11 December 2005



Lying is usually a straight forward moral issue. It is
wrong, an unacceptable behaviour and usually we try to avoid
people who persistently lie to us. The issue is then a
matter of how much are we prepared to tolerate.

We also assume, until proven otherwise, that people who lie
to us do so intentionally. In fact intentionality, seems to
be a necessary condition for something to be a lie. A second
condition for lying, is that someone who lies to us wants us
to believe something to be true knowing that is not the

Usually, when our tolerance runs out, we would take steps to
disassociate ourselves with the person who lies to us. In
many cases this wouldn't create a lot of problems, or at
least nothing that couldn't be dealt with in the normal
course of life. This way of doing things is well within the
principle of the victim. We usually accept that a victim has
a right to be protected or to protect themselves from
someone who does them harm. In the normal course of everyday
life, coping with lying can be easy and the morality
involved is quite straight forward.

A slightly more complex issue is whether 'thou shall not
lie' equates to 'thou shall tell the truth.' This is a
complex issue because as some philosophers have pointed out
one should always tell the truth, while there are cases when
lying is acceptable. I want to consider some aspects about
lying from three situations.

Imagine that the Gestapo knock at your door and simply ask
you if you ever heard people go in out from the flat next
door during the night. Assume that they were very polite
about it and of course did not threaten you or anything.
However, you have heard people next door and you also
believe they were members of a resistance group. What ought
a person in this situation do; tell the truth, lie or act
dumb and pretend that at the time you were asleep? The third
option, of course, is another form of lying.

The first problem we face when dealing with this example, is
this, what is it like to have the Gestapo knock at one's
door? Today, very few people are still alive to know what it
is like to have the Gestapo knock at the door. This is not a
question about the Gestapo or evil regimes nor is it a
question asking what I will do in these circumstances.
Rather, it is a question about what would a person feel and
experience should the Gestapo knock at the door. What would
I do in these circumstances is both meaningless and
irrelevant because the Gestapo have long since disappeared
from society and therefore not likely to be faced with this
situation. And what we would do should an evil secret police
knock at our door today is equally meaningless because there
is no way of knowing until this happens. This is not the
same as finding out what people did when the Gestapo knocked
at the door. The explains why it is true when people tell us
that you don't what it is like to have the Gestapo knocking
at the door.

The question what is it like to have the Gestapo knock at
your front door, is similar to what we ask in every day
language, putting ourselves in someone else's shoes. Is this
question, therefore, some form of empathy? Let's take a
working definition of empathy to mean understanding another
person's state of mind without projecting our feelings or
our state of mind. I personally doubt that if someone has
not gone through the experience of having had the Gestapo
knock at one's door we can have any meaningful empathy or
even metaphorically putting ourselves in their shoes. Apart
from the reasons I will give below, what we seem to be doing
here is: first, because we have experience of fear we are
indeed projecting that experience and secondly, words like
Gestapo, torture, war, have an intrinsic psychological
negative effect on us. If we know what Gestapo means than
one of the effects of knowing the meaning is to create a
state of mind in us that is uncomfortable. Of course, if you
support an organisation like the Gestapo then you'd have
different feelings; but we are not talking about that.

Indeed, the next issue is this, what is the state of mind of
someone having to answer a question asked by the Gestapo? I
do not mean what are they feeling, fear, terror, concern and
so on. I mean what kind of rationalisation would take place
in the mind of someone having to decide: shall I lie, shall
I answer truthfully or shall I act dumb and say nothing. Not
only do we take into account the feelings mentioned earlier,
but more importantly, what are they thinking given their
experiences, knowledge, information about the situation and

The Gestapo dilemma is usually discussed in terms of whether
we should always tell the truth or are we sometimes
justified in lying. We now recognise as a result of the
Gestapo dilemma to lie when faced with situations like the
Gestapo dilemma. However, there is a serious problem with
this dilemma. The dilemma is spelled out with hindsight. We
know what happened to the infrastructure that supported the
Gestapo, we also know what tended to happen to people who
were caught lying to the Gestapo and also know of the
courage it took to lie to the Gestapo. However, we are not
concerned with a history lesson, but with our power of
foresight. Given that foresight is such an unpredictable
power we possess, organisations like the Gestapo try to
minimise this unpredictability by creating an atmosphere of
terror and fear in society. Thus, when they do ask questions
they are more likely to get the answers they want because
they have already prepared the ground for the desired
outcome. In reality we are not sure whether someone would
tell the truth to the Gestapo because of some moral
principles about lying or because of being in a state of
fear and terror.

