Lies and Damn Lies, But No Statistics

The philosopher Gerald Dworkin got a big response when he wrote about lying earlier this week. He listed ten situations in which someone might or did tell a lie and asked his readers how they felt about each case. Dworkin himself thinks we all lie more than we realize and that lying is generally more acceptable than we think. It isn’t possible to respond to Dworkin’s list online anymore, but here’s the article. It includes some prefatory remarks. As for the lies, they’re listed below, followed by my thoughts on their acceptability.

Are the following lies permissible (yes) or not (no)?

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 press 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 anesthesia. 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.

Dworkin thinks all ten of these lies are justifiable. I think half of them clearly are. It’s acceptable to lie:

(1) to hold a surprise party;
(3) to calm down an Alzheimer’s patient;
(4) to protect a newly-widowed woman from unnecessary pain;
(5) to test for racial discrimination in housing; and
(9) to get a better price from a car salesman.

Lie (8), the one about telling people they had an operation when they really didn’t, is a bit problematic. To be acceptable, two conditions would have to be met. First, the patients would have to fully understand that some of them would be receiving, in effect, a placebo. Giving a placebo is acceptable in medical research if the experiment’s subjects understand they might receive a placebo and won’t suffer significant consequences from not getting the real thing. Dworkin mentions the first condition, but not the second.

I would add a third condition: every patient should receive the real surgery, not the fake surgery, if the study showed the surgery to be beneficial. Since these other conditions aren’t mentioned, I wouldn’t put lie (8) in the clearly acceptable category. But if forced to choose, I’d say it’s all right to “lie” in this case. Telling someone you will tell them a lie is more like playing a game than real lying.

Lie (10), the one regarding exaggerated praise for children, is also a little problematic. It’s acceptable to sometimes give children exaggerated praise, but the praise shouldn’t be extravagant. Praise should also leave room for improvement (if a drawing is perfect, there’s no reason to do a better one next time). But lie (10)  also goes in the “yes” column.

I have more trouble with lie (7). Should a prospective employee lie about their desire to have children if an interviewer inappropriately raises the subject? Instead of lying, I think a better response would be to politely ask the interviewer whether it’s appropriate to ask a prospective employee about having children. Not answering the question while mildly calling attention to its inappropriateness would be more acceptable than lying, so I give lie (7) a “no”.

The last two lies, (2) and (6), are easy to reject. In both cases, giving a vague or non-committal answer would be better than lying. Lie (2) might stop the injured little boy from worrying about his parents. But why open the door to a future revelation: “Remember when I told you that your parents were doing fine? I lied. They were already dead.” If you couldn’t think of a sufficiently vague answer, you could at least tell a lie that was closer to the truth: “Your parents were hurt, but the doctors are trying to make them better.” Then change the subject back to the child’s needs. Eventually learning the truth wouldn’t be as much of a shock.

Finally, in the case of (6), the only non-hypothetical lie in the list, it’s fair to say that all government leaders sometimes have valid reasons to keep a secret. Perhaps President Kennedy had a good, non-political reason not to tell the truth about his talks with the Russians. But he didn’t have to absolutely deny that America’s missiles in Turkey were discussed. Kennedy could just as easily have told the press that various issues of national security always come up when dealing with the Russians. This time was no different. Next question, please.

So, giving a “no” to (2) and (6) leaves me with seven acceptable and three unacceptable lies. Professor Dworkin, who said all ten were justified, promises to write about this further. I’ll do the same. But keep in mind that you can trust me, because I’m not lying. Whether this clearly untrustworthy professor returns to the subject is a whole other question.

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