We’ve tallied the answers in in our survey on whether—and just when—it’s okay to tell a lie. I was surprised by some of the results and think you may be, too.
First the obvious caveat: This was in no way a scientific survey. The sample was too small and the participants were self-selected rather than random. And given our readers are by definition more interested in thinking and talking about ethics, they’re hardly typical of the general population. (That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re more ethical than average, just more interested and involved in ethical issues.)
With that in mind…here’s what we learned:
Survey respondents took a hard line against lying, with majorities, often big majorities, against lying in all ten situations presented. In fact, every survey participant answered no to a majority of the questions, and 19 percent took Kant’s view and said lying was wrong in all ten of the sample situations.
Now here are the individual questions and the resulting scores. I thought it was only fair to tell you how I voted:
1) Is it okay to make up a phony excuse when someone you don’t want to see invites you to an event? This was the closest contest, but in the end a slight majority (51 percent) thought it was wrong to lie. I was in the minority, believing a lie wouldn’t hurt anyone and would, in fact, avoid unnecessarily hurting someone. Admittedly, lying may only get you another invitation and a repeat of the dilemma, but eventually he or she will get the message and I think it’s a kinder way to go.
2) Is it okay to lie when your father with Alzheimer’s asks where his long deceased wife is? A majority (62 percent) felt lying was wrong. I struggled with this one but ultimately came down with the majority. The best approach, I think, is neither to lie nor tell the whole truth. Instead, deflect the question. That’s what the experts suggest in this article by Dave Singleton that appeared on the web site NextAvenue. I’d encourage you to read it.
3) Is it okay to cast your opponent’s record in the worst possible light when you’re running for political office?Even more of you (71 percent) felt lying in this context was wrong, and I certainly agree. Politicians running for office are sure to put the best spin on their case, but there have to be limits.
4) Is it okay to lie when your girlfriend asks if you’ve noticed that she’s gained a few pounds? This one also divided respondents. It was neck and neck for a while, but eventually a slim majority of 55 percent felt it was wrong to lie (I was in the minority). The clear lesson is that if you know you’ve gained a few pounds, don’t ask your partner to confirm it. It’s not fair and there’s nothing to be gained by putting him or her on the spot.
5) Is it okay to lie when your teenage child asks if you ever used drugs? Only 14 percent thought a denial was a good idea, while 86 percent, including me, said lying would be a mistake.
6) Is it okay to call in sick from work when you’re not sick? Again, a clear majority—82 percent—felt this was wrong, as did I.
7) Is it okay to deceive a spouse or partner by not confessing to a one-night stand you regret?I wish I had phrased this one a little better. I meant to ask about a voluntary confession, not a response when asked, but I think that’s a little unclear in the question. In any event, 66 percent said a deception would be wrong. I was in the minority. This is, of course, a much-debated situation, with many suggesting that a confession is actually selfish; it may ease the conscience of the spouse who strayed, but it will likely bring anguish for the innocent spouse, who may give the act more importance than it deserves. Then again, that may just be the rationalization of those who have yielded to temptation. Obviously, honesty and trust are fundamental requirements of a good relationship. The most ethical course is clearly not to stray in the first place.
8) Is it okay to lie when a job applicant asks if your office is a good place to work?
Results were pretty overwhelming on this one, with 93 percent saying lying would be wrong. I actually think it’s a complicated dilemma because you do have some obligations to the company paying your salary. I wrote about it in depth a few weeks ago.
9) Is it okay to lie when your parent with a terminal illness asks you what his/her chances are? Again, a clear majority—90 percent—said no. I can foresee a special case here and there, but generally someone in this situation deserves the truth.
10) Is it okay to lie when you’re a sales clerk and a customer asks how an outfit looks on him or her? This was the only question on which everyone agreed that a lie was wrong.
Thanks to everyone who participated or just took a peek.
You didn’t ask the one about lying to the Nazis about Ann Franck’s family living in the attic. I think that type of lie may even get Kant’s vote.
Truth has value, even, or maybe especially, unpleasant truth. In most circumstances, the other person’s right to hear the truth should be respected. But the Nazis had no right to the truth about Jews living in the attic.
Actually, Marvin, Kant created a very similar hypothetical and still came down against lying. He said if you were hiding an innocent man in your house and his would-be murderers came to your door, it was unethical to lie to them. You had to tell the truth for your own virtue and integrity, regardless of the outcome or the justification.
Then I guess I need to instruct Immanuel, because his result is ethical, but immoral.
The moral person seeks good, for others as well as for himself. The ethical person seeks to follow what he believes is the best set of rules.
But rules only exist to serve moral good. Jesus pointed this out in the “Great Commandment” (Matthew 22:35-40) which a humanist like myself translates to: “Love good. And love good for others as you love it for yourself. All other rules derive from these two.”
Or, as one of Isaac Asimov’s characters once said, “Never let your principles prevent you from doing the right thing.”
The criteria for judging every rule is whether it improves good and reduces harm. That is “moral reasoning”.
This survey is a very interesting delineation of the contours of “truth”.
Question 7 is particularly interesting, with the real issue of the “selfishness of the confession”. One may argue that eventually it depends on one’s ambition (and confidence about one’s ambition): If you feel you are capable of confessing in a truly altruist way, you should do it. But if you are too much afraid of failing at this test, maybe take a breath, be soft to yourself… and try again later, knowing that being able to think about this dilemma is already a part of the work done!
The issue raised by Marvin is in a way an extreme case of the same dilemma. It is difficult to imagine a moral stand for a person who would not lie in this case, except in putting one’s own life in the line of fire. The French Cathares had this principle, that their priests could never lie in any circumstance. So when the police asked one of them if they were Cathares, a positive answer was both an evidence for the police and a direct way to death for the priest… Now the situation could be very dangerous because the priest was not allowed to lie even if other people’s lives were at stake. So fortunately, the non-priest Cathares did not have to follow the same extreme principles… Which allowed them sometimes (often) to save their priests!