Causes of Lying Essay

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Ethics: It is never morally permissible to tell a lie

While lying can be seen as a threat to society, trust, and potentially bad outcomes and consequences, there seem to be instances when lying seems to be a moral option. Mill and Kant had their differences and similarities on this point.

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Mill’s utilitarianism focused on the idea that right actions maximize happiness. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”(pg.329). It includes “net” happiness, which means subtracting the unhappiness from happiness, in which the right action may produce some happiness and at the same time the right action will minimize the unhappiness. And, total consequences which add up all the effects that come about. In Mills, utilitarianism one should consider whether telling a lie creates greater happiness than telling the truth. If it does, then it is morally right to lie, and if it doesn’t, then it is morally wrong. Mill’s utilitarianism does not evaluate actions just in terms of consequences, like in Kant’s deontological theory, but places them within a bigger picture. A person telling the truth is beneficial to people’s happiness, and being able to trust what others say is not only the basis of social well-being but also a foundation of civilization and virtue. Weakening either tendency to be truthful or other people’s trust, is severely damaging to happiness, therefore telling a lie just for the sake of convenience is morally wrong. With that being said, from Mills' point of view, lying is sometimes permissible, when it is the only way to prevent harm. For example, a child is rescued from a car crash in a very weakened state. His parents have been killed, but he is unaware of this. The child asks about his parents and the attending physician says that they are okay. In this example, it is clear that lying will cause more happiness, or less unhappiness than telling the truth because the child is weak and this type of information can possibly weaken him even more, and cause fatal consequences. Also, lying hits two Virtues of Utilitarianism, happiness seems minimally problematic, and moral issues can be determined by empirical calculation of consequences. Mill objects by saying that “we do not always act for the right reasons”(pg. 332), and “ there’s not always time to calculate the right thing!”(pg.335). It can seem that Utilitarianism can require doing things that might be morally subjective.

On the other hand, Kant believed that actions that brought harm were absolutely prohibited, even if they would bring more happiness. Kant’s ethics is a deontological theory, in which the main idea is what makes an action morally right is not its consequences, but the fact that it was carried out as a matter of goodwill, which is to say that the person’s action was driven by moral considerations, and by the thought of one’s moral duty. For example, suppose that your friend has an awful singing voice. After listening to the vocals, you do not want to hurt your friend's feelings, so you say that they sound good. The next week he goes to “Voice” and completely embarrasses himself. In this situation, as Kant claims, you would be responsible for this consequence. If we are tempted to lie, because we think the consequences will be better than if we told the truth, it is possible that we are mistaken. The Categorical Imperative, which states “Act only on that maxim, whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”(pg.324), has a second formulation which explains why lying is prohibited. It states that “He who is thinking of making a lying promise to others will see at once that he would be using another man merely as a means”(pg. 327), in other words, to take advantage of the other person for his own benefit. This is morally wrong, because as Kant said we should not treat people simply, merely, or only as a means. Instead treat people as an end, respecting their autonomy, and dignity. Kant also, argued that all people are born with an 'intrinsic worth' that he called human dignity. This dignity derives from the fact that humans are uniquely rational agents, capable of freely making their own decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason. To be human, said Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, he continued, is to respect that power in oneself and others. Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: the ability to make free, and rational choices. Second, lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would have known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy. Kant's fixed belief was that the opposite of truth is falsehood: when it is held for truth, it is called error.

In my point of view, both philosophers had great points, about whether or not lying is immoral. Since, it is hard to say where something is 100 percent immoral, and lying can fall under the grey area, I am leaning more towards Mill’s Utilitarianism, because it has an exception to lying, which the Categorical Imperative lacks. In my opinion, not all lies are bad, and in fact, a lie might prevent someone from doing harm to others, from doing harm to themselves, I personally do not see anything bad, or immoral in lying as long as it’s done for the “greater good”. For example, during World War II thousands of people were saved, because of a lie. When Nazis would come to take people, they would hide and usually elder people would open the door and lie about where the people were hiding at. My great-grandmother in fact did the same things and saved her little sister. When Nazis, my great-grandmother, hid her sister and said that she did not know where she was. Even though they took her away, with that lie, she saved her little sister from an awful destiny. So, yes I do believe that there are instances where lying is morally permissible.

To sum up, Kant and Mill did have their differences in terms of which principles should be used in order to decide moral questions. Mill’s principle was to promote happiness, while Kant’s was to respect autonomy. But they also had few similarities; they both agreed that morality is founded on a single principle and that this principle can be used to decide what ought to be done.

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