Is lying wrong?

In this piece, the premise of lying being justified is considered. Alternative views are considered with the views of academics intertwined.

Typically, when describing someone to be lying, normally they are doing so because it benefits oneself. As argued by many academics, and contrary to my opinion, lying is always wrong. A lie is a statement, believed by the liar to be false, made to another person with the intention that the person be deceived by the statement.[1] Frederick A Siegler defines lying into six features; 1) say something 2) intent to deceive 3) say something to be false 4) say something he knows to be false 5) believes in what was said is false 6) communicate that information[2]. But this is only one interpretation of what lying 

is, showing the clear subjectivity which must be made clear is the focal point surrounding this debate. It would be wrong to say that lying is wrong in all forms of societal interactions, but more correct to say that in context lying is right but also wrong. Should lying benefit society and its benefits outweigh the costs, then I believe that it is entirely correct. Moralists have described all lying as wrong but not all deception, which is what lying achieves, so whilst it may be fair to describe deception as not wrong in its right, it is unfair to wholly describe lying as completely wrong.

But to make such a bold statement, contradicting many important academics such as Bernard Williams, I need to defend my statement. Even though several academics have agreed with the statement that lying is not always wrong, it is still contrary to a majority societal view that lying is wrong. Metaethical relativism suggests that there is no objective moral truth for all people at all times, and this supports the argument that lying is all wrong. By saying no one person believes in exactly the same thing as someone else shows that subjectivity is a key part is discussing whether lying is wrong. Make it clear, that this essay in no way endorses continuous lying by saying that all lying is correct. However, philosophy aside, it is important to provide a legal argument as to why lying is not always wrong. But before this argument is presented, the question of justification needs to be. I argue that lying is not always wrong because it is justified for some situations. Is it right to protect someone by not telling them their true identity at a young age? I would argue yes because it is best for them at this time. Surely the need to care for someone and to not expose them to something that they would not understand that outweighs the need for honesty at this time. This is an example of the justification that is sometimes necessary in society. This conforms to Gary Becker’s theories and also the Simple Model of Rational Crime[3]. Although this may be an informal measure, it still shows that the benefit to society (in this case) outweighs the cost of a lie.

"Should lying benefit society and its benefits outweigh the costs, then I believe that it is entirely correct"


In evaluation to this however, there are several contradictions to my beliefs which have to be discussed. The human race is based on trust and loyalty to each other, and Sissela Bok asks, what if all that were to be taken away? In her Principle of Veracity, she suggests a reality in which common-truth tellers didn’t exist. She then goes on to describe the consequences of what a world in which just ‘liars’ exist. From this argument it is clear to see that lying can be described as wholly wrong. However, what Sissela describes is continuous lying, not what the subjective nature argues is right but like her wrong. Alan Strudler believes the sole reason lying is wrong is due to a breach of trust. His illustrations of the philosophical term ‘language of the desert’ (language of deserving) implicate to the reader that is it gratuitously wrong to deceive people no matter the context. In his example using Athanasius, he describes that even the ‘evillest’ among us deserve truth[4]. I do agree with this argument, however Stradler then extends his point by explaining that Athanasius’s reason to deceive was not wholly justified, arguing he did it in self-defence. However, even though the misleading comments made were not a lie, they did cause deceit but were morally right – the point of which this essay argues. Perjury is defined as lying under oath in open court. Perjury and lying are seen as compatible with each other and to an extent as to why lying is wrong. Perjury is seen as a serious crime because lying under oath disrupts government functions[5]. This explanation does show why lying is seen as wrong; it is a crime. Perjury would be committed in one’s self-interest however, showing the benefit to themselves and not for the moral good.


In this essay, I have argued have argued that lying is not wholly or always wrong. I emphasise ‘always’ as, I do agree that lying is wrong when used all the time. One might not endorse this same argument and be sceptical about believing it, but should one have to lie to cause a greater good to outcome I society, then their morals believe this to be right? Should one might not believe in a morally greater outcome for society? No argument may change their view on right and wrong. Should my interpretation be incorrect, it does remain entirely plausible that lying is not always wrong should the deception used to be beneficial. Oneself may believe in something different, but are they right?

[1] Used by Sissela Bok and the St. Augustinian order

[2] ‘Lying’ Frederick A Siegler, University of Illinois publications, JSTOR

[3] Although not wholly applicable to this book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely

[4] The Distinctive Wrong in Lying, A Strudler, p172, JSTOR

[5] Sloan, W. M. (2010) Perjury. American Criminal Law Review 47(3), 889-915.

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