Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The End

This project started as an attempt to document the ethics of everyday life. It would find the little dilemmas of every day life and analyze them with respect to various existent philosophies and literature in the field of classic and applied ethics. This project did not intend to pass judgment on the behaviors observed, but instead bring them to the forefront of consciousness. I think about the ethical implications of everyday actions a fair amount, and hoped to raise awareness in others. If I managed to raise a single question in a single person's mind, then the project was a success at some level. If it managed to make questions in several people's minds, all the better.

Over the course of the project, I did learn several things myself, some of which had to do with ethics and some of which did not. From an ethics standpoint, it is difficult to analyze a behavior without making a judgment about it. When writing about cheating, I found it incredibly difficult to keep my opinions to myself. I've been raised with an honor code from the youngest years of my education; it has been engrained in me that cheating is always wrong. Thus, when trying to be objective about cheating, it was tempting to only present that cheating is wrong. Personal beliefs were not meant to have a place in this project, but in retrospect, there are places where they become obvious.

In the course of writing and observing, I found many more topics to write about than I could possibly include in my deliverable. Had I chosen to write about a new topic every day, I likely would not have run out. Where is the article I wanted to write about promiscuity? What about the points I was hoping to make vegetarianism? Is it ethical to keep secrets? There are so many topics in the ethics field that choosing a tiny subset proved a challenge. Even within the chosen topics, it seemed like there could be more depth. There should be a post about governmental lies, or maybe lying in a religious context. Choosing topics was an almost agonizing task for all the topics that had to be left out.

Outside of ethics, a lot was learned about the nature of self directed projects and motivation. I suppose the largest lesson would be to choose a project you are certain you are passionate about.

Altogether, the project was worthwhile. Given more time I would love to write about all the topics I never got the chance to consider. I would love to have daily observations about ethics, musing on the ethically questionable behavior of the day. I would love to read more applied ethicists, spreading their teachings to the masses in a more manageable format.

I would love to continue this project, but it's probably time to move on.


When speaking about living a moral existence, it really breaks down to a sense of obligation. How much obligation do you feel towards others? How much obligation to yourself do you have? How much obligation ought you have towards others? Is your obligation only towards your family? Your immediate community? The world at large? How should we act because of our obligations? These questions validly affect our interactions and attitudes with those we meet and those we don't.

With so many questions, all intertwined, the best approach seems to be to divide the questions along to whom (or what) is a person obligated and what is the extent of this obligation.

Although some philosophers, Kant in particular, discount obligation, other philosophies seem based around the idea of obligation. Peter Singer, who inspired this entire topic, is a utilitarian whose writings strongly support the idea of obligation. When utilizing utilitarianism, it is possible to imagine a situation wherein one might calculate what will create the maximum amount of happiness, but that this action is an act against self-interest or desire. In this case, the person is still obligated to act upon the calculation, against their will. Singer is famous for taking utilitarianism to an extreme, claiming that all actions should be considered on a global scale. While we live in comfort, the argument goes, much of the world lives in extreme poverty. Small luxuries we afford ourselves would financially be enough support to drastically improve the life of someone living in extreme poverty. This argument calls for utilitarians to be obligated to all citizens of the world, not just themselves or those in their immediate surroundings. Further, Singer's work calls for a high level of obligation in that we should live with the bare minimum to be comfortable while giving the rest to others so that they may live with the same level of comfort. A counter argument to this large sense of global obligation often lies in the practical application - the philosophy is good in theory, but much harder to act upon completely in reality.

Hobbes, as has been brought up in earlier pieces, is often cited for his philosophical belief in self interest. Hobbes philosophy is actually based in the belief that we only have the obligation to obey the laws of nature. The major law of nature, aside from such things as the laws of physics, is that organisms must look out for their own well being; it is never in one's interest to fend for organisms outside one's self and perhaps one's brood. This view point would be considered the opposite of Singer and the utilitarians. Once one eliminates obligation, the question of amount of obligation becomes arbitrary. A good argument against Hobbes is the concept of mercy; Hobbes philosophy leaves no room for mercy or in many cases emotion in general. Hobbes philosophy can be considered egoist, isolating, and cold.

