Philosophy for Teens

The following chapter has been excerpted from Philosophy for Teens. This book is an in-depth, teenager-friendly look at the philosophy behind everyday issues. The authors examine some of life’s biggest topics, such as lying, cheating, love, beauty, the role of government, hate, and prejudice, in this book, written directly for and field-tested with teenagers.

Chapter 5: Is Lying Always Wrong? by Sharon M. Kaye, Ph.D., & Paul Thompson, Ph.D.

The Lie

Shaniqua is sitting on a rock outside of school staring off into space. She doesn’t even notice Alex walk up until he snaps his fingers at her.

ALEX: What’s up with you, girl?

SHANIQUA: Nothing . . . <Looking up at him> I’m getting ready to call my cousin. I promised to help her babysit tonight, but I’m thinking of canceling.

ALEX: Why?

SHANIQUA: <Looking embarrassed> Mike asked me over to study, and I’d rather do that.

ALEX: So, what’s the problem?

SHANIQUA: Well, I don’t want to tell my cousin I’m going to Mike’s instead, because she’ll be hurt. I’m tempted to tell her I’m sick or something.

ALEX: Hey, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s for a good reason it isn’t a lie.

SHANIQUA: <She pauses to think about what Alex said.> I wish that were true, Alex, but how could it be? It’s still a lie. Who decides whether studying with Mike is a good enough reason to break a promise anyway?

ALEX: <Shaking his head> Shaniqua, you shouldn’t worry about it because your cousin’s never going to find out that you lied.

SHANIQUA: So, you think lying’s wrong only if you get caught?

ALEX: <Scratching his head> Yeah, that’s about right.

SHANIQUA: I don’t think it matters whether you get caught or not. I think lying’s wrong because you’re breaking a good rule. I mean, just think how crazy the world would be if there were no rules against lying and everybody lied whenever they felt like it. Would you want to live in a world like that?

ALEX: I would if people used good judgment when they lied. For example, ask me right now whether I like your shirt.

SHANIQUA: <Smirking> Do you like my shirt?

ALEX: Yeah, it looks nice.

SHANIQUA: You’re lying, aren’t you?

ALEX: You bet I am. I’m telling you, Shaniqua, there are some things it’s better not to know. Why do you wanna go and hurt your cousin’s feelings?

SHANIQUA: Sometimes it’s really hard to know what to do. <She shrugs and shares a smile with Alex.>

Questions

  • When does Alex think lying is OK? Why does Shaniqua think lying is wrong? With which person do you agree more, and why?
  • Do you think there can be a good reason for a lie? Why or why not?
  • Describe an example of a lie that was wrong. Suppose someone did not think it was wrong. How would you explain to her why you thought it was?

Lying


Is it ever OK to lie? Is a lie ever morally required? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then what are we to make of the ninth Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” or the rule we often hear from parents and teachers, “Honesty is the best policy?”

In this chapter, we’ll look at the ethics of lying through the lenses of two of the most influential ethical theories in the history of philosophy. The first is centered on the idea that the moral worth of an action depends on its results. It is called utilitarianism, and later we will look at a classic version of utilitarianism defended by John Stuart Mill. This theory says that, of the possible actions open to you, you should choose the one that will do the greatest good for the greatest number, that is, the one that will maximize happiness. The other theory is that morality is based on rights and duties. It is known as deontology. This theory says that we are required to perform certain moral duties regardless of the consequences.

Truthfulness is a virtue; there is no denying it. We admire the first American president, George Washington, because, as the story goes, when asked by his father whether he had cut down the cherry tree on the family’s property, he responded, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree.” Things are not always so clear-cut, though, as the following examples illustrate:
  1. You have a date for a formal dance. You dress up in your finest clothes and greet him when he arrives at your door. He asks, “How do I look?” The truth is that he looks foolish. His suit does not fit right—the sleeves are too short, and the pants are too long. Furthermore, his hair is totally overdone. What do you tell him? If you were in his position, would you want to know the truth?
  2. Your favorite great aunt, Veronica, a widow, has a beloved dog named Fifi. Today Fifi was hit by a car and killed. Aunt Veronica, long ill with cancer, is in the hospital and the doctors say she will not survive the night. You know this will be your last visit with her, and she asks how Fifi is. Do you tell her the truth? If you were in her place, would you want to know?

Although it may not be clear what to do in these situations, many think it is clear that the decision should be based not on some abstract rule, but on careful consideration of the consequences of the proposed actions. To take action without considering what will happen seems heartless and inhumane. So, these two examples make a powerful case in favor of the first “results theory” of morality, and also in favor of lying in certain special circumstances.

John Stuart Mill is known as the father of this theory of morality. He would argue that you can find the right thing to do in each of the above situations by determining exactly who will be affected by your choice (including yourself) and calculating which choice will make everyone happy. Mill wanted his theory to be a practical guide to decision making that accurately reflects the way good people instinctively act.

