In Defense of Lying

On more than one occasion, Talking Ethics has looked at the ethics of telling so-called white lies that may seem like they’re not doing much harm—“Dinner was delicious.” “I like your new haircut.” In doing so, we found that our readers (a self-selected group who take their ethics seriously) generally frown on lying of any kind, though most reject the absolutist view of Immanuel Kant and others who insist lying is always wrong because it undermines trust and constructive discourse. Now comes a new study suggesting that not only is lying sometimes okay, but it actually can be the right thing to do.

In a recent article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Emma E. Levine and Maurice E. Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, conclude that the ethics of lying depends a lot on the intention behind it. They suggest that when we lie out of self-interest, it is wrong, but when we tell what they call a “prosocial lie,” one that the teller thinks will help and protect other people, the lie can be judged ethical.

In their study the authors set out to fill a void in ethical research, which usually focuses on selfish behavior or involves life and death issues (i.e., the trolley car problem that was the subject of a recent book we reviewed.) They focus instead on the kind of situations that we come up against in everyday life—the kind where a white, prosocial lie is relatively common.

For their research, they set up three experiments in which observers watched people lie or tell the truth for selfish and for prosocial reasons, and found that the observers judged the prosocial liars as more moral than those who told selfish truths. The only people judged immoral were those who told selfish lies.

The studies suggest, according to the authors, that when benevolence and honesty conflict, benevolence may be judged by third parties as a more important indicator of ethics than honesty. What’s more, intentions matter more than the outcome. People who told lies intending to have a positive effect were judged positively regardless of whether the lies succeeded.

This is fascinating stuff, and we strongly recommend Levine’s fuller account of the study, which you can find here.

The notion that some lies are ethical and good for people on the receiving end is sure to run into some opposition. When we ran our informal survey on white lies, we were surprised that so many people felt lying was never justified, but our online survey was far from scientific and lacked the controls that Levine and Schweitzer employed. Still, there are several additional questions that need to be answered, and we’re frankly nervous about certain aspects of the case made by Levine and Schweitzer.

What bothers us the most is that the intent of a lie becomes paramount, without regard for whether it has the intended effect, i.e., whether it really does any good. Consider the mediocre violinist who sets off in search of a concert master career based on the false praise of friends and relatives. Or the self-published author who quits his day job because he thinks his writing will pay the mortgage. Even the hostess complimented on an awful meal may conclude that she should make the recipe a staple of her dinner parties.

The point is we can’t know how things will turn out. Intentions are important but not always enough. How and where do we draw that line? Take a good look at Levine’s summary of her study (or ask her for the study itself, which is otherwise behind a paywall), and let us know what you think.


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