General Question

jehnstewart's avatar

Are lies always bad?

Asked by jehnstewart (358 points ) March 31st, 2012

There are many kinds of lies. Which kinds can you think of? When are lies evil or bad? Are lies sometimes good, and if so, when?

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54 Answers

tom_g's avatar

Short answer: Unless I’m lying to save someone’s life, I consider lying to be bad. Bad in the sense that it is harmful to the person lying, the people being lied to, and the general culture at large.

thorninmud's avatar

“Good” and “bad” are such coarse ways of considering moral issues. Things seem a little clearer when you ask yourself this question: “Does this action tend to increase or decrease the amount of suffering in the world?”

When you think about it, most lying increases the amount of suffering. The liar is often trying to dodge the unpleasant consequences of his actions. Although that looks to him like he’s preventing suffering (his own), that’s only true in the most immediate sense. In the broadest sense, we’re all better off in a culture where people take responsibility for their actions, and where there is a reasonable expectation that people are trustworthy. Individual acts of lying may spare the individual some suffering, but at the cost of undermining the culture of trust. The culture of suspicion that results makes everyone suffer. Even the liar suffers by having to maintain the pretense.

Even more clear-cut are instances where lying is used to deliberately harm another so that the liar’s interests will be advanced. That obviously increases the amount of suffering in the world.

But it’s also possible that lying could be used to prevent great injustices from being done. People lied to protect Jews during WWII, for instance. In these cases, suffering in the world is diminished.

In general, a red flag is raised whenever the motivation for lying is to avoid suffering for yourself, or to advance your own interests. In most cases, that will just shift the suffering to others who don’t deserve it.

digitalimpression's avatar

Wife: “Do these pants make my butt look fat?”

ragingloli's avatar

“No, these pants do not make your butt look fat. Your fat makes your butt look fat.”
Unless the alternative involves substantial mental or physical harm, and these must be the only alternatives, lying, which causes someone to believe something that is not true, is “bad”. That includes pretending Santa Clause exists.

josie's avatar

A lie is an action that is meant to deliberately cause a reasoning person to draw an incorrect conclusion about their circumstances. Good and bad are moral descriptions based on the standard of your existence. If lying saves your life, or the life of those that you value it is good. If lying damages your life or those that you value, in the short or long term, it is bad. If I were baby sitting my nephew, and a homocidal pedophile came to the door and asked if there were children in the house, I would lie and say no. That would be good.
If I were testifying under oath and I lied to wrongfully obstruct justice, thus committing perjury and exposing myself to prison, that would be bad.

If I lie about my income on my tax return that is morally good, but I will be in serious trouble with the IRS. In that case it is better to be pragmatic than to be follow principle :)

@thorninmud Good and bad are pretty precise moral descriptions

blueiiznh's avatar

Veritas Vincit Omnia

I see no value in hiding behind the truth.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

I think @josie nailed it- sometimes lies can be beneficial. It totally depends on the manner of and the reason for the lie.

tom_g's avatar

@josie: “If I lie about my income on my tax return that is morally good, but I will be in serious trouble with the IRS. In that case it is better to be pragmatic than to be follow principle :)”

Could you elaborate? Are you really saying that not paying your fair share and cheating the system is morally good?

thorninmud's avatar

@josie I’d say that your last example regarding taxes exemplifies the overly coarse nature of the “good and bad” way of looking at morality.

blueiiznh's avatar

@josie a lie on your income tax is hurting everyone else. Thanks dude!~

heartandsoul's avatar

“There’s no truth in news, and no news in truth” (Who can guess what language this is translated from, and what it is in reference to?). This is my first response on Fluther, so I say ‘welcome’ to myself. :)

King_Pariah's avatar

@heartandsoul It’s from Soviet Russia and it’s in reference to the two main newspapers Pravda(the truth) and Izvestia(the news)

Doesn’t matter much to me, they’re just words, if you want the truth, dig it up yourself and don’t rely on what shit spews forth from the mouths of others.

heartandsoul's avatar

@King_Pariah Ain’t that the truth! Congrats on the correct answer!

