A Ku Indeed!

The Benevolent Lie

Posted in Ethics by Chris on September 20, 2007

Adam has a very interesting post on the ethics of “benevolent lying” up at Within Reason. It made me think about a few things. Are we always under the obligation to tell the truth to a person? In this case, my immediate question is this: must we tell the truth to a person when the “person” we are speaking to is not the ideal person we associate with that entity in question? That’s a lot of technical mumbo jumbo, so here’s an example:

You know Andy well. Andy feels deeply that it is important to always live life in full knowledge of the truth. So Andy despises self-deception, and the kinds of fake comforts that come along with it. Now let’s assume that Andy’s wife cheated on him, and you know this for a fact. Further assume that Andy’s wife has just died. Sometime later on, you are having a discussion with Andy, and he says “well, she was a faithful wife, wasn’t she?” And he looks to you for confirmation. What do you do?

First, I think there are two Andy’s here.

1. Ideal Andy. This is the Andy you have known and cared about for years. This Andy hates self-deception, and it’s one of his fundamental “plans and projects” in life not to be in deception. To the ideal Andy, self-deception, say, is inconsistent with human excellence.

2. Apparent Andy. This is the Andy who, at the moment, appears to have as a plan and project (a value) self-deception.

What do you do? You could lie, thus assisting apparent Andy and thwarting ideal Andy. My question is, here, whose values or projects must I be sensitive to? My strong intuition is that apparent Andy has no claims on my sensitivity. I’m not friends with apparent Andy. In fact, apparent Andy is like an imposter, some interloper who has possessed the body of my actual friend. As a matter of fact, being sensitive as a friend may require that I thwart apparent Andy in favor of ideal Andy, even if it causes a lot of pain. So it looks like a benevolent lie is not acceptable in this case.
This idea is not thought through. Just a quick thought, and I’m wondering what others think.

UPDATE: I’ve updated the example to make better sense of what I was trying to say (hat tip to Adam here). In the new version, I kill off the wife (I’m under no obligation to construct TEs that are maximally benevolent).

UPDATE 2: Adam responds to this with a new post over at his place.


4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Adam said, on September 21, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    In the actual example here, it seems like your duty would be anything but to lie. The lie would seem to be that Andy’s spouse is not cheating on him, which doesn’t seem to be particularly benevolent if he highly disapproves of self-deception. A better example might be one in which Andy’s wife had cheated on him, you know it for a fact, and then she dies. You know that Andy would never figure out that she had cheated (for some reason) and Andy in his grief says something like, “Well at least I know she was always faithful. My grief would be doubled if that wasn’t true, and I don’t think I could handle more grief. She was faithful, right?” Here, lying would be appeasing Andy’s apparent self, but contrary to Andy’s ideal self’s wishes. So it would be a benevolent lie.

    The problem one aspect of Hill’s argument is that for most people we can’t really be certain what they consider to be their ideal selves. In fact, we could further complicate things by admitting that sometimes (the case of grief being one of them), a person herself may not have a clear idea of her ideal self. Some people may be confused and some people may be just figuring it out. So there may be some a general problem with solving the benevolent lie problem with appeal to ideal selves. (In addition to the problem I think there is with making it more plausible that a benevolent lie is justified the closer one’s relationship is to a person.)

    Also, if Andy’s “ideal self” involves a strong disgust for any kind of manipulation, self-deception or otherwise, it may never be permissible to benevolently lie to him on this reasoning.

  2. Adam said, on September 21, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Wow, apparently I have no command of grammar today. Would you mind tidying up a couple of sentences in there so I don’t look like a complete moron?

  3. Chris said, on September 21, 2007 at 6:17 pm


    Clearly there are epistemic issues at hand here. Firstly, it is certain that the ethical dimensions of the lie are revealed in such a case as it becomes clearer what the person’s ideal self is, and how well you should be expected to know what that person’s ideal self is. Could be that you aren’t terribly good at this, or it could be that the person has an emerging conception of who they are. That’s true.

    Still, this is one of the reasons why friendships are difficult to maintain, and why they require sophisticated degrees of intense relational investment. As a friend, it’s your job to know who you’re friends with! Moreover, this is why friendships are risky — you can mess up when you make decisions that have a bearing on that friendship.

    I’d say that although these epistemic issues surely complicate things and make friendships harder to actually maintain in an authentic sense, I’m not sure that it would show that such a way of thinking about the problem (in terms of ideal selves) should be ruled out. Ethics can be messy, I think.

  4. Within Reason - More benevolent lies said, on September 21, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    […] possess this ignorance. Thus, ignorance would not be a reason against lying to them. Chris, over at A Ku Indeed! effectively bites the bullet and suggests that as long as we are focused on values expressed by […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: