|Is lying really ALWAYS a bad thing?|
There are two major theories of moral philosophy that seems to disagree about this question. The first being that of utilitarianism, which is the moral theory which states that an action is right if “of the possible actions open to you, you should choose the one that will do the greatest good for the greatest number, that is, the one that will maximize happiness.”2 By this moral theory, one can justify lies if the outcome of the lie would increase overall happiness in the world. This theory seems logical, in situations where it is gray whether or not to tell the truth or not. While telling a lie is generally wrong, sometimes telling a lie can be morally acceptable. For example, when a friend asks if he or she is fat when they are almost 300 pounds. Truthfully, that person probably is “fat”, but the natural response as a human is to say “No, not at all,” or “You aren’t that fat,” when, in reality, both are lies. There are many examples like this that can be made and it seems that looking from a utilitarianist standpoint, lying in certain situations is good, not evil.
However, Immanuel Kant offers a somewhat different approach with the theory of deontology, or trying to always follow a moral code without considering consequences of the actions one is performing2. He claims that people should never be considered a means, but rather an end3. He examines the problems with utilitarianism, which he considers dangerous if it is taken to the extreme level. For example, if five patients were in desperate need for a transplant of some kind, and Joe Shmo is compatible with all of them, utilitarianism seems to suggest that it is morally right to sacrifice Joe against his will to save the five patients, since it would result in greater happiness. After all, only one life is lost (which results in sadness for Joe’s family), but five lives are saved (which results in happiness for the families of the patients). Kant believes that utilitarianism is dangerous, and argues the best way to discover what is morally right or wrong is to follow a moral code. A common objection to Kant is the Anne Frank case4, which asks if one is hiding Jews in one’s Attic in Germany during the time of World War II, and a Nazi official asks if he or she is harboring Jews, does that mean it is morally wrong to lie to the officer, knowing that when captured, the Jews will be killed? Kant bites the bullet on this one, and defends his belief by claiming that it is wrong to lie in this case because behind every lie it is impossible to calculate the overall happiness that results. For all Kant knows, the Jews he was harboring in his attic could have escaped to an alley. So if Kant were to lie and told the Nazi official to check the alley, then his lie would backfire. Kant also argues that letting someone die is not the same as killing someone, so the only way to preserve one’s moral integrity in this case is to tell the truth. One objection to Kant’s explanation is that it is somewhat of a paradox. They claim in order to defend his viewpoint of “ignoring consequences of moral actions”, he uses possible consequences as an example. Another common objection is that deontology is simply irresponsible, since never considering the consequences of our actions could lead to disaster.
Now, Kant’s theory requires one very important thing, a way to determine how to come up with a “moral code.” Since morals are often disagreed upon from person to person, and one could easily justify themselves by Kant’s view by claiming their action is of their “moral code,” Kant explains how we are to determine whether or not an action is right or wrong. He calls this the “Universal Law Theory,” which is actually quite simple. Kant claims that an action is right only if a principle created by the action, or a “maxim” can be wished to become a global principle without contradictions. In the example of lying, we could not possibly wish a maxim of deceitfulness become a universal law.5 This is because deceitfulness would no longer work, and contradict itself. If everyone was dishonest all the time, no one would believe each other and therefore by our definition of “to lie,” which requires the person being told the false statement to believe it, it would become impossible to lie. For that reason, lying as a maxim could not become a universal law, and therefore it is our duty to not lie as a part of our moral code. Many opponents to Kant’s view claim that it is actually possible to create a maxim where lying is acceptable in some situations. A common example is the case of the questioning murderer.6 The thought experiment is as follows: a murderer comes to one’s door and asks if someone, for example one’s brother, is home. The problem is there is a probability that there is already deception in this case, the fact that the murderer will probably not reveal that he is a murderer. If the murderer came to one’s door and asked, “I want to murder your brother is he home?” then a maxim of “lying to save your brother from a murderer” would not work because the murderer would not simply believe anyone’s answer. However, let us suppose that the murderer does not reveal himself to be a murderer, and then the maxim becomes “lying to a murderer who is not aware you know he is a murderer to save your brother.” This maxim, claims the opponents of Kant, can become a universal rule which seems to contradict that the Universal Law theory stops lies in all cases. While this is a legitimate objection and it seems to cause a problem for the Natural Law theory, it can be argued that it is simply not practical since, in almost every case, one will have no way of knowing the person one is speaking to is a murderer or not.
