Lying, Prudence, and the Virtue of Honesty

The following was a college essay written by Joseph Giessuebel. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Joseph Giessuebel, Catholic University of America    

Lying is often perceived as morally wrong and dishonest, at least if it causes harm. But is lying really always wrong, and is it dishonest to lie even in grave circumstances where it could save a life? Over the years different philosophers have offered different perspectives. Kant is one such philosopher who thinks that lying is always morally wrong, as we can see in On the Supposed Right to Lie. However, other philosophers like John Stuart Mill believe otherwise. Both Kant and Mill seem to be on polar opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the morality of lying, and at first glance there does not seem to be any middle ground. Yet, when we take Aristotle’s views on virtue and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) into account, a virtuous mean emerges. In looking at the CCC we can see how the question of lying is not so much following a step by step philosophy as it is careful discernment of the situation at hand. It is precisely this discernment which leads us to use the virtue of prudence, and prudence which enables us to act honestly. The virtue of honesty, then, is not a standalone virtue but one that requires the help of prudence before making a decision and acting.

On one end of the lying spectrum is Kant. As mentioned, Kant is a philosopher and believes in applying a specific moral approach, based on governing maxims, to everything. Lying is no exception, and Kant’s views on it are based on his theory of the central maxim of truth. As mentioned in the work, On a Supposed Right to Lie, explaining lying in relation to Kant’s universal maxim on truth, Kant believes lying to be wrong in all accounts no matter the circumstances at hand. This seems pretty harsh and unrealistic as most people would think lying in some situations is necessary. Kant believes in his philosophy that always avoiding dishonesty is right because telling the truth upholds the virtue of justice, specifically the justice to preserve people’s internal and external freedoms. External freedoms, like knowledge of the truth, enable people to pursue their goals and ends in this life, whereas internal freedoms concern acting on universal maxims out of duty. In other words, internal freedoms are knowing the universal laws and acting on those just maxims because it is one’s duty to do so; thus, lying does not preserve one’s internal freedoms and fails to uphold a duty to certain just maxims.

One of these just maxims which Kant thinks we all should act on is the maxim to preserve the truth above all else. Kant argues that in following these universal maxims, including preserving the truth above all else, enables one to be morally pure and to reach the good. Specifically, Kant’s universal maxim on truth states that the truth in every situation must always be upheld, so that others might have a fair opportunity to pursue their ends. If and whenever we lie, we rob others of their right to the truth and ultimately their goals and ends in this life. This withholding of the truth would be violating the universal maxim of truth and is why lying is never permissible under any circumstances. It is important to remember, though, that upholding the social maxims is the real reason Kant wants the truth to be told. In telling the truth one follows the maximum of truth which makes him morally pure and leads to what is ultimately good. So, for Kant, adhering to the maxim itself is what is morally good across all situations and upholding moral purity in all actions is the end goal. 

However, despite what Kant thinks, refusing to lie does not work across the board in every moral situation. There are some situations that are more morally complex and have higher principles in play which require careful discernment in determining whether to lie or not. One example where I think following Kant’s maxim in regard to lying would not be morally acceptable is the situation of Anne Frank and her family’s hiding. During the time of the Nazi regime, Anne Frank and her family were persecuted because of their Jewish faith. They went to the home of a friend who agreed to hide them and not tell the Nazis, and when the Nazis came to search the house, the owners lied when asked if they were hiding Anne and her family. Kant would disagree with this action of lying to the Nazis and would instead want to tell the truth to preserve the moral pureness. For Kant the moral maxims are the ultimate good and are always right, never taking into account greater things, like human lives in this case. This is why I, following the Catechism of the Catholic Church, differ from Kant, because there is more to morality and goodness than achieving a supposed moral pureness. There are greater values to consider and weigh in making many moral decisions.

