The Immorality of Lying
Lying is said to have started in the Bible when the Serpent lied to Eve about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, telling her “You shall not die” (NIV Holy Bible, Gen 3.4). It is indeed as old as humanity itself. Throughout the years, philosophers have contended against each other on the morality of immorality of lying for despite its evil nature, lying for the purpose of good may bring about beneficial effects. But is this enough as the basis of the goodness of a lie?
This paper will seek to explore the minds and beliefs of two philosophers in the names of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant regarding the nature or lying, which they both consider to be an immoral act.
Lying as Viewed from Mill’s Utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism is based on the principle that the ultimate end of human existence is happiness, which Mill himself defined as “the state of existence that is exempt as possible from pain and rich as much as possible in pleasure” (Pojman 141). This philosophical argument is also known as the Greatest Happiness Principle. “Pain” and “pleasure” are the two basic components of his utilitarian philosophy.
Among the two components, “pleasure” has the broader concept in utilitarianism and we should therefore look into it first. Mill states that pleasures can either be “higher” pleasures or “lower” pleasures. He states that the “‘higher’ pleasures are those that are preferred because of their superior quality” (142). “Higher” pleasures, however, are only accessible to individuals possessing higher faculties as a result of education and the acquisition of knowledge. From this definition, the act of lying is clearly not a form of higher pleasure. Lying is not a result of education or the acquisition of knowledge, which Mill assumes to be academic knowledge.
Mill further states that although a being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, he does not want to be in the lower form despite the promises of satisfaction.
“Lower” pleasures, on the other hand, refer to animal pleasures and are therefore self-seeking, which means they are aimed at “the gratification of the self” (142). Lying is obviously an example of such. This idea is in fact the backbone of Epicureanism and Bentham’s hedonistic utilitarianism. In these two philosophies, the idea of “pleasure” or “happiness” is not clearly defined and is therefore often presumed not to consider any exceptions, so that it justifies acts such as lying to someone if it simply just makes one or more individuals happy. It justifies all forms of lying and cheating as it would somehow make one of the parties “happy.” The meaning of “happiness” in the context of the self-seeking lower pleasures does not at all include consideration of the happiness of other beings, and is thus, according to Mill, not morally upright. Mill’s Utilitarianism does not therefore in any way refer and agree to the “happiness” from the lower pleasures, of which lying is an example.
In contrast with the lower pleasures, “higher” pleasures, Mill assumes, seek the fulfillment of higher faculties and presuppose nobleness of action. The Greatest Happiness Principle therefore seeks the happiness of others other than the self, for the happiness of more people is happiness which is greater than the happiness of one. This is now Mill’s basis of morality.
Once more, on the act of lying, if the situation involves a man of lower faculties and therefore can only comprehend lower pleasures, he will seek the gratification of the self and will then proceed to act, for “the pig and the fool know only one side of the question” (143). If, however, the situation involves an individual of higher faculty and who can distinguish higher from lower pleasures, he will not choose to tell a lie for being one with higher faculties, he possesses foresight and open-mindedness for “the human being and Socrates know both sides” (143). The man who lies, whom we shall temporarily call Person A, knows that if he does not tell a lie to another person, whom we shall call Person B, then Person B will be happy and Person A will not be reprimanded for lying for in fact he hasn’t done it. Person A therefore will remain happy, or relatively happier than if he told a lie, and will never have put himself in any situation of a reprimand, or anything that will obstruct or reduce his happiness. This foresight that Person A has shown in our example is presumably inherent in people of higher faculties. They know both sides while “those of the lower faculties know only their side” (143). This very foresight of Person A has led to the happiness of both Person A and Person B and of the consequent freedom of Person A from blame and reprimand and of the trust and continued friendship of Person B, which could have been destroyed by a lie – had Person A not possessed any higher faculties in the first place. This salvation and foresight is the core of Mill’s basis of morality.
Lying as Viewed from Kant’s Categorical Imperative
In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant defines an imperative as “any proposition that declares a certain action or inaction to be necessary and practical” (Kant 413). Kant’s categorical imperative is a type of imperative which states what one ought to do under certain circumstances and it implies the moral requirement that we should “act directly and unconditionally in order to achieve some end or purpose” (417). To this day Kant’s categorical imperative has remained the basis of Christian philosophy and almost all religious and national laws.
For any imperative to be a categorical imperative or a true moral proposition, Kant proposes that this imperative should possess universality. This means that it must not concern itself with the particular physical details and circumstances surrounding the present situation, including the seemingly most pressing instinctual needs of the individual on which the ethical situation is focused.
Kant therefore states that there is only one categorical imperative and it is this: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (421).
In our previous situation between Person A and Person B, if Person A were NOT to tell Person B a lie, then “it is his [or Person A’s] moral duty to do so” (422). This means that if the notion of telling a lie is universalized, then, based on the first formulation of the categorical imperative, there would be no promises or no loyalty at all and no such thing as honest oaths between people. Person A, therefore, according to Kant, would never be justified if he told Person B a lie.
Another characteristic of the categorical imperative is that it should not only be a principle but that it should also be an end in itself, unlike a hypothetical imperative on which many human moral decisions are based. Thus, if a hypothetical imperative goes like, “If you want to do A, you should do B,” the categorical imperative should go like, “Do B,” for doing B is an end in itself and not a means to any other end like A.
Kant therefore states, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity…always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end” (428).
In our situation, Person A, based on the second formulation, would clearly violate the categorical imperative if he told a lie because if he is telling a lie, then he is NOT acting out of moral duty; because if he does, then he would refuse to tell a lie while considering this act as an end in itself. Person A must NOT lie simply out of pure reverence for promise and loyalty itself in exactly the same way as one decides to love not for the happiness of the other but for the sake of love itself. For Kant and the categorical imperative, true morality is doing one’s moral duty as an end in itself “without concerning oneself with the results” (417).
Conclusion and Personal Evaluation
John Stuart Mill, with his philosophy of Utilitarianism, is opposed to the act of lying. His reason for this is that lying is not a form of higher pleasure and that only higher pleasures promote the happiness of the greatest number, while lying, which is a form of lower pleasure, is self-seeking and does not desire the happiness of the greatest number. Similarly, Immanuel Kant, with his Categorical Imperative, is also against the act of lying. His basis is that before one lies, he must ask himself first whether this can be considered a universal law or not. He must also not lie for the sake of not lying. Personally, I find Kant’s idea more plausible than Mill’s. Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures is not clear and it seems to me that Mill presumes that all those who have not had a good upbringing are prone to lying while the educated do not lie. This is actually a non sequitur. Kant’s idea, one the other hand, simply speaks of the Golden Rule.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. James W. Elington. 3rd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993. Print.
NIV Holy Bible. Textbook Ed., Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1980.
Pojman, Louis P. “Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill.”Moral Philosophy: A Reader. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 2nd Ed. 2003. Print.