Saturday, February 22, 2020

Lying is dishonest

I thought I posted this argument, but can’t find it, so I’m writing it up again.

  1. If honesty is a virtue, dishonesty is a vice.

  2. If dishonesty is a vice, then acting dishonestly is always vicious.

  3. Acting viciously is always wrong.

  4. Lying is always acting dishonestly.

  5. So, lying is always acting viciously. (1, 2, 4)

  6. So, lying is always wrong. (3, 5)


Walter Van den Acker said...


I think the argument is invalid, or a least there seems to be a missing premise, namely
"honesty is a virtue".
Now, the issue seems to be whether honesty is always a virtue, even when it leads to very bad consequences.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I did forget to include that premise.

Helen Watt said...

Presumably dishonesty is defined pretty narrowly though if it's going to be always wrong? We'd have to exclude legitimate non-verbal deception of a kind we practise every day for good reasons such as being kind and polite, or looking after our own or third party interests.

Actually lying might be one of the few things the definition of honesty does include if it's going to be an absolute - together with non-verbal apostasy and maybe some if not all document-faking to communicate known untruths. But I'm not sure that would work as many non-verbal deceptions (or uses of ambiguous language) seem to be dishonest in some or many situations but not in extremis. They hide truth when they should communicate it, or they hide it in inappropriately deceptive ways.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Maybe I'm insane, but I think there are some serious issues here.

Premise 1, it seems to me, is a trick. Not intentional, of course. But I think the way it's worded can lead us to equivocate on "honesty" as a character trait and speaking honestly in each situation. It biases us incorrectly. I know the next two premises are meant to ensure there is no such equivocation, but I don't think it fixes the problem. "Honesty", as a character trait, is surely a virtue; and so "dishonesty", as a character trait is a vice. But, a person who is honest in character might say something dishonest on occasion, for good reason (as Helen Watt has already pointed out).

This is drawn out in Premise 2, which I think we should flatly deny. Even if dishonesty of character is a vice, it does not follow that every case of acting dishonestly is vicious. Easy counter-example: Being inclined to kill, as a character trait, is surely a vice. But, there are situations in which the virtuous and right thing to do involves killing.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The vice in the neighborhood of "being inclined to kill" is murderousness. And there are no situations where it is right to act murderously.

It seems that as a general matter of fact, virtues have opposed vices (according to Aristotle, always two), and associated with the opposed vices are the actions falling under that vice, which are always wrong. For instance, courage has foolhardiness and cowardice associated with it, and foolhardy or cowardly actions are always wrong. Honesty has two opposed vices: dishonesty and something we don't have a good word for but which we might call "having a mouth that's too big". Speaking dishonestly or bigmouthedly are always wrong.


When you engage in permissible non-verbal deceptions, you are neither acting honestly nor dishonestly. (Compare: When you run away in battle in obedience to a lawful order to retreat, your action is neither courageous nor cowardly nor foolhardy. For a more humdrum example, my writing this comment is neither courageous nor cowardly nor foolhardy.)

It seems to me that what the defender of lying should say is that in some cases lying is the honest thing to do. But that strikes me as wrong.

Helen Watt said...


Is it open to the defender of lying to say that lying for 'good' reason is neither honest nor dishonest, if it true that non-verbal deception or verbal ambiguity for 'good' reason is neither honest nor dishonest? If the defender of lying is not allowed to say he's being similarly 'not dishonest', then we're surely starting rather than finishing with a notion of honesty (nor not-dishonesty) that excludes actual lying.

Such a notion is fine though honesty also seems to exclude many non-verbal acts which are 'dishonest' because the deception is not justified in the circumstances. An example might be my non-verbally showing, not just satisfaction but extreme ecstasy at an unwanted present from a friend - as opposed to from a dictator who will shoot me if I show anything less extreme.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's interesting. I like your "extreme ecstasy" example: I do have the intuition that there is no dishonesty in the dictator case but there is in the friend case. Maybe, though, we have some social conventions that allow for a fair amount of flexibility with the showing of satisfaction for a good cause. But we don't have similar social conventions with regard to asserting the false for a good cause. For if we had such social conventions with regard to asserting the false, then it would actually be impossible to assert the false for a good cause, since the meaning of an assertion is determined by social conventions.

Benjamin Stowell said...

The example of the dictator makes me want to say that choosing honesty at the cost of my life is itself vicious, maybe foolhardiness or misguidedness. The good of my honesty is outweighed by the bad of my misguidedness. But choosing honesty at the cost of friendship seems correct, in part because the quality of a friendship largely depends on the honesty within it.

What's interesting though is that choosing honesty at the cost of my life seems exactly the right thing to do given the martyrdom situation of being asked if I'm a Christian under the context that I will be killed if I answer yes.