Is it wrong to tell a lie?

It’s been a while since I did one of my secular morality Sunday posts. I want to get back into it — but for those of you who’ve started reading my blog since the last time I posted one of these, I’ll begin with a bit of an explanation.

If you know anything about the Bible, you know (at least some of) the Ten Commandments. It’s probably pretty easy to imagine why a Jewish or Christian — and, depending on interpretation, Muslim — person would refrain from lying. It’s right there, with a “thou shalt not” in front of it, directly from God: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” But what about atheists? In the absence of divine command, do we have any reason to want to tell the truth? I argue yes, though I don’t claim to speak for all atheists — merely to illustrate that it is possible to have well-develeoped moral beliefs without relying on supernatural ones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my understanding of moral and immoral acts regarding truth-telling is a bit more nuanced than “thou shalt not.”

As you know if you’ve been following along at home, I believe that on some level we have to base our moral judgments on our intuition. I try to begin with the most fundamental, most obvious axioms, and reason from there. Because of this, I start with things like “more happiness is good” and “more sadness is bad,” and I generally judge actions based on their consequences for overall happiness and well-being — though I take a long view and look at as many consequences as possible, including the consequence of setting precedent in which everyone might act that way.

In the spirit of taking this sort of mathematical approach, let’s begin by defining what it means to tell a lie. A lie must have two components:

  1. The statement must be false (i.e. not a matter of opinion that differs from yours, but actually opposite real facts)
  2. The speaker must know their statement is false

I don’t think it is appropriate to assign moral weight to something a person has no idea they are doing. If the speaker should reasonably be expected to educate themselves on the matter on which they’re speaking, we can assign some level of culpability. More so if they have deliberately remained ignorant of the facts in order to continue to spread a falsehood. But in general, if you really think something is true when you say it, I don’t think it makes sense to call that “lying.”

Also in mathematical style, I want to establish a “base case.” I don’t believe that lying in itself is inherently wrong. That is, in the absence of a supernatural record-keeper making his list and checking it twice, there is nothing morally problematic about standing alone in an empty room and making a counterfactual statement out loud. I wouldn’t think it the most effective use of my time, but if you get some enjoyment out of announcing to no one in particular, “I am a beautiful butterfly” — go for it, I guess. No complaints here. This is why I think that any moral problem with lying must arise from what happens when you tell a lie to others.

Tiny lies in polite conversation

Some lies told to others have no negative effects that I can see. If anything, they have positive effects of streamlining interpersonal interactions. As such, I consider these lies morally permissible.

By way of example: have you ever been listening to someone telling a story about something cute a little kid did one time, and they get sidetracked by explaining how the kid was related to them? Maybe it was “my niece; well actually she’s my cousin’s neighbor’s kid; well, the daughter of my cousin’s neighbor at the place she used to live at, before she moved to Springfield; well, she’s kind of like a daughter to my cousin ’cause they’re close like family and we just call everyone who comes to our backyard barbeques aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews or whatever.” Does it matter to the story at all? No. The cuteness would be conveyed equally well or better if the person just said “my niece” and moved on. While it’s technically a falsehood, its utter inconsequence makes it equivalent to our base case. I’m sure you can supply lots of other similar situations.

Little white lies

“White lies” are told to make someone feel good, spare someone (perhaps yourself) embarrassment, and so on. They’re also typically about relatively inconsequential topics (whether your friend looks awesome or just okay in that dress; how long you were waiting and whether it was an inconvenience; etc.). In general, white lies probably do more good than harm the vast majority of time. However, I can think of circumstances in which telling one actually covers up a problem that deserves attention and therefore delays its resolution.

Example: I don’t see anything on face problematic about declining an invitation by saying, “Oh, I’d love to, but I already have plans that afternoon” when really you just don’t want to spend time with a person and you want to soften the blow. It’s worth considering, though, whether a polite lie in this instance will lead to more awkward situations and hurt feelings down the road. If you have to turn down invitations repeatedly, your attempt at politeness becomes confusing and then insulting. In this case it would be more moral to state your real reason for saying no, as graciously as possible, so that no one gets strung along and disappointed.

