Deciding When It’s Okay to Lie

One of the age-old problems in ethics is whether and when it is permissible to lie. While most of us might agree in principle that truth and transparency are critical ethical principles and that lying and deception are intrinsically wrong, we don’t always agree on how to apply this to everyday life. Is truth always required? And if not, just when is it okay to lie?

The extreme position—that lying is always wrong—dates back at least to St. Augustine but was perhaps most emphatically stated by Immanuel Kant. “Truthfulness in statements which cannot be avoided is the formal duty of an individual to everyone, however great may be the disadvantage accruing to himself or to another,” he wrote in 1797.

Kant wouldn’t even accept a lie to save a life. In his famous hypothetical case, an innocent, hunted man takes refuge in your home and his would-be murderers knock on your door asking if he is inside. Kant said it would be wrong to lie to them, even if it meant death for the innocent man.

Hardly anyone embraces that absolutist view today, and few of us even try to tell the truth all the time. It’s frankly not practical, not kind, and often just rude. “It’s good to see you,” we say whether we mean it or not. “Dinner was delicious,” we tell our host. “You don’t look your age,” we might say without prompting. It’s certainly possible to avoid these lies by simply remaining silent, but it’s hard to see that any harm is done in speaking them.

In between the polite lie and the life-or-death lie are a slew of more complicated cases where one’s ethical duty seems far less clear. Sorting through them is a challenge that we might undertake together right now.

Click on the link below and decide whether it’s okay to lie in each of the ten circumstances described. I’ll return in a week’s time to discuss the results, so please cast your votes. And as always, your comments are welcome and helpful as we all try to chart an ethical course of behavior.

Click here for the survey.

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