Hume falls somewhat between Singer and Hobbes in philosophical use of obligation. Hume divides the possible human actions into subcategories based upon whether the subject would commit the act naturally or must be artificially provoked, and whether the action fulfills a sense of duty or is committed for a different reason. As "natural" actions would happen due to self interest, they are excluded from the consideration of obligation. Within the remaining actions, Hume considers that obligation only exists where the subject wants to give the recipients pleasure. In this case, it is up to the person acting to determine whether or not a certain action is an obligation and to what degree it is an obligation. A person may decide that they wish to please the world, and thus move towards Singer's view point, or may decide that they only wish for their own happiness and move towards Hobbes's end of the spectrum. Further, not all decisions need make the same people pleased; a person may vary to whom they are obligated depending upon the act. The key to this philosophy is intent - if one intends to do something in order to make others happy, one is obligated. The glaring significant argument against this philosophy is that it really stands for very little, especially if it is combined with lying to one's self. One might not need to feel obligation, unless there is a desire to feel obligation.

Although all these philosophies address obligation in various ways, each is a drastically different take on the situation. In theory, each of these philosophies not only applies to obligation to people, but also obligation to larger community-type systems such as ecosystems.

What do you feel obligated to and why?

This blog post is based on "Feelings of Obligation" by William Neblett, "Famine, Affluence, and Poverty" by Peter Singer, "Hobbes's Concept of Obligation" by Thomas Nagel, and "Hume's Account of Obligation" by Bernard Wand.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Living a Moral Existence

How does one define living the moral life?

Not long ago, the college hosted Big Conversations, a day to think about what's important in life. In preparation for the day, posters were put up to raise awareness, asking "In 25 years will your children ask why you didn't do more to stop genocide?" These posters specifically meant to bring up our actions with respect to human rights bring up larger issues. We live in the top 10% of the world in terms of privilege, which grants us general isolation from such issues as genocide, but also isolates us from extreme poverty and inequity in the world. Life is comfortable in the first world, but how much should we be concerned that this comfort is limited to the first world? How do we justify spending money on a new CD or a bottle of wine when the same money could drastically improve someone's quality of life? Perhaps even save a life?

Moreover, the United States, as an industrialized nation, produces more than a proportional amount of waste in the world while consuming a more than proportional share of the natural resources. As we near peak oil, Americans continue to drive inefficient vehicles. As global warming becomes more of a reality, instead of a theory, Americans continue to demand high levels of electricity. How should we be approaching resource allocation from a moral point of view? Do the advances made by Americans justify the vast amount of resources consumed and wastes produced? Does the future of our planet matter or can we leave the consequences to future generations?

Educationally, people in the United States have access to an unfathomable amount of resources. With internet access commonplace, the entire world of information is open to American students. How can we expect other, less privileged nations to compete on the global level without enabling them to have similar access? Further, even in the United States, the quality of education is not consistent. Some students attend failing schools that rarely pass standardized testing, while other student are privileged to a world of rich private schools or individual tutoring. Even at Olin we are aware that we've been given the chance to get an excellent education that is not available to everyone. Should we feel guilty for having the privilege of a stellar education? Should we be working to narrow the knowledge gap both domestically and abroad?

What is our responsibility to others? Are we allowed to ignore social problems that we don't see on a daily basis? Should we be nationalistic when trying to solve social problems? How much help should we give versus how much we should expect others to help themselves? The modern world is full of causes, which should we care about and how should we act if we do care?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Cheating in Life

Just now Enron executives are coming under trial. These people made millions of dollars in personal wealth while driving the stock price up through devious means. In the end, the company crashed to the ground, leaving many workers without pension plans, which were heavy in Enron stock. Some of these executives, it seems, don't even consider their behavior to have been wrong, pleading innocence to charges brought against them. What could have motivated these people to commit such serious crimes? Further, how could they possibly view their actions as anything but a crime?

In the same way that large corporate scandals are committed, people cheat on their taxes or accept too much change from the corner store. These seem like mundane actions, in the latter case, not even a crime, but when widespread these acts add up and point to a societal cheating problem. There is an "everyone's doing it" mentality is cheating at life, just as there was in the realm of academic cheating. Why shouldn't you cheat on your taxes if you know people richer than you doing it? Don't you need the money more than they do?

As these many of these cheating issues tend to be financial, a lot of times there's also a feeling of entitlement. In the current economy, there's a large gap between the very well compensated and the unskilled working class. This gap leads to people, often rightfully, thinking they are under compensated. Should they be allowed to compensate themselves a little to make up for the money they deserve to be making? Is it o.k. for the corner mechanic to lie about the service on your car if it's what allows him to make ends meet? These people are often only cheating to compensate for the rising cost of living and their poor socioeconomic status, so could it be right?

