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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 27 2012: If the neighbours wife turned up bruised one night, and then the husband came asking if she was here after I let her in, I would lie and say no.
    • Nov 27 2012: Assuming that the husband abused his wife, I understand what you are saying, but why not avoid answering the door thus you avoid lying and call the police for an official report to be filed. If you answered the door not realizing that it was the husband decline to answer the question. Lying may seem to be a way to end conflict, but even in the most hazardous situations truth or silence is far above lying.
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        Nov 27 2012: I guess that during WWII, hiding people to avoid them being shot required a good amount of lying, and truth or silence would have triggered immediate suspicion. So the "truth or silence is far above lying" seems an overrated statement to me.
        • Nov 28 2012: The murderer at the door dilemma is difficult to answer. If truth is formed off of facts and there were different facts during WWII two people could be addressing different ideals completely. The Nazi party was convinced that the groups they were hunting were sub human or inferior. The members who bravely protected individuals and groups knew the fact that there is no difference between people. So when the question was asked “are you harboring Jews” or “do you have any extra members in the house” one had multiple facts to choose from when answering. Due to the multiple facts to pick and choose from one could accommodate the Nazi search party by answering “no” due to personal belief that what they were searching for ( an inferior human) does not exist. This is similar to answering no to “Do you have any unicorns in your stable?” Since we know unicorns do not exist, but clearly the party in search does not, answering no is the truth no matter what the party in search has come to believe.
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          Nov 28 2012: I suggest in most cases truthfulness is the ideal.

          My point is there are exceptions, depending on the situation and likely outcomes of different courses of action. As per the WW2 example, deceiving the murderers at the door seems reasonable overall from an outcome perspective.

          Doing things that require lying or silence to maintain the status quo might generally be a negative if harm is being done. Lying to prevent harm to others may be reasonable in other cases.

          Suggest most ethical dilemmas are situational. The best course of action will depend on the situation. Blanket statements such as don't kill or lie, refined to generally don't kill or don't lie is a good starting starting point for ethical examination. Then see if it makes sense.

          But again, I would kill to defend my family or in self defence. I would help a relative or friend end their life if in extreme pain.

          The most difficult ethical dilemmas involve a clash or values - religious freedom versus protection of the child or freedom of speech etc.
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      Nov 28 2012: Obey, Christopher, and Jean-Charles,
      I actually had a real life similar situation to your scenario Obey..."the neighbours wife turned up bruised one night..."

      Years ago, my home was a "safe house" for women fleeing abusive relationships, and the location of where the women were was NOT supposed to be known. One time, the abusive boyfriend found out where his "woman" was, and showed up with a gun. I sent the woman in the other room just before the boyfriend barged in and said he wanted to take "his woman".

      He knew she was there, and I told him that I was the only one here (meaning the kitchen) now, so we are going to talk. I also told him that I "think the police are on their way". Unfortunately, I did not have time to call the police before he barged in, so if they were in fact, on their way, it would have been an ESP communication....I was 'thinking" that it would be really nice if they were on their way!!! It was truth that I was the only one in the kitchen with him, and it was truth that I was thinking that the police may be on their way.

      We are seeing lots of justifications on this thread about when it is ok to lie, and when we may need to lie...bla.....bla....bla. If people already have in their mindset that lying is needed in some situations, then they will create a lie to accomodate themselves. If we are threatened, as thinking, feeling, intelligent humans, we can tell the absolute truth NO MATTER WHAT! To do that, however, we need to have embraced the idea of always telling the truth, RATHER then justifying lying in some circumstances....make any sense?
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        Nov 28 2012: Hi Colleen. Your experience demonstrates the cold hard reality, where suggest answering a question truthfully in the way intended by the questioner is problematic.

        I see in some comments a desire not to lie, but rather deceive by avoid by "no comment"or deliberately misinterpreting the question or answering it in a way so as to providing the facts requested that if given would create problems.

        So which is worse - lying deliberately fabricating facts - she is not here
        Or answering or self interpreting in a way that you can consider factual but not disclosing - she is not here (in the doorway)

        I suggest in both cases the listener would consider the speaker as being deliberately misleading and deceptive.

        It's a personal choice, but I would not go through the mental manipulations in order to feel I stated facts yet still deceive, and am prepared to lie to prevent harm in some situations.

        You could say, this could too easy be extended to prevent harm to your self to hide theft etc. But so could the avoidance or answering factually in a way to deceive.

        I believe there are usually rare circumstances where to deceive is preferred to reduce harm, for positive reasons, however you do it.

        I see little difference in intent or outcome in the various approaches above. With my approach, its simpler and honest to yourself - I'm not going to let him know his abused wife is here.
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          Nov 28 2012: Hi Obey,
          There is indeed a "cold hard reality". We don't ever really know what the listener would consider, and to me, it feels better to tell the truth. For me personally, there is no "mental manipulations" because it is natural for me to tell the truth. Yes....we could say this....we could say that.....I prefer truth. I believe any deception whatsoever, is for the comfort of the one who deceives.

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