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 roperty, 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 illustrate: 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 nhumane. 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 circumstances.
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 ext 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 discussed above. 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 olice 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 ell 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?