We can also regard the Gestapo type of dilemmas as lying in
self defence. Few would seriously object to lying in self
defence. Saying to the Gestapo that we did not hear anything
from next door, would technically be a lie, but few
reasonable people would condemn anyone for lying this way.
Although we might accept the principle of lying in self
defence, we still have to define self defence. The
conclusion we can draw from the Gestapo dilemma is that
lying is more complex than just condemnation or not telling
the truth.

Another complex issue about lying is found in the medical
profession. Fatal conditions of a patient can give rise to
opportunities for lying or not telling the patient the whole
truth. One of the reasons we do not like people to lie to us
is because they might end up with some material advantage
over us. There is no question about the integrity of medical
professionals when faced with what I shall call the fatal
condition dilemma. We can assume that when a medical
professional decides to lie in a case of a fatal condition
dilemma, there is no material gain for that professional.

The fatal condition dilemma is usually discussed in terms of
what benefit does a patient derive from being told the whole
truth or just part of it. For example, what's the point of
telling a patient that they can still have extra treatment
when it is clear to medical staff that there is no hope for
the patient. The defence of being economical with the truth
is that there is no need to stress the patient more than
what they are experiencing already. This is a legitimate
point, causing unnecessary anguish might not always be the
best course of action. This position still applies even
after considering the needs of today's life where we have to
organise our affairs, and therefore making the patient aware
of their predicament.

One issue that the medical professional has to consider is
whether the patient can understand the information given by
the carers, in other words, does the patient have the kind
of background to understand the situation. For example, what
does the patient think informed consent means; what does it
mean to the medical carer? Furthermore, is the patient in
the right frame of mind to know what is being said to them?
It is of course hoped that there are always safeguards to
protect the patient, including professional ethics, the
rights of the next of kin and judicial intervention. The
main issue here is the balance between what information to
make available and the ability to interpret that information
correctly. I am not suggesting that professionals should
withhold information or practice some form of professional
chauvinism. As I said earlier it is a matter of, given the
circumstance, how much information can a person process and
what kind of information can the person process. The point
is not about the medical profession or dying patients, but
about information.

Any mention of politicians, more often than not elicits a
reaction to the effect that all politicians are liars. It is
generally accepted that politicians are very good at, to put
it politely, being economical with the truth. Indeed,
politics is a fertile source for lies, half truths and

If we take an average politician in an average democracy,
why would such a politician want to lie or say half truth.
For our purposes we can exclude a desire for material gain
or abject incompetence. In a common political situation it
would be pertinent to ask, given that we know that
politicians lie why do we vote for them? Why don't we vote
in politicians who don't lie to us? In this case, either we
don't mind politicians lying to us or enough people believe
that politicians are doing a reasonable job. From this
situation, we can extract the question, how much are we
responsible for people lying to us? If we find no problem
with people lying to us, then what's going to stop them from
trying to get away with it. We can then go a step further
and ask, if people believe that we think they are liars,
then why not just lie any way?

One of the fears we have about politicians lying is that we
might again end up in a Gestapo state. For this reason, some
states and governments go to extreme lengths to prevent any
lapse from democracy. These internal measures might protect
the state from internal threats, but as we know threats also
come from outside the state. Given this scenario most states
feel justified in conduct a strategy of misinformation and
deception. In a way, the game of politics is involved in the
management of information in the public domain. How much
information to give and what type of information to offer.

In medicine, the information is usually on a one to one
basis. That is, the information given to the patient is
relevant to the patient and for the use of the patient.
However, in politics the situation is more complex.
Information made available in the public domain is freely
available for use and for interpretation by anyone, friend
or foe. The way we look at information and interpret
information determines whether we believe what we are told
or not. Usually, this determines our reaction, political
behaviour and allegiance. But lying in politics can be a
powerful tool, it can be used to safe guard the integrity of
the state or to undermine that very same integrity.

The political scenario, in a way, shifts the onus from the
politician to the populace to interpret any information
given to us. It is not enough to say that politicians lie,
but irrespective of whether politicians do lie or not we
seem to have a duty to intelligently interpret any
information made available. But this raises the same
questions as the medical dilemma above. In that case, the
question is what information to give the patient given the
circumstances and the state of mind of the patient. The
political dilemma then becomes, given the information made
available to us, and given the organisation making that
information available to us how should we interpret that
information. But how can we interpret anything if we do not
have the necessary background. For example, how do we go
about interpreting the niceties of international diplomacy
if we have no idea of what that means. It's as if a doctor
describes the situation to a patient using medical language
found in text books or medical papers. Does lying by others
impose any sort of duty on us to be cautious about what we
are told.

The main theme of the above examples is that there are
instances where lying creates complex issues. When we take
certain backgrounds we are faced with the dilemma of
accepting lying as a strategy. In a way it is not the lying
itself that creates the moral issue, but the circumstances
for lying. Could it be that lying instead of being a moral
problem is a problem of strategy?

Take care


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