Is it moral to lie in order to preserve a secret, in a situation where refusing to answer cannot preserve the secret?
For instance, if a close friend comes up and asks me, "Have you ever used cocaine?", and I say "That's none of your business", they have a strong reason to believe that I have used cocaine, because if I hadn't I would have told them that I hadn't. (I'm sure there are better examples.) So the only way to really preserve the secret is to lie. But since I'm not trying to lie to the person, but only trying to withhold information, it seems like saying that isn't *really* lying, or, at least, doesn't have the same moral significance. What do you think?
Aside: such examples suggest that it would be a good public strategy for one to regularly assert one's right to privacy as a matter of principle, even when you could happily tell the truth. In other words, don't answer "no" to any question that you wouldn't also have been willing to answer "yes" to. That way, others can't employ those magical information-producing inferences when you try to withhold information from them. If you spurn intrusive questions even when you don't need to, others can no longer infer such a need from the mere fact of your silence. Conversely: an unprincipled privacy is no privacy at all, since your ad hoc silences will be revealing.
(For the record, I follow this principle myself. I noticed, when other blogs responded to my abstract discussions of sexual ethics, that some readers left comments speculating about my private life. Since I have a principled policy to "neither confirm nor deny" such invasions of privacy, they have no basis to draw any inference either way when I rebuff them for their rudeness.)
But that doesn't address the central question. Supposing you found yourself in a situation where honest withholding of information really was impossible, what should you do? Of course, sometimes lying is justified in any case, and sometimes withholding information isn't. But I take it the question here is whether lying would be more easily justified in such a case than usual. Perhaps being deprived the option of neutral withholding counts as "extenuating circumstances". I'm not sure that counts for much. But at the very least, someone who would prefer to avoid lying is clearly less bad than someone with no compunction here at all (say someone who still would have lied even if withholding had been a live option). However, we also think a remorseful murderer is a better person than a remorseless one, yet that doesn't excuse the actual killing. Other circumstances might excuse it, but that's an independent issue. The justification may hold regardless of the killer's reluctance. Perhaps the reluctant liar is like that: either justified, or not, and his reluctance doesn't really have much to do with it?