Is lying always wrong?

Elon asked:

Is lying always wrong?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Few philosophers have held the view that lying is always wrong.

Plato famously commended the ‘noble lie’, a foundation myth told to the populace in his ideal republic to foster order and bolster the rulers’ position. To be fair, Plato felt it best if everybody, including the rulers, believed it, but, failing that, it would suffice if the others believed it. The myth was that all humans shared a bond, being born from the earth (this seems fair enough), but those born to rule had nobler metals in their souls implanted by the gods (gold for rulers, silver for auxiliaries, iron/bronze for artisans and farmers). This incurs the wrath of modern supporters of liberal-democratic, open societies, notably Popper, as being totalitarian or fascist. In addition, mating arrangements would be billed as random, so that any citizen felt she might become the parent of a ruler, but in reality rulers would emerge from deliberately matching the most talented. Lies, yes. Noble, I dont think so.

Of course in practice governments do lie to the people in the ‘national interest’. For example in wartime, the extent of casualties and setbacks was standardly kept secret lest it affect morale. These days it’s different (and better). Because of technological, not moral, advance. Instant electronic recording and communication of events makes it difficult for secretive governments. World War veterans would be amazed to see that the death of named individual British soldiers in Afghanistan is national news.

St Augustine notably held that all lying was wrong (sinful).

Kant argued for the same position without invoking religion. It is worth detailing his view because it is influential and perceptive, and because of how he dealt with a delicate issue in his own life.

Kant thought that his Categorical Imperative (treat humanity in yourself and in others always as an end, never as a means) entailed duties to oneself and to others. The duty not to lie is a duty to myself. Lying is wrong, not because it harms others (though it often does) but because it uses my rational nature as a means to deceive, it violates a rational being’s self-respect, it harms me. Worst of all is an ‘internal lie’ where I comes to believe my own lies.

Kant goes so far as saying that I musnt lie to an axe murderer at my door, as to the whereabouts of my friend, his intended victim, who is hiding in my back room. This seems extreme, and many argue (indeed Kant says as much in earlier writings) that sometimes a questioner has forfeited the right to the truth eg the axe murderer, or a torturer bent on getting me to disclose where my comrades are hiding. But Kant’s duties are unconditional (categorical) so there is a tension here in Kant’s views.

Kant’s own action is instructive as to how he deals with this tension. His antireligious writings annoyed the King and his censors who asked Kant to stop it. Kant appeased them with the statement ‘As your Majesty’s faithful subject, I shall… desist from all public lectures or papers on the subject’. He knew the old King would soon die, Kant would then no longer be his subject, and would be free to say what he liked. Kant later said his words were chosen ‘most carefully, so that I should not be deprived of my freedom… forever, but only so long as His Majesty was alive’. In short, he was guilty not of a lie, rather of a misleading truth, thereby preserving the letter of the moral law.

Others do the same. President Clinton’s approach to TV questioning about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was Kantian. He declared ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’. Later, admitting oral sex had occurred, he said this did not amount to ‘sexual relations’ understood as a procreative or potentially procreative act, so that he had not lied. Not an edifying example of a misleading truth though.

But consider this example:

My friend, very poor, has gone without to buy me a birthday gift. I open it, he smiles, anticipating my delight. A hideously patterned shirt that I will never wear is revealed. My options are:

1. Truth — ‘It’s hideous. I’ll never wear it.’

2. Lie (‘white lie’) — ‘It’s beautiful. Thank you.’

3. Misleading truth — ‘Wow! That’s really striking. Thanks very much.’

Surely the white lie is better than the hurtful truth, and maybe the misleading truth is best. Obviously the latter is generally applicable — I can tell the axe murderer (truthfully) ‘I saw my friend down the supermarket half an hour ago’.

So, I think white lies to avoid unnecessary hurt or offence, and lies to those bent on serious harm who arguably have no right to truth, are justifiable, and maybe a misleading truth is even better. Maybe government lying to the people can sometimes be seen as being in one of these two justifiable categories.

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