Should we always tell the truth, or are
there times when it is better to lie? What are the negative consequences of
lying? Are there circumstances under which it is permissible to lie? And what,
on careful consideration, constitutes a lie?
We have likely all lied at some time in our lives, even if only as a child, discovering this ability for the first time. Indeed, it is one of the psychological benchmarks – the onset of Machiavellian intelligence around four and a half years of age. Children tend to lack not only the moral awareness of when to avoid lying, but the skills required to lie convincingly, while in adults (and especially in politics), lying can become quite sophisticated.
It is worth being clear about what is
entailed in lying. To suggest something, only to discover later that this was
incorrect, is not prima facie lying as we would generally consider lying to be
an act with the intention to deceive – if we are mistaken, there can have
been no intent, and thus no lie. Thus the usual conception of lying is when one
says something that one believes is false, with the intent that the listener
will believe it is true.
Already we run into problems: must we be able to distinguish true from false with accuracy in order to know what is lying? This, in the subjective world of human affairs, is far too much to ask. What is at task, therefore, is the aforementioned intention to deceive. If a theist says “there is no God” this is a lie, just as if an atheist says “there is a God”. Lying should therefore be understood as an action; one does not establish whether a statement is a lie by comparison to the facts, although one may of course show that a statement is false by such a comparison (but of course issues of metaphysics – such as discussion of God – are never testable).
As a practical test of this: did Bill
Clinton lie when he said “I did not have sex with that woman” in 1998? The
facts of the case seem to show that he did receive oral sex from Monica
Lewinsky, but one could make the case that ‘oral sex is not sex, per se’. But
clearly: by saying “I did not have sex with that woman” President
There are many reasons why we might lie, so
what are the reasons for not lying? Kant held an exceptionally hard line
against lying, claiming it was never permissible. It was his view that by lying
we failed to treat the ethical as the universal (the first part of Kant’s
yardstick) – since if everybody lied, no-one could trust anything that was
said. Furthermore, he claimed that lying violated mutual respect, since by lying
we denied the person being lied to their right to make a rational decision. Famously,
Kant argues in his essay "On a Supposed Right to Lie" that even in the case of a murderer at the door asking for the whereabouts of an innocent victim, it would not be
permissible to lie since to do so would be to
treat the murderer as a means and not an end i.e. to deny mutual respect. This is not a viewpoint that many modern individuals are likely to agree with!
The idea that lying erodes trust is perhaps the primary argument against lying, since our societies are all based upon trust. From this perspective, Kant’s position is understandable, even if it seems more than we are willing to commit to. If we accept that lying is undesirable because it destroys trust, we open up the question: is it ever permissible to lie?
Most people disagree with Kant in the case
of the murderer-at-the-door, and feel that to hold honesty as more valuable
than human life is wrong. This is an agent-focussed approach to the problem: lying
is undesirable if honesty is held as a value, but another value – compassion,
for instance – might be more important. Kant’s position is rights-focussed, and
all such approaches tend to prohibit lying, but even from this perspective it
is possible for their to be a conflict of rights that might create
permissibility – does the victim’s right to life not outweigh the murderers
right to honesty, after all? Finally, from an outcome-focussed position, lying is
permitted if the consequences of the lie are more beneficial than the
consequences of the truth – although how this would be determined is very
difficult to gauge.
We can see that whichever style of ethics one employs, lying produces something of a grey area. From our modern sensibilities, we strongly disagree with Kant about the murderer-at-the-door. Few if any of us believe that it would have been morally wrong for a person harbouring Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany to lie to the Gestapo if they knocked on the door – the lives of the people being protected outweigh the duty to honesty for most of us.
Does this undermine Kant’s yardstick? It need not. Whatever Kant’s view on the application of his system, there is always room for alternative interpretations. The Kantian commitment to communal autonomy – to attempt to act in such a way such that the goals of all people can be aligned – accepts the difficulty of any such an attempt, and in doing so accepts the inevitability of conflicts between competing ends. It may be the case that lying to the murderer usurps their end (to murder), but it also protects the ends of the victim (to live) and for that matter the whole of society (to not endorse murder). One must seriously consider if there are ends for which no mutual respect is due, and murder (and by extension genocide) are obvious candidates – since the murderer fails to provide mutual respect to their victim, why should we respect this end?
