When is Lying Justified?

Lying is one of the first social skills that one learns as a child. Even if the consequences are not severe but merely a mild rebuke, children will nevertheless lie egregiously to protect themselves from being scolded. Even as adults we are brazenly disingenuous or dishonest. Instinctively we will lie if one’s wife had to ask, “Do I look fat in this dress?” But where do we draw the line between deceitfulness and mere white lies? This blog will consider some of these issues.

Main picture: Lord Byron’s justification of why he would lie

As individuals we are confronted by lies daily. The massaging of the actions and comments of politicians is dissembling or placing a positive spin on these actions and comments especially when they were ill-advised. Consider Jessie Duartes’ response to Jacob Zuma retracting his appointment of Des van Rooyen as Finance Minister. She described Zuma’s decision to appoint Van Rooyen as representing “bold and visionary leadership.” This comment was less than disingenuous or an honest interpretation of the facts as it was blatantly mendacious, deceitful and duplicitous.

Adult lie 20 percent of the time

This is not a case of double standards. The consequences of lying in each case are vastly different. One can justify the question regarding one’s partner’s weight as wholly inappropriate as the answer MUST always be NO. It is a game and both parties are aware of the rules.

In Zuma’s case, the long term consequences for the ANC are the loss of credibility. Jessie Duarte need not have classified this flip-flopping as “visionary” but should rather have stated that upon “mature reflection” the decision was not in South Africa’s best interests.


This exposes the conundrum. Isn’t the “softer” version being just as dishonest as the first explanation?

Here is a sample of ten lies as compiled by Gerald Dworkin. Where would you draw the line in all of these cases?

  1. A man lies to his wife about where they are going in order to get her to a place where a surprise birthday party has been organized.
  2. A young child is rescued from a plane crash in a very weakened state. His parents have been killed in the crash but he is unaware of this. He asks about his parents and the attending physician says they are O.K. He intends to tell the truth once the child is stronger.
  3. Your father suffers from severe dementia and is in a nursing home. When it is time for you to leave he becomes extremely agitated and often has to be restrained. On the occasions when you have said you would be back tomorrow he was quite peaceful about your leaving. You tell him now every time you leave that you will be back tomorrow knowing that in a very short time after you leave he will have forgotten what you said.


4. A woman’s husband drowned in a car accident when the car plunged off a bridge into a body of water. It was clear from the physical evidence that he desperately tried to get out of the car and died a dreadful death. At the hospital where his body was brought his wife asked the physician in attendance what kind of death her husband suffered. He replied, “He died immediately from the impact of the crash. He did not suffer.”

5. In an effort to enforce rules against racial discrimination “testers” were sent out to rent a house. First, an African-American couple claiming to be married with two children and an income that was sufficient to pay the rent would try to rent a house. If they were told that the house was not available, a white tester couple with the same family and economic profile would be sent. If they were offered the rental there would be persuasive evidence of racial discrimination.

6. In November of 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy gave a conference. When asked whether he had discussed any matters other than Cuban missiles with the Soviets he absolutely denied it. In fact, he had promised that the United States would remove missiles from Turkey.


7. A woman interviewing for a job in a small philosophy department is asked if she intends to have children. Believing that if she says (politely) it’s none of their business she will not get the job, she lies and says she does not intend to have a family

8. In order to test whether arthroscopic surgery improved the conditions of patients’ knees a study was done in which half the patients were told the procedure was being done but it was not. Little cuts were made in the knees, the doctors talked as if it were being done; sounds were produced as if the operation were being done. The patients were under light anaesthesia. It turned out that the same percentage of patients reported pain relief and increased mobility in the real and sham operations. The patients were informed in advance that they either would receive a real or a sham operation.


9. I am negotiating for a car with a salesperson. He asks me what the maximum I am prepared to pay is. I say $15,000. It is actually $20,000.

10. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement

In my view, in all 10 instances lying is acceptable. The one which caused the most soul searching was number 6. In this instance, President flagrantly lied to the American public regarding the deal that he had just struck with Soviets regarding the removal of the Russian nuclear missiles from Cuba. In principle the government should never lie to the public EVEN IF, as happened in this case, it potentially prevented the devastation of a whole swath of the country.

Do you agree with my view in all cases and if not, why not.

Please use the comment section to do so.


Source: Are These 10 Lies Justified?



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