Lying Around — Part II

Everybody wants to go to heaven
But nobody wants to die
Everyone wants to hear the truth
But they all want to tell lies.

Having tried the readers patience in the first part of this essay with the task of defining what it is to lie, I propose to examine some of the moral issues raised by lying. For my purposes it will be sufficient to define a lie as a false statement made by a speaker who believes it to be false with the intent to get the hearer to believe the statement. This will not handle all cases but my view is that one starts with a problem one wants to think about and then adopts a definition which is relevant and helpful to the problem.

I will also assume that the statement is made in a context where it is understood by speaker and hearer that one should not say what one believes to be false. So I am assuming that the speaker is not an actor on stage, does not wink when he makes his statement, is not playing poker, not trying to conceal the surprise party for his wife, and so forth.

The logic of lying is easy: 1) never lie or 2) always lie or 3) sometimes lie. To my knowledge nobody has ever argued for policy 2. For one reason it doesn't seem possible to carry it out. There are puzzles that begin: A missionary arrives on an island where there are two tribes; one always lies and the other always tell the truth. I always wonder how the members of the first tribe learned their language. So the only possibilities are 1 and 3.

The strange thing about the view that one should never lie is so many of us pay lip service to its truth while almost nobody adheres to it. I do not believe it to be true and this is consistent with believing that almost all lies are either unnecessary or wrong or useless. Having just experienced eight years of a regime which regarded the truth as something to be either concealed, manipulated or forgotten, need not lead us to embrace a thesis that replaces this attitude with one that could lead us to participate in evil (not lying when the Gestapo asks whether there are any Jews in the house) or bring injury to others out of proportion to the harm done by lying (telling your child that her first attempt at a portrait is terrible).

Let us start with the great philosopher who seems to defend the absolutist view about lying–Kant. In his little essay, “On a Supposed Right to Tell lies from Benevolent Motives,” Kant says, “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency.” And the French philosopher Constant draws out what he sees as an implication of Kant's theory “that to tell a falsehood to a murderer who asked us whether our friend, of whom he was in pursuit, had not taken refuge in our house, would be a crime.” Much ink and some blood has been spilled on figuring out 1) what Kant meant and 2) could it possibly be correct.

If I tried to say more about this in detail you might feel like the little girl who watched a documentary on penguins and, when asked by her parents how it was, responded “I learned more about penguins than I wanted to know.” So let me make just two important points. When Kant uses the word “declarations” he is not using that as a word for anything we might, as it were, declare. He is using it in a legal sense of a statement made in a context that warrants others to rely on the truth of what we say. When the witness at a trial promises to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,what he says thereafter is a declaration. So for Kant a LIE is an intentionally untruthful statement that is contrary to a duty to tell the truth (a declaration) and. therefore. is necessarily wrong. But not all intentionally false statements are LIES. So if a murderer comes to the door, and had no right to demand the truth, and you have not warranted that what you say is true, if you say what you believe to be false then it is not a LIE.

This certainly does something to explain what seems to be an insane view but it still leaves open the question whether one should ever lie– as opposed to LIE. If the bad guy at the door is not someone who we have warranted to tell the truth to can we lie to him? Well still no for Kant–because here the Categorical Imperative kicks in. You are not permitted to lie (in these circumstances) unless everyone is entitled to lie. And if everyone is entitled to lie, and everybody knows this, then what you say will not be believed. And if you are not believed, your lie will not save your friend. So universalising your act of lying makes what you are trying to accomplish impossible, i.e. self-defeating. So we should never lie .

What I want to do now is to give you an idea of what a plausible theory of when we are allowed to lie might look like. A theory of permissible lying would be more elegant and simpler if the same features that explained why lying was (almost always) wrong also accounted for the exceptions. Such a theory would show that the assumptions which underlie the reasoning for what is wrong with lying do not hold in the cases of the exceptions. Now there is a family of theories — consequentialisms — which meet this condition because they hold (roughly) that one ought not to (usually) lie because it has harmful consequences to do so. But, of course, there will be come occasions where the consequences of lying will be better than those of telling the truth, and consequentialists say that those are the conditions under which one may lie. There are many problems with these theories (as there are with all the other theories– ethical theory is always a comparative matter to determine which theories have the least serious problems) but the only one I want to mention here is that it seems to many people that lying is wrong in virtue of characteristics of what it is to be a lie. Lying is something that is wrong in itself. And, at least, the more popular consequentialist views –such as utilitarianism– have no room for such an idea. For the good or bad consequences of lying are always something that lies produce, something external to the nature of lying itself.

So, the question for theories which claim that what makes a lie wrong is intrinsic to the nature of lying is how to account for permissible lies–assuming there are such. My suggestion is that the solution take the form of determining what is being assumed in the standard case where honesty is required, and seeing how the failure of those assumptions to hold can allow us to act counter to honesty.