If we allow the economically disadvantaged to get away with their financial wrangling, how do we justify the Enron and WorldCom executives of the world? Some of these people were cheating only to maintain the status quo at the company, which often benefited themselves financially, but also meant jobs were not lost and the economy was not affected. The deceit was never meant to be a long term solution, many claim that they expected to recoup losses shortly, but found it became a cycle to overstate earnings in larger and larger ways to maintain the same appearances. Do the motivations behind these crimes matter? Does saving jobs in the short-term offset losing people's pensions in the long-term?

Philosophically, some of these instances of cheating in life could actually be justified. If we are to believe Hobbes in his belief that every person should protect themselves, most of the mentioned cases of cheating are doing precisely that. To further Hobbes case, he is often writing about the government being corrupt and not watching out for the people, so they must watch out for themselves. This philosophy would squarely agree that tax evasion is not only a justifiable action, but also could be considered the right action. From a utilitarian standpoint, some of these acts are more justifiable than others. Victimless crimes, such as small scale cheating of a company where no one will specifically feel the financial burden, are hard to argue against. The cheating obviously benefits the cheater in a net positive way, and often benefits the family of the cheater, too. Tax evasion might also be argued a victimless crime - the government doesn't miss a couple thousand dollars when the federal budget is in the trillions. Other crimes, such as the large scale corporate fraud seen with Enron may benefit everyone in the short term, but in the long term negatively affect a much wider range of people ranging from employees who lost their jobs to the state of California, which suffered power deficits and extremely high energy prices. Further, none of these instances of cheating is universalizable, all would cause a collapse of the system which enables them.

It seems that the small instances of cheating, almost consistently philosophically wrong, as too easy to mentally justify in other ways. How do you justify these types of cheating? Is tax evasion right? How should our society work to rid ourselves of the mindset that we are entitled or that everyone else is doing it?

This post is based upon readings from David Callahan’s “The Cheating Culture”, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkin’s “The Smartest Guys in the Room” and statistics from the Budget of the United States Government.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Academic Cheating

Academic cheating is one of those phenomena from which Olin students seem fairly isolated. When's the last time an Olin student asked to copy answers from your test? How many of the Honor Board case abstracts from the past four years have to do with cheating? (Three, if you were wondering.) Does this mean that cheating doesn't happen at Olin? Probably not, but it could be both an indication of less academic dishonesty and many fewer chances of being caught. With estimates of academic cheating around 80% of the standard student population, can we really imagine that our rates of academic cheating are close to 0%? Are there ever times when it would be considered reasonable to cheat? Moreover, at Olin the honor code states that all cases of academic dishonesty must be reported to the Honor Board, but other schools often have no such policy. That requirement notwithstanding, are there good reasons to not report academic dishonesty? Does witnessing cheating, but leaving it unreported make the observer guilty as well?

Several studies have been done to address many of these issues and attitudes among students. Usually in response to drastic accusations of cheating or high profile cheating cases, various university professors surveyed their classes to gain an understanding of the student mindset with respect to cheating. Some of the results are particularly surprising from the sheltered academic environment offered by Olin.

The possible reasoning behind cheating ranges from the seemingly realistic increasing pressure to succeed to the more difficult to believe reason that it's o.k. in the absence of an honor code. In a study by Thomas Carter conducted almost 80 years ago, the most commonly accepted excuse for cheating among his students was a fear of not passing, which carried other, related consequences like falling behind classmates. This line of reasoning is still applicable today within any environment, but even more so in a small community such as Olin. Other reasons are often a little more difficult to relate to, but still seem somewhat reasonable, like the meme that "everyone else is doing it", nervousness, sense of obligation to the college, or no respect for the professor. Even so, these reasons don't necessarily make it right to cheat, just comprehensible.

