“Is there really a Santa Claus?”
“Am I talking too much?”
“Isn’t this the cutest baby you’ve ever seen?”
“Was it good for you?”
Questions like these often seem to invite answers that are
less than totally honest. The research summarized in the “Alternatives to
Self-Disclosure” section reveals that, at one time or another, virtually
everyone avoids telling the complete truth. We seem to be caught between the
time-honored commandment “Thou shall not lie” and the fact that everybody does
seem to bend the truth, if only for altruistic reasons. What, then, are the
ethics of honesty?
Philosopher Immanuel Kant had a clear answer: We may be able
to evade unpleasant situations by keeping quiet, but we must always tell the
complete truth when there is no way to avoid speaking up. He said that
“truthfulness in statements which cannot be avoided is the formal duty of an
individual … however great may be the disadvantage accruing to himself or
another.”a Kant’s unbending position didn’t make any exception for lies or
equivocations told in the best interests of the receiver. In his moral code,
lying is wrong—period.
Not all ethicists have shared Kant’s rigid standards of
truth telling. Utilitarian philosophers claim that the way to determine the
morality of a behavior is to explore whether it leads to the greatest happiness
for the greatest number of people. While encouraging truthtelling whenever
possible, philosopher Sissela Bok offers some circumstances in which deception
may be justified: doing good, avoiding harm, and protecting a larger truth
Bok is realistic enough to recognize that liars are prone to
self-deceptive justifications. For this reason, she tempers her utilitarian
position with a test of publicity. She suggests that we ask how others would
respond if they knew that we were being untruthful. If most disinterested
observers with all the facts supported untruthful speech as the best course,
then it passes the test of publicity
Submit your case for avoiding the truth to a “court of
1 Recall recent situations in which you have used each of
the following evasive approaches: lying, equivocating, and hinting.
2 Write an anonymous description of each situation,
including a justification for your behavior, on a separate sheet of paper.
Submit the cases to a panel of “judges” (most likely fellow students), who will
evaluate the morality of these decisions.