Is lying always immoral?

      3 Comments on Is lying always immoral?

Here’s the first Hypothica-style topic submission I received. In a weird coincidence, Hypothica posted something today too. The admin who posted it had been active less than once a month since the beginning, so that’s not a definite come back, but I sure hope it’s a good start.

In most societies of the world, honesty is seen as good thing. Usually, if a person is more trustworthy, they are liked better by their friends and family, they are seen as “better people”, etc.

On the other hand, most societies also have a range of culturally accepted lies that do not affect a person’s perceived honesty. American examples would be Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, etc.

The most obvious explanation is that it’s “okay” to lie in circumstances where said lies make the receiver happier. Then, what about other kind of lies that could make someone feel happier?

If you lie to someone, for example, by telling them you’re using that one useless gift they got you last year all the time so they would feel good about it, is it good?

What if you lie to a badly-informed friend about the past actions of the president, so that the person you are talking to would like him more, and therefore be a little bit more satisfied with society in general?

What if it’s done on a wide-scale?

For example, what if you are running for President of Hypothica. You are completely and utterly convinced that a particular thing MUST be done within a year to save Hypothica a TON of problems. You have some very classified information that you can’t share that proves the necessity of taking this action. You are 100% certain that the information is true. You also know that, without that information, most Hypothicans would disagree with that particular decision. They would hate this idea SO much, that they definitely would vote against anyone who wants to do it, no matter the other policies. In that situation, from your subjective point of view, the ONLY way to save Hypothica is to lie to the voters. You have to say the exact opposite of your plan on this particular issue, for the good of all hypothicans. In that case, is lying justified? Is it bad, or good?

For the sake of argument, let’s say Hypothica has no measure against a complete 180° by the president on his policies once he’s elected, because they switch him often enough anyway if they’re not satisfied.

Also, in the previous situation, what if there is no classified information? You are completely 100% certain that you are right about the action to take, but it’s just based on your own opinions and calculations this time, and you still know you can’t convince Hypothicans to agree with you. What difference does that make? Is lying still justified the same as in the previous case?


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  • I’m much more interested in the large scale idea than the small scale of lying. On the small scale, there are social (“white”) lies and I’m sure we can all think of personal examples. They’re just part of the social grease that keeps us family, work, friend relationships going without too much strain.

    The bigger scale question is rather interesting. Is the President of Hypothica, or ReadySetThink-land, justified in lying to the voters “for their own good” to avoid harm? i.e. deliberately deceiving them about his position on an issue? He’s certainly justified in not telling the voters the details of his plans, or campaigning for one position and then changing his mind once in office due to circumstances and advice, but your question goes beyond passive suppression, and changing your mind, into deliberately deceiving the public. Hmm.

    I’m going to side with (the fictional) Salvor Hardin from Asimov’s Foundation books, who said “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right”: here, “right” means “politically necessary”. Another relevant Hardin saying was “Nothing has to be true, but everything has to sound like it was.” Actually, it’s worth rereading “Foundation” to see how Hardin’s various amoral actions were necessary in the circumstances the Foundation found itself in, there are definite parallels with the question we’re discussed here.

  • Kingfisher12

    I think there are different kinds of lies, or at least there are different reasons for being untruthful, some are morally bad, some are neutral, and some can be morally good.

    A lie is morally bad if it is a case where it is important to tell the truth, but the truth was not given. This destroys trust, and generally makes things worse for everyone. Sometimes the worst lies come in the form of silence.

    Neutral lies are ones where the truth was not very important to begin with, or in settings where some deception is expected. Lies while playing games, or in social interactions are expected in most cultures. In these things truth is besides the point, so lies are both accepted and expected. “I like your shirt” etc.

    Good lies are ones where it is important not to tell the truth. There are many reasons this can happen. Sometimes the truth will be misunderstood, or will cause a negative reaction. Sometimes people just can’t face the truth.

    I think the higher ideal is ‘telling people what they need to hear”. But this requires a certain amount of wisdom. Sometimes people need to hear the truth – generally this is contingent on whether they will believe the truth or not. Sometimes people need to hear a half-truth. Sometimes people need to hear an outright lie (“I’m sure no-one will notice”).