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Mill’s vs. Kant’s Ethical Theories on Lie Essay

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Updated: Sep 14th, 2021

Introduction

Ethical theories act as guidelines to help people know and do what is morally right, and thus such theories play a central role in day-to-day practical issues including lying. In this paper, I will engage two ethical theories, viz. Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism and Emmanuel Kant’s deontology, to answer the question – is it acceptable to lie to my friend to spare her feelings if the lie would not cause great harm? The first section of this paper focuses on utilitarianism to highlight how Mill would argue based on my dilemma, while the second part discusses the same scenario from a deontological perspective. The third section gives my position on this issue by highlighting the more defensible argument between utilitarianism and deontology. In the fourth section, I will discuss how my position could be criticized. The final part is a conclusion, which ties all the arguments together by highlighting the major points. I will argue that Kant’s deontological perspective, of not lying to my friend, is more defensible as compared to Mill’s utilitarianism, which holds that I can lie as long as the consequences bring happiness to the involved parties.

Utilitarianism

To determine whether it is ethical and acceptable to lie to my friend to spare her feelings, given that such action would not cause great harm, Mill would consider whether my actions create greater happiness as compared to telling the truth, or even keeping silent. According to Mill, “actions are right in proportions as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Clancy, Vaught, and Solomon, 2017, 86). In this case, utilitarianism would be concerned with the consequences of my actions, which is to spare my friend’s feelings. In other words, I would lie to make her feel good, thus creating greater happiness in her. Therefore, it would be moral for me to lie to my friend for the sake of making her feel better. This version of utilitarianism evaluates my actions within the bigger picture on top of the immediate consequences. In the short term, my friend would feel better and happier due to my lies. In the long-term, our friendship will flourish because I chose a path that would not hurt her. Mill would urge me to lie to my friend and anyone holding a different opinion would be excused because he or she does not know both sides of the story.

The decision to lie, in this case, is based on the weight of the conflicting utilities. On the one hand, one utility holds that lying is unethical. It could be argued that I am lying for the sake of convenience because our friendship might be at stake if I told the truth. On the other hand, another utility holds that my lying is based on the bigger picture – that I would increase my friend’s happiness and probably secure our long-term friendship in the process. Based on these two utilities, from a utilitarian perspective, my lying is acceptable and ethical because its consequences bring happiness to my friend (Clancy, Vaught, and Solomon, 2017, 84-88). Additionally, my happiness would also improve because I will have kept a friend. When making the decision to lie, I would be aware of both sides involving the conflicting utilities and conclude that such an act brings more happiness to the involved parties (my friend and I). Based on these submissions, Mill would encourage me to lie to my friend and conclude that such a decision is morally acceptable based on the surrounding circumstances.

Deontology

From a deontological perspective, the only intrinsically good thing is the will – the intentions behind any action taken. According to Kant, “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will” (Clancy, Vaught, and Solomon, 2017, 76). As such, any action done out of good will cannot be judged as good or bad based on the results or consequences, and thus such action is good in and of itself. In my case, Kant would caution me against lying to my friend because it is morally unacceptable to lie. It does not matter whether my lying would spare her feelings. The only thing that counts, according to deontology, is to act out of a sense of duty.

According to Kant, lying is always wrong and no situation could justify such behavior (Clancy, Vaught, and Solomon, 2017, 76-83). In other words, Kant would urge me to refrain from lying because it is the right thing to do. Kant would tell me, “People will not hold you accountable for the consequences of your actions; in any case, you do not know the effects of lying to your friend. However, you will be entirely responsible for the intention or motivation behind your actions.” In this case, lying is wrong and unethical because it entails a contradiction in conception. This assertion could be explained further using the first maxim of formulating universal law of nature according to Kant. This maxim urges people to follow the rule that would make sense for anybody else if he or she were in the same situation (Clancy, Vaught, and Solomon, 2017, 80).

