Lies, Damn Lies and Some Statistics

I keep intending to update this blog, but end up doing other things. I can’t use those popular but lame “I’m too busy” or “There isn’t enough time” excuses. The truth is that I’m choosing to do other things. Why lie?

But last month I promised to revisit the philosopher Gerald Dworkin’s discussion of permissible lies when Professor Dworkin did. His new article, “How You Justified 10 Lies (Or Didn’t)”, was published a few days ago.

Professor Dworkin begins by listing the ten lies he discussed last time. He still thinks all ten would be permissible. Now, however, we get to see what percentage of 10,000 New York Times readers agreed with him. Even more importantly, from my perspective, we get to see how many of them agreed with me.

Surprisingly, all ten lies were deemed “permissible” by a majority of the Times readers. One lie was approved by 96% of the respondents. One was merely approved by 51%. But every single lie Dworkin listed got a positive reaction. Do the generally liberal New York Times readers who read “The Stone” philosophy blog and respond to opinion polls tend to be liars? Or maybe they were lying when they said these lies would be acceptable?

So here are the ten lies, listed according to my evaluations of them and showing how many Times readers got it right or were seriously mistaken when they responded to Professor Dworkin’s poll.

I think these five would clearly be permissible:

(1) to hold a surprise party. 96% of the Times readers agreed;
(3) to calm down a loved one who has severe dementia. 89% agreed;
(4) to protect a newly-widowed woman from unnecessary pain regarding the violent death of her husband. But only 51% agreed;
(5) to test for racial discrimination in housing. 89% agreed;
(9) to get a better price from a car salesman. 94% agreed (very few sell cars for a living).

I had some concerns about these two, but decided they would also be permissible:

(8) to tell the willing participants in a medical study that they received real knee surgery when they really didn’t. 87% agreed;
(10) to tell a young child that their drawing was great when it really wasn’t. 71%.

I had more trouble with the last three. I wasn’t completely sure about this one, but decided to reject it:

(7) to lie about one’s plans to have children in order to get a job. 62% said it would be permissible. I thought it would be better to deflect the question (being male would make it easier for me to deflect).

Finally, these two were easy to reject:

(2) to tell a young child seriously injured in a plane crash that his parents “were O.K.”, even though neither survived, so that the child might be stronger during his upcoming surgery. 63% said it would be o.k., presumably hoping that somebody else would tell the kid the truth later on: “You know that plane crash you were in, and how the doctor said your parents were o.k.? Well, they weren’t. They were dead all along.” I thought one of those vague answers doctors know how to give would be better in the long run.

(6) During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy denied that America’s missiles in Turkey were discussed with the Russians. That was a lie. 55% said it was permissible. Again, I thought it would have been better to deflect the question or give a vague answer, while intending to eventually tell the truth.

After revealing the results of the readers’ poll, Dworkin discusses some of the more contentious lies. For example, a reader argued that it would be better for the woman in the job interview to answer truthfully regarding her plans to have a family, but “to question the heck” out of the interviewer (“How will this affect my chances?”, etc.). Other readers argued that the widow would have a right to know the truth about her husband’s painful death, although Dworkin observes that the woman might ask the question without really wanting to know if her husband suffered.

Most interesting to me is Dworkin’s discussion of the child facing surgery whose parents died in the plane crash. He and 51% of the respondents thought that saying the child’s parents were “O.K.” would be permissible. That’s hard for me to believe. Dworkin wants to protect the child in the short run, hoping that the surgery will go better if the child doesn’t know the truth. He also questions whether a young child has a right to know the truth, since young children aren’t fully autonomous yet. Fortunately, he concludes that if the child would be satisfied with a vague answer, a vague answer would be preferable to lying. I think that’s obviously true and that it’s extremely likely that a doctor could come up with a suitably vague but reassuring answer. So we aren’t as far apart on this case as it seemed.

In fact, while writing the previous paragraph, I realized that I could accept a lie in this situation too. My principal reason for disagreeing with Dworkin and the 51% is that I disagree with the particular lie they endorsed. I believe a lie like “Your parents were hurt too, so other doctors are helping them”, would be permissible, since it would allow for the possibility that the doctors weren’t able to help the parents enough to keep them alive. A lie like that could make the child’s transition to the truth less painful than hearing “your parents are O.K.”.

Dworkin concludes with some general remarks on the morality of lying. I think the most important point he makes is that there are no simple rules for deciding whether a lie is permissible. Life is complicated and so is morality. Different values come into play and need to be balanced in different situations. This is one reason the world needs blogs and other forms of communication, even though the people who communicate often end up doing things other things, some of which are easier or more fun than communicating.

3 thoughts on “Lies, Damn Lies and Some Statistics

  1. I think (8) is permissible only if the patient volunteered for the study with knowledge that it might affect their treatment. Medical studies do have to control for the placebo effect.

    I’m also not a fan of (10). I think it’s possible to be honest and still be encouraging, although I think the standard by which we judge a child’s efforts do need to take into account their age.

    I have no real issues with (7), mainly because I don’t think the interviewer has any business asking that question (except in very rare situations). Defiantly refusing to answer may not be in the interviewees interest. It’s a situation they shouldn’t be put in and I have no issue with them lying to get past it. In any case, plans change.

    Totally agree on (2) and (6) that it would be better to evade than outright lie.

    In the end, for me, it comes down to what effect the lie would have on the recipient, our knowledge of what the recipient would want, and, if the effect of this lie would be contrary to their interest, is it right to oppose that interest.

    • I think you’re right that the main consideration is the effect the lie would have on the other person. Of course, there may also be the effect on the liar. And on other people, especially if lying becomes more widespread. But I also think some lies are wrong regardless of the consequences. I can’t think of one off hand, but I’m sure they’re out there.

      There’s also a point that Dworkin makes: “one way of justifying a lie is to accept that it cannot be morally justified, but that we sometimes are permitted to ignore morality in the pursuit of certain valuable ends that are fundamental to our life”. I’m not sure “permitted to ignore morality” makes much sense. Permitted by whom? So this must mean that we justify our lies because some values or ends or things are more important to us than morality.

      • I agree. That wording seems confused and ambiguous. It sounds like I could justify lying to someone because it’s fundamental to my personal life agenda that they be deceived. I think a far better way to say it is that we can compromise on a moral principle in service of greater moral principle. Of course, there will always be arguments about which moral principle is lesser or greater.

        The “permitted” language is interesting. It could well be metaphorical, but even if it is, it seems to demonstrate how tangled our modern moral philosophies remain with theism, often unconsciously, even by many non-theists.

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