It does seem to me that Kant’s theory of deontology seems to be more likely to be correct. After all, most of the time we as humans do not have time to calculate the results of every decision we make and how it will affect other people. Especially since we as humans cannot see the future nor can we calculate how our actions will affect something that we have no knowledge of, it seems illogical to think in terms of utilitarianism. However, it is important to realize that utilitarianism seems to be a metaphysical answer, or a definitive answer as whether it is right or wrong to lie. However, deontology seems to be an epistemological answer to the question, or a test that we as humans can perform for whether or not something is right or wrong. An example is the case of Hitler’s mother. Assumably, Hitler’s mother must have cared for baby Hitler much like other mother’s did. At the very least, she fed him and cared for him until he was an adult. But would it have been right for Hitler’s mother to instead have killed him as a baby? Taking a look from the utilitarianist viewpoint, Hitler’s mother killing baby Hitler would be “morally right”, since it would result in greater happiness in the world as a result then if she let him grow up. However, by the deontologist standpoint, it would still be wrong for Hitler’s mother to kill baby Hitler, since killing is always wrong. But it seems to me that this is only because in the general case, it is wrong for a mother to kill her child. So deontology seems to be more of a test for moral truth, as opposed as telling us what is right or wrong.
Many Christian philosophers have also looked towards the Bible to help solve this difficult question. One of the very elite ten commandments even reads “Thou shall not bear false witness,” in other words to tell a lie. The Bible seems to support this claim with a few exceptions. For example, the most obvious example is the story of Rahab. The story is a commonly told bible tale. When the Jewish spies were spying on Jericho, a city in which they planning to conquer, a women named Rahab agreed to help hide them from the king’s men in return for being spared when the Jews invaded Jericho. On one occasion, the Bible specifically mentions that she lies to the king’s men when pressed on the matter. And yet, Rahab was blessed and her household spared by God after the Jews conquered Jericho. This raises an important question: Does God condone some sort of situational lying? There are two responses to this “contradiction”. The first was that she was blessed and saved due to the spies’ promise to Rahab in response to her lying. So she was not blessed because of her lying, but rather, she was blessed as a fulfillment of a promise, despite her lies. Secondly, Allen Webster describes another possibility, “Rahab lied, true, but God never complimented this action. She was a heathen, not yet even converted to Judaism…. She was saved in spite of her lying, and not because of it. She was a prostitute, but this text does not authorize such activity.”7 This is to say, that she was not blessed because of her lie, but was rather blessed for saving the spies, despite it.
It is my firm belief that lying ought to be considered to be always wrong. The possible benefits of lying does not seem to justify the drawbacks that may even be clouded from our reasoning. To be frank, when one asks a question, one wants to hear the truth, no matter how painful it may be. It may be the case that one is indeed sparing their 300-pound friend’s feelings when one says they are not fat, however, one is treating that person as a means to some end. The utilitarianist view seems to be an excuse for a much more greedy goal of the person telling a lie. It is easy to say that one is lying “for the greater good,” but it is not so easy to admit why one truly lies. In almost every case, lying is done for one of the two following reasons: 1) for the liar to gain some type of advantage in life, or 2) for the liar to avoid an uncomfortable situation. I submit the following question: When one tells their 300-pound friend they are not fat, are you really saying that to avoid hurting their feelings? Or, are you lying to protect yourself from an uncomfortable position that is knowing that you hurt your friend’s feelings? Utilitarianism wants to say you can justify a lie by looking at its outcome, but that is an impossibility, there is no way to see the outcome of an event in terms of overall happiness. Happiness is a loosely defined term, and on top of that, there is no way we could possibly consider the side-effects. For example, let us say that because one’s 300-pound friend believed the lie and therefore believed he was not fat. But that is no guarantee he will not otherwise find out of this fact. With the increased self-pride that the lie gave him, he may fall twice as hard when he discovers from someone else that he is quite “fat!” Furthermore, it could be the case that since one did not tell one’s friend that he is fat, that he does not take steps to fix the problem. It is no secret that overweight individuals have a shorter life-span then those who are not overweight, the lie could end in the friend having a shorter life. Sure, there are cases where it would be very hard to find contradictions like this, but my point still stands: there is no way to consider the complete effects of a decision to lie. Therefore, it is logical to choose the action that would generally be the best choice: to never lie at all.
However, this will always be a sticky subject. At times, lies can seem to be so right when one says them and it is easy to convince oneself that the lie is right. An example of this is lying to spare someone’s feelings or lying to save another individual. As we exam the arguments from both sides, I draw the inevitable conclusion that Kant was right in saying that it is “always wrong to lie.” While utilitarianism seems like it gives the obvious answer to the question, it is actually filled with more holes then truths. In essence, it is the Natural Law theory that makes the most sense in this question because it essentially asks what is most important, that being, “If everyone followed a certain code of morals, what moral code would be the ideal morals in this case?” And it seems completely obvious that in a world that no one lied, there would actually be no reason to lie. The reason deception seems necessary in today’s world is simply because deception already exists in today’s world, and utilitarianism ultimately fails to defend deceitfulness. Lying is wrong, and it being in society is a contributor to the moral decay that we are facing today. In simple conclusion, lying is never right.
1 "The Definition of Lying and Deception," in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition/
22 Sharon Kaye, “Philosophy for Teens: Question Life’s Big Ideas
44 Sharon Kaye, “Philosophy for Teens: Question Life’s Big Ideas
6 Christine Korsgaard, "The Right to Lie: Kant on dealing with Evil," Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn, 1986): 328-330.