It says nothing about whether the information given is true or false.
Some philosophers believe that lying requires a statement of some sort; they say that the liar must actually speak or write or gesture. Others stretch the definition to include doing nothing in response to a question, knowing that this will deceive the questioner. Others include 'living a lie'; those cases where someone behaves in a way that misleads the rest of us as to their true nature.
There are many reasons why people think lying is wrong; which ones resonate best with you will depend on the way you think about ethics. Lies obviously hurt the person who is lied to most of the time , but they can also hurt the liar, and society in general. Those who tell 'good lies' don't generally suffer these consequences - although they may do so on some occasions.
The philosopher Sissela Bok put forward a process for testing whether a lie could be justified.
She calls it the test of publicity:. The test of publicity asks which lies, if any, would survive the appeal for justification to reasonable persons. If we were to apply this test as a thought experiment we would bring together a panel of everyone affected by a particular lie - the liar, those lied to and everyone who might be affected by the lie.
We would then put forward all our arguments for telling a particular lie and then ask that 'jury' of relevant and reasonable persons if telling this lie was justified. This sort of test is most useful when considering what we might call 'public' lying - when an institution is considering just how much truth to tell about a project - perhaps a medical experiment, or a proposed war, or an environmental development. One executive observed to this writer that a useful test for the justifiability of an action that he was uncertain about was to imagine what the press would write afterwards if they discovered what he had done and compared it to what he had said in advance.
In most cases of personal small scale lying there is no opportunity to do anything more than consult our own conscience - but we should remember that our conscience is usually rather biased in our favour. A good way of helping our conscience is to ask how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of the lie.
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It's certainly not foolproof, but it may be helpful. Different theories of ethics approach lying in different ways. In grossly over-simplified terms, those who follow consequentialist theories are concerned with the consequences of lying and if telling a lie would lead to a better result than telling the truth, they will argue that it is good to tell the lie. They would ask:. In contrast, a dutybased ethicist would argue that, even if lying has the better consequences, it is still morally wrong to lie. Consequentialists assess the rightness or wrongness of doing something by looking at the consequences caused by that act.
So if telling a particular lie produces a better result than not telling it, then telling it would be a good thing to do. And if telling a particular lie produces a worse result than not telling it, telling it would be a bad thing to do. This has a certain commonsense appeal, but it's also quite impractical since it requires a person to work out in advance the likely good and bad consequences of the lie they are about to tell and balance the good against the bad. This is hard to do, because:. So most Utilitarian thinkers don't apply it on a case by case basis but use the theory to come up with some general principles -- perhaps along the lines of:.
This is an example of 'rule-utilitarianism'; considering every single action separately is 'act-Utilitarianism'. These two forms of Utilitarianism could lead to different results: An act-Utilitarian might say that telling a lie in a particular case did lead to the best results for everyone involved and for society as a whole, while a rule-Utilitarian might argue that since lying made society a less happy place, it was wrong to tell lies, even in this particular case.
Deontologists base their moral thinking on general universal laws, and not on the results of particular acts. The word comes from from the Greek word deon , meaning duty. An act is therefore either a right or a wrong act, regardless of whether it produces good or bad consequences. Deontologists don't always agree on how we arrive at 'moral laws', or on what such laws are, but one generally accepted moral law is 'do not tell lies'. Most of us would accept that an unbreakable rule against lying would be unworkable, but a more sophisticated rule perhaps one with a list of exceptions might be something we could live with.
Virtue ethics looks at what good virtuous people do. If honesty is a virtue in the particular system involved, then lying is a bad thing. The difficulty with this approach comes when a virtuous person tells a lie as a result of another virtue compassion perhaps. The solution might be to consider what an ideal person would have done in the particular circumstances. Some philosophers, most famously the German Immanuel Kant , believed that that lying was always wrong.
He based this on his general principle that we should treat each human being as an end in itself, and never as a mere means. Lying to someone is not treating them as an end in themselves, but merely as a means for the liar to get what they want. Kant also taught 'Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation.
If there was a universal law that it was generally OK to tell lies then life would rapidly become very difficult as everyone would feel free to lie or tell the truth as they chose, it would be impossible to take any statement seriously without corroboration, and society would collapse. Christian theologian St.
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Augustine taught that lying was always wrong, but accepted that this would be very difficult to live up to and that in real life people needed a get-out clause. Augustine believed that some lies could be pardoned, and that there were in fact occasions when lying would be the right thing to do. He grouped lies into 8 classes, depending on how difficult it was to pardon them.
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Here's his list, with the least forgivable lies at the top:. Thomas Aquinas also thought that all lies were wrong, but that there was a hierarchy of lies and those at the bottom could be forgiven. His list was:. The reason for lying that gets most sympathy from people is lying because something terrible will happen if you don't lie. Examples include lying to protect a murderer's intended victim and lying to save oneself from death or serious injury.
These lies are thought less bad than other lies because they prevent a greater harm occurring; they are basically like other actions of justified self-defence or defence of an innocent victim. Since such lies are often told in emergencies, another justification is that the person telling the lie often has not time to think of any alternative course of action.
Threatening situations don't just occur as emergencies; there can be long-term threat situations where lying will give a person a greater chance of survival. In the Gulag or in concentration camps prisoners can gain an advantage by lying about their abilities, the misbehaviour of fellow-prisoners, whether they've been fed, and so on.
In a famine lying about whether you have any food hidden away may be vital for the survival of your family. When two countries are at war, the obligation to tell the truth is thought to be heavily reduced and deliberate deception is generally accepted as part of the way each side will try to send its opponent in the wrong direction, or fool the enemy into not taking particular actions. In the same way each side accepts that there will be spies and that spies will lie under interrogation this acceptance of spying doesn't benefit the individual spies much, as they are usually shot at the end of the day.
This legalistic device divides a statement into two parts: the first part is misleading, the two parts together are true - however only the first part is said aloud, the second part is a 'mental reservation'.
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One common occasion for mental reservations was in court, when a person had sworn an oath to tell the truth and expected God to punish them if they lied. If they'd stolen some sheep on Tuesday they could safely tell the court "I did not steal those sheep" as long as they added in their mind "on Monday". Since God was believed to know every thought, God would hear the mental reservation as well as the public statement and therefore would not have been lied to.
Sissela Bok says that this device is recommended to doctors by one textbook. If a feverish patient, for example, asks what his temperature is, the doctor is advised to answer "your temperature is normal today" while making the mental reservation that it is normal for a person in the patient's precise physical condition. The Dutch philosopher and lawyer Hugo Grotius taught that a lie is not really wrong if the person being lied to has no right to the truth.
This stemmed from his idea that what made a wrong or unjust action wrong was that it violated someone else's rights. If someone has no right to the truth, their rights aren't violated if they're told a lie.
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This argument would seem to teach that it's not an unethical lie to tell a mugger that you have no money although it is a very unwise thing to do , and it is not an unethical lie to tell a death squad that you don't know where their potential victim is hiding. In practice, most people would regard this as a very legalistic and 'small print' sort of argument and not think it much of a justification for telling lies, except in certain extreme cases that can probably be justified on other grounds.
If someone lies to you, are you entitled to lie to them in return? Has the liar lost the right to be told the truth? Human behaviour suggests that we do feel less obliged to be truthful to liars than to people who deal with us honestly. Most moral philosophers would say that you are not justified in lying to another person because they have lied to you. Children with anxiety or depression might lie about their symptoms to get the spotlight off them, Dr. Rouse notes.
Brady, I thought I did my homework. I really thought I did. In this case, the white lie and when to use it fall under the umbrella of social skills. Both Dr. Rouse and Dr. Rouse says.