From a moral philosophy standpoint, there could be several ways of evaluating the merit of academic cheating. Utilitarianism and other outcome based philosophies would evaluate the outcome of cheating, some on an individual basis and some altogether. In these philosophies, one would have to consider the happiness of all involved - would the cheating student be happy with the resultant higher grades? Probably, but would the non-cheating students be happy is there is a relative grading scheme or curve? Probably not. Further, would the professor be pleased to find that the knowledge the student purports to have is really falsified? Would the professor still feel comfortable enabling the student to take higher level courses or work in the field knowing that the base knowledge was not the student's? Again, this would probably be considered negatively by the professor. Outcome based philosophies would probably not approve of cheating. For maxim based philosophies, cheating could be considered like lying, it would most likely never be considered correct. Further, if considered from the view of universalizability, cheating is hard to justify. If everyone cheated, the academic system would come up with news ways of evaluating students that were more difficult to fake. The one philosophical system which would wholeheartedly support cheating would be Hobbes, whose philosophy breaks down to doing what is best for oneself. The problem with utilizing this philosophy in this case is that if everyone is doing what will benefit themselves most, the academic system would cease to function, as in Kant's test for universalizability.

With cheating generally considered wrong, the moral dilemma shifts to reporting students who are witnessed cheating. When studying why and when students report cheating, it was found that students are more likely to report cheating if the result is just loss of credit, rather than expulsion. Students generally don't want to drastically punish their fellow classmates, which makes them wary to report cases of academic dishonesty. Further, there is a disconnect between what students feel is right and what students will actually do. Although 57% percent of students surveyed considered it right to report students for cheating with a penulty of expulsion, only about 30% actually would report such academic dishonesty. Although the possible punishment is important, there is also some disconnect between knowing what is right and acting upon it. The students surveyed gave many reasons for thinking that reporting cheating was right, from it being for the good of the student to having a duty to society, but the reasons for not reporting are more interesting. The most popular reasons for not reporting cheating, even though they consider it right to report the cheating are that cheating is its own punishment and that tattling is not an acceptable behavior. Some students, on the other hand, feared retribution or considered a private punishment a better solution. The difference between thought and action is terrifically interesting, but points to the frailty of human nature and intricacies of philosophy of the mind.

When considering reporting cheating within the contexts of various philosophies, reporting cheating is a much more challenging moral dilemma than cheating in the first place. From a utilitarian evaluation, there is no clear answer. It could cause the cheater incredible unhappiness if reported while bearing the potential for unhappiness to the reporter through retribution. On the other hand, it could be good for the cheater, ultimately making them a better person, while benefiting the entire class by more fairly representing the grade distribution. When considered for universalizability, it still seems like it could go either way, with reporting, it seems like cheating would quickly become a much more clandestine activity or become eradicated, while without reporting it seems like it would maintain the current status quo, which is generally working. Either way, it's difficult to say which is right, which may be what's leading to the disconnect between thought and action.

Is there an ethical imperative to report cheating whenever it is witnessed? What are the reasons to report or abstain from reporting cheating? Is there a better way, perhaps, to prevent these dilemmas in the first place?

This entry was written based upon Barnes' "Student Honor: A study in cheating", Carter's "Cheating as Seen by College Students", statistics from, and David Callahan's book, "The Cheating Culture."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Cheating is a moral dilemma that faces college students regularly, but is perhaps particularly interesting in the case of Olin students. We are an honor code school, which should mean that students are more honorable than at lesser institutions, but the honor code also provides us with many opportunities to cheat. Professors trust us and feel no qualms about letting us take our test wherever we please, monitoring our own use of external resources, and limiting our own time. Are we really to be trusted? Are we cheating? And can cheating ever be justified?

Outside the academic context, cheating the system becomes a much larger societal force. The Enron scandle dominated the news outlets for months with stories of cheating investors and employees out of millions of dollars. WorldCom and Tyco both have similar stories of corporate cheating, showing that Enron is not an isolated case; corporate cheating could be more widespread than previously thought. Cheating in the business world certainly can't be contained to these large cheating scandals, it must exist at less severe levels. Just among office workers, it seems that small instances of fraud, such as stealing office supplies, are commonly accepted.

Even outside a business and academic context, cheating is purvasive among everyday, average people and activities. People cheat yearly on their taxes to keep their hard earned money from the government. People cheat to gain promotions or raises at work. People will return items to stores after use, or even switch price tags on items in order to say a few dollars. There seems to be no limit to the cheating behavior present in everyday life.

I admit that cheating is a tempting proposition; it seems like there are so many chances to cheat that are "victimless" crimes, what motivates us to be honest in these situations? What keeps me from opening my Chemistry textbook during my next exam in order to look up an answer that I forgot? What keeps my parents from cheating on their taxes in order to get a refund from the government rather than giving up more of their money to support governmental programs that are already in debt? What harm does returning a slightly used tea pot do?