Consequently, it would be immoral to lie because I would then be acting under the maxim to do so when I want to. It thus follows that, if all people decided to tell lies whenever they felt like it, we would stop believing and trusting each other. Such a maxim cannot be universalized under any circumstances, and thus Kant would conclude lying is wrong. Kant’s arguments could be understood further using the two deontological imperatives, viz. subjective and categorical. My friend’s feeling good is not enough justification for me to lie, according to the categorical imperative. I can either lie or not lie and any explanation or justification beyond my motives is unacceptable. On the other hand, according to Kant, arguing that lying would save my friend’s feelings serves as a hypothetical imperative, which is a subjective justification of lying, which is not enough to motivate moral action (Clancy, Vaught, and Solomon, 2017, 80). Therefore, Kant would conclude that lying to my friend, for whatever reason, is immoral and unacceptable.

My Position

Kant’s deontological argument that I should not lie to my friend, because lying is wrong, is more defensible than Mill’s utilitarian perspective. By allowing some cases where lying is permissible, utilitarianism creates a loophole that people could exploit for their personal gains, thus negating the very essence of morality. For instance, I may lie to my friend to spare her feelings, which could be justified in the short term. However, what would happen if she later discovered that I lied to her? Probably, she would not trust me anymore and our friendship would suffer in the process. Therefore, my actions, when judged from a consequentialist perspective, would be both immoral and moral at the same time. When executing a certain action, we may not be aware of the consequences, which complicates the utilitarian argument. Lying to my friend would make her feel good for a while, but it would also cause pain in the long-term as explained above, which makes it difficult to defend this school of thought.

On the other hand, Kant’s stand concerning lying is firm, which makes it easy to defend his arguments. Lying is wrong because any maxim used to explain it cannot be universalized. Additionally, Kant offers the basis and imperatives that could be used in defense of his stand on lying. For instance, the rule of formulating universal law and the provisions of categorical imperative offer strong points that could be used to defend the argument that lying is unethical as explained under the “deontology” section above.

Criticism of My Position

I have argued that lying is wrong under any circumstances even from altruistic motives, and thus I cannot lie to my friend to spare her feelings. However, someone could disagree with my stand on this issue and object that one’s maxim may be more specific as opposed to lying for the sake of convenience. For example, it could be argued that lying should be permissible under special circumstances, especially when a person’s life is in danger or for the greater good. As such, this argument could be universalized. Given that, in most cases, no lives are in danger or lying for the greater good is rare, if all people acted on this maxim, individuals would believe each other in many cases. However, such an argument would be wrong because everyone would know that people lie under certain circumstances. In the case of lying to my friend, she may not believe me because she knows I can lie to spare her feelings. Consequently, I may not deceive her, and thus the best course of action would be telling her the truth because it is the right thing to do.

I have also opined that lying is wrong because we may not be in a position to tell whether the outcome would be positive or negative. As such, I may lie to my friend, and damage our friendship in the long-term as explained earlier in this paper. However, a consequentialist may disagree with such an argument and opine that my friend may never know that I lied, which eliminates the possibility of having negative consequences from my actions. However, such an argument is wrong because my morality should be measured using intrinsic values as opposed to external factors. Therefore, it would be immoral to lie to my friend regardless of whether she later realizes it or not.

Conclusion

In this paper, I have shown that lying to my friend to spare her feelings is both morally acceptable and unacceptable based on utilitarianism and deontology respectively. Mill would argue that the end justifies the means, and thus as long as my friend is happy after I lie to her, my actions are ethical. However, Kant would insist that lying is immoral under any circumstances, and thus regardless of my friend’s feelings, I should tell the truth because it is the right thing to do. While I think Kant’s position is more defensible as compared to that of Mill, my stand would attract criticism as explained in this paper.

Reference

Clancy, Martin, Wayne Vaught, and Robert C. Solomon, eds. 2017. Ethics Across the Professions: A Reader for Professional Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Mill's vs. Kant's Ethical Theories on Lie." September 14, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mills-vs-kants-ethical-theories-on-lie/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Mill's vs. Kant's Ethical Theories on Lie'. 14 September.

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