When is Lying Wrong?

Kant explains that lying is absolutely wrong (morally impermissible in every circumstance), but most of us come to terms with balancing the prima facie wrongness of lying against other, frequently utilitarian reasons for lying.

In a recent essay in the NY Times, Gerald Dworkin (UC-Davis) invites discussion about a number of scenarios to test our intuitions about lying. Although the discussions are closed at the times, please feel free to pursue them here. From the article,

Here is a list of lies that I believe to be either permissible, or, in some cases, obligatory. Readers will certainly disagree with me about some, perhaps many, of these cases. But such disagreement should not be the end of the discussion. I invite your reflection on why you disagree. It may be that I am making some implicit assumption about the case that you are challenging. It might be that you think that there are bad consequences of the lie in question, but I do not, either because I do not think the consequences are likely, or because I do not think they are bad...

To participate:

— Read each lie scenario below.

— Beneath each one you may indicate whether you think it is permissible (click on yes) or impermissible (no) to lie in that case.

— At the bottom of the list, choose one or more lies you disapprove of (remember, I approve of all of them), and explain why you disagree as succinctly as you can, then submit your response.

I also welcome additions to my list; particularly if they have justifying features that seem different from those present in my examples.

  1. A man lies to his wife about where they are going in order to get her to a place where a surprise birthday party has been organized.
  2. A young child is rescued from a plane crash in a very weakened state. His parents have been killed in the crash but he is unaware of this. He asks about his parents and the attending physician says they are O.K. He intends to tell the truth once the child is stronger.
  3. Your father suffers from severe dementia and is in a nursing home. When it is time for you to leave he becomes extremely agitated and often has to be restrained. On the occasions when you have said you would be back tomorrow he was quite peaceful about your leaving. You tell him now every time you leave that you will be back tomorrow knowing that in a very short time after you leave he will have forgotten what you said.
  4. A woman’s husband drowned in a car accident when the car plunged off a bridge into a body of water. It was clear from the physical evidence that he desperately tried to get out of the car and died a dreadful death. At the hospital where his body was brought his wife asked the physician in attendance what kind of death her husband suffered. He replied, “He died immediately from the impact of the crash. He did not suffer.”
  5. In an effort to enforce rules against racial discrimination “testers” were sent out to rent a house. First, an African-American couple claiming to be married with two children and an income that was sufficient to pay the rent would try to rent a house. If they were told that the house was not available, a white tester couple with the same family and economic profile would be sent. If they were offered the rental there would be persuasive evidence of racial discrimination.
  6. In November of 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy gave a conference. When asked whether he had discussed any matters other than Cuban missiles with the Soviets he absolutely denied it. In fact, he had promised that the United States would remove missiles from Turkey.
  7. A woman interviewing for a job in a small philosophy department is asked if she intends to have children. Believing that if she says (politely) it’s none of their business she will not get the job, she lies and says she does not intend to have a family.
  8. In order to test whether arthroscopic surgery improved the conditions of patients’ knees a study was done in which half the patients were told the procedure was being done but it was not. Little cuts were made in the knees, the doctors talked as if it were being done, sounds were produced as if the operation were being done. The patients were under light anesthesia. It turned out that the same percentage of patients reported pain relief and increased mobility in the real and sham operations. The patients were informed in advance that they either would receive a real or a sham operation.
  9. I am negotiating for a car with a salesperson. He asks me what the maximum I am prepared to pay is. I say $15,000. It is actually $20,000.
  10. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement.
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As an ethical absolutist, I

As an ethical absolutist, I guess I would argue that lying is wrong in all cases that are intended to harm another person.  

1. It depends.  If he believes, based on available evidence, that his wife hates surprise parties and it will cause her discomfort (a type of harm), then the lie is morally wrong.  If he believes, based on the available evidence, that his wife loves surprise parties, then the lie is morally permissible.  

2. Absolutely yes.  The doctor would be able to take into account the child's age (does he have sufficient cogntive resources to not be tramatized by hearing such things), his level of shock (based on his behavioral responses).  It has been proven that increased stress makes illness more difficult to treat.  The doctor also has the intention to tell the truth at a later time.  He seems to be doing his behavior out of compassion (which I think is always morally right).  

3. It depends.  If the person is lying to their father because it hurts them to see their father restrained it is wrong (it would be selfish to lie for this reason, and since the lie affects the other person how you feel is irrelevant).  If the person is lying becuase when their father is restrained he suffers or is hurt (he is left with bruising or has to be given seditatives that hurt him) then the lying is morally permissible. 

4. Absolutely no.  As long as the woman does not have a disorder and is legally considered competent to make her own decisions, she deserves the truth (to lie even after she has asked for the truth is a violation of her autonomy and a violation of her personhood).  Plus this doctor does not intend to tell the truth at a later time.  It almost seems to me like he is doing it so he does not have to deal with the woman's emotions.  

5. Absolutely no.  It is not okay to lie for this reason because that does not necessarily prove that they are racially discriminatory (they could be homophobic for instance - the example does not make it clear if this is a same-sex couple or not, or ageist (maybe they are too old to rent or too young to be married], sexist [if the couple is heterosexual and the woman makes more than her husband for example], or discriminatory against a certain religious denomination, etc.)... discrimination never makes that much sense (why do you care what strangers do or look like?).  Even so, It is a violation of someone's autonomy not to allow them to assert their beliefs simply because we don't agree with them (disagree with them or tell them to fuck off), but they have the right to speak or enact whatever behavior they want to freely (as long as they are as willing to accept the consequences for their actions).  I think that covert discrimination is worse than open discrimination becuase then at least you actually know where everyone stands in regards to the issue.  

6. It depends.  If the president did it to protect people from harm it was right to do.  If he did it to make himself look good then he was wrong.  

7. Absolutely no.  Lying here is all about her and is selfish (and in situations involving lying the only moral agents that are relevant are the people receiving the lie).  

8. Absolutely yes.  The participants knew they may or may not get a real operation.  They agreed to those conditions before it was done.  

9. Absolutely no.  Lying here is all about the car buyer and is selfish (and in situations involving lying the only moral agents that are relevant are the people receiving the lie).  

10.  Absolutely no.  And for others this leads to narcissism and arrogance (which in extreme cases are actually considered part of the symptomatology of certain personality disorders).  This does not give the child the ability to have an accurate perception of reality and it almost seems like the parents are doing it so they can live vicariously through their children or be known as the parents of a great prodigy (like Amy Chua who wrote Battle Hymn of the Chinese Mother)... which is just sick.  

  1. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement.