When is it okay to lie?

Lying is bad and the world would be a better place if less people lied. I think most people agree with that. However, unless you’re Immanuel Kant, a thoughtful but certainly opinionated German philosopher that believed lying was unacceptable and impermissible in any circumstance, most would say that in certain cases lying is acceptable and perhaps even good.

So, with this, the question becomes, when is it okay to lie? And, when isn’t it? Below I have typed out a few scenarios where I think it’s acceptable to tell a lie (some of these were inspired by this piece written in the New York Times a few years back):

  • A child under the age of 10 years old asks you if Santa is real.

  • A child’s brand new puppy gets hit by a semi, you as his parent choose to tell him it ran away.

  • Your wife asks you who you’re texting, you lie and say it’s Bob from work, as you secretly make plans for her surprise Birthday party with her sister.

  • An ultra-greasy car salesman asks you how much you’re willing to pay for a used car, you have $15,000 but you lie and say you can only do $10,000, the car salesman had it coming.

Now, the above scenarios are pretty obvious. Nobody would argue they’re malicious or outright wrong. After all, I think most of us would rather be liars than assholes who tell kids that Santa isn’t real. But, very few instances are as black and white as the above scenarios, making it extremely difficult to determine when it’s okay to lie.

Ironically, I’m going to refer back to Kant (the guy who hated all forms of lying) to hopefully come up with some sort of answer here.

Besides avoiding lying at all costs, Immanuel Kant firmly believed that we should use people as an end in themselves versus a means to something else (or a means to our own end).

Kant’s words are the reason we get a really icky feeling when we hear the word “networking” because networking is essentially using other people to better one’s own position in the world.

It’s the whole, you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours saying. Everyone’s jerking each other off not because they want to jerk each other off but because by jerking off others it means they in turn will get jerked off too.

What Kant argues is that we should treat everyone we come into contact with genuinely and without ulterior motives lingering beneath the surface. I think the answer to When is it okay to lie? is hidden somewhere in Kant’s philosophy.

I think it’s acceptable to lie when we are lying to truly and genuinely better the person we are lying to. I think it’s unacceptable to lie when we are lying to better our own positions.

So, lying to the six year old kid that his dog ran away and didn’t get hit by a semi is lying to better them and ultimately remove massive amounts of pain. Lying to your husband that you’re fucking your secretary is lying to better your own position.

Got it?

By Cole Schafer.

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Cole Schafer