On Lying

Anyone who has taught an introductory course in ethics has discussed the morality of lying, and most of us find that few people endorse an absolute prohibition against lying. Though we like to reject “situation ethics,” we tend to say that whether one should lie “depends on the situation.”

Lies (Photo credit: Gerard Stolk (vers l’Avent))

Against Kant’s absolute prohibition of lying, we offer the Murderer at the Door who wants to kill our innocent children. Surely, we should lie to throw the murderer off the trail of our children and, one would hope, into the hands of the police. This kind of lie is justified because it saves or has the potential to prevent great harm, or so it seems to some of us who don’t find Kant compelling.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find ourselves wanting to demand the truth even when dishonesty (or withholding the truth) appears harmless. We have the case of police who have taken embarrassing photos of an assault victim to be used as evidence against the perpetrator but who then use the photos for the amusement of themselves and their colleagues. The victim may never be affected by this secondary use of the photos so long as the victim remains completely unaware of them. Doing such a thing seems quite wrong, though, or at least it does for me.

In relationships, we have all kinds of information that could help or hurt our partners. Should we tell them what their friends have said about them behind their backs? Should we go so far as to tell a complete lie (“No, Susan has never said an unkind word about you!)? Learning every detail of what your friends and colleagues have said about you is likely to be painful at best. I personally recommend sheltering yourself from this as much as possible. I also think it is possible to share too much information.

On the other hand, if your friends are so hateful towards you that they cannot be considered friends, you might want to know that. So, we are tempted to say we want complete honesty except when it is more painful or harmful than a lie. This leads to the problem that we do not always know what is better or worse in the end. Lies have unintended consequences, and we feel responsible for their consequences while we do not feel personally responsible for the consequences of the truth, although many people have said something along the lines of “I never should have told the truth!”

So, we are left with decisions based on the context and situation. We must choose between protecting someone’s feelings and offering full disclosure. There are a number of things we can consider in our decisions. First, I think we may consider how the other person will react if the dishonesty is discovered. Many people have said that if their death is imminent, they would want their friends and family to lie to them.

We can also consider our own motivation for the lie. Are we lying to protect others or to protect ourselves from taking responsibility for our own actions? When we are only trying to cover our own footprints to avoid having to confront truths about ourselves or our actions, I think the lie is most likely not justified.

Finally, as much as consequences cannot be predicted, we really must think of what outcome we are trying to achieve. In many ways, this last consideration echoes the first two, but it deserves a little focus on its own. We must think of what good the lie may produce if it is believed and what pain it may produce if it is exposed. I suppose we must also attempt to evaluate what pain may result if a lie is believed. (E.g., what is the harm in telling people they will live 10 years when you know they have only a few hours left?)

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