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When is Lying Appropriate? A Moral and Ethical View

This paper delves into the controversial question: "Can lying ever be justified?" I will present the pros and cons of lying and in what situations it could be acceptable.

Benjamin Franklin obviously possessed an insufficient knowledge of the topic when he made his famous statement, “Honesty is the best policy.” In American culture, that quote is the foundation of the nation’s ethics. When someone is dishonest, consequences usually accompany. To the smallest extent, the victimized individual bereaves the liar of respect. Though, allow me to contradict this universally accepted moral and propose another approach to this often heated subject. What if I were to say that  misrepresenting the truth is not indefinitely a dishonorable action? The same concept holds true when withholding certain information. Nobody should allow deception to prevail as their first resort, but exercise it only in exigent circumstances.

Occasionally, telling a lie may be necessary to prevent danger or fear. For example, sometimes doctors practice equivocating or lying by omission because they know the patient may act irrationally towards the truth. If a doctor was to inform a patient he or she was going to die the next day, with no ifs, ands, or buts about it, how would the patient most likely react? Would it not be in the better interest of the patient to inform a close relative of their state and provide a more stress-free experience? There is a concrete difference, though, between keeping someone emotionally stable and taking their matters into your own hands. For example, a patient has two options for kidney treatment and instead of inquiring with the client first, the doctor chooses what he thinks would be the most sensible option. I can relate to this instance, as this was the means to my grandmother’s death.

Straying from the truth might also become necessary in certain careers every day; sometimes it is out of avaricious intentions, other times it is not. Attorneys, for example, have a legal obligation to keep the information discussed with a client confidential. Occasionally, the lawyer may have to withhold information or lie so he can meet these obligations. Now, imagine how unethical it would be for a lawyer to compromise the bonds of trust that he so quickly promised the client. On the flip-side, a professional such as a car salesman may choose to mislead a prospective buyer with greedy intentions. Imagine if you will; a car salesman is close to finalize the sale of a new Hummer. The customer asks how the gas mileage is and the salesman tells him it has pristine gas mileage when in reality, it gets around seven miles to the gallon. How, in any way, was that lie justifiable or not out of pure greed?

When dealing with Christianity and lying, matters can get overly complicated; I learned that the indirect way, through a lengthy argument with my father. I was trying to explain to him the circumstances under which it is permissible to tell a lie. That is when he pulled out the Eighth Commandment, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Being a Protestant Christian, what was I going to say to that? It came straight from the Bible! It is impossible finding a source more credible than you god’s own words. Luckily, I was able to find John 7:8-10, where Jesus tells his disciples to go on to a feast, and that he would not be going. He went in secret after they were out of sight. Before anyone starts to faint, please know that his intentions were honorable, as he was in the temple enlightening others about his father, God. My dad fell silent; from a Christian standpoint, if Jesus (who was “without sin”) was allowed to mislead people for honorable intentions, then it must not be sinning.

Lying is not unethical alone; it is lying for a non-justifiable cause that has no place in this world. Have you ever told anyone who you are close with something that is not true for an honorable purpose?

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User Comments
  1. Anusha Jain

    On April 10, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Quite interesting viewpoint. The quote from Bible and the incident were most enlightening. In my opinion, nothing’s black and white. We do not live in an ideal world… it is full of shades of grey. So something which is correct in one situation, might be entirely unjustifiable in another.

    Anusha, UV Associates

  2. Jonathan Boltz

    On May 5, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Anusha, thank you for your support. It is surprising how many people fall to hypocrisy when they say, “you should never tell a lie!” In reality, they probably withhold information (at the very least) everyday.

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