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:
- The statement must be false (i.e. not a matter of opinion that differs from yours, but actually opposite real facts)
- 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?