ethics, communication, truth

One of the cornerstones of USF’s Master’s of Professional Communication program is in-depth discussion about ethics. Our students engage in serious and relevant discussion topics, such as the concept of truthfulness. Oftentimes, stretching your boundaries to understand an issue from multiple perspectives is vital towards mindfulness and wisdom. Below is an example of thoughtful research that enables our students to grow as communication professionals.

Considering today’s influx of fake news and untrustworthy sources, Is it possible for a human to ever not lie?

If we are to equate lying with deception of any sort, than the answer is no—a human inevitably performs deceptions large and small on a daily (if not hourly, or even by the minute) basis. While one could dissect the definition of what constitutes a lie, if one is to take the widest perspective that any purposeful deception counts as lying, the answer is clear. While lying is far from ideal, it is a reality. Every day, as we go through our lives we practice deception large and small. Not only are lies far from always unethical, I would go as far to say that there are some cases where a “lie” is the most ethical option available

On a more trivial level, one could make a case as lying being ethical within entertainment. Magic is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in humankind. It is also an art form that relies primarily on deception of all sorts, from misdirection to outright verbal falsehoods. However, that lying and deception creates a sense of wonderment in the audience, ultimately bringing joy and happiness. If a magician about to pull a rabbit out of a hat tells a small child that the hat is empty, when it in fact has a secret compartment hiding the rabbit, that is an ethical lie. The unethical decision in this choice would be to destroy the child’s sense of possibility. Moreover, revealing the deception would be damaging to a form of art.

To keep on this magical theme, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige, includes an illusion where the magician vanishes a bird in its cage. Revealed to the audience, the methodology for this trick is a cage that collapses and retracts into the performer’s sleeve, crushing and killing the bird inside in the process. For the audience in this scenario, would it be best to reveal the truth? From my perspective, the revelation of the truth of the effect would be more scarring. While the decision to use an effect that hurts the bird is arguably unethical in itself, revealing that gruesome methodology to the audience might cause harm or even trigger a panic attack.

The primary issue with claiming that lying is always unethical is the possible threats of relentless truth telling. In many cases, a bold truth can have the propensity to or actually cause damage. Beyond entertainment, unforgiving truth can heave deadly consequences. Perhaps the clearest example of this is diplomacy. In diplomacy between nations, it is key that there is some level of flattery or deception between nations and their emissaries to maintain a peaceful balance. One particularly true scenario has been with China. China’s government does many things that Western democratic leaders find abhorrent, from banning Internet access to numerous networks to holding an iron fist on their economy’s growth. With the election of Donald Trump, he announced that the US would begin calling out China for issues. Even though the international order knows of problems with China’s governance, powerful nations lie about their position to avoid the more detrimental effects of truth telling, in this case perhaps trade sanctions or, at worst, war.

Finally, lying can be the ethical thing to do among persons. An article in Inc. classified interpersonal lies as being either anti-social or pro-social. An anti-social lie is one that “tries to cover up a misdeed, is destructive, weakening bonds and driving people apart” (Krasny, 2014). These lies are done with malicious intent to hurt others—these are, of course, unethical. On the flipside, a “pro-social” lie is done to protect others. In the long-term, a pro-social lie can create stronger bonds between individuals (Krasny, 2014). Telling truth in this way can actually harm others both emotionally and even physically. Moreover, as truth is of one person’s opinion, it could actually hold someone back.

Ultimately, lying can definitely be unethical, but it can also be the right thing to do. From personal conflicts all the way to international crises, a well-crafted lie can save face and, in some cases, even save lives. Lying is a common behavior of humans and, as such, is something that we should cautiously embrace as one communication technique for navigating our world.

Resources

Krasny, J. (2014, July 25). Study: Little White Lies Keep Relationships Strong. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://www.inc.com/jill-krasny/little-white-lies-good-for-relationships.html

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