Bill1939's avatar

Is saying to someone seriously injured in an accident who you are certain is dying that “everything will be all right” a lie? Yes, since it is not the truth. However, as thorninmud’s question inside the answer suggests, since the lie is likely to decrease the victim’s suffering it therefore is good.

Nullo's avatar

Lies are always bad, but sometimes they have beneficial applications.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
CaptainHarley's avatar

@Bill

I would have to say that is about one of the only situations where lying might actually be of some good. But even then, there are almost always other options. “I think you’re going to be ok,” might be one, if you really do think that. “I’m not a doctor, but you might just pull through,” is another. A fellow officer I served with in Vietnam told one of his men, who was dying from multiple wounds, “You’re going to be just fine,” himself never quite recovered from having “had” to lie to the man. I saw him again many years later and one of the very first things he talked about was having lied to that man. : (

DominicX's avatar

I don’t find it all that useful to describe most things, including lying, as “completely and 100% bad all the time no matter the situation”. There are some things that are “bad” 90–99% of the time and there are some that are bad 100% of the time, but it’s rare, and it’s rare that the world works like that. So no, I don’t believe that lying is always bad. I believe that more often than not, it causes damage and trouble and that’s why we tend to think of lying as bad. But aside from the classic Nazi example (people lying about there being Jews in a house when the Nazis come by) and the “does this make me look fat?” example, lies can serve good purposes. The problem of course comes when you lie too much and begin to build something founded upon lies and one breach of the truth will cause it to come crashing down.

blueberry_kid's avatar

Yes and No.

Yes when you’re just lying to cover up something that you know should be told, and when you keep piling up lies.

No when it’s sparing someone’s feelings.

whitenoise's avatar

Lying is bad.. Seriously?

Learning to lie is just as important as learning when not to lie.

We all lie. It is a social lubricant.

Some lies are good and some are bad. Just as some truths are better not told.

It is about both the intention and the consequence, that makes a lie bad or right.

gailcalled's avatar

@digitalimpression: Is there a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what she looks like in trousers and what’s becoming and what isn’t?

. I don’t’ believe that anyone actually asks, “Do these pants make my butt look fat?”

CaptainHarley's avatar

@whitenoise

I disagree. There may be some situation where lying is better than truth, but in my 69 years I have never encountered it. Have I ever lied? Yes, many times, but in retrospect there were always other methods of handling a situation which seemed to call for lying. If nothing else, you can say something like, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this subject,” and let it go at that.

whitenoise's avatar

We laugh at people’s jokes, when they’re not funny.
We don’t tell the boss his new shirt looks like crap, when he asks.
We don’t tell the boss his new plan is stupid.

And please… I’m Dutch and have worked in American corporate environment for years. We Dutch are far more honest – call it blunt – than most.

If you want to make it in the US, you cannot but swallow your own opinion on many occasion. The boss is always right.

Telling an occasional lie to rescue your career, or safe it, is not wrong.

Maybe you are talking about different kinds of lying, then I am, but when I am in the US, I feel little sincerity. Every store in the US I walk into, for instance, the person would say “Oh how lovely to see you.”

Don’t tell me all these people are happy every time. Sometimes they’ll even say “happy to see you- again.” At the first occasion I meet them! These are scripted conversation and, in essence, lies. Lies are part of life.

Gabby101's avatar

I used to be more black and white on this, believing that only lying not to hurt ones feeling was acceptable – “Am I pretty?” But now that I’m older, I feel it’s a waste of time being honest all of the time. I just read @whitenoise comments and I this is what I’m talking about. You sometimes have to sacrifice honesty for the better good – whether it be in your career or in other shallow business encounters.

I recently went to a bank to deposit checks for my mother’s memorial and I foolishly went to the cashier and explained that some of the checks were made out to my brother, but he had signed them over to me on the back. They refused to take the checks (for less than $100 total). They wanted me to send the checks back and ask everyone to rewrite in my name. I eventually deposited them through the ATM and, of course, they went through. This is the kind of “honesty” that is a waste of time. I wasn’t stealing from my brother, just wanting to break a bank’s “rule.”

On the other hand, I am more than willing to own up to a mistake if I made one. When I say “better good,” I’m not referring to any situation where I come out on top. Just situations where lying allows you to take a shortcut to a place you would get to anyhow or where the truth doesn’t do any good anyway (like giving your honest opinion when it doesn’t count for anything).

