Your Choice: Save a Life or Tell the Truth?

I swear I will say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Since humans could barely talk, we were taught to always be honest, a life skill which is not only important but necessary to teach a child’s impressionable mind, the difference between right and wrong. The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy on lying was based on a principle he called, The Categorical Imperative, which stated that we should treat human beings as an end in itself, and never as a mere means. (Ethics Guide). Therefore, lying entails treating a person as a means to get what the liar wants and not as an end. Imagine, your friend is hiding in your house as she or he knows that someone is after their life. You hear a knock on the door and it’s your friend’s murderer. Do you tell the murderer the whereabouts of your friend? According to Kant, if you decided to lie, you are legally responsible for all the consequences. Kant explains, “If you strictly adhered to the truth, public justice can find no fault with you, be the unforeseen consequence what it may. It is possible that whilst you have honestly answered Yes to the murderer’s question, whether his intended victim is in the house, the latter may have gone out unobserved, and so not have come in the way of the murderer, and the deed therefore have not been done; whereas, if you lied and said he was not in the house, and he had really gone out (though unknown to you) so that the murderer met him as he went, and executed his purpose on him, then you might with justice be accused as the cause of his death. For, if you had spoken the truth as well as you knew it, perhaps the murderer while seeking for his enemy in the house might have been caught by neighbors coming up and the deed been prevented.” (Kant 2).

Thus, if someone tells a lie even with the best of intentions, they must answer for the consequences the situation presents. Legally, they must pay the penalty for their lies, as they are accomplices to its consequence. Kant emphasizes that truthfulness is a duty and if an exception was made, like lying to the murderer to save your friend, then it would render the duty useless. Kant’s “Honesty is the best policy” ideology definitely promotes and forms a more trustworthy society. However, are there times when lying is warranted? The Moplah Rebellion of 1921 in India witnessed terrible riots where Hindus and Muslims were unable to see eye to eye. One of our overseers was a Muslim and the Hindus were planning on killing his entire family for no reason except that they were from a different religion. (Wood 2). My great grandmother, a staunch Hindu, offered them refuge in her house until the communal riots ceased. Her life principle was to be honest no matter what, but the irony is that in this case, she had to lie to the authorities when they came to her house to do their “searches” for any hiding Muslims. Besides being courageous she was showing her own little community that Muslims and Hindus could live in harmony. This was the early twentieth century, so you can understand the enormity of her actions. In her case “lying” saved ten lives. Sometimes doing the right thing and the truth are not on the same page in all scenarios of life. (Plante 8). So, lying can be compared to a cost benefit analysis. If lying is based on a clear-cut cost-benefit analysis, then my great grandmother’s actions of saving lives (the benefit) came from the cost of dishonesty. This seems ethically and morally acceptable, but if we always weigh the pros and cons of a situation to determine whether a not the lie is acceptable, we can often fall into the trap of finding loopholes to this cost benefit analysis and dishonesty would plague society. For example, if a friend asks you whether you want to meet over the weekend and you actually just want to spend the weekend at home, you might weigh the pros that lying to your friend by saying you have to attend a wedding would allow you to spend the weekend at home but the con is that the lie with a high chance of it being caught may result in you losing a friend and if word gets around, everyone will trust you less.

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Thus, we can determine whether a lie is morally and ethically acceptable through the cost-benefit analysis with a conscience, that is, if the benefit is saving lives, then is when lying can be accepted as the only way out of a situation. Sam Harris, an American neurologist, author, and public intellectual, in his essay “Lying” argues that one must strive to be honest in all situations. Even at times when lying seems like the only way out, Harris proves otherwise. For example, when his friend asks him if he thinks he is overweight, Harris replies “No one would call you ‘fat’, but I think you could probably lose twenty-five pounds.” The result was that his friend went on a diet and in two months lost fifteen pounds. (Harris 11). He implies that relationships grow when you are honest with one and another. He further claims that even in times of war, lying may reduce the loss of an innocent life, but war and espionage have already broken down the honest contract between human relationships and lying is just another weapon in the arsenal. Although Harris emphasizes on being truthful at all times, he claims there is an exception with people like spies who do not have a choice and they must even lie to their own friends and family. (Harris 24). Spies have to completely sacrifice personal ethics and values for the “greater good”.

Even a staunch truth abider and advocate like Harris claims that it is acceptable to lie when the result is protecting innocent lives or, for a lack of a better term, the greater good. When I conducted a survey on lying with 20 students from Santa Clara University, 15 students answered that being honest will always be fruitful when they were asked whether they would be honest or lie if they have to tell a friend something that might hurt their feelings. The next query was that the participants should imagine if they were hiding Jews in their attic and the Nazis inquired whether there were any Jews in their house, then they must choose whether to lie to protect the family of Jews or tell the truth to the Nazis. The fifteen who chose honesty in the first question, surprisingly, chose to lie in the second question. Why do we accept lying in such situations?

According to the Ethics Guide by BBC, we tend to accept lies in life and death situations for the following reasons:

  • The good consequences of the lie are much greater than the bad consequences.
  • Such lies are told to protect innocent persons who would otherwise suffer injustice.
  • Such lies are told to prevent irreversible harm being done.
  • Such situations are very rare, so lying in them doesn’t damage the general presumption that it’s wrong to lie. (Ethics Guide).

