Game Literacy
Scientia est Inconstans


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 Clinton acted with the intention to deceive. Even if this was a lie of omission (“I did not have sex, but I had oral sex”) the intention was still there. Furthermore, this was a statement made under oath – it was not just a lie, but perjury – not merely dishonest, but illegal.

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 the speaker.) 

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. 


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Hi Chris,

I wrote some reflections on this a while back when I was reading some passages in the Bible where people are praised for their clever deception.

My own view is that, from a Christian perspective, lying is analogous to violence (in the modern sense of deadly force, not in the medieval sense of unjust wrong). So, when trying to overcome an enemy, you want your enemy to believe something that is false, in order to beat him in the war. So you try to get him to think your army is somewhere else, or that your spies are really merchants, etc. You are compelling him to believe something he does not want to believe, just as force is used to compel him to do something he does not want to do.

So, from a Christian perspective, this cannot be justified, except in the case of love and justice. Lying to save your own skin when you've done something wrong is not justified. Lying to save someone's life by pulling the wool over the eyes of an evil man might be - in the same sense that pinning an evil man to the ground (or heck, shooting him) to save someone eles' life would be.

I recall reading an old booklet while waiting in a church one day which condemned acting, as the entire profession is based on lying -- granted, lying that is known as such, but lying nonetheless. It was, I believe, an Agent-focused argument; acting consistently *against* the virtue of honesty, even in an accepted case, was believed to be damaging to ones soul, and going to somewhere to be consistently lied to was much the same.

I think the analogy between lying and violence is quite appropriate, in the sense that the extension of one's will onto the world beyond oneself is a) not really divisible into compartments or 'classes' of action; and b) the essence of the 'output' part of one's relationship with the rest of the world.
So if lying, as a form of information delivery, itself a form of 'output', can be unbound from special specific rules of behaviour, I would look on it as a flavour of one's 'effect'. Then the general attitude one has to those that one effects applies to lying, i.e. the form may change, but the attitude (one's ethical bent) governs.
My point is that if one draws one's ethical attitude to one behavioural effect from one source, it would be hypocritical to change the source for another effect. For example, if a Buddhist never lies because his religion forbids it, but never beats his mule because of compassion (and not because his religion forbade it), I would see that as hypocritical.
I'm sure I could find a more striking example, but wanted to use a slightly 'grey' one. Also, I'm not prejudging hypocrisy. I haven't gone back to the earlier posts where this was talked about, but I do believe it has some uses. I just see the ethical position I've described as logically inconsistent, and thus slightly hypocritical.

For my part, I'm still quite utilitarian, with a reciprocal edge that I call my 'honour'. If I need to lie, cheat, fight, give charity or give my life for others, I'll do them all as necessary. But this is informed by my appreciation for the quality and 'deservingness' of others - I would never ever lie to my sensei, though it might save face or physical hardship, because his honour is so great. I would almost never hit a woman (she'd have to be massive, and hard as nails!), though it might the most utilitarian course if, for instance, she'd lost all self-control in an argument.

It strikes me that the study of ethics is a most impractical one, for it is rare that the logic discussed is ever carried by anyone in comfortable harness with their emotional predispositions, at least in the day to day (away from the desk). Mostly, we are slaves to the 'zombie in the brain'.

Thanks for the comments! I'm running out of time this morning, but I wanted to respond to a few things zenBen brings up...

"My point is that if one draws one's ethical attitude to one behavioural effect from one source, it would be hypocritical to change the source for another effect."

I don't understand this. Suppose you are a virtue ethicist. You have certain values that you respect. Why should your behaviour in one field not be mediated by one value, and your behaviour in another by a different value?

For instance, is this not the case for any scientist? They value 'truth' (or honesty) in their own field - science - but they do not necessarily draw their ethics in other areas of their life from this same value. Why should the scientist value truth in their research and compassion in their human interactions, for instance?

"For example, if a Buddhist never lies because his religion forbids it, but never beats his mule because of compassion (and not because his religion forbade it), I would see that as hypocritical."

It would be a mistake to presume that a Buddhist never lies because it is forbidden. It would be fairer to say, a Buddhist makes a commitment to "right speech" and this commitment discourages them from lying. All this comes from the same source; their commitment to following the Buddhist path.

But supposing we have a more deontological situation with some actions forbidden and some encouraged - such as a classical interpretation of Christianity. Why would this not be a perfectly legitimate system of ethics? Why in your view must ethics always come for an atomic source? That seems to says much more about your metaphysics than it does about ethics as a field. :)

"It strikes me that the study of ethics is a most impractical one, for it is rare that the logic discussed is ever carried by anyone in comfortable harness with their emotional predispositions..."

This is Hume's argument that 'reason is a slave to the passions', I suppose. But I don't think ethics is an impractical study simply because emotions have such influence on behaviour.

As for how rare it is that people live within their own ethical system... well I can't speak for you Utilitarians, but a large number of people who practice a religion (the majority, I would suggest) spend most of their time behaving well within the bounds of their own ethical system - at least as they understand it. That there are also a number of people who don't doesn't seem to be an argument against ethics, but rather a chastisement of those incapable of following their own ethics. :)

Furthermore, if we did not discuss ethics at all, how would we form an opinion on how to behave in these situations at all? In the absence of any kind of ethical discussion, where would we be left?

Out of time, alas! Best wishes!

zenBen, Chris: I do seem to understand that you guys tend to focus on ethical questions facing the *individual* - but given your exchange above let me just interject once more with the remark that not only the practice but also the theory of ethics in and by itself do have a social (or more precisely an inter-subjective) dimension (which dominates in my view) - but this view must not simply be reduced to consequentialism, because I do think that human consciousness in itself is *not* easily isolated from the context it lives (and was raised) in.

Every ethical aspect we discussed so far becomes a lot more tangible when discussed either in a concrete human/social context or maybe more importantly when the concept of *institution* is introduced into the debate - an institution being informally defined as an organization creted by a number of humans specifically for the purpose of making ethical or political concepts (among others) persistent and "trans-personal".

Do I lie? Yes, if I think that on balance it will further my own goals.

Is it "permissible" for me to lie? Chris, you've not yet grounded "permissible". I don't feel I need society's permission for any action I take*, so my answer is probably "yes".

Can you lie to me? Yes.

Do you lie to me? I have to assume that you might, or I get into some very dangerous areas, such as trusting everything I'm told.

* Although I may wish to review the likely consequences!

translucy: I was going to add a comment to this effect this morning. :) I'm talking about personal ethics, because that's the root of ethics, but I talk about ethics in order to later talk about politics, and in between is the transition from personal ethics to social ethics. Ethical systems become reinforced when they are practiced in groups - it is a lot easier to be ethical when you live around other people who share similar systems of ethics. This is one of the reasons why religion still serves a valuable role - Einstein was only too aware of this, but recently the message has been somewhat brushed under the carpet. In Japan, the people are so socialised that they have the opposite problem to the West - not overemphasis on the individual but overemphasis on duty to society i.e. an overemphasis on ethics. It's a wonderfully varied world we live in!

Peter: You're correct that I haven't yet grounded "permissible"; neither am I likely to do so. Each person has their own system of ethics; this is the yardstick against which I meant for 'permissible' to be applied.

Are you an egoist? Or some form of Consequentialist? Or somewhere in between? I'm not yet certain, but it's looking like many forms of Consequentialism are equivalent to egoism anyway... Looking forward to exploring this issue in the near future.

Either way, if your system is to permit lying (which arguably is the "natural" state of affairs), what ensures that there is sufficient trust for people to be able to make agreements with one another? Do you distinguish promising from lying, if not, what can your promise possibly mean? Do you distinguish perjury from lying, or is it acceptable to lie under oath to further your own ends? Is it acceptable for a scientist to lie? To falsify data? Where does your permission to lie end? What, if anything, acts as a counterweight against your permission to lie?

Hope all is well with you!

"what ensures that there is sufficient trust for people to be able to make agreements with one another?"

The threat of reprisal from the other person (or some larger social organisation, which you seem to lump under "politics"), or humanity's apparent habit of thinking well of each other by default.

"Do you distinguish promising from lying, if not, what can your promise possibly mean?"

Internally, I distinguish my promises - but that's for me to do. Can you distinguish me promising something to you from me lying to you? Can I distinguish you promising something to me from you lying to me? Those depend on the communication, surely?

"What, if anything, acts as a counterweight against your permission to lie?"

Social exclusion, death or injury. Habitual liars have to keep moving or their name gets around.

I guess I can summarise as "My permission to lie ends wherever some other person or people elect to stop it, by whatever means they end up using." Similarly, your permission to lie to me ends wherever I elect to stop it. As we all espouse (subtly or radically) different systems of ethics, anything else runs counter to the facts, no?

Chris: currently, I am not convinced that either you or anyone else can differentiate between "personal" and "social" in the strict way you seem to suggest, again my point is that any "self" you or I are able to find out about, talk to, etc. is *situated* in "context", "environment", "physical processes", call it whatever you want ;-)

Likewise, I wonder how you, Peter, find out whether you are in the process of lying or in the process of promising something to someone. Also the process of finding out if someones has lied or not (retrospective only?!) warrants a closer look - surely the basis of any subsequent decision to "stop it".

Peter: "Can you distinguish me promising something to you from me lying to you?"

Since I consider promising to be a different kind of act from speaking, I can indeed tell these things apart. What I cannot distinguish is you making a genuine promise and you making a false promise. The latter may be related to lying, but it is quite a different kind of speech act from a lie to me. My question really becomes: do you make false promises? I may lie for various reasons, but I do not make false promises. In fact, in order to avoid making false promises I avoid making promises at all, and only make them when I feel certain of my ability to hold true to them.

