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Jean-Charles Longuet

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Telling the truth: are there limits?

Two recent talks focused on "Truth" as something good/moral. Practically, however, some information may cause havoc: the Wikileaks diplomatic data disclosure, for example, coulad have put some people at risk.

How should we manage the decision to disclose (or not) such information? Or manage the moral dilemma when telling a lie may have a positive outcome?

[update 2012/11/25] The conversation initially mixed a few things : Truth is something that is not as obvious as it seems, and Lies are more related to a deceiving/manipulative intention that to the hiding of some Truth.

Anyway, all points of views are welcome.


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    Nov 17 2012: Let there be no doubt about it: There are times when you should lie. When all of us would lie.

    I'll start with a 'Reductio ad absurdum' argument (latin for a philosophical argument called reduction to absurdity). A killer breaks into your house and asks where you hide the cash. You have a large bag of cash under your mattress. Perfectly OK to lie here and say you have no cash, right? I mean, I don't think there's any moral dilemma here about lying.

    Then there is the classic: "Honey, do I look fat in this outfit?" Let's say that person's right about to go on stage and make a major political speech. You don't want to mess them up, ruin their mojo, so one could argue it's OK to say "No", no matter what. Some would agree that's ok, some would not.

    And so it goes on from here. We can keep expanding the scope, question by question, asking, "Would it be OK to lie in this hypothetical situation?" What if a homeless man broke into your home and asks you for some food. OK to lie and say you have no food then? We'd get general agreement on many scenarios, maybe some debate on others. I suppose I'm describing a hypothetical crowd-sourced polling system where we could poll large enough groups of people to determine under which situations most people agree it's ok to lie. Crowd sourced morality, if you will.

    I am guessing there are probably studies about such things, from which you could derive more general rules that would begin to describe the limits to telling the truth.

    You could also adopt a strict religious or moral framework without question, rather than try to build up a sort of moral filter based consensus thinking or on the society in which you live.

    There is an inverse question, almost sinister in its inception: Telling lies: Are there any limits?
    • Nov 17 2012: The unmentioned assumption throughout these posts is that there an objective and knowable reality "out there" against which we measure a truth. I would argue that language, the matter of lies and of science also, is never value-free and context-free, that context is ever a part of our construct of reality, of what really happened.

      Perhaps a story will suffice. A farmer hauling a cow in his truck gets blindsided by another vehicle. The farmer sues the other guy. In court now, the lawyer for the other guy says, "The police report indicates that when asked, you said you were fine."

      "Look, I'm hurt and your client did it"

      "But at the scene of the accident, did you or did you not tell the officer that you were fine?"

      "After your client hit me, I was stuck in the cab, but I could hear my cow moaning. That's when the policeman drove up, approached my cow, and shot her between the eyes. He then opened the cab, gun drawn, and asked, 'How are you doing?' Oh, I'm fine, I said."
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        Nov 18 2012: I understand what you're saying about the assumption that there's a knowable reality out there. However I don't think that's relevant to lying, as lying requires an intent to deceive, regardless of what the reality is or whether there is an objective or knowable reality.

        I think the ontology of truth, while related to the subject of lying, is a different philosophical inquiry.
    • Steve C

      • +1
      Nov 18 2012: "A killer breaks into your house"... hmmm, you tell a lie; he leaves & goes to your neighbors & kills them instead. Or tell him the truth & hope he appreciates the truth enough to let you live. (Or is this "immaterial," since we can't know his motives or reactions? Does the question then revert to "Is it wrong to lie," - (regardless of the situation)?
      "do I look fat in this" I would say that if they knew you well enough to trust you, then I would hope they trusted that you valued them much more as a person than the amount of value they placed on their appearance! The "truth," then becomes secondary; trust, value, integrity are in effect.
      "Crowd sourced morality" is that like "two wolves and a sheep voting on dinner"?
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        Nov 18 2012: Are you saying that if you believed you had the opportunity to prevent a violent crime like rape or murder to yourself or a loved one by lying, you would not lie in that situation?
        • Nov 21 2012: (Sorry for the delay, life intervened.)
          To reply to your question... I believe I addressed that in my first reply. Again, *what evidence* could lead me to that beliefe? (I've seen contradictory outcomes on tv shows: "Why'd you kill her, I told you where the gold is!")
          And how could a lie cause a good response? If rape is the intent, a lie would only enrage the attacker to commit murder as well.
          Further; as to your question of rape &/or murder: one syllogism is "shit happens" amungst our society. To lie is to admit you do not believe in the grander system of the value of letting other people know the truth and building rapport; that you only believe in saving your own thin skin.
          Is your question merely: "do I have enough faith in a value system to see my own sacrificed, rather than let some other unknown person take a harder sacrifce in my place?"

          "an inverse question...: Are there any limits?" interesting
          But has the issue been muddied in the ways we view truth & action? We value truth, and we value constructive action, but do the two approach each other from the same direction, or in the same way? One is philospy and one is physics. How ARE the two supposed to meld?
          We treat our enemies differently than we treat our friends; we give our friends , (those who help us), truth & food - our enemies, (those who hurt us), we give lies and bullets.
          If the truth is strength, should we strengthen our enemies? They're usually our enemies because of differing beliefs; "with, and about" truth. Do we believe that our truth is connected to meanings deep enough to connect to them positively; or are we too entranced by our own lies and toys to ever consider other perspectives?

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