CaptainHarley's avatar

@whitenoise

There’s a vast difference between not telling someone their plans suck, and telling them the lie that their plans are the most wonderful thing that ever came down the pike.

thorninmud's avatar

I’ve been doing some research on fools (the courtly kind) in preparation for tomorrow. Fascinating! The fools employed by the old European courts were seen as having a special privilege: they—often they alone—were authorized to be perfectly honest with the monarch and other notables. Everyone else had to be obsequious and less than forthcoming, but the fool was actually expected to give the monarch the straight dope. Elizabeth I once scolded her fool for not being hard enough on her. They were actually called “licensed fools” because of this special permission they were granted.

whitenoise's avatar

@CaptainHarley
Yes but they’re both lies.

noraasnave's avatar

The most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves. All other lies flow out of the ones we tell ourselves. So, is it morally wrong to lie to oneself?

Telling a lie is selling out one’s integrity for some trivial, short term, comfort. It will never be worth it. In a way it begins to divide one’s mind…so that one has to keep up with and control multiple realities. I would rather walk everyday not worrying about ‘getting caught’ in a lie.

One’s integrity isn’t really cared about in most circles these days. The media convinces us that no one has any integrity anymore (except themselves).

Back to the original question, will there every be a time when telling a lie is good? I know that there are times when telling the harshest truth to someone about themselves is not the right thing to do. Wow…lies are not good, truth is not good…what is good to do?

For me the middle ground among these extremes is honest consideration. A friend asks me if he is an idiot for doing something that has consequences. I would tell him, it probably isn’t the best choice, but he isn’t an idiot, and in his shoes I might have done the same thing. <—-absolutely true, but not so true it is offensive, truth that is helpful.

My boss asks me if he is a stubborn jackass. I tell him he does occasionally make a stand for the wrong idea, but that almost everyone has at some point.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@whitenoise

I know of nothing called “lies by ommision.”

digitalimpression's avatar

@gailcalled Oh how wrong you are. Either way, that question is only a sample from the wide assortment of “wife questions” that almost always end badly if answered with 100% honesty. Anyone who has been a husband for a while knows I’m right. If they say otherwise… surprise! .. they are lying.

wundayatta's avatar

I have to agree with @blueiiznh about lying on taxes. People who like free rides just make me sick. It is uncooperative and anti-social. It is stealing from the rest of us who do pay our taxes, even when we disapprove of how the government spends the money.

I also agree with @thorninmud that good and bad are pretty crude concepts and are generally pretty worthless. People who use good and bad to the exclusion of nuance, I have found, tend to be crude thinkers with a not very complex understanding of what is going on in the world. They tend to use rules-based thinking, except when the rules don’t favor them. They tend to be very self-centered, and do not understand the consequences of their actions in any way insofar as how it affects them, personally.

The problem with an apparently simple question like this one is that we don’t know what is meant by the term, “lie.” Lying can be a huge range of activities, or it could be very narrow.

Personally, I like the utilitarian standard of the greatest good for the greatest number. But it’s more complicated than that, because good for those close to me and good for me are weighted higher than the good of those further away or the the good of those I don’t know. Still, I take it all into account, as best I can.

If avoiding telling the whole story or even mistelling some of it leads to a better outcome for more people, then I am going to strongly consider that. I do not believe in rules-based thinking. I think it is important to evaluate each situation on its own merits.

JLeslie's avatar

I hope you teach your children to lie when they are 12 years old, at home alone for a few hours, and someone who they don’t know knocks on the door, asks if their parents are home. Possibly they should not even answer the door, but certainly they should lie and say, “yes, but they can’t come to the door now can I give them a message?”

As mentioned by many we tell lies to avoid hurting people’s feelings or to make others feel good.

