Kant is famous for having maintained that it is always wrong to lie. Always. No exceptions. Not even to save a thousand lives. 

I expect most in our culture today wouldn’t buy that. Reflecting the more popular Utilitarian point of view, most would say that where the consequences would be vastly better if you lied than if you told the truth, lying would be justified.

Most of us don’t reflect a perfectly Utilitarian point of view here, however. Most of us are still bothered (I hope) by lying, even when the consequential calculus seems to justify it. We only feel comfortable–somewhat–when the consequences are far better lying than telling the truth. And even then, we wish it wasn’t necessary. It bothers us. That shows that we’re not consistent utilitarians.

But what is wrong with lying after all? Or more broadly, what’s wrong with deceiving in any other way? What’s so bad about that?

Kant was surely on to something in his rationale. He pointed out that lying depends upon truth-telling. Lying wouldn’t work unless people generally told the truth. In fact, in a context where lying was the norm, lying wouldn’t work at all; nobody would believe anything anyone said. In fact, in the extreme, language would break down entirely; expressions would no longer be taken to even mean what they once meant.

But so long as people are generally truthful, why not take advantage of the fact and tell the occasional lie when it serves our purposes?

It is clear from Kant’s reasoning that lying is a fundamentally selfish act–even when it ‘serves the greater good.’ Kant thought it was actually irrational because it required being inconsistent: I want people generally should be truthful, but not to be truthful myself, at least not in this situation. But when I lie, at the very least I am intentionally depriving someone else of the information they need to make well-informed decisions of their own. I am reserving this only for myself.

And this is, I think, the fundamental problem. It is not that it can never be justified in extreme situations, I believe that governments can legitimately engage in deception for the sake of national security; every government knows they’re all playing this game. And of course we can all do this when we are playing games where this is the expectation. But for the vast majority of us, the vast majority of our lives, this is the problem:

Lying intentionally deprives another person of the truth they need to make well-informed decisions, and it deprives them of the truth they need to properly regulate their beliefs. It takes that truth from them and reserves it for ourselves. It is akin to theft. Truth-stealing, if you will. It is a fundamentally selfish act even if done ‘for a good cause;’ it takes away from the other the truth they need to make well-informed decisions and reserves that power for ourselves.

This applies to other forms of deception as well, of course. It isn’t just explicitly expressing falsehoods that selfishly deprives others of the truth. It is also the telling of truths-designed-to-deceive; it includes saying things in contexts where others will naturally draw conclusions we know are false, but which falsehoods we want them to believe because it will serve our purposes. Same thing.

To lie, or to deceive in any other way, is to selfishly and intentionally deprive another of the truth they need, and to reserve it rather for ourselves. It is truth-theft. This can also apply to just allowing others–because it serves our purposes–to persist in beliefs we know are false; deceit-by-silence.

-December 2016