Kant famously said that it would be right to let someone be murdered if the alternative was that you told a lie. This extreme anti-consequential-ism is one of the primary reasons that people find Kant unpalatable (at least in my experience). This does raise an interesting question – how immoral is lying?
Hegel has an amusing note on truth in the Phenomenology of Spirit. He speaks of those who attempt to issue the commandment: ‘everyone ought to speak the truth.’ He says ‘the condition will at once be admitted: if he knows the truth.’ This, Hegel summarizes, makes Truth ‘contingent on whether I know it, and can convince myself of it; and the truth and falsehood ought to be spoken just as everyone happens to know, mean, and understand it.’ (Reason and Lawgiver, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit)
So, should we speak Truth? As Hegel points out, this is really a different question – should we speak what we think is the truth?
What are the stakes in this question? Why is it better to tell the truth? Kant gives an answer – if everyone lied, we would live in a world where lying didn’t work. For those who don’t buy into his framework this answer shouldn’t be very satisfying. In terms of consequentiallism I would say that lying is considered immoral because it often harms others (we don’t usually lie in such a way that we intentionally harm ourselves, though lies can definitely come back to haunt us.) However, I think that saying that lying harms others ignores the complexity of actually saying what actually counts as a lie. If someone casually asks me how I am and I feel like shit, am I wrong if I tell them simply ‘I’m good’? To take a more morally loaded scenario, what if you found out that your friend was gay, and his strict catholic father asked you about his sexual inclination? I think most people would feel a much stronger sense of duty towards their friend then towards not lying.
This is all somewhat dancing around the question of whether lying is wrong however. That I can find fringe cases where lying is beneficial for those involved doesn’t really address the principle that we shouldn’t lie in general (just as we shouldn’t murder, in general). Is there any inherent aspect negative aspect to all lies? It cannot be because failing to speak the truth is a crime, because that is really to say that ignorance is a crime. The definition of lying must therefore have to do with intention – someone lies when they speak contrary to their actual beliefs. This contrariness cannot be the exploration of alternative ideas, but instead must stem from an intention to deceive.
Is deception inherently wrong? We have already covered how it does not have universally negative results, nor does it require hostility towards the deceived. If lying is to be truly wrong, then it must be the intention to deceive alone that is responsible. So, is it wrong to intentionally deceive?
… this post has gotten quite long, so you’ll need to find out NEXT TIME!
Thanks for reading ^_^