On the subject of your permission to lie, it seems you require that people take action to clear the playing field of lying. This seems to be equivalent to saying you have naturally low degrees of trust. I approach people from the converse angle, and predicate trust - with the sure knowledge I will sometimes be in error, of course.

Since, as you say, we all have different systems of ethics, it is true that we must feel out the boundaries of each other's ethical systems - but I do not believe this necessarily requires the establishment of "lying boundaries" in the manner advocated by you, since many people I meet have ethical systems which I can count upon to have already eliminated or restricted lying.

Your system seems workable, but makes the acquisition of trust a lot more work than I feel is strictly necessary. Social interactions are draining enough on me without all this extra boundary work. :)

Best wishes!

translucy: "I am not convinced that either you or anyone else can differentiate between 'personal' and 'social' in the strict way you seem to suggest"

On the contrary, I can make this differentiation with the greatest of ease, and yet still acknowledge that my notion of the personal only exists relative to the social environment that sustains that notion of self. It's all about where you place definitions, as ever. I can take someone out of their social context and interview them and uncover their ethical system - I will call this their personal ethical system, by simply ignorning the contribution of the social ethical systems which undoubtedly are deeply entangled within it. Still, since I may communicate with an individual, I find it easy to call the ethical system they espouse their personal ethical system. If I interview many people from the same social background, I begin to see the social ethical system. That these systems are interelated in no way invalidates the meaningfulness of a personal ethical system to me - even though its demarcation is essentially arbitrary.

As long as I can distinguish an individual from a group, and as long as a I can communicate with an individual, I can separate personal from social. I simply ignore the social in order to focus on the information from a single source.

So much observation comes down to what we choose to set aside.

Take care!

translucy - I agree entirely that finding out whether someone has lied is retrospective and warrants a closer look. It may be subjective.

Chris - I have naturally *no* degrees of trust. It's one of the things that tends to leave you when you're bullied and have to watch your back every day at school, and I've never really regained it. Programming for a living merely reinforces the belief that the world is complex and full of messy corner cases, and that the simple warm fluffy world in which most people choose to live is a delusion - as plenty of people find when some aspect of the complex world bites them.

Peter: all the worlds are somewhat delusional, from the fluffy world to the world of doom and Cthulhu. :) It's a shame that your experiences at school have stripped you of your trust. I too was bullied at school, yet somehow I have pulled through. To presume distrust is to make relationships an uphill battle, surely? I prefer my "Tit for Tat" system which presumes trust and therefore includes a willingness to be bitten by mistakes as a cost of action. I have found this an enormous asset in dealing with the world.

The idea that professional programming conditions one for a kind of social dystopia by revealing complexity and "messy corner cases" strikes me as odd. Are you sure you didn't naturally have this perspective, and that it therefore made programming a complementary skill? I did not need to learn to program to come to terms with the complexity of the world, and the natural imperfections in our interpretations of that world reflect the influence of chaotic factors beyond our ability to anticipate. For me, this is liberating. For you, it sounds more imprisoning.

I find all this hard to square with someone who founded and kept alive the most vibrant community centre in my University years - namely UglyMUG. That it was virtual is incidental. Did you project your idealism into this virtual space because you found no room for it in the 'real' world?

Sincere best wishes!

"Are you sure you didn't naturally have this perspective, and that it therefore made programming a complementary skill?"

I'm reasonably sure I *did* naturally have this perspective, and programming keeps reinforcing it.

"Did you project your idealism into this virtual space because you found no room for it in the 'real' world?"

Good question. Did I project "idealism" or something else into it, though? And are my recollections of university and the early years of UglyMUG coloured by the later years of repeated episodes of depression? Probably, so I may have inaccurate recollections of what/why I did things!

Virtual worlds are interesting beasts - they have very different social and power structures allow people to experiment with who they are and how they interact with one another in a relatively risk-free way. Some people become more extreme (the early teen PvPers we have in my WoW guild spring to mind). Others flip to different ways of working.

In the real world, I'm just another person. A subject, to be robbed or shot at on Manchester's streets, arrested by Her Majesty's Police and incarcerated without charge for a period... I'm at the bottom of the heap. Other people can and do prey on me daily - and I can prey on them if I choose.

In a virtual world, death is nonexistent (UglyMUG) or inconvenient (WoW); the social structures are much looser; preying on other players can often be avoided (non-PvP servers in WoW, for example). There's no police force other than the GMs, and I can generally control when I'm going to get robbed, shot at or imprisoned. In that environment, it's possible to be more open and trusting; the consequences are rarely painful, let alone fatal. Why shouldn't I behave differently in an environment with different rules? That the world is virtual is not in any way incidental; it is at the core of the difference.

And yet, in the real world, you trusted me enough to allow me access to your file systems, which enabled me to run Discordia Incorporated for several years. So even if the virtual reality gave you a new world in which to explore being trusting, I still claim you brought some of that back into the real world. ;)

Best wishes!

I'd agree with that, yes.

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