Saint Augustine rules out all lies on the grounds that they are all sinful, and that by lying a man endangers his immortal soul.
"But every liar says the opposite of what he thinks in his heart, with the purpose to deceive. Now it is evident that speech was given to man, not that men might therewith deceive one another, but that one man might make his thoughts known to another. To use speech then, for the purposes of deception, and not for its appointed end, is a sin. Nor are we to suppose that there is any lie that is not a sin because it is sometimes possible, by telling a lie, to do service to another" St. Augustine (Bok 32)
This absolutist view is difficult to live by. It has been argued that in certain circumstances lying is justified. Sometimes the whole truth will not suffice to prevent harm and many people feel that is such cases it is permissible to lie. St Augustine acknowledged that there are differences among lies in the intentions behind them and the harmfulness of their effects. The most serious lies, according to Augustine, were 'Those uttered in religious teaching', while the least are 'lies which harm no one and yet save someone from physical defilement' (Bok 33) The latter were still sins, but considered pardonable, though not laudable.
Kant shares the Christian view on lying, ruling that "By a lie man throws away, and, as it were annihilates his dignity as a man" (Bok 32) He goes even further than Augustine by refusing to distinguish among lies, rejecting them all indiscriminately. The traditional test-case used against this view is 'What to do if a would-be murderer asks us where our friend is hiding so he can kill him' Many people would not even consider this a dilemma and would immediately lie to save the friend's life rather than tell the truth and be responsible for an innocent person's death. Kant's response to this example is that one should speak truthfully to the murderer, even at the cost of the friend's life. He suggests that it may be possible to mislead him without telling an outright lie. For example, if one stamps on the ground while saying 'my friend is not here' then one is not responsible if the murderer takes this to mean 'not in the house' rather than 'not right where I am standing'. However, some people feel that there is little or no moral difference between this type of deception and an outright lie. Kant also claims that if one stays close to the truth in such a situation one is not responsible for any harm that may be caused by doing so. However, if one lies to the would-be murderer, one becomes responsible for any bad consequences which may result.
Most other philosophers have argued to the contrary. Utilitarians hold that in such an isolated case the good the lie will produce far outweighs any harm it may cause. Nineteenth century Catholic scholar Cardinal Newman suggested using force against the would-be murderer to protect the friend. Police officers regularly use force to defend themselves or the community against criminals and this is widely considered acceptable. If it is justifiable to use force in self-defence or in defending others, why shouldn't a lie be used for the same purpose? The problem with allowing lying in a crisis is that the liar may come to perceive any situation in which it suits him to lie as a crisis. To overcome this, it has been argued that, since most of us will never encounter a situation so grave as to warrant a lie, we should go through life as if lying is always unacceptable. This of course does not apply to people in professions where crises occur all the time, such as medicine and defence.
White lies are another type of lie which Utilitarians may argue are permissible. At the opposite end of the spectrum of severity from lies told in a crises, white lies are those falsehoods not intended to hurt anyone and arguably of little moral importance. Some of these are told to benefit other people. These include flattery, false optimism and other lies told to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Some white lies, such as placebos and inflated recommendations for job interviews or promotions bring tangible benefits to others. Other less well-intentioned lies are often also classified as white, are told to benefit the liar, such as boasts, gossip, understatement, exaggeration and deprecation. It is important to remember that what the liar sees as harmless may not always seem that way to the deceived.
The giving of placebos is an example of a failure to take this into account. Sissela Bok defines a placebo as 'any medical procedure which has no specific effect on a patient's condition, but which can have powerful psychological effects leading to relief from symptoms such a pain or depression'. (Bok 61) Doctors defend their use, arguing that placebos may produce a cure while being less dangerous than genuine drugs. However, there are many problems which can result from the prescription of placebos. For the patients, the placebo may prevent the treatment of a real undiagnosed problem. They may not work, in which case the patient has wasted his or her money and will have to return to the doctor. If the placebo does work the effect may be short-lived or the symptoms may reoccur or crop up in another form. If the patient discovers the deception, they may lose faith in the medical profession and fail to seek help for other later illnesses. Those who don't discover that they have been deceived may keep believing it the placebic remedy under the wrong circumstances. Doctors whose prescription of placebos has been discovered lose the trust of their patients. They may also experience self-deceptions, such as an irrational faith in treatments they know can only work as placebos and a tendency to laugh off real complaints as psychosomatic. The prescription of placebos is also subject to abuse, such as experimentation on unsuspecting human subjects. Bok believes that 'The failure to think about ethical problems in such cases stems from the innocent-seeming white lies told so often in the giving of placebos. The spread from therapy to experimentation and from harmlessness to its opposite often goes unnoticed, in part because of triviality believed to be connected with placebos as white lies.' (Bok 67)
Most white lies are unnecessary and many can be avoided with the careful use of truthful statements. For example, Mary shows her friend John her new baby and says "Isn't he beautiful!" John thinks the baby is ugly, but rather than say so, and hurt Mary's feelings, or lie to please her, he says, "Isn't he like his Father!" whom John also thinks is ugly.
The Utilitarian calculation of weighing the good and bad possible outcomes a lie will produce is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, the effects of a lie on all the people concerned is often extremely difficult to calculate. Secondly, it implies that lies themselves are neutral and there is no difference between a lie and a truthful statement if they achieve the same utility. There is a difference, because unlike truthful statements, most lies have negative consequences for those who tell them, those directly affected by them, and society at large. With every lie, the liar becomes convinced that lying is the easiest and most acceptable option, and thus their resistance against lying will be weakened, making them more likely to lie again. If the lie is found out then this will be a blow to the liar's personal integrity. This will also damage the social trust. The more lies become known to the public, the more people tend to doubt what they hear, which imbues society with feelings of insecurity, mistrust, and even fear.
To a lesser or greater degree, these negative outcomes result from every lie. For this reason, when attempting to calculate the good and bad outcomes of telling a lie, the lie itself should first be weighted negatively. It may be that the good produced by the lie outweighs this in any case. When attempting to justify lying, the liar should always consider the harm it may cause to them, the deceived, and society at large; the fact that their position is biased and they cannot foresee all the possible consequences, and the fact that they may be contributing to the building up of collectively undesirable practices.
Bailey, F.G. The Prevalence of deceit. New York: Cornell University Press, 1991
Bok, Sissela, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978
Kerr, Philip, The Penguin Book of Lies. London: The Penguin Group, 1990
Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978