm, can I tell a white lie?
Q. My industry research for my consulting firm requires me to call up companies to ask about their businesses. In order to allay suspicions about my motives, I tell them I am a student studying their industry. Can I continue with this practice?
A. Jewish law takes a very negative view of misleading practices. The legal term we use is geneivat da'at, or "stealing judgment." The terminology reveals the underlying ethical judgment: that misleading others is akin to stealing from them.
Even passive misleading is condemned. The Talmud tells the story of the great Talmudic sage Mar Zutra who set out for the town of Machoza. On the way he met two distinguished scholars, Rava and Rav Safra, and told them how honored he was that they took the trouble to come and greet him on the way.
Rav Safra gently disabused Mar Zutra of his mistake, saying: "Of course if we had known you were coming we would have taken even more trouble." Rava then explained that it was unnecessary to make an explanation, since Mar Zutra had no real basis to think they were coming to greet him. But if the circumstances really had pointed to this conclusion, there would have been an obligation to make clear to Mar Zutra that they hadn't exerted themselves on his behalf, to avoid creating a false sense of obligation and gratitude towards them. (1)
It's true that an occasional "white lie" is sanctioned. The school of Hillel teach that we should always praise the bride at a wedding, calling her "comely and charming." The opposing academy of Shammai objected: The Torah tells us "Distance yourself from falsehood!" (Exodus 23:7) The students of Hillel explain that she is certainly comely and charming in the eyes of the groom, so there is no misleading here. (2)
Likewise, our tradition tells us that Aaron used to make peace between feuding neighbors or spouses by telling each one that the other is sorry for his behavior and anxious to make peace. In the end, Aaron's story became self-fulfilling and the two sides would be reconciled. (3)
However, there are several important differences between these cases and your question. The main difference is that in the cases of Hillel and Aaron, the "white lie" is actually for the benefit of the person being misled. The bride is happy to hear herself praised, and the neighbors are happy to be reconciled. This is much different than your case, where the misleading statement is meant only for your own benefit.
Another difference is that your practice is habitual. The Talmud tells the story of Rav, who had a strained relationship with his wife. Often when he would make a request, she would do exactly the opposite. When he began to relay requests through their son Chiya, Rav's wife began to respect his requests. When Rav mentioned this to his son, Chiya corrected him, explaining that he reversed the requests! Rav praised his son's sensitivity but instructed him not to continue, since this was an ongoing practice and could accustom and inure him to untruth. (4) He quoted the reproof of the prophet Jeremiah (9:4): "And each one mocks his fellow, and truth they tell not; they accustomed their tongue to falsehood, they are weary from iniquity."
Since you work for a large firm, this practice is almost certainly forbidden by your employer's code of ethics, which is binding for you. Virtually all large firms today have explicit clauses forbidding this kind of action. For example, the code of ethics of the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals requires members "To accurately disclose all relevant information, including one's identity and organization, prior to all interviews."
It seems to me that this practice is not only improper, but also counterproductive. The companies you contact are obviously suspicious that your call is from a competitor or muckraker or the like. A vague explanation that you are an "interested student" probably does little to allay their fears. It's not like you say, "My name is Shira Schwarz and I'm an MBA student at Shlepp State University, doing a paper on your industry." If you were to clearly identify your name, your firm, and your objective, making clear that you are only a researcher and not an adversary, you would do much more to reassure them. A letter from your firm's secure server, together with a cc to some responsible individual, will go a long way to convince them that you are on the up and up.
Try also to make the subject a beneficiary of their participation. For example, promise to provide them with some of the results of your research. Our Center does much research, and when we ask companies for information, we generally promise to send them afterwards a brief summary of our findings.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Chullin 94b. (2) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 17a (3) Avot deRebbe Natan chapter 12 (4) Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 63a.
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