Are Liars Ethical?
By Emma Levine
We tend to think of lying as a vice and honesty as a virtue. For hundreds of years, theologians and philosophers have suggested that lying is wrong. For example, almost six hundred years ago, St. Augustine stated, “To me…it seems certain that every lie is a sin.” The prohibition of lying is deeply ingrained in most major religions and the presumption that lying is wrong leads scholars, parents, and leaders to broadly condemn lying.
Despite the characterization of lying as unethical, most people don’t completely avoid lying. Sometimes we lie for selfish reasons, but quite often, we lie to help and protect others. We tellprosocial lies. We may tell a prosocial lie when we tell a colleague that she delivered an excellent presentation (when in fact it lacked clarity), or when we tell a friend that we love her new haircut (when in fact it is unattractive). Prosocial lying can have large stakes; a doctor may tell a prosocial lie to a patient about her prognosis, with the hope of making her happy in her final weeks.
When people proclaim that lying is unethical, they aren’t usually thinking about prosocial lies. Existing research on the psychology of deception, for example, has largely ignored the benevolent intentions that often accompany dishonest behavior. Instead, most studies of deception have focused on lies that are told to benefit the self and exploit others. It is easy to understand why these lies are judged to be unethical. Selfish lies violate the moral principle of honesty andcause harm to others.
Prosocial lies, alternatively, represent conflicting social and ethical motivations. Prosocial lies violate the principle of honesty, but they also signal that an individual cares about others. Are prosocial lies judged to be ethical? My coauthor, Maurice Schweitzer, and I sought to answer this question. In a recent article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Note: the article is behind a paywall, but you can email Emma at the address provided below to request a copy), we disentangle the competing signals of honesty and benevolence and we examine how prosocial lying affects judgments of moral character.
Across three experiments, we found that prosocial lies were judged to be more ethical than honest statements. Participants in our studies judged individuals who had lied or told the truth to a counterpart in a previous interaction. We used an economic game to operationalize deception and varied the incentives associated with lying and truth-telling throughout our experiments. For example, in our first study, individuals had the opportunity to lie about the outcome of a coin flip. If an individual lied to his counterpart (e.g., said the coin landed on heads, when it really landed on tails), the counterpart would earn a dollar; if an individual told the truth to his counterpart (e.g., said the coin landed on tails, when it landed on tails), the counterpart would earn nothing. That is, the individual could help his counterpart by lying to him. This approach allowed us to unambiguously manipulate the motives and outcomes associated with deception.
In every study, individuals who told lies that helped others were perceived to be more moral than individuals who told the truth, but harmed others. Importantly, we found that prosocial liars were perceived as deceptive; lies that help others are still considered lies. However, prosocial liars were also perceived to be benevolent, which drove perceptions of moral character. In our studies, demonstrating benevolence, or concern for others, was more closely related to judgments of moral character than upholding the principle of honesty. Lies that did not help others were judged to be unethical, but lies that helped others were judged to be ethical.
In our research, we also explored perceptions of lies that were told with good intentions, but led to bad outcomes. In the real world, we can rarely be certain of the consequences of our lies. Consider a husband who tells his wife that she looks great in a dress, with the intention of boosting her confidence. This lie, however, causes the wife to wear the dress to an important event and face public ridicule. In this case, the husband lied to help his wife, but actually caused her harm. Interestingly, in our research, we found that intentions mattered immensely for judging the ethicality of a lie, but outcomes did not matter at all. Individuals who told lies with the intention of helping their counterpart were judged as moral, even if they caused unforeseen harm to their counterpart.
So, should we all be telling more lies? Well, not necessarily, but at the very least, we should carefully consider when and why it might be right to lie, rather than broadly characterizing all deception as wrong. Most importantly, we should consider whether or not the intention of our deception is truly to help others. Honesty is a virtue, but it often conflicts with other equally important moral values, such as benevolence, loyalty, and mercy. Our research suggests that when benevolence and honesty conflict, benevolence may be more important than honesty.
Emma Levine is a 3rd-year PhD student at the Wharton School. Her research exploreshow people make inferences about others’ motives and how this influences moral judgment and trust. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more about Emma here.