Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Lying and Withholding Information

A reader emailed the following interesting question:
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?


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23 comments:

  1. All things being equal (which they rarely are of course) it isn't moral to lie about your usage of cocaine. It also isn't moral, all thing being equal, to try to withhold information from others (even if this may benefit yourself?).

    Strategically however it is good to use your strategy, although the optimal strategic method (in many cases) would seem to be to give them bait - a fake story.

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  2. I disagree with the premise that lying in and of itself is immoral. In some cases it is, in others it is not. In the case laid out in the post it would be immoral to tell your friend that you had used cocaine (or imply such by omission) if you had reason to believe that your answer might lead your friend to try cocaine. On the other hand, you may be morally obligated to tell your friend about your experience using cocaine if you believe that the telling will discourage him/her from using cocaine. It really depends on what reaction you could expect from your friend and needs to be judged on a personal basis. The moral decision in this case does not revolve around the lie but around whether your words will encourage or discourage your friend from using cocaine. I believe you have a moral obligation to discourage people from trying to use cocaine.

    I can think of several other examples where lying may be the moral action. A soldier captured in battle may have to lie to protect his comrades, anyone who is married knows that lies can be good for a relationship (yes honey, I had a great time with the in-laws), various lies that parents tell their kids etc.

    Think of the lies you have created or information you have withheld during the normal course of a day. Would it really be better if you told the entire truth to everyone you encountered? Sometimes the truth can cause more harm than a lie. The moral course is to recognize whether the truth or a lie will lead to a more moral result. It seems to me that the morality of lying should be judged by the intention and result not the lie in and of itself.

    To harken back to an old post, you could not follow the plutonium or platinum or golden rules without at least the occasional lie.

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  3. I take the issue at stake here whether if one uses lying merely as a means to withholding information, it is more easily justifiable(a gloss for 'less wrong').

    The principle clearly doesn't generalise: doing x as a means to achieving y doesn't make x easier to justify. Many murders are commited as means to, say, getting money - but murdering for its own sake is equally wrong.

    So I conclude the as-a-means feature is irrelevant. But, in the same way that positive moral injunctions can clash so that there are some situations in which both can't both be honoured, in the cocaine-enquiry situation in looks like two negative rights-respecting injuctions can't both be honoured: your own right to privacy, and the other's right not to be lied to. Maybe there are reasons to believe that in any situation there is a right thing to do?

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  4. Marco, my argument is that lying isn't immoral in and of itself the way murder is immoral. The means of committing a murder is killing another person. While murder is always immoral, the means (killing another person) is not always immoral. (Self-defence, saving the life of an innocent etc.) I see the claim that all killing is immoral on par with the claim that all lies are immoral and both fundamentally different than the claim all murder is immoral.

    Lying is always a means to do y and in at least some situations may be the most moral action. Lying isn't morally different than any other speech. Obviously, you can't make the claim that speech is moral or immoral, it can be used for either purpose. I believe lying isn't morally different than any other speech.

    Marco's final point is a good one. There isn't always a moral action to take, especially if a situation is brought about by a previously immoral action. But we must decide what is best or the lesser of two evils sometimes.

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  5. If I were a Kantian, I'd say that yes, it is moral to lie in order to withhold information, or at least it is no worse than withholding information through a non-answer. (Kant would disagree.)

    Since I'm more of an indirect utilitarian, I think that lying to withhold information usually is worse than refusing to provide an answer, because of its implications for your character and for your relationship with the person who you are lying to. All things considered, though, it can still sometimes be the right choice. I also think that weaseling, which is saying something that leaves a false impression while only making statements that are technically true, is just about as bad as lying (somewhat less bad in some cases, somewhat worse in others).

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  6. I think it's easy to underestimate the number of ways one can get out of this sort of situation without actually lying (or, in other words, neutral withholding can be done in more ways than "I have no comment at this time"). Of course, I don't think that in all cases lying is wrong - and there are cases where, while uncomfortable, it is clearly wrong to tell anything less than the truth. In fact, I think the sort of case discussed here is relatively unlikely or uncommon.

