Telling A Lie; How Unethical?

Recently, I read an article titled: “Lying and Ethic”. Having seen some people who could nearly roast others simply because they have told a lie, I have to read this article with a keen interest.

From the article by Tim C. Mazur, Santa Clara University are the following extracts. The first is from the middle of the argument and the second from the concluding part.

“Though the nature of virtue ethics makes it difficult to assess the morality of individual acts, those who advocate this theory generally consider lying wrong because it opposes the virtue of honesty. There is some debate whether a lie told in pursuit of another virtue (e.g., compassion: the brother’s lie to his sister’s drunken husband is motivated by compassion for her physical safety) is right or wrong…

Clearly, lying is an issue worth examining, as many people believe it is a bigger problem today than it has ever been… More likely, the problem is that too few persons adequately consider any ethical perspective when facing a situation that tempts a lie. Either way, it seems that the solution to our dissatisfaction begins with acknowledging the value of ethical reasoning and ends with a commitment to follow through with what we determine is the right thing to do”.

Since the day I first read this article, I have been wondering if the term “ethic” is not a linguistic confusion or better still a poor word, which cannot explain itself beyond what has been attributed to it, so it can exist.

I do not know about you, but I think any fast individual can go away with the view that the rule of ethic is not written on a stone. In fact, the term ethic might only be relevant within the ambit of acceptability and necessity in the society that defines it.

Talking about what is necessary and acceptable, anything as simple as making an armed person, in the case of a soldier, to shoot another person just because the victim has been defined as an enemy to a society or a system can be quite valid. Otherwise, what is even ethical in the job of killing people?

I am going to tell you a story you probably already know.

Two daughters thought it was right to have sex with their father in order to raise children. This is the biblical account of Lot and his daughters, (Genesis 19:30-38). To you, maybe, this can be unethical, but come to think of it. These victims were only trying to save their continuity as a people; therefore the question of being or non-ethical was irrelevant. Also because it was unnecessary at the circumstance they found themselves.

This can even further be expanded. Assuming that the above case was to be real in the 21st century, the said decision will still be more relevant. This is because the ethics and the codes of conduct of a people are created for the good of the same people, not the other way round. This is why any law, no matter how rigid and ancient must be destroyed and recreated if it is so considered to be in the best interest of the society or a system for which the said laws is existing.

Let’s get more serious.

If you like, you can boast that you have never told a lie in your life, but let me tell you that you just might have succeeded in telling one today by your claim.

Lie in the Longman dictionary of English and culture was defined as “an untrue statement purposely made to deceive”. If I must add something here, that the word “deceive” was used in Longman dictionary does not necessarily translate the act of lying to be evil, instead the lie that was told should also be understood within the motive behind it.

In Esan, south of Nigeria, it is said that a man who loses the ability to lie is as good as doomed. And this is very easy to understand because one of the reasons for telling a lie is to find a solution to a problematic situation, not just for the purpose of deceiving people.

Of course, there are some individuals who just like the deception; they often tell their lies in order to harm their victims. Even then, it is still very important to consider the motive for the lie; else, telling a lie “to save a victim” and telling a lie “to harm a victim” is always what it is, “telling a lie”. In that case, the lie that was told should be less important compared to the motive for which it was told.

In more than 2000 years ago according to a biblical account, there was a great famine in the Middle East. The famine created a situation of migration and one of the people who migrated from the Middle East to Africa was Abraham and his wife, Sarah. They had gotten nearer to their destination when they realised that there was another situation. Sarah was a beautiful woman and that was a trap for Abraham. So he tried to resolve the immediate situation by telling the lie as followed: “and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister”. Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her,” Genesis 20:2 (New International Version).

I’m quite sure that the writer of the book of genesis did not call the above account a lie and that does not mean that what Abraham had said was a true statement. Therefore, what really matter is not the fact that a lie has been told; it is whether the lie itself is justifiable within the given situation.

For example, if the biblical Abraham has not said that his wife was his sister, he would most probably be killed, so it was very important to weigh the option of ethic and necessity at the circumstance. And when it comes to ethic, the situation should not be misleading.

Not until an ethic leads to the good of the given people and promotes their continuity, it might not truly be qualified to exist. Also because, a people first need to exist in order to have a conviction or define their own wrongs or rights.

Ewanfoh Obehi Peter

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