Monday 15 August 2022

The Tangled Web We Weave

By Keith Tidman

Kant believed, as a universal ethical principle, that lying was always morally wrong. But was he right? And how might we decide that?


The eighteenth-century German philosopher asserted that everyone had ‘intrinsic worth’: that people are characteristically rational and free to make their own choices. Lying, he believed, degrades that aspect of moral worth, withdrawing others’ ability to exercise autonomy and make logical decisions, as we presume they might in possessing truth. 


Kant’s ground-level belief in these regards was that we should value others strictly ‘as ends’, and never see people ‘as merely means to ends’. A maxim that’s valued and commonly espoused in human affairs today, too, even if people sometimes come up short.


The belief that judgements of morality should be based on universal principles, or ‘directives’, without reference to the practical outcomes, is termed deontology. For example, according to this approach, all lies are immoral and condemnable. There are no attempts to parse right and wrong, to dig into nuance. It’s blanket censure.


But it’s easy to think of innumerable drawbacks to the inviolable rule of wholesale condemnation. Consider how you might respond to a terrorist demanding the place and time of a meeting to be held by the intended target. Deontologists like Kant would consider such a lie immoral.


Virtue ethics, to this extent compatible with Kant’s beliefs, also says that lying is morally wrong. Their reasoning, though, is that it violates a core virtue: honesty. Virtue ethicists are concerned to protect people’s character, where ‘virtues’ — like fairness, generosity, compassion, courage, fidelity, integrity, prudence, and kindness — lead people to behave in ways others will judge morally laudable. 


Other philosophers argue that, instead of turning to the rules-based beliefs of Kant and of virtue ethicists, we ought to weigh the (supposed) benefits and harms of a lie’s outcomes. This principle is called  consequentialist ethics, mirroring the utilitarianism of eighteenth/nineteenth-century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, emphasising greatest happiness. 


Advocates of consequentialism claim that actions, including lying, are morally acceptable when the results of behaviour maximise benefits and minimise harms. A tall order! A lie is not always immoral, as long as outcomes on net balance favour the stakeholders.


Take the case of your saving a toddler from a burning house. Perhaps, however, you believe in not taking credit for altruism, concerned about being perceived conceitedly self-serving. You thus tell the emergency responders a different story about how the child came to safety, a lie that harms no one. Per Bentham’s utilitarianism, the ‘deception’ in this instance is not immoral.


Kant’s dyed-in-the-wool unforgiveness of lies invites examples that challenge the concept’s wisdom. Take the historical case of a Jewish woman concealed, from Nazi military occupiers, under the floorboards of a farmer’s cottage. The situation seems clear-cut, perhaps.


If grilled by enemy soldiers as to the woman’s whereabouts, the farmer lies rather than dooming her to being shot or sent to a concentration camp. The farmer chooses good over bad, echoing consequentialism and virtue ethics. His choice answers the question whether the lie elicits the better outcome than would truth. It would have been immoral not to lie.


Of course, the consequences of lying, even for an honorable person, may sometimes be hard to get right, differing in significant ways from reality or subjectively the greater good. One may overvalue or undervalue benefits — nontrivial possibilities.


But maybe what matters most in gauging consequences are motive and goal. As long as the purpose is to benefit, not to beguile or harm, then trust remains intact — of great benefit in itself.


Consider two more cases as examples. In the first, a doctor knowingly gives a cancer-ridden patient and family false (inflated) hope for recovery from treatment. In the second, a politician knowingly gives constituents false (inflated) expectations of benefits from legislation he sponsored and pushed through.


The doctor and politician both engage in ‘deceptions’, but critically with very different intent: Rightly or wrongly, the doctor believes, on personal principle, that he is being kind by uplifting the patient’s despondency. And the politician, rightly or wrongly, believes that his hold on his legislative seat will be bolstered, convinced that’s to his constituents’ benefit.


