From a young age, we are taught that telling the truth is always the right thing to do no matter the consequences. We understand what this entails and even when we don’t tell the truth we understand that we should’ve. The concept seems simple, but yet many of us struggle with discerning when we should tell the truth and when it may not be necessary. If this concept is simple enough that a child can grasp it then why does the line become blurred so quickly from one scene to another? There seem to be times were people deem not telling the truth justifiable and not necessary. The reality is that truth-telling in practice isn’t always as clear-cut as we’d hope. In certain instances, people withhold the truth for their benefit or to avoid getting themselves into conflicts. This essay intends to explore the principle and definition behind telling the truth and navigate through different perspectives have its various considerations and moral justifications on how it should be applied to our daily lives.
First off, it’s important to distinguish and define truth-telling and lying. Withholding the truth is not the only form of lying, lying has three characteristics; it communicates some information, it intends to mislead or deceive, and the teller believes and is aware that what they’re saying is untrue. If someone makes a statement that holds incorrect knowledge that they are unaware of this is not considered a lie, also a statement does not have to be malicious to be a lie, a white lie is still a lie regardless of the intention. For example, if a person tells a lie and later discovers that their statement was true, they still told a lie because they had the intent to mislead for their purpose. There can be overlap between falsity, deceit, lying, withholding information, to tackle the issue at hand we need to single out the times where there is an intention to withhold the truth. The key is not in the information being told but, in the intention to deceive or mislead. It is up for discussion whether there has to be a statement at all for there to be a lie, some consider yes, some consider silence as a form of deceiving and therefore also a lie. For this essay, we will refer to statements made.
Unlike many other issues, most can agree that telling the truth is good and the right thing, the question is when, if at all, are there scenarios in which it may be ethical to withhold the truth. Do you tell the truth even when the truth will cause more harm than not knowing, what about when it comes to protecting someone? Many scenarios make us think twice about telling the truth. How do we justify or differentiate when, if at all, it’s acceptable to withhold the truth? In the Bible, there are instances where people lied for good the BibleThere, but God explicitly tells us that lying is incorrect.
It may be worthwhile asking, to understand, why lying is wrong. There are different reasons and they will resonate differently case by case because people think about ethics differently. Some reasons for it being bad are that it instills distrust in society, it puts our values and goals’ above the others making them means to an end, it takes peoples freedom of choice because they do not have all the information leading them to make decisions based on false information and it corrupts the person telling the lie. From a religious point of view, it is wrong because God says so and it misuses communication, from a philosophical point of view it is wrong because as a society we have a duty, to tell the truth.
So, society tells us lying is always wrong except when there’s a good reason for it, this implies that it isn’t always wrong. Some lies are commonly thought of as justifiable, lies in wartime, lies to protect life, lies to protect confidentiality. We can think of many conflicting situations where the ethics of telling the whole truth can be questioned. But when is it okay to lie? Should doctors lie to their dying patients to avoid additional stress, anxiety, and fear that would be brought on with the truth? Should researchers send disguised actors to real estate agents to uncover racial inequality? Should journalists lie to receive information exposing illegal actions? Should professors exaggerate the qualifications of recommendation letters to give the students a better chance? When we are in a difficult situation, values like compassion, respect, and justice can seem more important than telling the truth when wanting to do the right thing. These are all example scenarios where the line becomes harder to draw and we begin to question what the ethical thing to do is, even though there are philosophical and religious views that clearly state that lying, under very rare circumstances, if ever, is acceptable.
From a deontologist’s perspective an act is either wrong or right regardless of the consequence, what matters is that the duty is fulfilled. Philosopher Immanuel Kant famously claimed that lying is never permissible and always morally wrong. The reason for this is the idea that if you withhold the truth from someone you are also robbing that person’s opportunity to make a rational decision. A person cannot make a rational choice without having all the information. If their decision does not match that of the decision they would’ve made knowing the truth, then you have also robbed them of their dignity and autonomy. An important point to make is that Kant believed that when making decisions we should view others as an end when making decisions ather than as a mean. If we view people as means to an end we are putting our goals and objectives about them. This can all be avoided by telling the truth no matter the circumstances.
Another perspective, similar to Kant’s philosophy but a little more flexible, is virtue ethics. As opposed to Kant’s philosophy of measuring a decision based on reason and law, virtue ethics is based on a person’s development in acting in a certain way. Based on this perspective withholding the truth is morally wrong because it goes against the virtue of honesty. But in some cases where telling the truth could cause pain or put someone in danger it is morally acceptable to lie because of what is at stake. A difficulty with this approach is that there may be times when there are two conflicting issues: honesty and loyalty. When faced with two conflicting options virtue ethics challenges us to act accordingly to our values and our best versions.
From a utilitarian perspective, whether lying is morally acceptable or not is based on the consequences rather than the action in itself. The action needs to be analyzed to determine the result, what makes it morally okay is it being beneficial. Utilitarians believe that a lie is justified if it for the greater good, so telling the truth is moral but only based on the result. If lying will achieve a better overall consequence then it would be immoral not to do so, the action is immoral when it furthers you from your best self. Utilitarianism has one major flaw; the person must make an accurate estimate of the result hoping that the option they chose is the one with a better outcome. The issue here is that there is no concrete way to know how something will turn out, therefore, eliminating the notion of being able to choose a better outcome. In theory, it makes sense and seems somewhat reasonable but in practice, it doesn’t always play out in the same way. When making decisions in this manner it becomes easy to underestimate and ignore the consequences in the long run and to society. If people continue to justify lying, regardless of the reason, then trust declines and society becomes more cynical. It is near impossible to know what consequences a lie will bring and if it will bring more good than the actual truth, making it even harder to decide between two choices that have no results yet. Lying oftentimes leads to many other outcomes we did not anticipate and that requires us to continue to lie to maintain the initial lie. For this reason, critics maintain that it is morally wrong.
Another case in which not telling the truth may be considered morally acceptable is if it intends to benefit someone else other than yourself. This is the idea of altruism, putting someone else before your purpose. An example of this can be illustrated easily in a medical setting, a doctor may decide to lie to a patient about their condition with the reasoning of not wanting them to become more depressed, but withholding that information has many flaws. Here the doctor does not receive any benefit, the sole purpose is to ease the patient’s situation. In theory, it seems rational, but this scenario also creates false hope in the patient.
The issue at hand isn’t a simple one, unlike other moral dilemmas this one has been around since the start and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. There are so many different perspectives ruled by a different set of values and no common ground, causing conflict and disagreement. The bigger issue seems to stem from the fact that regardless of what people believe to be right or wrong they do not evaluate their own beliefs when in a situation. So, perhaps an initial solution would be to be more self-aware of what we believe and commit to it.
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