Monday, March 06, 2006

Justifying Lies

Assuming not all lies are wrong, justifying becomes a dilemma. How can one justify lies, and can they all be justified away depending on point of view? Several different philosophies carry different opinions of the topic.

Aristotelian ethics often serves as the basis for modern ethical theories. In his work Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle sets out that anything done with the goal of the highest good was an ethical action. This highest good, eudemonia, could generally be considered to mean happiness. It is a goal which is desirable in itself, and other goals are desirable because they ultimately lead to achieving this highest good. When lying is taken in the context of Aristotelian ethics, it seems that as long as the goal of the lie is ultimately happiness, the lie is justified. It seems logical that most people lie for their own or others' happiness, making it seem as though Aristotelian ethics generally justify lying. On the other hand, it is necessary to consider that Aristotle also supports moderation, so lying to excess would probably not be supported.

Utilitarian moral philosophy seems to be able to justify anything is similar to Aristotelian ethics, claiming to favor what causes the "greater good". Surprisingly, this philosophy was also favored by Machiavelli political views with the phrase "the ends justify the means". Most modern utilitarians will state that their philosophy is different than Machiavelli's in that the ends does not justify all means, but in general the differences are somewhat nuanced. Using this basic credo, utilitarians can and do sometimes justify lying as a morally decent behavior. It is possible to imagine a situation where one could tell a lie that does maximize happiness, causing a net increase in good through the amount of benefit to the liar. This would be a justifiable lie to a utilitarian.

A related concept to utilitarianism is a recent moral philosophy called painism. Painism, like utilitarianism, is based off of results, but claims that the only results which should be avoided are those which cause pain. This form of utilitarianism would allow for a much larger number of justifiable lies; no longer do lies have to maximize happiness, they basically only have to do no harm.

Deontology, in direct conflict to the beliefs of Utilitarianism, holds that actions can be fundamentally right or wrong, regardless of the consequences. Kant, a proponent of deontology in ethics, had a strong belief in that lying is wrong and we are responsible for our lies. To logically back up the claim the lying is wrong, Kant claims that moral behaviors must be universalizable. A behavior or action that can be universal will not be self-destructive or contradictory. In the case of lying, the commonly used example is lying to get money. A person lies in order to attain a loan, knowing that they will be unable to pay back the money. If one person commits this act, the loaning institution would probably loan the money, whereas if the behavior were common, a loaning institution would most likely change their loan policy. If everyone committed the behavior in question it would substantially alter the behavior of society in such a way that it would no longer be possible to commit this behavior. This is meant to prove that lying is always wrong and never justifiable.

Discourse ethics, although much more detailed, can be summarized a kind of consensus ethics. In this kind of moral evaluation, a community must argue the logic behind their norms, coming to an understanding of what can be expected in terms of ethical behavior within the community. As discourse ethics is a subjective form of ethical evaluation, there could be situations where a community believes lying is justified and is the correct choice. Such cases that we have witnessed in the past include governmental lies spread during wartime to benefit the morale of a country, or telling children that the stork brought them to save their innocence from more unsavory ideas. It is reasonable to think that communities exist where lying is exclusively wrong. For instance, academic communities would not look kindly upon lies circulated as fact in academic papers. The subjective nature of discourse ethics makes it difficult to truly classify if and how lies would be justified.

Finally, there is the moral philosophy of casuistry. This philosophy generally consists of considering each ethical dilemma as a unique case. This case can be considered using other similar cases as a basis, but acknowledges that every instance of a moral dilemma is unique from every other moral dilemma that has or will exist. Moral maxims are considered along with the specifics of the case, then a decision of right or wrong can be reached. This kind of individual consideration is good in theory, but much harder to complete fully in practice. It could be used, and is used, to justify lies, but involves a great amount of mental processing.

These philosophies are just some of the many moral philosophies that exist in the world, applied to the idea of lying. Does anyone actually use any of these specifically, or does real life generally result in using a combination of these, applying different moral philosophies when convenient? How do you justify lies?

This post is based off of articles from the Encyclopedia of applied ethics and the Introduction to Ethics class taught at Brandeis University.

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