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Is it ever right to lie? In "The Ways We Lie," the author, Stephanie Ericsson describes ten distinct ways people lie in today's society. The classification of lies ranges from a harmless "White Lie" to the most dangerous lie "Delusion" in which we lie to ourselves. I only partly agree with Ericsson's thesis that lies are dangerous. The harmfulness of lying depends on its consequences (or risk of consequences). I think lying is morally acceptable, if its benefits outweigh its drawbacks.
I believe consequences should be the "rule of thumb" for the morality of lying because I believe in consequentialism. Consequentialism is a philosophical moral system in which the moral worth of a behavior is decided by the value of its implications rather than by the intention or motivation of the actor. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines consequentialism as an "idea that the consequences of behavior dictate whether than behavior was ethically, or morally good, or bad. Therefore, the value judgment on the end result is more significant that the process or means by which it is achieved" (Haines). Well known philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick favored consequentialism.
The opposite of consequentialism is Deontology. Deontology is a philosophical moral system whereby the measure of righteousness relies on the motivations behind the decisions rather than the consequences that result. If you have a moral responsibility of not lying to people, then lying is always wrong regardless of the consequences. Even if you have to give your brother's address to murderers who want to kill him. Ayn Rand, a renowned novelist and philosopher says "Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values" (951).
Ericsson is advocating deontology in her essay. Deontology only "focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves and not on the goodness or badness of the consequence of those actions" (Wordnik). Ericsson stated that "But if I justify lying what makes me any different from slick politicians or the corporate robbers who raided the S&L industry? Saying its okay to lie one way and not another is hedging. I cannot seem to escape the voice deep inside ne that tell me: when someone lies, someone loses" (321). I completely disagree with her statement. I believe that there is a big distinction between telling your friend or neighbor a harmless lie like "you look good in that dress" and cheating people out of their life savings like former NASDAQ chairman; Bernie Madoff did by telling "one big lie" which caused investors to lose a total of $18 billion. Not all lies are equal; life is not so uncomplicated as to say that all lies bear the equal weight.
The magnitude of one's action tends to lend around the same magnitude to its consequences (or risk of consequences). We lie unobjectionably and out of convenience - who hasn't? The example of the "sergeant in Vietnam who knew one of his men was killed in action but listed him as missing, so that the man's family would receive indefinite compensation instead of the lump-sum money the military gives to widows and children" (Ericsson 321). If you have been alive for more than ten years, you discern lying regarding someone's demise cannot be equated to telling a friend "you look great."
I have one question for Ericsson or the reader, if you think lying is dangerous and one loses one's integrity by lying, then tell me what would you do if you are hiding a Jewish family during World War II and some Nazi's knocked on your door asking if your are hiding a Jewish family (Unknown). Should you say "YES" or "NO"? Most people will say "NO" to the Nazi's, but if you fully agree with Ericsson's point of view, then you have to say "YES" to the Nazi's. Because she believes lying is dangerous and all lies carries the same weight. That is why I do not completely agree with Ericson's thesis.
Ericsson says "Our acceptance of lies becomes a cultural cancer that eventually shrouds and reorders reality until moral garbage becomes as invisible to us as water is to fish" (327). Once again, I strongly disagree with her statement. I think Ericsson really showed her ignorance when she said that she wants people to be honest. George Carlin, a distinguished counter-culture comedian says "If honesty were suddenly introduced into American life, everything would collapse. It would destroy this country, because our system is based on an intricate and delicately balanced system of lies" (26). Imagine politicians telling truth and not lying to the public, big corporate leaders telling the truth about how they use the tax payer's bailout money to rent private jets and book luxury resorts, and even Parents telling the truth about Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy to their Four year old. It is impossible for a civilized society to tell the truth all the time.
Ericsson says "What far-reaching consequences will I, or others, pay as a result of my lie? Will someone's trust be destroyed? Will someone else pay my penance because I ducked out? We must consider the meaning of our actions" (321). I very much agree with her statement. We must evaluate the consequences (or risk of consequences) before telling a lie. I think lying is part of our nature; it helps us in surviving this world. But lying can be dangerous if we ignore to assess the consequences.