But, a lie told to not get in trouble, or avoid a conflict is usually a bad lie in my opinion. If I need to lie to my husband, then I think there is much bigger wrong there. The people dearest to me I should be able to say the truth about pretty much everything. I am not talking about whether a pair of jeans fit well, although even that I think we can say to our closest friends and family if asked, but I mean if I would have to lie about money I spent, or where I was, or who I was talking to, then I think there is something very wrong and dishonest in the relationship. Especially if it is an ongoing pattern. I want to tell my husband the truth, I want him to know the truth. I don’t see how people can have a deep connection if they feel they need to lie.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@JLeslie

Excellent points! : )

noraasnave's avatar

@JLeslie For all the sense that teaching one’s children to lie makes in the situation you describe; I have never heard of one child lying to the person at the door, except in the movies.

If the person has the balls to come to the door, he/she already knows there are no adults there. I trained my children to call 911 and tell the truth about the situation instead, and of course keep the door locked and chained.

I guess the reality is if someone wants to take our children, if they are really determined they CAN do it…in most cases. You assert that telling a lie at the door protects them in some way?

blueiiznh's avatar

I really don’t understand the concept of trying to justify lies.
You can wrap a lie up in pretty paper and a lovely bow but it is still a lie.

digitalimpression's avatar

A man breaks into your house.. demands to know what your bank card numbers are, where your car keys are and even scarier.. wants to know where your kids or your spouse are. It’s all fine and dandy if someone wants to be on their high horse and even approach the elitist claim that they never lie and that the truth is always better.. but there are situations where lying is the right thing to do. Don’t get me wrong.. I’m not promoting lies as a lifestyle choice or that it’s a good thing to do the majority of the time .. but everyone lies.. sometimes its by the avoidance of saying anything.. sometimes with body language .. sometimes you “had already made plans” when someone you dislike asks you out.. Pretending that this doesn’t happen is a lie in itself.

In this battle of the perceived moral high-ground I can only quote what someone very smart once said:

“Good” and “bad” are such coarse ways of considering moral issues.”
@thorninmud

blueiiznh's avatar

@digitalimpression I disagree with you on the comment “everyone lies”. This does not make it right by any means. Also, when someone breaks into my house and demands anything like car keys and credit cards, they can have them. The kids and spouse question is not about lying. Yes we are all human and have flaws. But whether we accept tha fact and try to do all we can to not lie as opposed to saying that it is a fact and way of being human and allowing ourselves to do this is that same cop-out.

@digitalimpression You make a great point in that by avoiding saying something when it needs to be said is also a form of deception. Some people do not consider it a lie, but an act of ommission walks a fine line close to being a lie in some cases.

JLeslie's avatar

@noraasnave I think the main message is it is ok to lie if you are in danger or potential danger. I think having some “lines” ready or practiced is not a bad idea.

I think understanding lying, and when it is appropriate is a very important lesson. I see parents say, “never lie,” or, “never lie to mommy or daddy,” and then they see their parents lie all the time. Understanding lying means they don’t see their parents as hypocrits. Of course in extreme cases the parents are simply hypocrits or liars, but most parents lie now and then, and it is for the right reasons.

digitalimpression's avatar

@blueiiznh “The kids and spouse question is not about lying.”
How is it not about lying? I, for one, am going to lie in that situation and tell the intruder that my wife and kids are on the moon, or Denny’s, or a Bruce Springsteen concert 3 towns over… I’m certainly not going to say.. “oh yeah, they are hiding in the pantry.. have at it bro, honesty is the best policy I always say.. it’ll set you free man!”.

“But whether we accept tha fact and try to do all we can to not lie as opposed to saying that it is a fact and way of being human and allowing ourselves to do this is that same cop-out.”
You’re right. And I didn’t bring up the fact that everyone lies as a cop-out.. more out of frustration that so many people have posted in manner which suggests that they believe their poopy don’t stank. I’ve found it to be a common occurrence here on the fluths.

blueiiznh's avatar

@digitalimpression It’s about saving a life. IMHO, it is aligned with self-defense in the situation you describe

Bill1939's avatar

This topic demonstrates how much grey can exist between black and white. When one lies to avoid the consequence to them, if were the truth known, it is wrong (I’m avoiding the term bad). As with any behavior, it becomes easier every time one successfully lies and quickly becomes so habituated that it may occur without thinking.

noraasnave's avatar

@JLeslie I still think lying is the lazy and dangerous way out. I would much rather have my children tell the mysterious knocker at the door:

“I have 911 dialed on the cellphone my parents left me, and I can lock myself in the bathroom for as long as it takes for the police to get here. I see your face through the peephole, have taken a picture as well through the window. You might as well leave! The police station is 7 mins away.”

