The Moral Permissibility of Lie
The lie is an essential part of human’s life. It appears every day in people’s communication. Men use lie, when they want to reach their personal goals. It can be effective. But is it virtuous? There are no moral philosophers in the history of ethics, who perceives the lie to be virtuous. Apparently, a lot of moralists would agree that the prohibition of the lie is peremptory. It means that considering lie to be something good is almost impossible. At least it is a little evil, which people have to avoid. As a rational person, I cannot help agreeing with such a thought. In my opinion, the controversies may appear if we think about practical absoluteness of the prohibition of the lie. I suggest that we divide the variety of ethical and philosophical positions on this topic into two main approaches. The first approach argues that the lie is an absolute evil, and the second is under the impression that the lie is heuristic and moral in certain situations. I am a supporter of the second approach. In this paper I am going to express my ideas concerning this topic and analyze the problem of the moral permissibility of the lie with the help of two ethical doctrines: deontological ethics of I. Kant and utilitarian theory of J. Bentham.
I. Kant is the representative of deontological ethical theory. That means that, according to Kant, every moral action is subordinated to the moral duty. This rule is the inner law that underlies our thoughts and acts. This rule is called the categorical imperative that “must be grasped as a priori and independent of the empirical nature of human beings” (Wood, 1999, p. 10). It has many formulations. This concept says that people have to act thinking that their deed and behavior could become a universal rule. Thus, men are always responsible for their actions and the whole mankind. The philosopher explains his attitude to the lie in accordance with the main ideas of his philosophical system.
I. Kant considers the lie to be a premeditated utterance that is out of the line with reality. The German philosopher talks about lie in two meanings. The first meaning is that a lie is vice and the violation of one’s personal duty. In the second meaning, the lie is the violation of the moral law to others. In the writing “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives” I. Kant (2009) investigates lie in the legal aspect. According to Kant’s opinion, lie is the false statement of a person against another human being. Such statement does not always hurt another individual. That means there is no matter whether the lie causes undesirable consequences. The lie may lead to success, benefit or damage, but the lie itself is vicious and inadmissible. It breaks the moral duty that must be the motive of all our actions. It does not matter what meaning to give a lie. In no case it can lead to the moral result. The actors cannot avoid evil with the help of a lie. According to I. Kant, the lie cannot be used for the sake of people. Even in unordinary situation, which deal with life and death, lie is not the right tool to solve the problem. If somebody uses the lie, they become a criminal.
Thus, according to the above-mentioned statements, the demand to be honest is not only necessary for a person as a moral creature. It is an indispensable rule for everyday life. This rule does not allow any deviations. The lie is the absolute evil. It is not compatible with human dignity. It is a humiliation and destruction of self-esteem. That is why this rule determinates the human’s activity in its totality.
In my opinion, a human being belongs to the world of phenomena as well as noumena. A person acts and is not just an object. We cannot avoid considering a person a subject. The moral and legal spheres of human’s life are essential for the usual life of men. The angels and gods do not need the morality and law. The morals are necessary for an individual, who is not perfect. At the same time, the person strives for the overcoming of the imperfection. I. Kant (2009), as I understood his ideas, stresses that there is no need to go deeply in the sense of every situation. The moral subjects do not have to obtain further insight into the context in order to evaluate the human’s actions. But to my mind, it is wrong. There is a big difference between various scopes and situations like the lie for one’s sake, the lie as a result of pressure and the lie in order to save one’s life. I. Kant assumes these situations to be equal and similar. Thus, people have to be honest with everyone. There is no matter if another person is a criminal or moral. If a killer asks about the friend of Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith should tell the killer truth in order not to break the absolute rule and duty.
In my opinion, in the ethics of I. Kant an individual does not possess the prudence or Phronesis. That means that a person has no moral ability to make decisions and act according to particular circumstances. Hence, Kant’s moral subject is like an impermeable monad, which does not learn anything from his life experience and communication with other people. Thus, morals are not a unique way of joining people in their cultural, social, and historical concreteness. According to I. Kant, the morality is just a means of connection of rational monads through their observance of the unconditional moral rules.
Another approach to the evaluation of the lie represents J. Bentham. He was the founder of utilitarianism. The fullest presentation of his ideas contains his writing, which is called “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” (Bentham, 2000). The philosopher justifies the principle of utility as the core ethical theory and the motive of personal behavior. He considers that “moral choice must be made through the consultation of an external mechanism or rationale: the principle of utility” (Payne, 2006, p. 6). It determines the physical, moral, political, and religious spheres of people’s life. According to J. Bentham, every person acts in order to maximize one’s personal happiness. There is nothing to do with the moral duty. Based on the naturalistic understanding of human nature, Bentham saw the final destination of morality in the contributing to people’s natural desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. In the assistance of the greatest happiness for many of people is based, according to Bentham, the sense of ethics and principles.
According to this tradition in the ethical thought, a lie is not always vicious. If a lie helps actors to attain more benefit and be happier than they were, it is not bad to tell a lie. Here it is important to take into consideration the context of the situation. There is a need to calculate and compare the possible advantages and losses and decide, whether we need to lie. Thus, in contrast to Kant’s ideas J. Bentham stresses the significance of human’s happiness. People have to live here and now. They do not have to dedicate their life to the ultimate moral rule, which is unflinching and even cruel. If a person can save one’s life with the help of a lie, he/she should not wait to evaluate a lie as a moral action. The main thing here is the result, but not the moral analysis of the means of its achievement. Such views of Bentham confirm the differences between his and Kant’s positions.
I think that the second approach of utilitarianism is more plausible than Kant’s deontological ethical theory. It is not right to be always honest even if you can lose your life. Someone may argue that we would offend the whole world if we tell a lie. However, let us assume the following situation. The mother of Mr. Smith is very ill, and it is harmful to her to be nervous. She needs peace and calm. Being aware of that, Mr. Smith does not have any right to make her feel sick and nervous. He should try to make her have only positive thoughts and emotions. Mr. Smith has found out that he may lose his job. But he has a right profession, and he may start with a new job very soon. In order not to disturb his mother he makes up his mind not to tell her the truth. If he told her, her mother would even die due to her weak health. Mr. Smith hides the truth and in one week finds the new job. He has lost nothing, and his mother is happy and calm. In this situation, the imperative of I. Kant does not work. In my opinion, people can act virtuously with the help of a lie. They do not harm anybody. Moreover, they make people happy, and they show concern for others and their state.
I would like to offer one more instance in order to illustrate my understanding of the topic. I do not agree with I. Kant that we should not pay attention to the context of the situation. If a killer asks me whether I know where my relatives are, I am not obliged to tell the truth. If I tell a lie, I save the lives of my kin and kith. My action should be considered to be virtuous and moral. Thus, I will increase the good and avoid undesirable consequences.
To sum up, the question of the moral permissibility of lie is very difficult to ask. However, we should do that in a positive way. The understanding of the fact that there are no things in the world, which are totally white or black, is very significant. Of course, it is not acceptable to break the rules and act against the law. But it is better to judge things through the consideration of the context, in which they exist. Lie is not an absolute tool for making good things. But in certain extraordinary situations it is not a vice to use a lie. If our lie can save a life of another person, we should not even think whether we are moral or not. We just have to act for the sake of this person. Thus, leaning on the above-mentioned analysis, we have to declare that lie is morally permissible.