To see how such a theory might work let us look at two kinds of cases where it has been supposed that lies may be permissible — paternalistic and defensive lies. Paternalistic lies are motivated by a concern for the welfare of the person we are lying to. Doctors are notorious for invoking this kind of justification. I have always been very suspicious of this type of justification and in my contact with various physicians have challenged them to present a case where they think it was justifiable to have lied to a patient. For many years I was satisfied in each case that the lie was not justified. Either the doctor was in no position to know the facts he was relying on — Smith will try and commit suicide if I tell him he has cancer — or the doctor was making decisions (what kind of life was best for the patient) which he had neither the competence nor the right to make.

Then, the following case was presented to me. A woman's husband had died in a car accident when the car plunged off a bridge into a body of water. He died from drowning but it was clear from the physical evidence that he desperately tried to get out of the car and died a dreadful death. At the hospital where his body was brought his wife asked the physician in attendance what kind of death her husband suffered. He replied, “He died immediately from the impact of the crash. He did not suffer.” When I present this case almost everyone judges that the doctor acted correctly — telling the wife the truth would have no point and she would suffer greatly to no good purpose. Now there is a lot that I would want to know before agreeing with this verdict. Was she actually asking for the truth or did she indicate in subtle ways that she was looking for reassurance? Was the doctor her family physician — with whom she might have an ongoing relationship — or just someone who happened be there that night? Was this a woman who preferred painful truths to a false picture of reality? Was she in a particularly fragile emotional state at the moment but someone who could handle the truth better in a few days? One of my more cynical colleagues suggested that if we really wanted to do good we should know whether what the woman wanted to hear was that her husband — whom she may have despised — suffered mightily.

I am inclined to believe that the lie might be justifiable if I have reason to think that the woman is in a very fragile emotional state. I am also inclined to think that the relevance of her fragile state is that the normal assumption that we are dealing with a fully autonomous individual who is capable of determining her actions in accordance with the truth about the world is not true in this case. If the woman is not autonomous at the moment, the lie cannot interfere with her autonomy. This doesn't, of course, allow us to lie to her in order to exploit her lack of autonomy for our gain. But it may allow us to lie to her now– with the possibility of revealing the truth at a later time.

It does not matter for my purposes whether or not you agree with me in the particular case. What is important is whether you think the structure of the explanation is a plausible one. The structure is one which allows us to deviate from the norm of honesty when one of the points of being honest–protection of autonomy– cannot be achieved.

How does such a theory handle the case of defensive lies? These are occasions when someone intends to act unjustly, with the result that serious harm will be done to another, and needs information from us to accomplish his plan. It is also an occasion when we cannot simply remain silent. Perhaps the person seeking to do evil already suspects he knows the information he needs, and it is indeed the information he needs, but asks us to confirm. By lying we can divert him at least temporarily and foil his plan.

Here are some things we know when constructing a theory of when it is permissible to tell defensive lies:

1) Occasions for defensive lying are rare. Perhaps I have been lucky but I have never encountered one.
2) Like any exception to a general prohibition, the door is opened to expansion beyond what is legitimate. People will be tempted to interpret injustice and harm too broadly. It is not a case of defensive lying to cover-up the adultery of your friend when his wife asks whether he was with you last night.
3) If an exception is allowed this raises the question of whether there are others. One has to have a theory which explains why this exception is permissible whereas others are not.

The first thing to note is that the same line of reasoning used for paternalistic cases does not work here. The person who is proposing to act unjustly may be fully autonomous. Hitler may have been evil but there is no reason to suppose he could not set ends for himself and rationally integrate true information into determining the means to his ends. What condition(s) presupposed by the value of honesty and the wrongness of lying fails here?

Tamar Shapiro ( “Kantian Rigorism and Mitigating Circumstances,” ETHICS, October 2006) has suggested that we owe honesty only to those who are prepared to engage with us in a relationship of reciprocity. The unjust person shows by his proposed action that he is no longer prepared to interact with his fellow creatures in a spirit of reciprocity. Being honest in this context no longer means or expresses what it does in the normal case where we provide the truth to one another so that we may reason together as equals.

So we have two background assumptions which can fail. When those whom we propose to lie to either cannot act autonomously (the fragile wife) or will not engage in reciprocity with us (the unjust aggressor) the conditions which make honesty the value it is no longer hold. This failure of the background conditions is what explains why we may lie.

Again, you do not have to agree that this particular theory has it right. What is important is that you understand a distinct way of arguing for the permissibility of lying.

Since I do not want to turn into the Lying King, I will not continue with a Part III. But were I to do so I would concentrate on the many little lies we tell. It is often a mistake to concentrate on the momentous cases–as I have been doing. As J. L. Austin said with respect to aesthetics, “if only we could forget for a while the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.” Lies to avoid invasion of one's privacy, to avoid conversation when one is in a hurry, to encourage those who need a ray of hope, to spare someone the fact that you think he is an idiot, are more common and, perhaps, may occupy a rather different part of moral space.