The Ethics of Lying

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Is lying ever morally permissible? While lying can be seen as a threat to civil society, there seem to be several instances in which lying seems the most intuitively moral option. Besides, if a sufficiently broad definition of "lying" is adopted, it seems utterly impossible to escape lies, either because of instances of self-deception or because of the social construction of our persona. Let’s look more closely into those matters.

What lying is, first of all, is controversial. Recent discussion of the topic has identified four standard conditions for lying, but none of them seems to actually work.

Keeping in mind the difficulties in providing an exact definition of lying, let’s start facing the foremost moral question regarding it: Should lying always be despised?

A Threat to Civil Society?

Lying has been seen as a threat to civil society by authors such as Kant. A society that tolerates lies – the argument goes – is a society in which trust is undermined and, with it, the sense of collectivity.

In the United States, where lying is regarded as a major ethical and legal fault, the trust in government may well be greater than in Italy, where lying is far more tolerated. Machiavelli, among others, used to reflect on the importance of trust centuries ago. Yet, he also concluded that deceiving is, in some cases, the best option. How can that be?

White Lies

A first, less controversial sort of cases in which lying is tolerated includes so-called "white lies." In some circumstances, it seems better to tell a small lie than having someone worrying unnecessarily, or becoming sad, or losing momentum. While actions of this sort seem hard to endorse from the standpoint of Kantian ethics, they provide one of the most clear-cut arguments in favor of Consequentialism.

Lying for a Good Cause

Famed objections to the Kantian absolute moral ban of lying, however, come also from the consideration of more dramatic scenarios. Here is one type of scenario. If by telling a lie to some Nazi soldiers during World War II, you could have saved someone’s life, without any other additional harm being inflicted, it seems that you ought to have lied. Or, consider the situation in which someone outraged, out of control, and asks you where she can find an acquaintance of yours so that she can kill that acquaintance. You know where the acquaintance is and lying will help your friend calm down: should you tell the truth?

Once you start thinking about it, there are plenty of circumstances where lying seems to be morally excusable. And, indeed, it is typically morally excused. Now, of course, there is a problem with this: who is to say whether the scenario excuses you from lying?


There are plenty of circumstances in which humans seem to convince themselves of being excused from taking a certain course of action when, to the eyes of their peers, they actually are not. A good part of those scenarios may involve that phenomenon called self-deception. Lance Armstrong may have just provided one of the starkest cases of self-deception we can offer. Yet, who is to say that you are self-deceiving yourself?

By wanting to judge the morality of lying, we may have led ourselves into one of the most difficult skeptical lands to traverse.

Society as a Lie

Not only lying may be seen as the outcome of self-deception, perhaps an involuntary outcome. Once we broaden our definition for what a lie may be, we come to see that lies are deep-seated in our society. Clothing, makeup, plastic surgeries, ceremonials: plenty of aspects of our culture are ways of "masking" how certain things would appear. Carnival is perhaps the festivity that best deals with this fundamental aspect of human existence. Before you condemn all lying, hence, think again.​


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Your Citation
Borghini, Andrea. "The Ethics of Lying." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Borghini, Andrea. (2020, August 27). The Ethics of Lying. Retrieved from Borghini, Andrea. "The Ethics of Lying." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).