The Ethics of Lying

Posted: January 1st, 2009 under philosophy, psychology.
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Some argue that lies are justified when truth would gratuitously cause or heighten conflict. What justifies the lie is the benefit of its outcome; if more good than harm flows from its telling, it is justified.

German philosopher and moral absolutist Immanuel Kant believed that lying is always wholly unacceptable. He based this on his general principle that we should treat each human being as an end in itself, and never as a mere means. As a deontologist, he focused on the motives or reasons behind action rather than its consequences.


The consequentialist view, by contrast, argues that moral value lies not in our actions but in their consequences. Utilitarianist John Stewart Mill argued that we should always aim at ensuring the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and that, for instance, telling a lie in particular circumstances is good if telling that lie produces good consequences.

Sometimes a lie, a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive, seems the perfect response: A brother lies about his sister’s where-abouts to the drunken husband threatening to harm her, a doctor tells a depressed patient that he has a 50-50 chance of long-term recovery when she is confident he’ll live only six months, a son gives his late mother’s estate to the poor after promising to honor her demand that the money be placed in her coffin. When trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation, perfect honesty may seem second best next to values like compassion, respect, and justice. Yet many philosophical and religious traditions have long claimed that rarely, if ever, is a lie permissible.

~Tim C. Mazur, Santa Clara University

These would all be considered noble lies. Mazur suggests that the brother is motivated by compassion for his sister’s physical safety. The doctor knows that her patient could likely fall deeper into depression, but with the hope of recovery will most likely cherish his remaining time. The son knows his mother would ask someone else to settle her affairs if he declared his true intentions; the money would be wasted or stolen, and the poor would be denied an opportunity to benefit.

What about white lies, the kind one tells to avoid offending someone? Is it necessary to be brutally honest when giving your opinion about the quality of a haircut or the attractiveness of an outfit? Or is withholding some truth justified if it would save that person pain and insult which would serve no purpose? Most of us wish to appear “good” and “nice” and to maintain healthy relationships with others. Yet if our lack of honesty were discovered, we would likely lose credibility and trust. And perhaps we are doing someone a disservice by being “nice,” when they truly want or need an honest opinion.

Laurie got upset when I used the word puke.  But to me, that's what her dinner tasted like.  ~Jack Handey

Laurie got upset when I used the word "puke". But to me, that's what her dinner tasted like. ~Jack Handey

The intimacy of your relationship with someone determines the amount of your disclosure. Brent and I are completely open, honest, and frank with each other about everything. Not only is it important to have that level of openness and trust, but it behooves each of us to change, improve, and help each other to be a better person. I don’t want Brent to tell me how great my souffle is if he doesn’t really like it. It would be ridiculous for me to keep cooking something he hates just to avoid hurt feelings. Constructive criticism is healthy.

I think one can be tactful without being dishonest. I consider myself fairly diplomatic and I like to focus on the positive. I’m not going to tell someone I like their shirt if I actually don’t. But rather than say that I hate it, I may complement them on their shoes or the way they coordinated their outfit.

I don’t believe in lying to my daughters or entertaining any fanciful delusions. Brent and I have been completely open and honest with them about everything. We’ve discussed magic, religion, sex, and Santa Claus. Brent and the girls came to meet me for lunch on Christmas Eve last week while I was working. As we rode down the elevator to the cafeteria, a man asked Hayley who was coming to her house that night. She was a bit confused at first, but after a second or two she replied, “Mommy.” I explained to him that I would be coming home from work that night. I guess he thought she was expecting a visit from Santa. :-)

In most cases there does not seem to be any justification for lying. If you are easily offended and you only want to hear “nice” things, perhaps you shouldn’t ask someone for their opinion. But in such a case as disclosing the whereabouts of a potential victim to a murderer, an untruth would be altruistic and justified. Ethics and morals are not black and white. And they certainly cannot be learned from an ancient text.

1 Comment »

  1. Awesome post, Kirsten. I think too many people–especially religious simpletons–think of morality in binary terms. Few real-world scenarios are black and white.

    As you know, I value honesty far more than niceness. I’m glad you and I rarely hold back or pull punches. I think we are able to do that because we are confident in our love, which displaces insecurity. And I think our occasionally brutal honesty contributes significantly to the strength of our relationship.

    Doesn’t the edict, “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16), seem quaint when applied to complex real-world situations?

    Comment by brentdanley — January 1, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

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