Fandango has posed the question: “Do you believe that honesty is always the best policy? Is there is ever a time or circumstance when dishonesty (lying) is justifiable? Please elaborate.”
This is another ethical question debated by my students. Where does honesty eclipse compassion, and vice versa?
In the first instance is the issue of degree and risk. If a friend you are shopping with asks you, “How do I look in this?” you have to consider your response. You can be “brutally honest,” and say “You look awful.” This creates a situation in which the feelings of the person can be hurt. You can be more exact in your wording and say “It looks awful,” but the nuance might be missed and harm still done. You can lie and say, “It’s good,” but this creates a situation where for the moment the person feels validated, only to risk ridicule by less tactful commentators later. Again hurt results. Tact and honesty, however can still go hand in hand with the statement, “The last outfit (hat, make up, etc) was better.” In each case the degree of harm is emotional, and seldom “life-changing.”
On the other hand there is the scenario of: You are sitting at a bus stop and a young woman comes staggering towards you. She has a black eye just starting to form, her blouse is torn, and she is carrying one broken shoe, and the other is missing. As she nears you, she holds one finger to her lips, and makes a shhh sound as she climbs behind a nearby hedge. A few moments later a man, his knuckles bruising, approaches you and asks if you had seen a woman of her description. You can lie and say “No, I haven’t.” This may be a noble action. You can be truthful and say, “Yes,” this however, opens up the conversation and the follow-up question, “Which way did she go?” Here you can lie and say “I don’t know,” or even give a false direction. This compromises your own previous honesty. Or you can say, “She is behind the bush.” Here you are merely stating facts without regard to future consequences – a “morally neutral” stance – as you do not know what the future hold, only the past.
On the other hand, you could treat the initial question as to whether you have seen her in an honest, but closed ended way. “I saw her, but I don’t know where she is now (a true statement since she is out of your sight).” Even this has risks based on you assumptions rather than your true knowledge. Is this man the cause of her injuries? You do not know for certain. Yes, the evidence suggests that her black eye and his bruised fist have a link. You may then conclude that you are protecting her by any obfuscation you offer. Consider the alternatives, however. What if this questioner is not her attacker, but a rescuer? Might this be her brother, who has just given her abusive boyfriend a thrashing? Is your lie (well-intentioned as it might be) delaying her rescue or even medical treatment?
I have stated in the past that I lean to an absolutist view of morality, and shun relativism. So for me, honesty remains the best policy. But I must acknowledge that it does not come without its own risks.
Fandango’s Provocative Question #38