    However, it's not hard to give responses that don't have the 'neither confirm nor deny' problem: for example, replying with "Excuse me?" could serve nicely, if phrased in a tone which makes the person asking feel like they have committed some awful social gaffe. One could also react ironically or sarcastically "Use cocaine? I'm snorting it right now" which could really only count as a lie in the most ridiculous of interpretations, but which also serves to reject the notion that asking the question is appropriate. Really, in these cases, I think the best thing to do is take a page from politics and just not answer the question at all by answering a different one or commenting on the fact that the question is being asked at all.

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  7. Huh. Sorry I didn't show up yesterday to comment on the post I asked for. Truth is, I found the question so interesting that I also asked for a post about it here, and had a pretty nice discussion. We covered most of the same ground.

    I ended up coming around to the position that lying in this situation is justifiable under rule-utilitarian reasoning. Since you have two different rules that conflict (right to privacy, right not to be lied to) you have to abandon the rules and use more general principles to analyze the case individually. Perhaps this analysis would lead to a rule of thumb to use in such situations. (It's OK to lie except if the questioner has a certain type of valid interest in the information, or something.)

    Another interesting possibility suggested late in the thread was that somehow the same analysis that makes things like fictional stories and/or sarcastic statements not lies also applies to these situations. That sounds like a bit of a stretch, though.

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  8. Oh, and I really like your suggestion, Richard, that the best way to avoid this is to actively protect your privacy even when it doesn't seem quite necessary.

    In the case of a close friend, though, or a spouse, generally there are expectations of openness and lack of secrets that make this difficult. And that's probably as it should be. If you tell your friend facts about yourself of 85% secrecy but have some other fact of 75% secrecy that you want to avoid telling them, then they probably have a legitimate reason to be offput by your desire to keep that other secret.

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  9. To steal from Aristotle and our magnanimous man ..

    "He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, i.e. to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar. "

    It seems from the above Aristotle would advocate speaking matter-of-factly. What is there to hide? We all make mistakes.

    ..

    There appear to be certain cases where it is good to lie (prisoner of war), others where our lies do us harm if we're attempting to avoid past pains: steroid use, cocaine, marijuana. Only when we accept these pains as who we are, do we accept ourselves.

    If others prejudge you, so be it. You will never be magnanimous if you cater to the opinions of others. This is sometimes easier said than done.

    I often pull from the quote below when dealing with the opinions of others..

    "So there is Alexander the Great, who is feared by the whole world. Look at him lying on the ground, sobbing because he fears what men might say about him -- as if he himself should not give them law, and establish the boundaries of justice and injustice. He who conquers is the lord and master, not the slave, of the idle opinions of little men"
    - Anaxarchus, Plutarch's Parallel Lives

    So with that tell your friend you have used cocaine. If your fearful he might use it, advocate against it.

    Hooray for the magnanimous man

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  10. Hooray for the magnanimous man!

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  11. Just for informational sake, Socrates advocates lieing as "preventative medicine" in the Republic. He reserves this for doctors in his hypothetical society but spoken lies to him are acceptable when dealing with enemies or friends, perhaps friends who are trying to do something bad and have lost their senses. These spoken lies can be acceptable; it's true falsehoods that everyone loathes.

    So reverting back to our cocaine example, is your friend contemplating the use of cocaine or is does pure curiosity drive him to question your past use?

    Depending on the scneario, perhaps "preventative medicine" is best.

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  12. Short answer. Lying is not immoral. It is simply a practice that, when discovered, leads people not to believe you in future. The pathological liar is not a totally immoral person, just a totally unreliable one.

    The question is practical rather than moral. There are some lies that would be immoral, just as some movements of the index finger (eg pulling a trigger) can be, but the general practice is not amenable to moral judgement. Some lies could be highly moral.

