Is it ever okay to lie?

Moral absolutism is the belief there are universal ethical standards that apply to every situation. Where someone would hem and haw over when, why, and to whom they’d lie, a moral absolutist wouldn’t care. Context wouldn’t be a consideration. It would never be okay to lie, no matter what the context of that lie was.

You’ve probably heard of moral relativism, the view that moral judgments can be seen as true or false according to a historical, cultural, or social context. According to moral relativism, two people from different situations could disagree on whether an action is right or wrong, and they would both be right. What they consider right or wrong differ according to their contexts, and both should be accepted as valid.

Moral absolutism is the opposite. It argues that there are universal moral truths relevant across all contexts and all people. These truths can be grounded in sources like law, rationality, human nature, or religion.

“Moral absolutism is the belief there are universal ethical standards that apply to every question.”

Rational absolutism

The text (or texts) that a religion is based on is often taken as the absolute standard of morality. If someone takes scripture as a source of divine truth, it’s easy to take morally absolutist ethics from it. Is it ok to lie? No, because the Bible or God says so.

It’s not just in religion. Ancient Greek philosophy held strains of morally absolutist thought, as did Immanuel Kant, who sought to clearly articulate a rational theory of moral absolutism.

As an Enlightenment philosopher, Kant sought to find moral truth in rationality instead of divine authority. He believed that unlike religion, culture, or community, we couldn’t ‘opt out’ of rationality. It was what made us human. This was why he believed we owed it to ourselves to act as rationally as we could.

In order to do this, he came up with duties he called “categorical imperatives”. These were duties we, as rational beings, were morally bound to follow, were applicable to all people at all times, and weren’t contradictory. Think of it as an extension of the Golden Rule.

One of these is the universalisability principle. This mouthful of a term says an act only becomes a duty if you’d be willing to make it a universal law that everyone is bound to. In his words, Kant says, “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law”.

What Kant meant was before choosing a course of action, you have to determine the general rule that stands behind that action. If this general rule could be applied to all people in all circumstances without contradiction, you are choosing the moral path.

An example Kant proposed was not to tell a lie. He argued that if lying was a universal law then no one could ever trust anything anyone said. The possibility of truth telling would no longer exist, rendering the very act of lying meaningless. In other words, you cannot universalise lying as a general rule of action without falling into contradiction.

Therefore, lying is a self-contradictory act that contravenes the absolute standards of rational morality.

By determining his logical justifications, Kant came up with principles he believed would form a moral life, without relying on scripture or culture.

Counterintuitive consequences

In essence, Kant is saying it’s never reasonable to make exceptions for yourself when faced with a moral question. This sounds fair, but it can lead to situations where a rational moral decision contradicts moral common sense.

For example, in his essay ‘On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives’, Kant argues it is wrong to lie even to save an innocent person from a murderer. He writes, “To be truthful in all deliberations … is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no expediency”.

While Kant felt that such absolutism was necessary for a rationally grounded morality, most of us allow a degree of relativism to enter into our everyday ethical considerations.

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When does lying make you a good person?