New Meetup: September 2010 Socrates Cafe Meetup: The Ethics of Lying

From: Andy
Sent on: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 4:59 PM
Announcing a new Meetup for Socrates Cafe!

What: September 2010 Socrates Cafe Meetup: The Ethics of Lying

When: Saturday, September 11,[masked]:00 AM

Where: Mama Jean's Market
1727 South Campbell Avenue
Springfield, MO 65807

Honesty exists on a spectrum from complete candor to uniform deception. The movie The Invention of Lying explores what life would be like in a world at the candor end of the spectrum. It assumes, the narrator tells us, that ?the human race has never evolved the ability to tell a lie?. [E]veryone tells the absolute truth. There?s no such thing as deceit, or flattery, or fiction. People say exactly what they think.? In other words, people are not only honest (always speaking what they take to be the truth); they are completely candid (saying whatever is on their minds). Toward the beginning of the film, its protagonist, played by the short, plump Ricky Gervais, arrives at the apartment of his date, played by the beautiful Jennifer Garner. She greets him with the revelation that she?s ?depressed and pessimistic about our date tonight.? Later that night, when Gervais is in bed watching television, a commercial for Coke comes on. The truth-bound spokesman tells us that ?it?s basically just brown sugar water?. Coke?s very high in sugar, and like any high-calorie soda, it can lead to obesity in children and adults who don?t sustain a very healthy diet?.?

Statements like these are humorous because it strikes us as absurd that anyone would ever make them in real life. (Remember the Incongruity Theory of humor from our discussion a few months ago?) Nor is it at all clear that brutal frankness with people in all our dealings with them is morally admirable. (Watch the movie if you need convincing about this.) For example, we regard with horror the parent who tells her child that he is ugly or stupid or untalented, even if this is true.

Of course the other end of the spectrum doesn?t represent a moral ideal either. A person who only told lies would be what Augustine considered a true liar. Most lies are told not because the teller values lying as such, but because he or she desires some end to which lying happens to be the best means. But someone who told only lies would have to value lying as such, for there are many ends which are best achieved by telling the truth. Such a person, if one ever existed, would according to Augustine be a liar in the strictest sense, and more perverse and diabolical than people who tell lies only when they are expedient.

So presumably the moral happy medium lies somewhere between the two extremes. A view near the complete candor end of the spectrum is that while we are never justified in being dishonest, we are justified in sometimes being less than entirely candid, keeping some of our thoughts to ourselves. Or is the correct view instead that some lies are permissible? If so, how do we distinguish morally permissible lies from morally impermissible lies? Does it depend on the consequences of the lie? On one?s relationship to the person being lied to? (For instance, do we always owe our friends the truth? Or may we lie to them when the truth would not provide them with the moral support they desire?) On the entitlement or lack of entitlement to the truth of the person being lied to? (For example, some people say that Kenneth Starr, who investigated allegations of sexual harassment against Bill Clinton, was not entitled to the truth about Clinton?s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, because as a consensual relationship it fell outside the ambit of Starr?s investigation.) On the context of the lie? Some combination of all of these?

This will be the subject matter for our next Meetup. Hope you can make it!

Yours in Socrates,
Andy

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