Cheating seems like it should be such a straightforeward moral dilemma, most people probably say it is uniformly wrong. If that is the case, why do so many people committ acts that could be considered cheating? When is cheating justified? What factors should play into a decision to cheat? Do we need to cheat to survive in modern society?

Lying to Yourself

Self-deception is a tricky topic. I know that I am lying to myself on a daily basis, probably dozens of times per day, but I believe these lies, so I don't really know what I am lying to myself about. Only later, when things fall apart do I see the erroneous beliefs I had been grasping. This situation has happened repeatedly in my life with judgments on skill level to things I believe I fundamentally desire or could do without. From a philosophy of the mind and psychology standpoint, the logistics of self-deception are an interesting phenomena, but from an ethics standpoint the fundamental cause is the truly interesting issue. When people lie to themselves can it be innocent, or is it an indicator of a deeper failure of morals? Further, what kind of implications does this have for all other judgments a person makes?

Self deception seems to come in a number of different forms, but in general has to fit the definition that a person both has the knowledge to realize that the thought or belief is false, but refuses to acknowledge this, instead acting on and truly believing the opposite. Pretending to believe that something is true does not qualify and must be excluded from this definition. Basing all forms off this definition, self deception could be a form of wishful thinking, delusion, faith, or even weakness. Each case would be considered differently from a moral point of view.

Wishful thinking seems like a common type of self-deception; everyone wants to believe that they are better at x skill or have more familiarity with y task than is actually true. When actually believed, this kind of self-deception is often also considered the most innocent. In many occasions it only affects the person with the false beliefs, and sometimes even then does not negatively affect the person. This mild form of self-deception also has the tendency to be short-lived, making it even more innocent. A person suffering from wishful thinking still maintains their ability to judge other issues and ideas as they are in actuality.

Delusion as the basis for self-deception is much more serious than wishful thinking. Delusion implies that there is a deeper mental disconnect happening that perhaps is causing a widespread pattern of self deception, often with very little control involved. Although, again, without control this is a seemingly innocent activity, the delusion is a sign that the entire perception of reality may not be real. For this reason, self-deception based upon delusion implies that other decisions may not be sound either. A person suffering this kind of self-deception can not be considered completely responsible, but neither can they be trusted to make sound moral judgments in other areas.

Faith is a touchier form of self-deception; many people would reasonably argue that faith is not a form self-deception at all. Faith can be seen in two ways - either it can be considered to go against evidence, as perceived by those who do not have it, or it can be considered beyond evidence, an argument often made by those who do have it. The latter would, for obvious reasons, not see faith as a form of self-deception, while the former would seem faith as a direct denial of logical evidence. In motivation, faith is a belief borne out of a respect for a higher power than ourselves. It can hardly be stated that such religious beliefs are malicious; to the contrary, religious beliefs often include tenets of understanding and non-violence towards others. In most cases of faith, it seems that the intent is innocent. With respect to being allowed to make other moral judgments, faith alone is not enough to prove that a person is incapable of making sound ethical considerations. While specific religions will often influence actions in a manner that is not considered moral by all (e.g. killing in the name of religion), faith itself seems pure of motive and not necessarily influential in other moral judgments.

The case of weakness appears very clear cut. Weakness, almost by definition, is not considered a good trait. A weakness of will leading to self-deception can not be positive for the person involved. Further, it reflects badly on the person's ability to make other moral decisions, as was the case with delusion. As a society, we tend to attribute trust to people who have the moral will to face ethical decision and situations that are not easy in an honest manner. People who have a weakness of will cannot be trusted in the same fashion.

Can people who are subject to self-deception be trusted? When and why?

This post is based on "Self-Deception" by Paula Boddington and "Lying to Oneself" by Rafael Demos, as well as readings from Sissela Bok's "Lying : Moral Choice in Public and Private Life".

Monday, March 06, 2006

Justifying Lies

Assuming not all lies are wrong, justifying becomes a dilemma. How can one justify lies, and can they all be justified away depending on point of view? Several different philosophies carry different opinions of the topic.