@JLeslie I agree that it is not good to focus on lying as a parent to a child. It has always been more important to me to find out why they would lie: What do they have to hide? In what way do they not trust me? Is it perhaps something I have done? Is my discipline a bit too harsh?

I would rather be in my child’s confidence so that they can share anything with me, because they know I am going to respond maturely and gracefully to them.

Just out of curiosity, has anyone seen first hand where a stranger came to the door of a home with only children home, the children lied, and the stranger gave up and went home?

JLeslie's avatar

@noraasnave We basically agree. As an adult I realize I never had to lie to my parents, except for things I wanted to get away with. Which is very different than lying simply because we as children think we will get in trouble, when in fact we could have or should have told the truth because our parents would be the safest and best people to help us in a difficult circumstance. I actually didn’t lie much at all to my parents. I always felt I could tell them and ask them anything. Yet, still I had “secrets” from them. Things they did not know were going on. Parents never know everything.

whitenoise's avatar

Guys, really…
When daddy and mummy have a fight over the financial situation in the household, you really suggest to tell the truth to the children that ask ‘anything wrong, mum?’

When having a crush on your boss, knowing this is not what you want and things will fade, how will you answer ‘why are you so distant, is there anything between us?’

Grow up and be a little more hones on this thred,please.

noraasnave's avatar

@whitenoise You are living up to your nom de plum. This is not a discussion about being aboveboard and honest, silly. This is a discussion about lying. You are obviously discussing situations where ‘Too Much Information (TMI)’ is a factor, and not even discussing lying at all.

There is a big difference, most of the time, in withholding information that would not be useful/helpful/beneficial for the audience, and lying.

I will concede that the line does get thin in some spots, for instance, when one Doesn’t tell one’s S.O. that one is cheating on them. Then again we start moving to another new realm of deceitfulness in that situation.

To discuss in a bit more detail your first comment (@whitenoise), though not an answer to this particular question, I digress on:

There is a certain amount that one should share with one’s children concerning discord between members in a committed relationship. For them to have to guess is to cause them to generate more worry and confusion. Of course, one has to make it kid friendly:

“We were having a heated discussion concerning the priorities of our family, it is normal and we are working on a solution.”

So, to wrap up; YES, I would still say tell the truth versus lying…just remember one’s audience, and above all, sleep on it before releasing TMI upon the world.

Hope this helps!

JLeslie's avatar

@noraasnave The thing is, withholding information from someone, when the someone knows, can tell, something is up, and they actually ask a direct question, is basically lying in my book. There is nothing worse than suspecting for good reason, and still not being told the reality. It is a very grey blurry line between TMI and lying.

whitenoise's avatar

@noraasnave

Whenever semantics become to play, it often turns out people agree. Your definition of lying is a lot narrower than mine. When I tell my kids nothing is wrong I feel I’m lying. Sure beats making them worry about things they cannot understand or influence.

Anyways, and for me more interesting. What do you read in my ‘nom de plume’? :-)

noraasnave's avatar

@whitenoise That is a good question….definitely fluther worthy. Ask it as a formal question for all and I will be sure to respond.

Nullo's avatar

@digitalimpression In the case of someone breaking into your house and demanding information, the morally correct course of action is to say nothing at all (save for things like, “I’ve called the police”) and instead vigorously apply yourself to the expulsion of your interloper.

whitenoise's avatar

@Nullo
How do you know what is ‘the morally correct thing to do’?

ragingloli's avatar

I always thought the morally correct course of action is to offer your 2 daughters to be raped. Depends on the situation, I guess.

noraasnave's avatar

The most forthright response is to draw one’s weapon and open fire and aim for the legs, because all life is sacred, but bad guys can’t really hurt anyone very much if they can’t get up and they are bleeding ALOT.

…except in the movies.

ISmart's avatar

yes, honesty works better.. sometimes honesty can be sugar coated but no lies ever!

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