Is it ever OK to lie? Is a lie ever morally required? If the answer toeither of these questions is “yes,” then what are we to make of the ninthBiblical commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” or the rule weoften 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 twoof the most influential ethical theories in the history of philosophy. Thefirst is centered on the idea that the moral worth of an action depends onits results. It is called utilitarianism, and later we will look at aclassic version of utilitarianism defended by John Stuart Mill.
This theorysays that, of the possible actions open to you, you should choose the onethat will do the greatest good for the greatest number, that is, the onethat will maximize happiness. The other theory is that morality is based onrights and duties. It is known as deontology. This theory says that we arerequired to perform certain moral duties regardless of the consequences.
Truthfulness is a virtue; there is no denying it. We admire the firstAmerican president, George Washington, because, as the story goes, whenasked by his father whether he had cut down the cherry tree on the family’sproperty, he responded, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree. “Things are not always so clear-cut, though, as the following examplesillustrate: 1.
You have a date for a formal dance. You dress up in your finestclothes and greet him when he arrives at your door. He asks, “How do Ilook?” 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 hisposition, would you want to know the truth? 2.
Your favorite great aunt, Veronica, a widow, has a beloved dog namedFifi. Today Fifi was hit by a car and killed. Aunt Veronica, long illwith cancer, is in the hospital and the doctors say she will notsurvive the night. You know this will be your last visit with her, andshe asks how Fifi is. Do you tell her the truth? If you were in herplace, would you want to know?Although it may not be clear what to do in these situations, many think itis clear that the decision should be based not on some abstract rule, buton careful consideration of the consequences of the proposed actions.
Totake action without considering what will happen seems heartless andinhumane. 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 specialcircumstances. John Stuart Mill is known as the father of this theory of morality. “Youcan find the right thing to do in each of the above situations bydetermining exactly who will be affected by your choice (includingyourself) and calculating which choice will make everyone happy”. (Mill, J.
S. 2002) Mill wanted his theory to be a practical guide to decision makingthat accurately reflects the way good people instinctively act. Nevertheless, there are a few problems with Mill’s view. First of all, Millsaid that the right action is the action that produces the greatesthappiness. But, how should we define happiness? Is it wealth, health, fame,glory, or something else? Happiness seems like a very vague concept onwhich to base a theory. And, Mill’s theory seems overly demanding.
Many ofyour moral decisions affect people about whom you know nothing. How willyou 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 fornext weekend, never mind next year. Third, and most importantly, it isdifficult for Mill’s theory to accommodate basic human rights, as thefollowing thought experiment illustrates. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) championed the second ethical theory, which saysthat there are some absolute moral rules. Kant argued in favor of this”rule theory” on the grounds that obeying rules is required to show respectfor individual rights. He wanted everyone to obey commands such as “Thoushalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shaltprotect the innocent,” without trying to calculate what will happen.
ForKant, the only thing that matters is that you set your mind on doing yourduty; the results are not relevant. Because this theory does not attempt tomaximize happiness, it avoids the three problems with Mill’s theorydiscussed above. Despite its merits, Kant’s theory has a serious conceptual difficulty. Kantseemed 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 caseDuring the Nazi occupation of your country, you are hiding a number ofJewish people behind a false wall in your attic. You know the Nazi secretpolice are trying to round up these people to murder them. A Nazi officerknocks at your door and asks if you are hiding any Jews in the attic. Whatshould you say?According to Kant’s theory, you have a duty to tell the truth to theofficer, but you also have a duty not to cause the death of innocentpeople. So, this is a case in which our apparent duties conflict.
Yet, Kant addressed cases like this. “Allowing someone to be killed is notthe 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 musttell the truth, because once you leave the attic, you have no idea whetherthe 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 tosave them by lying, but you think they are still in the attic. So, you tellthe Nazis to go look in the alley. By lying you have accidentally becomethe 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 tocalculate results.
Telling the truth is the only way of preserving yourmoral integrity in this situation. This solution is clever, but somewhat paradoxical. The paradox is simplythat, for all his talk of ignoring consequences in moral decision making,in his theory Kant has to resort to possible consequences in order tomotivate his claim that we should tell the truth to the killers. Do youthink there is a solution to this paradox?It seems obvious from the cases we’ve considered in this paper that bothmoral theories form important parts of our ordinary, day-to-day moralreasoning. Yet, these theories were developed in opposition to one another.
Do you think there is a way to combine them? ReferencesFrank, 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. (Originalwork published 1863)