In contrast to Kant’s view, we have the views of John Stewart Mill. Mill also has a moral approach regarding lying, and always adheres to his morality no matter the situation. Mill, a utilitarian, believes that in order to be morally good something must bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. For Mill, morality is based on what is useful and what brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Mill, however, is also a huge supporter of allowing everyone the freedom to form his own opinions, even if they are unpopular, so long as they do not harm anyone. For Mill though, the bottom line in deciding whether to pursue something morally is its usefulness. This philosophy of only doing something if it is useful would mean lying is okay for people whenever it is useful for them to lie. However, an important point to note, Mill is arguing more in favor of usefulness to society as a whole rather than the usefulness to an individual. This means that if lying might not be beneficial to an individual but would be useful to society as a whole, then the person should still lie since there is still greater usefulness and benefit to society. This reinforces Mill’s philosophy that the ultimate moral good is always to pursue what is useful. 

Applying Mill’s moral reasoning to the situation of Anne Frank and her family, we can see how in Mill’s view we could lie to the Nazis and be pursuing the ultimate moral good unlike in Kant’s moral view. For Mill, even though it would not be useful to the individual person who is lying to the Nazis, possibly jeopardizing their lives, it would be most useful for society as a whole to lie to the Nazis at the door. This is because killing people, particularly productive hard-working people, like Anne and her family, is not useful or beneficial for the betterment and development of society. This means then that Gies family (the couple hiding Anne and her family) would be not only morally right in lying to the Nazis but also encouraged to do so following Mill’s philosophy. 

In this scenario, Mill’s means of lying to the Nazis to protect Anne and her family is correct, but not so much the end goal and the reasoning behind achieving this end. There are other situations where Mill’s reasoning could be applied where there would not be a morally good end, in the Catholic understanding.  One example of this where Mill’s philosophy does not work so well is an example where I broke my mother’s vase. In this situation it would be very useful for me to lie, but it would actually be morally wrong for me to do so, in the Catholic understanding. This is because the Catholic understanding has a different end than mere usefulness: Catholic teaching upholds always defending the truth. Lying in a situation like this would hinder my development of virtue and increase my vice; additionally, I would not learn from my mistake and would be likely to repeat it. A different scenario where Mill’s philosophy of usefulness would not work is not lying to the Nazis if Anne and her family were disabled. Similar to the views of the Nazis, some people currently argue that the disabled are useless and are a burden to society. So, under Mill’s view it would be okay to tell the Nazis about Anne and her family if they were disabled because they would not be perceived to be useful to society. Under the Catholic understanding this is definitely morally wrong as all life is sacred. It is because of these two examples that prove Mill’s philosophy, on lying and the truth, clearly do not always work. Based on this argument, we cannot subscribe to Mill’s step by step moral approach to lying. 

One philosopher, however, does hold a different moral approach when it comes to lying that seems to work and be consistent across many different situations. In opposition to both the views of Kant and Mill, Aristotle claims a sort of moral medium when it comes to virtue and lying. This medium, or golden mean as it is called, is found in Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle states, “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (Nicomachean Ethics Book 2 Chapter 6 1107 A). Virtue, then, according to Aristotle “should not be an extreme rather it should be rational. Additionally, all virtue and moral actions, should be a state of character and a choice” (Nicomachean Ethics Book 2). To reach a proper moral outcome means to evaluate each situation rationally case by case and decide whether to lie would be the best course of action or not.

Even though Aristotle does not have a clear idea of moral goodness or truth in mind he does leave this up to the discretion of whoever is making the decision. Applying Aristotle’s method to our Catholic understanding of truth and to both our previous situations of Anne Frank and that of my mother’s vase, we can see how we have a greater consistency. In the case of Anne Frank and her family we can reason that not telling the Nazis would be the right thing to do to preserve their lives. This is because we know that life is more important than human law, even if it involves dishonesty. On the other hand, with the vase situation, it would be right to tell my mom the truth as to grow in virtue. In this latter case there is not anything like human life at stake and I will learn more from owning up to my mistake than withholding the truth. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, like that of Aristotle’s happy medium approach, holds a non-extreme, case by case, rational approach to moral reasoning. However, in contrast to Aristotle’s approach the Catechism does hold a morality about what is good, but different from the philosophies of Kant and Mill. The Catechism also gives a fuller explanation of discernment and of what the ultimate moral good is as well. This approach to a rational understanding of what is ultimately good allows for discernment if lying would be best or not in a specific situation. This understanding and discernment of each unique situation requires something Aristotle does not mention: the cardinal virtue of prudence. With the virtue of prudence, one can understand how some situations require lying or withholding the truth in order to achieve the moral good.

