There are cases where it seems that great harm comes from a refusal to lie. Thus there appears to be a strong consequentialist case against an absolutist position against lying. But I think that if we shift from act-consequentialism to what one might call character-consequentialism, there may be a case for an absolutist position. At least it has not been shown otherwise.
Act-consequentialism says that of all the acts available to one, one should perform the kind of act that will maximize good consequences. Character-consequentialism says that out of all the characters that one might develop, one should have that moral character having which will maximize expected good consequences. (This is a variant on rule-utilitarianism, of course.) There are differences in recommendation between the two consequentialisms. For instance, suppose there is no afterlife. Then there will be cases where act-consequentialism will recommend condemning the innocent to death in order to prevent riots seeking the innocent's death. But character-consequentialism may require one to have a character that never gives in to injustice. For having such a character will make it less likely that people will riot to blackmail one into condemning the innocent to death, plus it will make one more strongly committed to the cause of justice.
What about lying? Bracketing the afterlife, there will be circumstances where the absolutist anti-lying character will produce poorer consequences than the more pragmatic character who generally tells the truth but lies sometimes. But there will also be circumstances where the absolutist will produce better consequences than the pragmatist. These will be circumstances where the good consequences depend on one's sincere testimony being believed. If Professor Kowalska is known to be an absolutist and a student is about to jump off a tall building, and Professor Kowalska yells to the student "Don't jump—I thought your last paper was good", that carries weight. If Kowalska were known to have the more pragmatic character, the student could say: "You're just saying that to make me not jump."
Of course, there is also the case where the student's last paper was no good, and in that case the pragmatist's lie at least has some chance of averting suiciding. But the pragmatist's lie is less likely to work than truth from the absolutist would be.
The question whether the consequences of being an absolutist or being a pragmatist then depend on the relative frequencies, as weighted by what is at stake, of the following two kinds of situations:
- Cases where (a) one believes p and (b) good consequences follow from one's interlocutor's accepting p.
- Cases where (a) one disbelieves p and (b) good consequences follow from one's interlocutor's accepting p.
Granted, there are spectacular paradigm cases of (2), such as when the Gestapo comes to one's door and asks if one is hiding some Jews (and let us suppose no clever solution like I try in this paper works). But these cases are fortunately rare (and even in those cases, there is the practical consideration how likely one's lie is to convince the interlocutor—if we were doing principled ethics, we could ignore this consideration, but we're doing character-consequentialism and can't ignore it). And corresponding to these cases there will be cases where the Gestapo comes to one's door and asks if one is hiding Jews, and one is not hiding Jews but nonetheless the consequences of the Gestapo searching the house would be grave (maybe one is hiding a Gypsy or a Slav, or one has forbidden books). In those cases there may be a serious benefit from having a reputation for absolutism in regard to lying.
In any case, we don't live in Nazi society. And there probably are many cases in our courts where the prevention of grave injustice requires that some sincere witness be believed.
Moreover, there are many small everyday type (1) cases where we can expect the absolutist to produce better results because, say, her praise is more likely to be believed.
It is ultimately a serious empirical question whether the absolutist or pragmatist character in regard to lying can be expected to be the more beneficial one. But the point I want to make is that has not been shown that the absolutist character does worse on average.