Markkula Center of Applied Ethics


By Tim C. Mazur

"I don't dig into people's private lives. I never have." Ross Perot's brief statement on ABC News in July 1992 was meant to end allegations that he secretly investigated his presidential campaign volunteers. The allegations ended, but not the way Perot intended. Within hours, irrefutable evidence appeared that proved Perot had hired others to probe his people's pasts. By the next day, there was no question on anyone's mind: Ross Perot lied.

So what? It wasn't the first time a politician lied and it won't be the last. 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. What, then, is the truth about lying?

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong. He argued that all persons are born with an "intrinsic worth" that he called human dignity. This dignity derives from the fact that humans are uniquely rational agents, capable of freely making their own decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason. To be human, said Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, he continued, is to respect that power in oneself and others.

Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy. Kant believed that to value ourselves and others as ends instead of means, we have perfect duties (i.e., no exceptions) to avoid damaging, interfering with, or misusing the ability to make free decisions; in other words - no lying.

A second perspective, virtue ethics, also maintains that lying is morally wrong, though less strictly than Kant. Rather than judge right or wrong behavior on the basis of reason and what people should or should not do, virtue ethicists focus on the development of character or what people should be. Virtues are desirable qualities of persons that predispose them to act in a certain manner. Fairness, for example, is a virtue we may choose to strive toward in pursuit of fulfilling our human potential. In virtue ethics, to be virtuous is to be ethical.

Though the nature of virtue ethics makes it difficult to assess the morality of individual acts, those who advocate this theory generally consider lying wrong because it opposes the virtue of honesty. There is some debate whether a lie told in pursuit of another virtue (e.g., compassion: the brother's lie to his sister's drunken husband is motivated by compassion for her physical safety) is right or wrong. This apparent conflict between virtues is managed by most ethicists through a concept called the unity of the virtues. This doctrine states that the virtuous person, the ideal person we continuously strive to be, cannot achieve one virtue without achieving them all. Therefore, when facing a seeming conflict between virtues, such as a compassionate lie, virtue ethics charges us to imagine what some ideal individual would do and act accordingly, thus making the ideal person's virtues one's own. In essence, virtue ethics finds lying immoral when it is a step away, not toward, the process of becoming the best persons we can be.

According to a third perspective, utilitarian ethics, Kant and virtue ethicists ignore the only test necessary for judging the morality of a lie - balancing the benefits and harms of its consequences. Utilitarians base their reasoning on the claim that actions, including lying, are morally acceptable when the resulting consequences maximize benefit or minimize harm. A lie, therefore, is not always immoral; in fact, when lying is necessary to maximize benefit or minimize harm, it may be immoral not to lie. The challenge in applying utilitarian ethics to everyday decision making, however, is significant: one must correctly estimate the overall consequences of one's actions before making a decision. The following example illustrates what utilitarian decision makers must consider when lying is an option.

Recall the son and his dying mother described earlier. On careful reflection, the son reasons that honoring his mother's request to settle the estate and deposit the money in her coffin cannot be the right thing to do. The money would be wasted or possibly stolen and the poor would be denied an opportunity to benefit. Knowing that his mother would ask someone else to settle her affairs if he declared his true intentions, the son lies by falsely promising to honor her request. Utilitarianism, in this example, supports the son's decision on the determination that the greater good is served (i.e., overall net benefit is achieved) by lying.

Altruistic or noble lies, which specifically intend to benefit someone else, can also be considered morally acceptable by utilitarians. Picture the doctor telling her depressed patient that there is a 50 percent probability that he will recover, when in truth all tests confirm the man has only six months to live. The doctor knows from years of experience that, if she told this type of patient the truth, he would probably fall deeper into depression or possibly commit suicide. With the hope of recovery, though, he will most likely cherish his remaining time. Again, utilitarianism would seem to support the doctor's decision because the greater good is served by her altruistic lie.

While the above reasoning is logical, critics of utilitarianism claim that its practical application in decision making is seriously flawed. People often poorly estimate the consequences of their actions or specifically undervalue or ignore the harmful consequences to society (e.g., mistrust) that their lies cause. Following the examples above, the son's abuse of his mother's faith in him and the doctor's lie undermine the value of trust among all those who learn of the deceits. As trust declines, cynicism spreads, and our overall quality of life drops. In addition, suggesting that people may lie in pursuit of the greater good can lead to a "slippery slope," where the line between cleverly calculated moral justifications and empty excuses for selfish behavior is exceedingly thin. Sliding down the slope eventually kindles morally bankrupt statements (e.g., "Stealing this man's money is okay because I will give some to charity.") Those who disagree with utilitarianism believe that there is potentially great cost in tolerating lies for vague or subjective reasons, including lies in honor of "the greater good."

Critics of utilitarian justifications for lying further note how difficult it is for anyone, even honorable persons, to know that a lie will bring more good than the truth; the consequences of actions are too often unpredictable. Lies frequently assume "lives of their own" and result in consequences that people do not intend or fail to predict. Moreover, it is very difficult for a person to be objective in estimating the good and the harm that his or her lies will produce. We have a vested interest in the lies we tell and an equally vested interest in believing that the world will be better if we lie from one instance to the next. For these reasons, critics claim, lying is morally wrong because we cannot accurately measure lies' benefits and harms.

Clearly, lying is an issue worth examining, as many people believe it is a bigger problem today than it has ever been. A recent Time magazine cover story concluded, "Lies flourish in social uncertainty, when people no longer understand, or agree on, the rules governing their behavior toward one another." Maybe social uncertainty abounds because we are a mixture of Kantians, virtuists, and utilitarians who share no common ground. More likely, the problem is that too few persons adequately consider any ethical perspective when facing a situation that tempts a lie. Either way, it seems that the solution to our dissatisfaction begins with acknowledging the value of ethical reasoning and ends with a commitment to follow through with what we determine is the right thing to do.

Further Reading

Bailey, F. G. The Prevalence of Deceit, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Greenberg, Michael A. "The Consequences of Truth Telling." JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 266 (1991): 66.

Revell Jean-Francois. The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information. New York: Random House Books, 1992.

Thaler, Paul. "The Lies that Bind." The New York Times Magazine 140 (June 9, 1991), 16.

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