Thought Experiment: The Mob and the Scapegoat
On a hot summer evening, Juan is driving through a Midwestern city where two racially motivated murders have just occurred. Mobs have formed, and it looks as if there will be riots with severe loss of life if nothing is done. The chief of police knows the mobs will disperse if they have a scapegoat—anyone will do. He has just stopped Juan for running a red light. If he turns Juan over to the mob as the scapegoat,they will kill him, but then disperse. If he lets Juan go, there will be a riot causing dozens of deaths. If we think just in terms of results, it seems we should require the chief of police to sacrifice Juan for the greater good. Does this seem right?

Nevertheless, there are a few problems with Mill’s view. First of all, Mill said that the right action is the action that produces the greatest happiness. But, how should we define happiness? Is it wealth, health, fame, glory, or something else? Happiness seems like a very vague concept on which to base a theory. And, Mill’s theory seems overly demanding. Many of your moral decisions affect people about whom you know nothing. How will you take them into account? And, how far down the road do you have to look? Most of us have trouble calculating the consequences of our actions for next weekend, never mind next year. Third, and most importantly, it is difficult for Mill’s theory to accommodate basic human rights, as the following thought experiment illustrates.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) championed the second ethical theory, which says that there are some absolute moral rules. Kant argued in favor of this “rule theory” on the grounds that obeying rules is required to show respect for individual rights. He wanted everyone to obey commands such as “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt protect the innocent,” without trying to calculate what will happen. For Kant, the only thing that matters is that you set your mind on doing your duty; the results are not relevant. Because this theory does not attempt to maximize happiness, it avoids the three problems with Mill’s theory discussed above.

Despite its merits, Kant’s theory has a serious conceptual difficulty. Kant seemed to think that his absolute rules always clearly command one action. But, that just isn’t true. Consider what is known as the Anne Frank case

During the Nazi occupation of your country, you are hiding a number of Jewish people behind a false wall in your attic. You know the Nazi secret police are trying to round up these people to murder them. A Nazi officer knocks at your door and asks if you are hiding any Jews in the attic. What should you say?
According to Kant’s theory, you have a duty to tell the truth to the officer, but you also have a duty not to cause the death of innocent people. So, this is a case in which our apparent duties conflict.

Yet, Kant addressed cases like this. He seems to think that allowing someone to be killed is not the same as causing their death. According to his theory, if the Nazis come to your door, and there are Jews in your attic, you must tell the truth, because once you leave the attic, you have no idea whether the Jews stayed there or instead ran out the back door to the alley. Suppose they ran out the back door to the alley. You decide you want to save them by lying, but you think they are still in the attic. So, you tell the Nazis to go look in the alley. By lying you have accidentally become the cause of their death; your intention to save their lives has backfired. In other words, you cannot determine what is right or wrong by trying to calculate results. Telling the truth is the only way of preserving your moral integrity in this situation.

This solution is clever, but somewhat paradoxical. The paradox is simply that, for all his talk of ignoring consequences in moral decision making, in his theory Kant has to resort to possible consequences in order to motivate his claim that we should tell the truth to the killers. Do you think there is a solution to this paradox?

It seems obvious from the cases we’ve considered in this chapter that both moral theories form important parts of our ordinary, day-to-day moral reasoning. Yet, these theories were developed in opposition to one another. Do you think there is a way to combine them?

Discussion Questions

  1. Review the dialogue at the beginning of this chapter. Does Shaniqua agree more with Kant or Mill? What about Alex? Give evidence.
  2. Construct a real-life example where you think it’s OK to lie. How would you defend yourself if you got caught?
  3. Name two duties or moral obligations that you think might conflict sometimes. How would you resolve the conflict? Can you think of another set of circumstances where you think you might lean toward choosing the other duty?
  4. We have focused on lying as an example of a moral rule that may not be absolute. Can you think of any rules that are absolute? If so, try to construct a counterexample to that rule, analogous to the Anne Frank counterexample to the lying rule.
  5. Do you think we need to know ethical theory in order to settle practical ethical questions?

Exercises

  1. Write a dialogue between Chinelo and Alia. Chinelo argues that we must always consider the consequences of our actions in order to judge whether the actions are ethical or not. Alia argues that, because we are not very good at figuring out what the consequences of our actions will be, we should just live according to a set of ethical rules (such as the Ten Commandments).
  2. Construct a thought experiment to test the claim that cheating on a test is always wrong.

Activities

  1. Read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the diary that Anne Frank wrote while she was in hiding.
  2. Watch the movie Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg. Was Schindler a follower of the results theory or the rule theory?
  3. Watch advertisements on television for instances of lying. What would Mill and Kant say about them?
  4. Watch the news for instances of deception in the corporate world and in the government. Are they always wrong?
  5. Watch Groundhog Day (1993), directed by Harold Ramis. Do you think the main character’s lies are wrong?

Community Action Steps

  1. Organize a protest against someone who incites hate against a person or a group of people by lying about them.
  2. Organize a group to write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper to expose a lie told by a politician.
  3. Organize a petition concerning the government’s policies on truth in advertising.

References

Frank, A. (1998). Anne Frank: The diary of a young girl. New York: Scholastic. (Original work published 1947)

Kant, I. (1956). Groundwork for the metaphysic of morals (H. J. Paton, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1785)

Mill, J. S. (2002). Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. (Original work published 1863)