This prudent approach to lying sometimes might side with Kant’s approach if you do something wrong, for example like breaking your mother’s vase, and lying would be wrong and detrimental to you. As the Catechism says, lying in this situation “would be a case of bearing false witness to one’s neighbor and not properly making the truth known” (CCC 268). In such cases as this one, telling the truth is necessary to grow virtue and preserve the truth as Kant upholds. The Catechism further states, “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity” (CCC 2485).  This too is in line with Kant’s view, of how we must not rob others of the truth out of an obligation to justice. However, it is important to remember that there are situations we have mentioned, such as our case of Anne Frank, where Kant’s view would not work and would be morally wrong. This is because there are higher values that the Catechism takes into account when we are tasked to make a moral decision on whether to lie or not. It says “[t]he good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discrete language,” and that “[n]o one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it” (CCC 2489). This is why the virtue of prudence is key in deciding how we should best be honest. In very particular cases, honesty and the pursuit of justice may require lying in order to protect the truth and bring about the greatest good possible.

However, the Catechism does not side with Mill completely either. What is useful is not always moral; for example, lying about everything would rob others of the truth and would be detrimental to the development of virtue. Mill’s morality could be considered too permissive when it comes to lying. According to him, as long as lying is useful, whether to society or an individual, it is permissible. While Mill’s views on lying do allow for exceptions to Kant’s rigid point of view, Mill’s view is not one hundred percent accurate either when it comes to how we should make a decision on when it is acceptable to lie or not.

Instead I believe that the Catechism is most in line with Aristotle’s approach to virtue. Both Mill and Kant have some of the truth when it comes to the morality of lying, but they both still fall short. Aristotle as a philosopher comes closest. Aristotle’s point of view is not so much a determined step by step instruction, but rather explains how one should reason morality in general. It is this approach to virtue, morality, and dishonesty in which the Catechism of the Catholic Church is closest.

I believe that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has the best moral approach when it comes to lying. The Catechism takes into account not only how dishonesty is detrimental to society and virtue, but also how being fully candid could also be dangerous to the common good. Rather than adhering to just one moral approach, the Catechism says that the virtue of prudence is key to deciding what to do in each unique situation. It appears that Kant, Mill, and the Catechism all have different ideas about what goodness is, which influences their respective moral approaches on lying. For Kant, it is always about upholding maxims and remaining morally pure; for Mill, it is about always doing what is useful; for Aristotle it is about rationality;  and for the Church it is about using the virtue of prudence to discern what the best decision is in each unique situation. It is for this reason I believe the Catechism’s moral approach to lying is really the golden middle, taking into account higher truths but also unique situations that sometimes call for dishonesty for a greater pursuit of justice. This is why the virtue of honesty requires the use and cultivation of prudence, so that one may properly discern in which cases lying may not just be morally permissible, but required for the sake of the greater good.

Works Cited

“The Eighth Commandment.” Catechism of the Catholic Church – The Eighth Commandment, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a8.htm.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: with on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. Hackett, 1996.

“Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics Book 2 Chapter 6.” The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon, Modern Library, 2001.

Smith, David Livingstone. “The Morality of Lying.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Aug. 2017, <www.britannica.com/topic/lying/The-morality-of-lying.>

Smith, Janet E. “Fig Leaves and Falsehoods: Janet E. Smith.” First Things, 1 June 2011,  <www.firstthings.com/article/2011/06/fig-leaves-and-falsehoods.>

Varden, Helga. “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door . . . One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 18 Nov. 2010, <onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2010.01507.x.>

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