Can you do right by doing wrong?
There can be no contradictions, especially in ethics. But poor behavior may support a virtuous aim. For example…your rights end where another person’s nose begins. Which means a person should never physically hurt another. But what if you are attacked, and are in danger, and need to protect yourself? What if another is in harm and you must act, forcing you to hurt another?
The ethical lines drawn by these examples are thick…if you do not defend yourself and harm another, you could die. Your actions in these extreme scenarios assume your life is more virtuous than the threatening actions cast upon you or others.
Now let’s blur these ethical lines. When is lying ethical?
When was the last time you lied and why? Perhaps it was a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or you faced an authority that would use the information to harm someone, or you wanted to give hope to someone in a hopeless situation, or you felt deceiving someone would benefit a greater good.
Let’s explore three philosophies that may…or may not validate ethical lying.
First, ethics as rationalized by Immanuel Kant. He argued lying was always immoral because humans have the gift of being rational, in ways never observed in any other animal. This reason allows us to make our own choices…he described it as “to have the rational power of free choice.” When we deceive, we disrespect this innate ability for reason by misinforming and therefore stealing that otherwise “free choice” from another person. Kant states that lies ultimately corrupt what makes us humans, as it erodes our “moral worth.” The freedom of choice should be held in the highest regard, and our respect for that freedom should be equally matched.
Second, “utilitarian ethics” considers the consequences when we lie…by viewing it as a means to an end. It argues lying is moral when the outcome brings about the most good, and eliminates the most harm. Applying this ethic may come at a great challenge, for it demands a possible liar to consider all consequences, good and bad, independent of themselves, before acting. Arguably most people, in everyday situations, will dramatically underestimate the consequences of their actions, or couldn’t reasonably know all impacts.
Third, virtue ethics bases the “rightness” or “wrongness” of actions as they relate to virtues, such as integrity, respect, humility, conviction and so forth. Lying would be unethical as it compromises honesty. But, consider the need to lie when faced with an authority that would use the information to harm someone. Your compassion protects a possible victim. What is “right” and what is “wrong” when two virtues are in conflict? To become the best versions of ourselves we need to embrace all virtues, equally. And different situations require us to act differently. Virtue ethics asserts lying can be moral if we do so in order to become a better, not worse, version of ourselves.
I believe in everyday situations lies are immoral. Following Kant rhetoric, when we live and thrive with our friends, loved ones, or even people we may not like very much, we should embrace mutual respect because of our ability to reason. Just as we do not second guess the value of our lives in extreme scenarios, nor should we blur this line when we respect others and ourselves.
What do you think?