From a deontological — rules-focused — standpoint, both lies are immoral. Both parties know that they mislead — that what they say is false. (Though both might prefer to say something like they ‘bent the truth’, as if more palatable.) But how about from the standpoint of either consequentialism or virtue ethics? 


The Roman orator Quintilian is supposed to have advised, ‘A liar should have a good memory’. Handy practical advice, for those who ‘weave tangled webs’, benign or malign, and attempt to evade being called out for duplicity.


And damning all lies seems like a crude, blunt tool, with no real value by being wholly unworkable outside Kant’s absolutist disposition toward the matter; no one could unswervingly meet that rigorous standard. Indeed, a study by psychologist Robert Feldman claimed that people lie two to three times, in trivial and major ways, for every ten minutes of conversation! 


However, consequentialism and virtue ethics have their own shortcomings. They leave us with the problematic task of figuring out which consequences and virtues matter best in a given situation, and tailoring our decisions and actions accordingly. No small feat.


So, in parsing which lies on balance are ‘beneficial’ or ‘harmful’, and how to arrive at those assessments, ethicists still haven’t ventured close to crafting an airtight model: one that dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s of the ethics of lying. 

At the very least, we can say that, no, Kant got it wrong in overbearingly rebuffing all lies as immoral. Not seeking reasonable exceptions may have been obvious folly. Yet, that may be cold comfort for some people, as lapses into excessive risk — weaving evermore tangled webs — court danger by unwary souls.

Meantime, while some more than others may feel they have been cut some slack, they might be advised to keep Quintilian’s advice close.

* ’O what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive’, Sir Walter Scott, poem, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field’.



Anonymous said...

Consenquentualism inherently assumes that the individual is totally ethical and moral and can forsee all potential outcomes when deciding to lie.
Certainty we recognize that as an impossibility, thus Kant's view of lies can be the only logically moral and ethical principle.
Hence the expectation that a captured and tortured soldier or spy will give his life rather than lie or tell the truth, only providing "name, rank and serial number".
Of course this entire discussion is theoretical and we all know that the frailty of humanity most often selfishly intercedes in such scenarios.
Better to have an iron and fast judgment on record so as to at a minimum provide a standard to judge by.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

There is a classic, puzzling example in Scripture. Some Hebrew midwives apparently lied to Pharaoh, to save the lives of Hebrew infants: 'And God dealt well with the midwives' (Exodus 1:20).

But now, are lies purely verbal, as this post implies? '… a Jewish woman concealed, from Nazi military occupiers, under the floorboards of a farmer’s cottage.' Perhaps the floorboards constituted the lie?

Yet everything we say falls within a given worldview, and the falsity of our worldviews is everywhere evident. This could mean that most of the things we say and do are lies.

Keith said...

I received an email in response to my essay, offering observations that, I believe, present an interesting different take on lying …

“I’ve fallen into the camp of lying being not a moral issue but a societal issue. We need to trust each other to advance as a species. Otherwise, we’re stuck wondering who is going to murder us, steal from us, or otherwise harm us in some way.

Trust, from my own learning, is equal parts reliability, competence, and motive. Without trust, we’re never advancing because we’re playing to the basic parts of our own survival and humanity.

So, when we have rules for being reliable and competent and of integrity, we can start to be free to dream, innovate, and try new things.

We believe that everything else is covered. We trust in society, as a collective. It’s a little of game theory in here. We know we got each other’s backs. When that breaks down, we’re [lost].”

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for posing an interesting question.

“But now, are lies purely verbal, as this post implies? '… a Jewish woman concealed, from Nazi military occupiers, under the floorboards of a farmer’s cottage.' Perhaps the floorboards constituted the lie?”

I believe that lying requires agency and deliberateness, which in turn require consciousness. So, given the lack of consciousness, agency, and intent of the floorboards, they can’t lie. Rather, although the floorboards serve as an aid for the “liar” to conceal the woman, no intent by the unthinking floorboards occurs. Therefore, no, the floorboards do not “constitute the lie.” That’s the farmer’s.

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