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  13. Mind you, I think I missed the thrust of the question, which seems to be: What is the most practical strategy when dealing with questions that could have answers you would rather keep secret, if your general policy and wish is to be honest? No real answer to that. Totally depends on the context. In the cocaine example, it depends why the person is asking and how close to them you want to be. If they're a cop, lie. If they're a good friend wanting to know about the drug and have a track record of discretion, tell the truth.

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  14. I think I've had a similar debate to that lately where one person asserts that a certain behavior/thing is immoral (in itself).
    Others will say it isn't immoral in itself it just almost always results in immoral results.
    Others might say the latter implies the former.
    I guess it depends on how the question is meant. But I tend to agree lying doesn’t HAVE to be immoral but if one had to guess then it probably would be. I disagree that you can so easily separate morality based on how friendly you are with the person - the morality of lying to the police seems to be based on the idea that you should not face consequences for using the drug (which may be true but is open to debate).

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  15. I think it is a "pile of crap" saying adoption is damaging - I think it depends on where they go and since the families they come from are generally bad (as per the decision of the mother) and the ones they go to are better (as per their decision and the rules governing adoption) - usually it will be better. The counter effect is that parents naturaly love their own children slightly more but that is a lesser effect than the other.

    Gay adoption should be a "cakewalk" IF you can get it properly debated in the public and the adoption rules are strict enough. I.e. that we keep out potentially bad parents regardless of whether they are gay or not or even concentrated in gay homes.
    so the other side says "gays are bad parents" the easy argument is "look they cant be bad, we excluded all the bad ones already!"
    I understand generally the demand exceeds the supply anyway.

    If national breaks out the whips I think they could be in trouble because I think deep down National is a liberal country once you have dealt with the pragmatic concerns (as mentioned above) Maybe you could tie onto it some review of adoption procedures.

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  16. woops posted that in the wrong place!!!

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  17. Genius, "woops posted that in the wrong place!!!"

    LOL you can say that again.

    Re your 'lying' post, I can see why you might think lying is statistically linked to immoral acts. But I think it's important to make the distinction. Driving a car is statistically linked to having car accidents, but that does not make driving a car equivalent to having a car accident.

    As for the lying about cocaine thing, my point is that it is not the lie that is immoral. If anything is immoral in this case, it is the use of the cocaine (I don't reckon so personally, for the record), but exactly how people come to know about your cocaine use is less clear. You have every moral right to defend yourself from prosecution by the police. It may come back to bite you if they can show a jury that you lied, though. So it all depends how damning is the evidence they already have. If admitting to cocaine use puts you in the frame for a crime you never committed, then this lie would be highly moral, as it could prevent very bad consequences. There are endless scenarios where it could be the right thing to do. Even if you did what they are accusing you of, it would probably be better to lie about this, to prevent it becoming a major point for the prosecution's case on an utterly unrelated charge.

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  18. Yeah at least I was just suporting gays and not doing something embarassing like expousing my support for the NAZI er wooooppss...

    > Driving a car is statistically linked to having car accidents, but that does not make driving a car equivalent to having a car accident.

    I think usually there is either a rule utilitarian argument, e.g. that generally car driving has more benefits than costs OR that it exceeds a certain probability of causing harm (e.g. how dropping a brick off an overhead bridge, and killing someone, might be considered murder).

    > If anything is immoral in this case, it is the use of the cocaine

    I am leaving that aside - I think you are attempting to cause others to have "untrue beliefs". In essence to deny their preferences. Untruths also damage the ability to optimize a system.

    > You have every moral right to defend yourself from prosecution by the police.

    I don't think you do. There is an expectation that you will and the government has an obligation to support you. But you have an obligation to do what is right and if that is to admit guilt - then that is what you are morally obliged to do. In relation to cocaine that depends on how reasonable the state is of course.

    > If admitting to cocaine use puts you in the frame for a crime you never committed, then this lie would be highly moral, as it could prevent very bad consequences.