Presumably one of the reasons that Kant
takes such a firm line is because he was a Christian (although his views on God were far from traditional theism). It is often presumed that Christianity is
against lying on account of the ninth commandment (eighth for Catholics and
Lutherans): “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”. But
there is no doubt that this commandment explicitly prohibits perjury
(and by extension false allegations) – it does not expressly preclude lying. Therefore President Clinton violated this commandment, but someone lying to the murderer-at-the-door would not be.
Of course, a lack of prohibition is not the same as an endorsement, and the Old Testament does include a considerable number of verses which prohibit lying, such as Leviticus 19:11: “You shall not lie: neither shall any man deceive his neighbour,” although here there are problems as Leviticus famously records the laws of an ancient Jewish culture much of which simply does not apply to the modern world. After all, Leviticus 19:19 prohibits wearing garments made from two types of thread, yet few modern Christians consider cotton-polyester blends to be sinful!
Buddhism takes a firmer line against lying.
One of its precepts prohibits lying, and part of the Eightfold Path that is
central to most Buddhist practice calls for “Right Speech”, which asks for more
than just refraining from lying:
Giving up false speech he becomes a speaker of truth, reliable, trustworthy, dependable, he does not deceive the world. Giving up malicious speech he does not repeat there what he has heard here nor does he repeat here what he has heard there in order to cause variance between people. He reconciles those who are divided and brings closer together those who are already friends. (Anguttara Nikaya, 10.176)
In Buddhist thought, therefore, the issue is about more than simply not lying; it is a request that people think carefully about how they use their words, and aim to do so wisely. Interestingly, while lying is considered against “Right Speech”, Buddhism cautions against presuming that one person’s truth is the only truth. This understanding of subjectivity is common to both Buddhism and the Hindu tradition (which predates and was an influence upon Buddhist thought).
(In respect of Hindu beliefs, there is no
explicit prohibition on lying in the Veda, although there is a responsibility
to avoid “untruth”, but this falls more on the shoulders of the listener than
Of all the major world religions, Islam has perhaps the most forgiving attitude to lying. While lying is definitely undesirable – “And do not say that of which you have no knowledge” (Surah 17:36) and “Truly Allah guides not one who transgresses and lies” (Surah 40:28) – there are circumstances under which Muhammad does seem to allow for a permissible lie. The Muslim oral tradition (hadith) quotes Muhammad as saying: “Lying is wrong, except in three things: the lie of a man to his wife to make her content with him; a lie to an enemy, for war is deception; or a lie to settle trouble between people.” (Ahmad, 6.459).
Islam actually specifically allows for a
Muslim to lie for the preservation of life. The concept of taqiyyah
(self-protection), based upon Surah 16:104-108 of the Qur’an, permits Muslims
to hide information, and even to conceal their own faith, if to do so will
avoid persecution or harm and no useful purpose could be served by being open. In
the case of Kant’s murderer-at-the-door, most Muslims would have no issue
protecting the victim and deceiving the killer.
The grey areas surrounding the question of lying are so vast as to defy summation – is it acceptable for parents to lie to children by teaching them about Santa Claus or telling them that babies are brought by the stork? I see little harm – such stories are part of the special world of childhood – but some Christians feel otherwise. Is pretending to be someone else to a stranger, perhaps in a nightclub, or while hitch-hiking, morally wrong if no advantage is taken of the other person? I cannot condemn imagination, and playing is not necessarily lying (we lie in jokes without qualms!) but the willingness to ‘come clean’ must be there, or else one can dig a dangerous hole.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual to
establish their own stance on lying – both in terms of what constitutes a lie,
and also under what circumstances it is permissible to lie. For myself, lies pertain
solely to matters of fact. In matters of opinion, we have such a wide range of
responses I find it impossible to establish truth and falsehood and therefore
treat such subjective issues as beyond the issue of lying entirely. If you ask
my opinion of a particular painting, for instance, I can couch my response in
terms from the forgivingly supportive to the harshly critical – it is my choice
how to interpret my own internal mental and emotional states, and such an
opinion is never a matter of fact, always a question of interpretation. Such is
often the case in ethics.
And what about you? Do you believe it is
permissible to lie? Would you lie to the killer-at-the-door? To a stranger? To
a friend? Or do you believe that there is a duty to truth, a virtue of honesty?
It is a question that only you may answer.