On lying

So I got caught in a lie this weekend. The details aren't important, but the fallout was pretty bad. There was a lot of discussion about this and that, being truthful and trustworthy, etc.

A lot of that got me thinking about lies as a whole. Is it ever ok to lie? To this, there are several responses.

I think the most conventional one is "No." From the day that we're born, people tell us that lying is bad. On occasion, we're given a thwacking if we're caught lying. We're told the parable of the boy that cried wolf to reinforce the theory that lying undermines people's trust in what you say.

Kant had a much more sophisticated response, which might be of interest to some people. Bypassing a lot of his discussion of rationality and ends, it boiled down to the fact that when we lie, we are making a decision for someone else and effectively place our decision-making faculties above the same faculties of the people that we lie to. For Kant, this is a big no-no, especially since an equal weighting of all such faculties underpins his entire moral philosophy.

Of course, absolute moral prohibitions run into problems when we start talking about either-or situations. Kant had a problem figuring out what to do when faced with the question, "What if a murderer came to my master's house and asked me where he was?" Relatively speaking, abetting the murder of your master seems like a greater evil than lying to a murderer.

Going with a bastardized version of Ignatieff's "lesser evils" theory, we could say that lying is permissible so long as we continue to recognize it as an evil, and only use it if abstaining would necessarily result in an even greater evil.

If that's the case, then we have to put together a pretty robust framework for figuring out what constitutes a "greater evil." Suppose I'm trying to sell a weak product so that my start-up and all of its employees can scrape through another meager year. Would that qualify as a reason to overstate the strengths of my product to customers?

Realistically speaking, I think this is the theory that's guiding most people, if they're being guided by anything at all. Most of us tend to figure out the pros and cons of a lie, and if the pros outweigh the cons, we'll go with it. The only problem is that this is a really loose way of dealing with ethical issues. If this was a widely accepted framework, GW Bush could easily say that all of his lies about WMDs in Iraq and all of the spinjobs he's done on torture and imprisonment without due process were done "for the greater good" of national security. Strong odds say that he would even believe what he was saying. But for a lot of us, I don't think that would make it right. Morally relativistic double-speak eventually leaves me with the feeling that you don't have morals at all.

Another response that I've heard is the "victimless crime" theory. Here, the lie is justified by the fact that it a) introduces a benefit into the world, and b) provides no downside. It's the moral equivalent of finding a $20-bill on the street. Sure it came from someone else's pocket, but they'll never even know they lost it.

A better example might be as follows. Suppose that someone you love and care about is having some sort of crisis of confidence. They just don't think that they're up to the task of doing whatever it is that they're supposed to be doing. To a certain extent, you think that they're probably right. But you know that these confidence issues will only compound their problems and make matters worse. And who knows, maybe if they got their confidence back, they'd do fine. So. Would it be ok to lie to them? Could you make something up that would make them feel a bit better about themselves and be right about it?

This is a tough one. I think a lot of people would probably say sure, go ahead. Their reasons might be as follows: a) you're not hurting anyone, so long as the person doesn't find out, b) this isn't even for your own benefit, it's for theirs; it's a selfless lie. But I think that a lot is hinging on the qualification in reason A. Supposing that the person does find out that you've been lying, then a lot of the self-esteem that you've been trying to build up might go poof! and vanish. Even some of the honestly good things that you've said might be considered to be garbage. Boy who cried wolf, etc.

Interesting note: Frankfurt's On Bullshit distinguishes between a liar and a bullshitter by pointing out that liars are actively trying to steer people away from the truth, whereas bullshitters don't particularly care about what the truth is or is not. Well, I thought it was interesting.



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