Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is Lying for the Greater Good Ethical?

Should you always tell the truth?

We all seem to teach our children the ethical values of honesty and integrity don't we? "Always tell the truth" is our refrain, right? Yet, as we get older we realize that telling the truth often has to be nuanced.

Sometimes lying could be the more appropriate ethical response to a particular conflict. For example, if your spouse or dear friend says, "How do I look in my new outfit?" or "Did I gain weight during my vacation?" or perhaps "How do you like my new haircut?" One might be compelled to tweak the truth to not offend or hurt the feelings of someone who matters to you.

Absolute moral rules such as "never lie" might be the ethical approach you endorse. A famous example includes the dilemma offered by Immanuel Kant who asks what you should do if someone running by with a weapon asks you if you have seen someone running away just minutes ago and in what direction they were heading. Telling the truth might result in death or severe injury while lying may save a life. An absolute moral rule, such as always tell the truth, would result in being honest regardless of the consequences. Other ethical approaches, such as the value of saving life, compassion for others, and so forth might suggest that lying is indeed the right ethical thing to do.

So, while one can argue if lying is ethical from multiple angles, I might suggest that if white lies help to manage healthy relationships and nurture others then lying could be the ethical thing to do after all. When it comes to making ethical decisions we need to balance the pros and cons of using multiple approaches to ethics in order to figure out what the right thing to do really is. Sometimes different ethical approaches conflict. When they do, certain values or approaches must trump others. So, compassion might trump honesty on occasion.

As discussed in detail in my book, Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World, being responsible, respectful, maintaining integrity, being competent, and expressing concern for others are the principles that I think we need to use for ethical decision making. And perhaps concern for others trumps all.

So what do you think? Are white lies ethical?

More from Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP
More from Psychology Today