Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Is it good to be the sort of person who is never willing to lie?

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:

  1. Cases where (a) one believes p and (b) good consequences follow from one's interlocutor's accepting p.
  2. Cases where (a) one disbelieves p and (b) good consequences follow from one's interlocutor's accepting p.
Now, I think that cases of type (1) are more common, because I am inclined to think that (i) there is a positive correlation between what one believes and what is true (this is an anti-sceptical principle of credulity) and (ii) there is a positive correlation between what is true and what is beneficial (not just to the believer) to believe, so there is, probably, a positive correlation between what one believes and what it would be beneficial if one's interlocutor believed.

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.


Heath White said...

Here is a wrinkle or three.

1. It might be the case that the empirical consequences of character differ depending on one's career or social role. For example, intelligence work seems to require a bit of dissembling. Can we conclude that consequences would be better if there were no CIA, or at least not one like we know it? Another tricky empirical question.

2. One might also make the case that if a politician refuses to lie at all, he will never get elected, which leaves the door open to yet more unscrupulous politicians.

3. Also, there are historical cases where there are strong social norms against lying to some people but not to others, and I don't see a reason why one couldn't develop a character like this. E.g. being a man of honor among one's own class but willing to lie to the underlings.

The moral seems to be that asking about the empirical consequences of developing a certain character, in isolation from social and institutional context, is not a question with a well-defined answer.

James Bejon said...

I suppose if you have a strong enough view of the good of developing one's moral characters (as, e.g., Aristotle seemed to), then act-consequentialism seems practically indistinguishable from character-consequentialism. For if it is true that:

1. (Premise) Refraining from some evil S makes one more likely to refrain from S-type evils in future.
2. (Premise) A good moral character is a good.

then, say, always not lying is guaranteed to score pretty highly in terms of maximising goods.

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. One person's refusing to lie will not make the CIA go away. So if it's a question of individual decision, then the empirical question what the world would be like without the CIA is beside the point. And if we ask the "What if everyone did that" question, then it does not seem to be obviously harmful if all intelligence agencies, terrorist groups, etc. ceased to lie. (They would still have other methods of deceit, of course.) There would be the great benefit that one could stop all terrorist attacks in a place simply by refusing entry to all individuals who do not assert that they aren't planning or considering committing acts of violence at the location (one would have to choose better wording to ensure no loopholes).

2. I think politicians lie less often than they are accused of doing. I think they rather more often tell incomplete truths or tell falsehoods that they have deceived themselves into believing. There are also verbal deceits that fall short of lying.

3. I think a character that significantly distinguishes one's moral dealings in class terms is not a good character to have.

That said, I agree that the answer to the empirical question whether it would be better (bracketing afterlife considerations) to have a never-lying character may well depend on changing circumstances. But I do think that rarely if ever will the answer be obviously negative.

Alexander R Pruss said...


True. I already bracketed the afterlife, and I guess I also needed to bracket the intrinsic disvalue, if any, lying or a lying character, so as not to beg the question.

One might, though, be able to make a case along your lines without begging the question. There are many circumstances where it is not uncontroversial that it is wrong to lie. And a person with a character that allows lying sometimes is probably more likely to lie in those circumstances, because the person has no big mental barrier to lying. So it may be that in terms of minimizing uncontroversially wrongful deeds it is beneficial to have a character of never lying. I wouldn't lay too much emphasis on this point, though.