On Honesty and Lying

2011-08-16 14.11.46Honestly, and the antithesis, lying, are simple in concept, but can become inordinately complicated to consider practically.

When children are young, it is simple and sensible to imbue them with what they take as the hard and fast principle that one should never lie. The humorous, classic example is when a child eats a candy, and when asked about whether he/she ate the candy, firmly denies it while having a face smeared with chocolate. Most people then would recognize the wrong not in eating the candy, but in lying about it. Therefore we can see that in some cases lying is wrong.  Between religions and cultures this is general principle is relatively consistent albeit with a handful of notable outliers.

However, there are cases when the majority of rationale people agree that lying is justifiable, even commendable. For example, during WWII, should the Nazis have visited your house where you were hiding Jews and inquired as to whether or not there were Jews present, most people would agree that lying is justifiable. As the Jews would likely be killed or at least tortured should you reveal their presence, most people would agree that it is in fact commendable to lie in this situation. Therefore we can see that in some cases lying is justifiable, and even right.

It would be simple then to argue then that death or severe discomfort are justifications to lie; however we quickly see that this cannot be true. Take the case of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc around the world that are tortured or killed for their beliefs around the world on a daily basis. Many people would agree that when asked whether they are Christians/Muslims/Buddhists etc even under pain of death, the right thing to do is to hold true to their beliefs and refuse to lie. So can a coherent framework of honesty and lying be constructed?

Love as the supreme ethic. 

We must then return to love as the supreme ethic in this case, as in all others. Neither convenience nor comfort can be the supreme ethic. Lying to avoid punishment or an uncomfortable situation is selfish and often stupid. Lying out of love for others, such as the Jews in the previous example, is done out of love at great risk to oneself, and is commendable. Love is the unifying, supreme ethic. 

Does this make every scenario clear and unquestionable? Of course not. But should we look at each scenario when we are tempted to lie through the lens of deep and self sacrificing love, the scenario and the right course of action become clearer. Am I acting out of love or fear? 

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