Lying in important situations

Next, there’s the sort of situation where someone has requested information from you and obviously intends to make meaningfully important decisions based on that information. Lying in times like these has a number of bad consequences, ranging from eroding that person’s trust with you (leading to unhappiness in your future interactions with them) to promoting decisions that fail to address reality (leading to unhappiness for all the people those decisions may affect). Therefore, I would say that lies in this category are by and large morally bad.

Example: you’re a test engineer and your supervisor asks you, “Is our new product safe to put on the market?” If the facts say no and you answer yes, the product will be sold, people will likely be harmed, your company’s reputation will be harmed, you and many others may lose your jobs, etc. On the other hand, if the facts say yes and you answer no, the product will be delayed, people who could have benefited from it will be deprived of those benefits, your company will do worse (possibly also costing people their jobs), etc. Other obvious examples include lying as a witness in court and lying to your significant other about aspects of your life you know they care about. Even if you would preserve your own good reputation or make people feel better by lying in these cases, there are many more / more severe negative outcomes than positive ones.

Lying for the greater good

Of course, there’s a subset of cases in the previous category where I think it ought to be considered morally good to lie. I separate it into its own category because it’s historically been a matter of some debate among moral philosophers. What if the person requesting information from you wants to use it to do something that is morally reprehensible? Perhaps they want to know when the night watchman goes on his break so that they can rob a store without being caught, or they want to know where the nearest abortion clinic is so that they can throw a bomb inside. I’m usually a proponent of spreading knowledge of reality so that people can make informed decisions, but that assumes that people are able to and intend to make morally acceptable decisions. If you know that someone’s correct knowledge of reality would lead to them taking other actions that we can judge (through other reasoning) to be morally wrong, I say that withholding truth from that person is the right thing to do.

The classic example of this is one that was used to critique Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, and which Kant himself totally accepted as an implication of his philosophy. If you believe that lying is always wrong, then you would believe it immoral to lie to a murderer who is asking you for the location of his intended next victim. By the standards of judgment I’ve laid out here, I think the moral costs that would be associated with a lie in such cases are clearly outweighed by the moral good brought about by the lie.

So, what do you think? Am I on target, or missing something? One big area I’ve failed to discuss is lying by omission (haha), but I don’t really make action/inaction distinctions — do you think that refraining from telling the truth is meaningfully different from telling an outright lie?

Leave a comment


  1. Aristarchus

     /  January 22, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I agree with your general framework, but I think the calculation works out in favor of telling the truth more frequently than most people realize. Telling your friend they look great every time they wear any dress makes it impossible to really let them know when a dress looks much better than others. It also creates a psychology that isn’t ok with just looking normal. And when everyone does it, everyone else knows everyone else is doing it, and it just creates this elaborate social ritual where no one actually thinks any information is being communicated. Of course, if almost everyone is doing it, the social ritual is created anyway, and you don’t do all that much by not going along with it. I guess to me the real question is what amount of generalization we should expect of how we act.

  2. NFQ:

    I recently bought and read Sam Harris’s mini-e-book “Lying”, and I have to say that his attempt – over tens of pages – to argue that lying is always wrong, was not as insightful and to the point as your short post.

    I should have saved my money and waited for January 22nd 🙂

  3. Jojo the Hun

     /  February 19, 2012 at 1:26 am


    This is nice and all. Is there anyone who seriously argues from anything other than your own assumptions that it is morally wrong to tell a tiny lie in polite conversation? I mean, this exercise is probably really helpful to you in ordering your own moral compass, but it’s not as though there isn’t a long history of philosophers, theologians, and lawyers addressing the same issues with similar results.