To further understand this reasoning, I interviewed Tarika Eknath Kannan, a graduate student of Science in Psychology who has published several research papers on topics ranging from human behavior to demand analysis in the consumer market. In her interview, Tarika mentions that lying is born when we are under pressure or the benefit of saying that white lie saves us from a sticky situation. She describes that just before our interview she had to deal with dishonesty when a person who was supposed to participate in one of her studies had given her false information regarding his qualification with the study just in order to get the money one gets after participating. She said that it’s the money (the incentive) which forced the person to lie and that when we weigh the pros and cons to a situation our moral compass slips if we know that the pros of lying outweigh the cost of the truth. I asked her if she thought that her example and view was somewhat related to the cost benefit analysis. She said, “In every situation we tend to weigh out what’s right and what’s wrong. When it comes to lying, we try and figure out if there is no harm done or consequence with our lie and then we decide whether to lie or not. So, it is kind of like the cost-benefit analysis, but the problem lies that we as humans will not be able to draw the line when lying is acceptable with cost benefit analysis. In situations which relate to lying to save lives, we can easily see that the benefit of lying comes at the cost of saving a life, but in many situations the cost and benefit may not be so clear and justifiable.”

Tarika further stated that lying isn’t a moral tool society should carry on and that we should only apply the cost-benefit analysis when the situation warrants saving lives like that of Anne Frank’s hiders. I asked her if she had ever experienced a situation where lying was the only way out. She told me about the time she had to lie to her little sister about her mother being in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital when her sister was barely ten years old. She said that her sister was very attached and if she had known she would have been in a dark place and it would not be possible for her to help her sister out as she had to take care of her mother as well. After she heard the proper diagnosis from the doctor, she decided to tell her sister about the situation. Her sister was very unhappy but was fine after a while as she knew that her mother was coming back home soon. She stated that lying saved her from a situation which was above her control and said that at the time she felt it was the responsible thing to do.

Honesty in situations beyond our control requires trusting the judgment of the recipient to react to the truth in a reasonable and decent way. Like in the case of my great grandmother, she could have easily turned in our overseer’s family to the authorities, but she did not. Therefore, in dire situations, there is a behavior that tends to foster lying. (Garlikov). So, the debate between being honest and lying are not the only parameters which determine whether our reaction to a situation was the right way to go about it. There seem to be other factors that come into play when we choose to be dishonest to protect our loved ones or even to protect innocent lives from being killed. To determine the other factors, we must look at the psychology behind my great grandmother, Anne Frank’s protectors, and Tarika on why they risked their morals and chose to be dishonest. According to a study where researchers ran personality tests on 80 Gentiles who risked their lives to shelter Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, as well as 73 bystanders. Two interesting commonalities arose among the “heroes”: First, they were more likely to embrace, or at least tolerate danger. Second, they were more likely to say they interacted frequently with friends and family. These findings expanded on a classic 1970 study of 37 Holocaust rescuers, in which researchers determined that the helping Gentiles were animated in part by “a spirit of adventurousness.” (Waldman). Hence, compassion, empathy, courage, hope etc. are additional influences which caused people like my great grandmother, Anne Frank’s protectors, the survey takers and Tarika to choose dishonesty. This is the crux of the theory of the cost benefit analysis with a conscience.

However, I do not think I can confidently say that lying is ethically acceptable in such dire situations as we are not the Lady of Justice. The lady is blindfolded to prevent outside influence on her decisions. Thus, for her, honesty and dishonesty are on two sides of the scale and it is clear that one bears more weight than the other (the classic black and white situation.) Humans, fortunately or unfortunately, are bereft of her blindfold and are easily swayed beyond just the aspect of integrity. A gray area then lies between complete honesty and complete dishonesty. So, where do we draw the line between the two?

Works cited:

  • ‘Ethics Guide – Lying’ 01 2014. Accessed on 01 2019
  • Garlikov, Rick. ‘Legitimate Grounds for Lying’ 01 2019. Accessed on 01 2019
  • Harris, Sam. “Lying.” United States: Four Elephants Press, 2011:3-27.
  • Kant, Immanuel. ‘On a supposed right to tell lies from benevolent motives.’
  • Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works in the Theory of Ethics’,
  • trans. TK Abbott, 6th edn, London: Longmans (1909).
  • Plante, Thomas G. “Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World.”
  • United States: New Harbinger Publications, 2004: 5-60
  • Waldman, Katy. ‘Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding?’ 02 2014. Accessed on 02 2019
  • Wood, Conrad. “Historical Background of the Moplah Rebellion: Outbreaks, 1836-1919.”
  • Social Scientist, vol. 3, no. 1, 1974, pp. 5–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3516140.

Experiment Reflection:

My essay on lying was more of an investigation to uncover the true factors behind my slant and therefore its structure and flow is very different than my usual research-based writing. I tried to adopt Dan Ariely’s style of writing which is to state your point and then use extensive research to support your point. I also tried to incorporate his style of relatable examples which involves the reader and breaks down a concept to the reader in a clear and flowy way. There was a lot of research included but with a dash of my experiences and stories, which made the essay easier to follow. For this essay, I was not only able to add primary research, which included a survey and an interview, but also added my own family history to bring out my slant. The survey and interview provided great support to my essay and added credibility to the essay as the interview was by an expert on the field of psychology and the survey was filled by SCU students. Most of my sources for the essay had scores of more than 7 and were thus peer-reviewed and reliable sources. This not only adds support but depth to my essay. I tried to convince the reader that honesty and dishonesty are not completely opposite from each other, as mankind uses these terms interchangeably and there is no clear-cut line between the two.

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Your Choice: Save a Life or Tell the Truth?. (2022, Nov 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/your-choice-save-a-life-or-tell-the-truth/