Thursday, February 18, 2010

Is lying always wrong?

I'm listening to the audiobook Justice by Michael J. Sandel. Also the philosophy club discussed John Stuart Mill's Utilitarian ethics at the Feb 2010 meeting. Bentham's utilitarian ethics differs from Mill's utilitarian ethics. Mill is more of a humanitarian. His harm principle tempers the apparent callousness of Bentham's the greatest happiness at the cost of the individual.

The following are my interpretations. Just as a warning… interpretation might be wrong.

Is lying always wrong? That was one of the topic questions at the philosophy club meeting. Utilitarian ethics says that the result of an action must be taken into account before answering the question of right or wrong. Mill says that you have to take into account long term consequences when you use the utilitarian ethics theory.

At the meeting I said that I would be more inclined to say “lying is always wrong” than “killing is always wrong.” BUT I wonder if I’m getting lost in the forest because certainly I’d rather lie than kill someone if given the choice between those two.

Lying is tempting. Killing isn’t tempting to me. Plus you can set rules as to WHEN killing might be a good idea. I don’t think you can come up with rules as to WHEN lying is OK.

Society and friendships and business relationships and politics all work better if we can rely on what people tell us. Relationships and communication work better if no one lies. IF you can rely on what people tell you, I think life is easier.

Of course life is easier if no one kills you also. :-) BUT you can set parameters for killing. As long as I don’t try to kill someone else, I can be reasonably sure that no one is going to try to kill me. And if someone tries to kill me, they can be reasonably sure that I might try to kill them.

BUT the same isn’t true of lying. Always telling the truth builds character. If you lie once, it’s easier to lie the next time. IF you form the habit of ALWAYS telling the truth, then your character is strengthened.

I worry about someone that is willing to lie to make his life easier.  Can you rely on his word?  Is that someone with whom you'd like to do business?  Is that the person you want as a close friend?  Or would you prefer to have a business associate or a close friend whom you can believe?
Of course, you want to know for sure that he won't kill you.  I feel a little silly comparing lying to killing.  BUT that was the question that we pondered at the philosophy club.  And of course if someone asks me "would you prefer to have a friend that you know won't kill you or that you know won't lie to you" then of course I'd pick "won't kill me."
So have I changed my mind?  Not exactly.   I think there are times where killing is a good idea like in self defense....but I think that there is never a good time for lying.
IF you live your life so that you NEVER need to lie, then you have built a life with the potential to be a life of which you can be proud.
Are there exceptions in time of war? If it's a moral war then certainly killing maybe necessary. But I hope that as a species we're moving away from violence as a solution to disagreements. In time of war, would lying be ok?  I ponder it and must conclude that if it is a moral war then the answer is yes.
BUT most of us are not living in war as I'm defining it. A war is something like fighting Hitler NOT just wanting to get your way.

I think perhaps the courts agree with me because they allow us to plead the 5th.   That allows us an out.   It says "I don't want to answer that question."  And I think that's acceptable.  IF someone asks you a question and you feel like lying, just trying saying "I don't want to answer that question."  If you make a conscious effort NOT to EVER lie, you're helping out your subconscious.  Things we do by habit are easier.  Build your character with GOOD building blocks.


  1. forward from wikipedia:
    Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance. If it is universally acceptable to lie, then no one would believe anyone and all truths would be assumed to be lies. Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences.
    forward from wikipedia:
    One of the first major challenges to Kant's reasoning came from the Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant, who asserted that since truth telling must be universal, according to Kant's theories, one must (if asked) tell a known murderer the location of his prey. This challenge occurred while Kant was still alive, and his response was the essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives (sometimes translated On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns). In this reply, Kant agreed with Constant's inference, that from Kant's premises one must infer a moral duty not to lie to a murderer.

    Kant denied that such an inference indicates any weakness in his premises: not lying to the murderer is required because moral actions do not derive their worth from the expected consequences. He claimed that because lying to the murderer would treat him as a mere means to another end, the lie denies the rationality of another person, and therefore denies the possibility of there being free rational action at all. This lie results in a contradiction in conceivability and therefore the lie is in conflict with duty.

    It is important to note here that "not lying" is not the same as "telling the truth". Clearly, one is under no positive obligation to assist a murderer by telling him the truth. Saying nothing is not the same as lying. So, one may refuse to answer, or even choose to challenge the murderer.

  2. The philosophy club is discussing two of Harry Frankfurt's books: "On Bullshit" and "On Truth"

    Both of those books espouse the theory that lying and/or having a disregard for the truth is bad for relationships and bad for society.