    Then the frame is wrong - and should be shown to be wrong, but obviously you are right there are endless scenarios that it is appropriate to lie - although I would say they are still in the minority.

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  19. Genius, in the statistics point I'm just saying it's very fuzzy thinking to see a correlation and jump to a general rule. That is the basis of stereotyping and can lead to highly unacceptable results.

    "Untruths also damage the ability to optimize a system."

    Perhaps so, but we live in a 'suboptimal system', in which lies are told everywhere. The police could be lying when they say they won't charge you, or conduct a search of your property, or damage your good name, for instances. They are thus merely one form of power, and I attach no particular morality to their use. It is what they are used *for* that matters.

    "> You have every moral right to defend yourself from prosecution by the police.

    I don't think you do."

    Fair call. I confuse moral and legal rights, so this is no argument. But that doesn't mean the opposite is true. As you say, whether the cocaine lie is moral comes down to how the truth will be used. You can bet your bottom dollar the police will have no scruples about trapping you with lies, eg "Your mate already confessed and grassed you in as the dealer, you better tell us everything and we'll consider reducing or dropping the charges".

    "Then the frame is wrong - and should be shown to be wrong, but obviously you are right ..."

    Heh, obviously! Always! Spot the lie!

    "although I would say they are still in the minority."

    That may well be so, but the very existence of *any* counter cases makes a general rule problematic. You could make a 'statistical rule', where the falseness itself is merely a contributing factor to the judgement of the lie being immoral, but the other circumstances outweigh the negativity of the lie. That's much harder to argue against. In that case I would probably give the lie a pretty low immorality score. Personally I don't think it's needed. The more important thing is the likely outcome (from a utilitarian point of view).

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  20. > That is the basis of stereotyping and can lead to highly unacceptable results.

    yes, no real disagreement here - except that one has to do that at some stage otherwise your left knowing nothing.

    > Perhaps so, but we live in a 'suboptimal system', in which lies are told everywhere.

    I weep for society.

    > You can bet your bottom dollar the police will have no scruples about trapping you with lies.

    One would hope you could trust police more than most people (at least trust them to have scruples) - if you can't then maybe we need a revolution.

    > That may well be so, but the very existence of *any* counter cases makes a general rule problematic.

    I was going to complain but actually I don’t have much to complain about... It could easily have been me writing that last section.

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  21. " > That is the basis of stereotyping and can lead to highly unacceptable results.

    yes, no real disagreement here - except that one has to do that at some stage otherwise your left knowing nothing."

    Better to admit that than to not know that you don't really know! Otherwise you're saying that in the absence of any other information, it's rational to believe the poor black guy did it! Of course many people do believe this, but I dispute that they *know* it.

    "> You can bet your bottom dollar the police will have no scruples about trapping you with lies.

    One would hope you could trust police more than most people (at least trust them to have scruples) - if you can't then maybe we need a revolution."

    When you're the guy getting done, I would not expect the police to be 'trustworthy' to you. To society, maybe. They're only human, after all.

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  22. Okay, the guy who asked the question is actually lying to himself in his claim he is merely withholding information.

    What he is doing, rather, is to tell a lie so that he will avoid the moral condemnation that would probably follow.

    So, i don't believe this is really an ethical question. It's a "how best do I justify this action" question. While there's not much of a difference, the difference is this: an action has been predetermined on a different basis, and ethics is a way for him to justify it (kinda like a lawyer would use law.).

    autarkous.blogspot.com

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  23. Most people accept that it is reasonable to use force in self-defence, even if it means killing one's attacker, and despite a law against killing others. Surely there are analogous cases where one needs to lie to prevent being killed or to prevent colleagues or innocent people being killed.

    This is a line of argument advanced in some subtlety by Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet, Jesuit missionaries to Elizabethan England, both of whom were among the Catholics tortured and executed by Elizabeth's and James' intolerant Governments. See Garnet's "Treatise on Equivocation", which reprised an earlier document by Southwell (now lost).

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