    I get the impression you’re not satisfied with any moral system yet devised. You like Mill’s utilitarianism but only to a point, you’re snippy with Kant, and of course the whole blog is largely about how dumb you think a theological basis for morality is. Yet, you feel the need for a system, more that just saying “follow your moral intuition”. And you seem to think that it’s a reasonable thing to actually construct such a system.

    So you have some principles that you think form a strong foundation, and you’ve shown how they can be intelligently applied to explain what is moral in some select circumstances, and how it corresponds with what most people’s intuition tells them.

    This enterprise is interesting to me for a number of reasons; would you mind if I question your starting principles at this point?

    Start with this: what do you mean by “happiness”? Do you mean physical pleasure? Material well-being? A life well lived, viewed in retrospect? Something else? You seem to be pretty vague about it.

    And “sadness”? Or, elsewhere, “suffering”? What do these mean?

    And then, having these two goods in mind, increasing happiness and decreasing sadness, how do you determine the exchange rate between the two (the “weighing”)? If an action increases the happiness of someone but also increases their sadness or suffering, is it moral or immoral, and how do you determine that in individual situations?

    And then, how do we handle the more complicated but more common situation of a possible action increasing the happiness of one or more person but simultaneously decreasing the happiness, or increases the sadness or suffering of one or more other people? Do we just add up the happiness credits and subtract the sadness debits and deem an action with a positive net balance “moral”? Or is there some more complicated, non-linear formula? Or, is it all just guesswork and rules of thumb?

    At a deeper level: what do you mean when you say “moral”? If it just comes down to “following your moral intuition, and doing what is right”, then one has to ask: why bother talking about it?

    And at a deeper level: why should someone do what is right, or moral? Just because an action will increase happiness among many…if it involves any decrease in my own happiness, or increase in my sadness…why should I do it? Maybe the simple knowledge that everyone would be better off doesn’t compel me…why should I, or anyone, take these words like “moral” and “right” as anything but background noise, or perhaps propaganda from people who want me to act in a way that is convenient for them?

    You can refer me to your previous posts, but I’ve read them and don’t see where you make these meanings clear. Touched on some of them, yes, but not made clear, though excuse me if I’ve missed something.

    BTW, I’m in no hurry for a response. On the other hand, it might increase the sum total of all human happiness if you did compose a response when at some point you have the time.

  4. A while back, one of the religious bloggers I follow had a series of posts about lying, in particular with regard to the group Live Action that has people pose as (lie that they are) underage girls seeking abortions in order to “expose” Planned Parenthood.

    He comes down on the side of “no, lying is always wrong because the Church Says So” but it’s interesting that a lot of prominent religious/Catholic people are on the side of “well we’re holy and good and stopping MURDER. We’re lying FOR JESUS so it’s OK.”

    Here’s the series:

  5. Pito Rosario

     /  March 27, 2012 at 12:51 pm


    I think everything is spotless here, except that I think it’s a common misconception-almost a stereotype-that theistic morality is always so wooden that it NEVER allows for ANY exceptions. I’ve spoken to/read many Christian authors and bloggers who’ve acknowledged daily life’s complexities and would simply say that the intent, nature of the situation, and degree of good/evil present or potentially so must be factored in when making ethical decisions, putting aside for the moment questions of honesty or consistency.


  6. frrrrrppppo

     /  April 2, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Just because you tell a guy where the abortion clinic is does not mean you are responsible for the bomb he throws in it. Besides you can always not respond or say politely “You will have to ask someone else” … why are people so afraid of confrontation nowadays? This world is crap… when people believe it is OK to lie.

  7. An female employee came into the office the other morning and she was radiant in her attire. She smiled and asked me how I liked it. Now, frankly, I thought it looked awful on her, but should I have deflated her happiness and told her what I really thought? That would have been cruel so I lied and told her she looked very pretty. To do otherwise would have been unconscionable.

    To the men reading this I ask what they would say if their wife were to ask if he thought she looked fat? …And don’t lie to me!

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