When Is it Okay to Lie?

This quarter, I am taking Ethics of Communication. It is my favorite class by far, pretty much because the teacher is awesome AND hilarious. In terms of content, the course is relevant to every day life which makes the concepts fairly easy to grasp while still being attention grabbing. This class is designed to teach about the range of ethical options available when decision-making.

As soon as we communicate there are ethics involved. Why? Because when we communicate, we have the ability to impact others. Therefore, we must be concerned with the ethics of how our message will affect another person. This applies to one-on-one conversation, or interpersonal communication, as well as group, public and mass media (just to name a few others).

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A couple weeks ago, we were discussing the ethics of lying and deceit, which brought about an amusing array of cases. We immediately used the age old example of a woman asking her boyfriend how she looks. The boyfriend, fearing being critical of her, simply replies, “Great” even if he thinks the exact opposite. We discussed at length the ethics of this, and many of our conclusions depended on the type of relationship between the two communicators. For instance it would be different for acquaintances, best friends or a new couple.

There are several points of view when it comes to the ethics of lying. It ranges from “Acts of lying are always wrong (103)” to “Truth telling is morally overrated (105)”. Like most people I take a very situational perspective to the issue of lying; I think it’s impossible to have an absolute standard of lying that should be applied to every situation. Rather, I believe that we should use an absolute standard to strive for. We should strive to never lie, if possible (but it’s not, I promise!). Our conception of lying should be flexible enough to include a variety of situations in which the truth would actually turn out to be less ethical.

A big no-no for me, is actually intending to hurt someone, by going out of your way to lie to them. Take for instance, Regina George:

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where the ethics of lying are so easy to determine as in Regina’s case. What if the girl had stopped Regina, and asked her if she liked her skirt? Then, Regina’s answer may have erred on the ethical side. What if Regina had been true, and said what she really thought? Would that have been more or less ethical? It’s hard to tell. I think it would have depended on the receiver’s reaction, and even the history between the two (i.e. if it had happened before, their difference in power, etc.).


The weekend after that class, my mom’s car was stolen. We were getting ready to go to a special pet store where my mother could pick up some medicine for her sick cats, and we were not going to make it there before the store closed. I suggested to her that she call the store and explain the situation. When she called, I told her to tell the clerk that her car had been stolen, hoping that the clerk would feel bad and be willing to stay 10 minutes later to hand off the medicine.

When I told my mother all of this, I could sense her hesitation – she did not want to manipulate the clerk, though she would be overjoyed if the clerk could stay long enough to hand off the meds.

It turned out that all the employees would be at the store closing for another half hour so staying was no problem. But later my mom and I talked about the situation in ethical terms. My mother was not lying, however presenting the information with the intention of manipulating the woman into staying longer would be a form of deceit. It certainly would be an unethical use of communication.

As with ethics there are a million ways of assessing each situation. With this example I provided above, I think the intentions or the motives relate a lot to whether or not it is ethical as well as how far my mother would have been willing to push that woman to stay (which was not very far at all).

Pages cited above are from the book “Ethics in Communication(6th Ed.)” by Richard L. Johannesen, Kathleen S. Valde and Karen E. Whedbee.

Comic from http://chuckleaduck.com/


2 thoughts on “When Is it Okay to Lie?

  1. Well, it looks as though we are taking the same class and first off good for you. It seems that you go into great deal about when you lie and when it is acceptable. Though the great philosopher Aristotle totally rejected the notion of the ends justifying the means. I think that when a person lies it is out of fear, and as a great Jedi master has said before Fear leads to anger, Anger leads to hate, leads to suffering. I think that I do agree with you that in todays world yes sometimes we do need to lie, just to get by, but I think a bigger question would are society as a whole be better if we didn’t lie at all and I think that that is the ultimate question that needs to be answered. Yes, we may say that she doesn’t look fat in those jeans, but what if we did say that and there was no consequences.

    Gordon Hartel
    Drury University
    Advertising and Public Relations Major

    Ethics in Human Communication Johannesen, Valde, Whedbee

  2. Pingback: The Ethics of BP’s Tourism Advertisements | Afterglow

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