pinocchioGenerally speaking, lying is when we present something as being true that is not actually true.  And generally speaking, lying is a sin.  But not every lie is a sin.  Sometimes lying can be our moral obligation.  Consider the scenario in which your moral obligation to protect life is pitted against your moral obligation to tell the truth.  Protecting life is the weightier moral imperative of the two, and thus lying to protect that life would be the right thing to do.  This happened frequently in Nazi Germany when those who harbored Jews lied to Nazi officers to protect the Jews’ lives. 

While most people recognize the above as a morally acceptable lie (if not morally obligatory), are there other instances in which lying is morally acceptable, particularly when telling the truth is not superseded by a higher moral law?  Consider the following:

You are planning a surprise party for a family member.  In order to keep it a secret, you have to lie about where you are going, what you have in the bag, what you spent your money on, etc.  Are these lies morally justified given the fact that they are for a good purpose?  I think most people would say so.  Indeed, when the person for whom the party is being thrown learns that they were told untruths in order to keep the party a surprise, do they respond, “I can’t believe you lied to me!”?  No, they do not think you have done anything wrong. 

If lying can be justified if it serves a good purpose, however, would a husband be justified in lying to his wife about their financial situation, if his purpose for doing so was good (e.g. to prevent her from worrying)?  If not, what is the difference between this situation and the former?  I have one in mind, but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

What about when your wife asks you if you think she is fat, or if a particular dress makes her look fat?  What about when someone asks you what you think of their new shoes (particularly when you know they don’t want your honest opinion, but simply want you to affirm what they already believe about them—that they are wonderful!), and you don’t like them?  Is it ok to lie to them in order to spare their feelings, to meet their expectations, or to avoid a conflict?  Is it more important to be truthful by giving your honest opinion, or to tell them what they want to hear? 

Finally, consider the common American greeting: “How are you doing?”  In our culture this is virtually equivalent to “hello.”  When I pass by my coworkers in the morning and they say “How are you doing?” I do not respond with, “Actually, I’m glad you asked.  I’m doing horrible.  Let me tell you what’s going on in my life.”  No, I respond by saying, “I’m doing good.  How are you doing?”.  In fact, I respond this way even if my life is falling apart at the seams.  And so do you!  Is this lying?  After all, you are presenting something as being true which is actually not.  I am persuaded that while this is a lie by definition, it is morally benign for at least two reasons. 

First, the person who says this is usually not expecting an honest answer, nor concerned about your actual state of affairs (evident by the fact that they say this as they are passing you in the hall).  Indeed, it is usually not conceived as a question at all, but rather a statement.  It is a form of greeting, not a genuine inquiry.  Indeed, if I were to respond truthfully, telling them how I am really doing, they would probably be shocked (and in some cases, annoyed).  They are not expecting, or in some cases even desiring an honest answer to that question.  They are expecting to hear “I’m doing fine.  How are you?”, to which they will respond “Good, thanks” and then either go on their merry way, or begin a conversation with you.  I don’t think most people, if at some later point found out you were actually going through hell, would look back on your answer and say, “I can’t believe he lied to me!”  Why?  Because they understand that “I’m doing good.  How are you?” is just another way of saying “hello.” 

You may be saying, yes, but some people actually do want to know how we are doing.  Indeed.  And we can usually tell the difference.  It may be in the way they say it (voice inflection, body movements, etc), or—as has happened to me on several occasions—when I respond, “Fine,” they’ll ask me a second time, “How are you really doing.”  That lets me know that they are offering more than a greeting; they are inquiring into my welfare. 

The second reason I think it is morally benign to lie about your actual condition when someone asks you, “How are you doing?”, is that we are not compelled to divulge the details of our lives to everyone who asks us, even if they want an honest answer.  Indeed, in many cases I may not want that person knowing how I am really doing, or the details of my life.  Or maybe we would ordinarily give an honest answer to the person who asks us, but because we are not yet ready to divulge the details of what is going on, we say “I’m doing fine.”  Indeed, I’ve been in this situation with my closest friends and family.  There have been situations I am going through in which I don’t know heads from tails, and until I’ve figured some things out, I don’t want anyone else to know what is going on.  When my friends or family later learn of what was going on, they do not respond, “I can’t believe Jason lied to me.  He told me he was doing good, when he really wasn’t.”  People understand that we may not want to, or be ready to divulge our actual state of affairs, and thus do hold us morally culpable for a lie.  

What are your thoughts on this?  Can you think of any other examples, or counter-examples?