Kant is famous for having maintained that it is always wrong to lie. Always. No exceptions. Not even to save lives.
I expect most in our culture today wouldn’t buy this. Reflecting the more popular Utilitarian point of view, most would say that where the consequences are vastly better if you lie than if you tell the truth, lying is justified.
Most of us don’t reflect a perfectly Utilitarian point of view here, however. Most of us are still bothered (I hope) by lying, even when the consequential calculus seems to justify it. We only feel comfortable–somewhat–when the consequences are far better lying than telling the truth. And even then, we wish it wasn’t necessary. It bothers us. That shows that we’re not consistent utilitarians.
But what is wrong with lying after all? Or more broadly, what’s wrong with deceiving in general? What’s so bad about that?
Kant was surely on to something in his rationale. He pointed out that lying depends upon truth-telling. Lying wouldn’t work unless people generally told the truth. In fact, in a context where lying was the norm, lying wouldn’t work at all; nobody would believe anything anyone said. In fact, in the extreme, language would break down entirely; expressions would no longer be taken to even mean what they once meant.
But so long as people are generally truthful, why not take advantage of the fact and tell the occasional lie when it serves our purposes?
A powerful pragmatic case can be made for truthfulness: Truthfulness is essential to the building and maintaining of trusting relationships–which are essential to having a good life and to the health of human society. It is surprising how often truthfulness is beneficial even in situations where our instincts tell us otherwise: Employees value their employers being honest with them, and even giving them negative appraisals, over employers with whom they never know where they stand. And the best bosses insist that their underlings be honest with them–telling the truth when they think their boss may be making a mistake. They actively encourage expressions of disagreement, because in a context in which a variety of perspectives are being expressed the truth and best ways are most likely to be found. Contexts in which employees are afraid to say what they really think are counter-productive to good decision-making.
As powerful as the pragmatic case is for truthfulness–and it is very powerful–this is not the most fundamental explanation of our obligation to be truthful, however. Truth, and knowing the truth, are intrinsically valuable things. A statement that describes things as they actually are–that tells the truth–is a success. (I hereby reveal my acceptance of a ‘correspondence,’ not ‘coherence,’ or ‘pragmatic,’ theory of truth.) True statements fulfill what statements are for and are, in that way, good. Knowing the truth is intrinsically good and valuable as well, for similar reasons.
But truth, and knowledge of it, are extremely extrinsically valuable as well. If I know the truth about a situation, I am much more likely to be able to tell what to do to accomplish what I want. Such knowledge “is power,” as they say. If I have false beliefs about a situation, on the other hand, I am much less likely to know how to bring about what I want in that situation–and much more likely to be mistaken about how to do that.
With this in mind, it is clear from Kant’s reasoning that lying is a fundamentally selfish act–even when it “serves the greater good.” Kant thought it was actually irrational because it requires inconsistency: I must want people generally to be truthful, but not to be truthful myself, at least not in this situation. But when I lie, at the very least I am intentionally depriving someone else of this intrinsically valuable thing–the truth. And I am intentionally depriving them of the information they need to make well-informed decisions of their own. I am reserving this valuable thing, and the power that comes with it, for myself.
This is the fundamental problem. It is not that deception can never be justified in extreme situations. Governments legitimately engage in deceit for the sake of national security; every government knows they’re all playing this game. And of course we can all do this when we are literally playing a game where this is the expectation. But for the vast majority of us, the vast majority of the time, the problem with lying is this:
It intentionally deprives another person of a valuable thing they need to make well-informed decisions. It deprives them of the truth they need to properly regulate their beliefs. It takes that truth from them and reserves it for ourselves. It is akin to theft; it is truth-stealing, if you will. It is a fundamentally selfish act even when done “for a good cause” because it takes away from the other the truth they need to make well-informed decisions and reserves that power for ourselves.
This applies to other forms of deception as well, of course. It isn’t just explicitly expressing falsehoods that selfishly deprives others of the truth. It is also the telling of truths-designed-to-deceive: saying true things, but in contexts where others will naturally draw conclusions we know to be false, but where their believing these falsehoods serves our purposes. Same thing.
To lie, or deceive in any other way, is to selfishly and intentionally deprive another of the truth they need, and to reserve it rather for ourselves. It is truth-theft. This even applies to just allowing others–because it serves our purposes–to persist in beliefs we know are false–deceit-by-silence.
That’s the problem with deceit, and why we have an obligation to truth and truthfulness.