Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ethics and Lying

I was just reading an article about Consequentialism. One of the first examples of ethical issues is a discussion about lying. I find it interesting that the authors of the article would choose to discuss lying rather than cheating or killing (ie: in the case of warfare for a justified cause), adultery, or abortion. All these other topics have significant ethical contriversies associated with them.

Over the past year I have been reading a lot of authors on ethical theories (you may notice by looking at some of my previous blogs). A lot of ethical theorist discuss lying. I guess lying is a good litmus test for an ethical theory because it challenges the major theories of Utilitarianism (judging the rightness or wrongness of an action based on the amount of utility-or benefit that action causes to the world) and rules based ethics (Deonteology: judging the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or set of rules)


A classical challenge for the ethics of lying is as follows. During the second world war, Germany was invading Holland. As the Germans soldiers would go from house to house, they would seek out any Jews and kill them. Some dutch people wanted to protect the Jews. Even if they were not Jews themselves, they did not believe it was right to allow the Jews to be killed. These people would hide Jews in their houses. When the German soldiers would come knocking on their front doors asking if there were any Jews in the house, they would lie to them and tell them there are none in the house.

Was it right or wrong for the dutch homeowner to lie about the presence of Jews in their house? Would it have been better for the dutch person to not harbour Jews in their house so they would not be forced to deal with the ethical dilemma of lying? There are certain things we do because of our basic ethical standards (ie: we do not run over elderly people as they cross the road). But there are other things we do that go beyond the basic ethical rules. Some of us go to Haiti to help with disaster relief. Other people help out at the food bank, or spend a bit of extra time with their children in a loving way. These are things that we do above and beyond our basic ethical standards - we would not be considered wrong by society if we did not do them, but because we care (are driven by an internal motivation), we do these things.

The people that harboured Jews in Holland did so because they cared - there was no law saying they had to, not even a socially established norm saying they had to. However, to complete this act of caring, they have to go against a socially accepted ethical standard.

Utilitarians would say that the final result of saving the life of the Jew justified the act of lying.

A deonteologist has a bit more complicated answer. The simple answer is that ethics is based on rules. One of those rules is "do not lie". This would be consistent with Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." If you just look at issue about lying, then of course you would want it a universal law that people do not lie - otherwise it would be no use having a conversation with someone because you never know when they are telling the truth.

However, if you were to look at a larger maximum of "when faced with a choice between telling the truth and causing a person to die, or lying and saving their life, choose lying", then you could say a larger universal maximum still applies.

However, there is a more complicated answer. The deonteologist also say that there is a ranking system amongst rules. They would probably argue that saying something that would cause someone to die (if the dutch person told the soldier the truth, then the soldier would kill the Jew), is a worse act then lying. Therefore, it is better to do the least harmful act. Now comes the next big questions: how does the ranking system work?

The ranking system would likely go something like this: most important is to protect innocent human life, the next order of importance is upholding rules such as truthfulness etc.

So, you have just observed how lying in a certain context can be justified by the principal ethical theories.

It makes me feel uneasy justifying something I feel is wrong. I grow up learning that lying is wrong. We are trained from an early age to instinctively see it as wrong. Now we look at a situation where it seems that it is the right thing to do. In this type of situation, I would probably act to preseve life, but I wouldn't "feel" right about it. I guess it is not always that easy to do the "right" thing - the idealized perfectly right thing, in an un-ideal, imperfect world.

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