Aristotelian ethics often serves as the basis for modern ethical theories. In his work Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle sets out that anything done with the goal of the highest good was an ethical action. This highest good, eudemonia, could generally be considered to mean happiness. It is a goal which is desirable in itself, and other goals are desirable because they ultimately lead to achieving this highest good. When lying is taken in the context of Aristotelian ethics, it seems that as long as the goal of the lie is ultimately happiness, the lie is justified. It seems logical that most people lie for their own or others' happiness, making it seem as though Aristotelian ethics generally justify lying. On the other hand, it is necessary to consider that Aristotle also supports moderation, so lying to excess would probably not be supported.

Utilitarian moral philosophy seems to be able to justify anything is similar to Aristotelian ethics, claiming to favor what causes the "greater good". Surprisingly, this philosophy was also favored by Machiavelli political views with the phrase "the ends justify the means". Most modern utilitarians will state that their philosophy is different than Machiavelli's in that the ends does not justify all means, but in general the differences are somewhat nuanced. Using this basic credo, utilitarians can and do sometimes justify lying as a morally decent behavior. It is possible to imagine a situation where one could tell a lie that does maximize happiness, causing a net increase in good through the amount of benefit to the liar. This would be a justifiable lie to a utilitarian.

A related concept to utilitarianism is a recent moral philosophy called painism. Painism, like utilitarianism, is based off of results, but claims that the only results which should be avoided are those which cause pain. This form of utilitarianism would allow for a much larger number of justifiable lies; no longer do lies have to maximize happiness, they basically only have to do no harm.

Deontology, in direct conflict to the beliefs of Utilitarianism, holds that actions can be fundamentally right or wrong, regardless of the consequences. Kant, a proponent of deontology in ethics, had a strong belief in that lying is wrong and we are responsible for our lies. To logically back up the claim the lying is wrong, Kant claims that moral behaviors must be universalizable. A behavior or action that can be universal will not be self-destructive or contradictory. In the case of lying, the commonly used example is lying to get money. A person lies in order to attain a loan, knowing that they will be unable to pay back the money. If one person commits this act, the loaning institution would probably loan the money, whereas if the behavior were common, a loaning institution would most likely change their loan policy. If everyone committed the behavior in question it would substantially alter the behavior of society in such a way that it would no longer be possible to commit this behavior. This is meant to prove that lying is always wrong and never justifiable.

Discourse ethics, although much more detailed, can be summarized a kind of consensus ethics. In this kind of moral evaluation, a community must argue the logic behind their norms, coming to an understanding of what can be expected in terms of ethical behavior within the community. As discourse ethics is a subjective form of ethical evaluation, there could be situations where a community believes lying is justified and is the correct choice. Such cases that we have witnessed in the past include governmental lies spread during wartime to benefit the morale of a country, or telling children that the stork brought them to save their innocence from more unsavory ideas. It is reasonable to think that communities exist where lying is exclusively wrong. For instance, academic communities would not look kindly upon lies circulated as fact in academic papers. The subjective nature of discourse ethics makes it difficult to truly classify if and how lies would be justified.

Finally, there is the moral philosophy of casuistry. This philosophy generally consists of considering each ethical dilemma as a unique case. This case can be considered using other similar cases as a basis, but acknowledges that every instance of a moral dilemma is unique from every other moral dilemma that has or will exist. Moral maxims are considered along with the specifics of the case, then a decision of right or wrong can be reached. This kind of individual consideration is good in theory, but much harder to complete fully in practice. It could be used, and is used, to justify lies, but involves a great amount of mental processing.

These philosophies are just some of the many moral philosophies that exist in the world, applied to the idea of lying. Does anyone actually use any of these specifically, or does real life generally result in using a combination of these, applying different moral philosophies when convenient? How do you justify lies?

This post is based off of articles from the Encyclopedia of applied ethics and the Introduction to Ethics class taught at Brandeis University.

Is Lying Wrong?

Lying seems like a straightforward concept, but for my purposes, it could use a quick definition. Using a basis of philosophers running from 300’s to the 2000’s, I propose that that lying, when I refer to it, means a purposeful misleading statement. This statement can be made through body language, verbally, implied by silence, or signaled by radio - any kind statement will do - but the deception must be intentional. On some level the liar must know the facts being conveyed are false; simple, misinformed statements are not truly lying.

With lying well defined, the obvious question is:

Is lying always wrong?

