Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sunday's Philosophy Discussion - Lying

It's my Sunday, so shut up.

Kant, shown here avoiding your eyes and looking generally morose.

Immanuel Kant believed in a moral philosophy that included something called Categorical imperative. According to Kant humans enjoy a privileged position among living creatures and are, or because we are, endowed with morality and reason. An imperative is a behavior, action or inaction required in any situation and all our necessary responsibilities and obligations are derived from that imperative.

Kant believed that if lying became universally acceptable, then no one would believe anyone and every single thing stated by anyone could be assumed to be lies. (and this was before the internet) Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences including negative consequences.

According to Kant, if you were relaxing at home with your beloved spouse (for example) and someone arrived at your door with the intention of murdering your spouse and asked if that person was home it would be a moral imperative that you tell the truth even if it would result in the death of that person. Assuming a murderer would bother with pleasant formalities like small talk.

The question is: Is lying morally acceptable at any time?



I think yes there are times when lying is acceptable and may even be the moral imperative. If lying thwarts the plans of the evil then it is acceptable and does not unbalance the honesty that morals require.


That said, I think that evil is subjective, and that's where humans run into trouble. The occasions where lying would be acceptable will be extremely rare  and would have to meet a universal accepted standard for what defines evil.  Perhaps that can be next Sunday's Philosophy Discussion.



Cartoon by Mike Twohy

I once ran into a situation where a woman, Rose, was far from home and not adjusting to her new life well. She lived among a supportive community who shared her culture, religion and standards so she was not alone. She had returned from visiting her family in Iran a few months before and was feeling better when her father suddenly died. I was friends with a young woman, El, who was close to this person and El told me about Rose's father dying and that her family did not want Rose to know about it for fear of upsetting her further. So the community where Rose and her husband were living, banded together to keep the secret and this went on for months. I was horrified.

I would visit with El and ask if Rose knew about her father yet and the answer was "No" every time. I told El that at some point Rose will find out. Then not only will she have to deal with the fact that her father was long dead but that this news was kept from her by the very people she relied on for love and support. Add to that the fact that she was kept from grieving and paying her respects to her father and all that that implies and you have a situation that made NOT telling her completely not worth the deception.

El was uncomfortable considering the ramifications as well but she was obligated to respect the wishes of the community. It was not my place to inform Rose myself as much as I disagreed with the way it was handled. I hoped that culturally this was not unusual behavior and when Rose came to find out the truth she would forgive everyone based on the fact that they meant to protect her already fragile state of emotions and in the end she did.  But she was so angry and hurt at first.

I told El that if it was the family's intention to keep her father's death a secret then none of us, including me, should know about it.  It should have been kept to the very few people who HAD to know.  Her husband and her family. I felt that the more who knew about it, including me, the deeper the betrayal. If that couldn't be done then she should have been informed. The more people who knew about it the more chance that it would slip out accidentally and then what?

I have to be able to sleep at night and I tend to tell the truth about everything and if I don't want you to know the truth I don't talk about it and yes that can be considered a lie by omission but do you really need to know if I have a horrible headache today? I don't even try to misrepresent details to make things seem better for me than they are.  If I'm being funny all bets are off but I will make sure you know it's a joke.

If you don't want me to tell you something you're wearing makes you look terrible, don't ask me.  I will also tell you that your father has died in the most sympathetic and decent manner I can regardless of your emotional state at the time because not telling you would be far worse in the long run.

I would not tell a person intent on murder where their victim can be found even if my life is threatened as a result.

I would not tell a pedophile where they can find children. Kant is wrong.  There are some people who do not deserve to know the truth and I think if pedophilia is not a universally accepted evil, it should be.

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