Is it ever OK to lie? Is a lie ever morally required? If the answer to
either of these questions is “yes,” then what are we to make of the ninth
Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” or the rule we
often hear from parents and teachers, “Honesty is the best policy?”
In this paper, we’ll look at the ethics of lying through the lenses of two
of the most influential ethical theories in the history of philosophy. The
first is centered on the idea that the moral worth of an action depends on
its results. It is called utilitarianism, and later we will look at a
classic version of utilitarianism defended by John Stuart Mill. This theory
says that, 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. The other theory is that morality is based on
rights and duties. It is known as deontology. This theory says that we are
required to perform certain moral duties regardless of the consequences.
Truthfulness is a virtue; there is no denying it. We admire the first
American president, George Washington, because, as the story goes, when
asked by his father whether he had cut down the cherry tree on the family’s
property, he responded, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree.”
Things are not always so clear-cut, though, as the following examples
1. You have a date for a formal dance. You dress up in your finest
clothes and greet him when he arrives at your door. He asks, “How do I
look?” The truth is that he looks foolish. His suit does not fit right-
the sleeves are too short, and the pants are too long. Furthermore,
his hair is totally overdone. What do you tell him? If you were in his
position, would you want to know the truth?
2. Your favorite great aunt, Veronica, a widow, has a beloved dog named
Fifi. Today Fifi was hit by a car and killed. Aunt Veronica, long ill
with cancer, is in the hospital and the doctors say she will not
survive the night. You know this will be your last visit with her, and
she asks how Fifi is. Do you tell her the truth? If you were in her
place, would you want to know?
Although it may not be clear what to do in these situations, many think it
is clear that the decision should be based not on some abstract rule, but
on careful consideration of the consequences of the proposed actions. To
take action without considering what will happen seems heartless and
inhumane. So, these two examples make a powerful case in favor of the first
“results theory” of morality, and also in favor of lying in certain special
John Stuart Mill is known as the father of this theory of morality. “You
can find the right thing to do in each of the above situations by
determining exactly who will be affected by your choice (including
yourself) and calculating which choice will make everyone happy”. (Mill, J.
S. 2002) Mill wanted his theory to be a practical guide to decision making
that accurately reflects the way good people instinctively act.
Nevertheless, there are a few problems with Mill’s view. First of all, Mill
said that the right action is the action that produces the greatest
happiness. But, how should we define happiness? Is it wealth, health, fame,
glory, or something else? Happiness seems like a very vague concept on
which to base a theory. And, Mill’s theory seems overly demanding. Many of
your moral decisions affect people about whom you know nothing. How will
you take them into account? And, how far down the road do you have to look?
Most of us have trouble calculating the consequences of our actions for
next weekend, never mind next year. Third, and most importantly, it is
difficult for Mill’s theory to accommodate basic human rights, as the
following thought experiment illustrates.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) championed the second ethical theory, which says
that there are some absolute moral rules. Kant argued in favor of this
“rule theory” on the grounds that obeying rules is required to show respect
for individual rights. He wanted everyone to obey commands such as “Thou
shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt
protect the innocent,” without trying to calculate what will happen. For
Kant, the only thing that matters is that you set your mind on doing your
duty; the results are not relevant. Because this theory does not attempt to
maximize happiness, it avoids the three problems with Mill’s theory
Despite its merits, Kant’s theory has a serious conceptual difficulty. Kant
seemed to think that his absolute rules always clearly command one action.
But, that just isn’t true. Consider what is known as the Anne Frank case
During the Nazi occupation of your country, you are hiding a number of
Jewish people behind a false wall in your attic. You know the Nazi secret
police are trying to round up these people to murder them. A Nazi officer
knocks at your door and asks if you are hiding any Jews in the attic. What
should you say?
According to Kant’s theory, you have a duty to tell the truth to the
officer, but you also have a duty not to cause the death of innocent
people. So, this is a case in which our apparent duties conflict.
Yet, Kant addressed cases like this. “Allowing someone to be killed is not
the same as causing their death”. (Kant, I. 1956) According to his theory,
if the Nazis come to your door, and there are Jews in your attic, you must
tell the truth, because once you leave the attic, you have no idea whether
the Jews stayed there or instead ran out the back door to the alley.
Suppose they ran out the back door to the alley. You decide you want to
save them by lying, but you think they are still in the attic. So, you tell
the Nazis to go look in the alley. By lying you have accidentally become
the cause of their death; your intention to save their lives has backfired.
In other words, you cannot determine what is right or wrong by trying to
calculate results. Telling the truth is the only way of preserving your
moral integrity in this situation.
This solution is clever, but somewhat paradoxical. The paradox is simply
that, for all his talk of ignoring consequences in moral decision making,
in his theory Kant has to resort to possible consequences in order to
motivate his claim that we should tell the truth to the killers. Do you
think there is a solution to this paradox?
It seems obvious from the cases we’ve considered in this paper that both
moral theories form important parts of our ordinary, day-to-day moral
reasoning. Yet, these theories were developed in opposition to one another.
Do you think there is a way to combine them?
Frank, A. (1998). Anne Frank: The diary of a young girl. New York:
Scholastic. (Original work published 1947)
Kant, I. (1956). Groundwork for the metaphysic of morals (H. J. Paton,
Trans.). New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1785)
Mill, J. S. (2002). Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. (Original
work published 1863)