Monday 18 June 2018

White Lies – Malevolence or Defence?

Little White Lies, by e9Art
Posted by Christian Sötemann
A little thought experiment: In the year 2088, a mentally highly volatile leader of an autocratic world power is undergoing yet another personal crisis. His wife, so he has heard, is secretly planning to leave him. Without her, he sees no meaning in going on. Since he is also a narcissistic megalomaniac, in his dark mood, he decides that the world should perish if he left him. He prepares to give the order for a nuclear strike and confronts his wife on her secret plans.
Now, what would be a wise thing for her to answer, even if she actually planned on leaving him? Surely, most people would say something along those lines: Calm him down, say that everything is fine, just get him away from ordering a nuclear strike. The rest will be sorted out later. Hence she should lie to save the world from a nuclear attack.

That’s that then, right? Not so fast. In ethics, the role of the lie has been a hotly debated one. Among the ethical stances, there are some which emphasise the consequences of an action to determine whether they are moral or not. Many of the supporters of these approaches would probably have few issues with the wife’s lie. The argument would go like this: Lying in this particular case prevents unfathomable damage occurring to millions of people, so it is the right decision.

There are, however, perspectives in ethics that focus more on principles and duties rather than consequences of actions, notably in Kant’s categorical imperative: ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’. From this point of view, in its strictest form, a lie cannot ever be legitimate, because human relationships would become poisoned if everybody lied to each other all the time.

In many cases, there is some validity to that principle. We have to be able, at least most of the time, to confide in what people around us tell us. The lie has to be the exception rather than the rule. Our everyday life would be seriously impaired if we all lied to each other all or most of the time. 

Still, there is a point to be made for white lies. Schopenhauer viewed lies as a legitimate form of self-defence in cases of extortion, threat or unauthorised interference or intrusion, among other things. If I am exposed to an evil will, lying can be part of the arsenal to defend myself.

For example, if somebody broke into my house, thus violating my right to privacy, my exclamation telling the burglar that the police were already on its way, would represent a perfectly legitimate lie to make this intruder leave my house as quickly as possible. Similarly, a child threatened by bullies on its way home from school might want to use the white lie that his parents or elder brother were just around the corner. There is no malevolent deceit in situations such as these.

It seems that the most important aspect here is that there is a predicament which can make a white lie a suitable means to an end. To avert a catastrophe or a crime, white lies can come into consideration. Besides, from this perspective, the ‘lie’ aspect of the white lie becomes less relevant – rather, it becomes one of several means to defend oneself. It is something one can do to get out of a dangerous situation.

The application of the categorical imperative in this case should therefore not denounce the white lie as harmful, but could be reformulated as: ‘In a dangerous situation threatening the physical and psychological integrity of an individual in an illegitimate way, every individual should have the right to undertake sufficient actions to avert this threat’.

In German, one translation of ‘white lie’ is Notlüge, meaning, literally, ‘emergency lie’. Perhaps this serves to illustrate some cases in which a white lie seems appropriate. It is something that is more a verbal form of defence rather than a mere lie.

Certainly, it would be harmful to lie all of the time. And it can be harmful to never ever lie. The potential Kantian counterargument that this takes into consideration the consequences of actions rather than a principled stance regardless of what happens afterwards is something that can be addressed.

But it represents another example of morality not necessarily being beholden to one orthodoxy throughout.  We may consider principles as well as consequences in our moral deliberations. There is something to be found between the extremes of rigidity and arbitrariness. So, we should not blame the dictator’s wife for her white lie. Those living in the year 2088 will be grateful for our leniency.


Keith said...

What if, Christian, your thought experiment’s ‘narcissistic megalomaniac’, who’s threatening a nuclear strike, doesn’t believe the wife’s ‘white lie’ and won’t calm down, declaring convincingly and in a fit of pique that he’s about to launch the strike. Should the wife, instead, kill the megalomaniac leader? Whether one approaches the conundrum from a ‘consequentialist’ or ‘principled’ standpoint, is it morally right to intentionally kill the leader — one person — in order to save tens of thousands of people who are moments away from dying in a nuclear conflagration? Or is the deliberate act of killing the leader — without mincing words, murder — itself so categorically immoral that the wife should not do so, no matter the many people otherwise about to evaporate in a nuclear blast?

docmartincohen said...

My response to this post is to wonder about the elevation of the issue of 'lying' anyway. To me, it is a ludicrous distortion of ethics to make truth telling more important than consequences. Indeed I see not only a right to tell lies, but a duty to tell them. Depending on the cirucmstances. Plato's older thought experiment about the mad knifeman indicates all that. The idea behind Kant's approach is that the purity of the soul is besmirched if a lie is uttered... but this is a strange kind of dogma. The soul, as Plato again understood, emerges into this world a troubled creature, and far from moral. Only later are rules generated and only later are such 'dilemmas' recognised. So, to the point. Is lying wrong? It depends on your motives and the expected consequences.

Unknown said...

A good point, Keith – one which points to an even more difficult moral question. Is one murder acceptable when it would save the lives of millions of people? However, I chose to address the question of "white lies" here, since from a deontologist standpoint, even this could come under attack. Besides, it may serve to show that white lies are an acceptable approach in many other cases, even when using them does not prevent a nuclear attack!

I agree, Martin, that it is a misleading idea of some purity of the soul being tarnished when (white) lies are sometimes used. A very rigid idea. Schopenhauer deemed Kant's ethics a "slave morality", and although Kant has had many other good ideas, the positions of deontology can be too strict. No person in the world will ever accomplish to behave morally consistent all of the time.

Keith said...

I agree, Christian, that a hard-core, unswerving deontological approach to moral decision-making is impractical and unrealistic. To state the obvious, life is rarely that simple. Decisions made and acts taken are typically more nuanced and layered, not lending themselves to clearly demarcated either-or scenarios or factors. Notably, no decision (avoidance) is a decision, and no act (avoidance) is an act. Accordingly, consequences unavoidably matter, as either a variable or constant, in calculating ethical behaviour. I suggest, however, that neither should consequences be at the strict exclusion of abstract (theoretical) principles, nor should (theoretical) principles be at the strict exclusion of consequences. Not to wimp out philosophically, but consequentialism and deontology both should fit into decisions made and acts taken — even if in different (sometimes very different) measures. Again, because the real world is rarely that simple, where what-ifs necessarily drive decisions made and acts taken.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Our world is unstable. In the interests of stability, we need to get a fix on the way that eveything is related. Telling the truth in every sphere is to get a good fix on it all. Telling lies may mean that we are travelling blind. On what basis then do we make the distinction between which lies are acceptable and which not? And might this not elevate my own decision in this matter above the need for getting that fix on the way that everything is related?

Tessa den Uyl said...

There might play a bias here: telling lies do not carry along the same memory like telling truth. While speaking truth intends a long commitment, lies do not commit.

docmartincohen said...

People often link th truth to the circumstances, though Tessa. "It was true at the time", "I meant it at the time I said it"... you now the sort of thing! This makes truth telling transitory, the politicians emphatic promise is time-dated.

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