This question has plagued modern ethicists, but has also vexed religions for hundreds of years. Some religions claimed that if statements could be made in one's head that would make a lie true, then it was not actually a lie; the intention in one's head was clear, but misinterpreted by the other party. With this kind of logic I could claim, free of heart, that I do not study engineering, while secretly adding in my head "every night." Certainly it's true that I don't study engineering every night, but anyone told this would rightfully be confused. These kind of exceptions are one, fairly extreme end of the spectrum.

On the other end of the spectrum, St. Augustine, a Catholic monk from the late 300's, wrote prolifically on various moral dilemmas facing the religious faithful and population at large. It's through his writings that we first see the assertion that lying is always wrong, without exception. The Catholic Church is still a strong believer in the sin of lies, continuing to use Augustine's definitions of mortal and venial sins with respect to lies. In other words, Augustine defined a system where all lies are wrong, but some are more wrong then others still persists today.

The thought of all lies being wrong is a bit extreme for today's modern citizen. Several times a day we seem required to do things which are misrepresentations of the truth. We feign interest in the response to "How are you doing?" in order to prevent hurt feelings or prevent future awkward situations. It's almost inconceivable to answer no to simple questions about the quality of a haircut. These are lies oft justified in a daily existence, often not even consciously considered. Although St. Augustine would not agree, the majority of our society today seems to be justifying these lies somehow.

In conflict with the moral high ground of St. Augustine, but towards the middle of the spectrum, is utilitarianism. The basic tenet of utilitarian moral philosophy is to maximize net happiness. Applying this idea to lying, one can easily justify many of the smaller, daily lies, and perhaps some of the larger lies. These lies often save someone else pain, sheltering people from insults which would serve no purpose or maintaining healthy relationships. In the situation above regarding small talk, the lie does no damage to the person, while maximizing future benefit. Everyone seems to benefit from these little lies.

Or so it seems. Although the appearance is that everyone benefits, a few more factors can be taken into account to change the utilitarian conclusion. Perception to others seems to be the reason behind many of these small lies; we wish to appear “good” or “nice” people to others. The behavior mentioned, assuming all goes well, should yield that kind of result, but has the potential to backfire. If the lie recipient ever discovers the lie, the entire act of lying was worse than useless – it could actually be damaging. Not only would the person know your true thoughts, they would also feel betrayed by you, damaging trust, perhaps irreparably. Additionally, if one considers the habit of lying, by telling these small lies, we could be setting ourselves up for larger lies, developing habits that are ultimately bad for our credibility and status. When considered from a utilitarian perspective, the habit of lying or consequences of a revealed lie could tip the scales past neutral to lying producing a net unhappiness. Perhaps lying is never justifiable after all.

Is lying always wrong? If it is, why lie? If it isn’t, when is it right?

This post is based upon readings from Sissela Bok's "Lying : Moral Choice in Public and Private Life", St. Augustine's "To Consentius, Against Lying", and Joseph Margolis' "'Lying is Wrong' and 'Lying is not Always Wrong'".

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Lying and Misrepresentation

What's on your resume?

I don't ask this question because I actually want to know, but to point out a pervasive habit. It's come up more and more as the Class of 2006 prepares for the next steps in life. We find ourselves really wanting to get that job or grad school offer, so we don't outright lie, but we make some statements which could be misinterpreted. We say we're working on publishing papers, when the papers may never be published, or talk about experience with Linux, which actually means we used it for half a class during our first semester of college. Not outright lies, but not complete truth either.

Lying is a tricky little dilemma, and misrepresentation is just a form of lying.

Why are we, and presumably others, misrepresenting ourselves like this? Could it be necessary for us to lie because it’s what’s expected to get the job? Are we just driven and using our communication skills to tip the scales in our favor? Is this to compensate for other weaknesses, perceived or real, like going to a small, unknown university or sub par GPA? There must be reasons for these little lies.

Moreover, how do we feel about these lies? For some every little inflation and imperfection glossed over is a trying experience, while for others, this is a normal part of life, not even noticed consciously. Do people generally feel guilty over these little lies? Should we feel guilty? Does the size of the lie matter? Do the consequences matter? How do we quantify our lies and their ill effects?

The answers to these questions are unknown and, for the most part, are likely to remain that way. The ethicists, both classical and modern, have written about lying and philosophies that apply to lying. With their lucid guidance, perhaps a deeper understanding of lying and its’ implications in a modern lifestyle will emerge.

Why do you lie?