Evaluation of Ethical Theories for Lying

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Why Lie?

We are presented with a scenario, Kelly whose father is dying, has built up a business that has proven to be successful. He wishes to pass down the business into the hands of his daughter and two sons. What the father does not know is that his sons intend to sell the company after he has passed away. Kelly knows of this plan and wants to do what is morally right: tell her father, or lie? What is considered to be morally right depends on what school of thought you adopt as your own and in this case, we have two ethical theories to consider. First, Mill’s theory of the utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of your actions and allows for lies to be told, if they generate more happiness. Second, Kant’s deontological theory, which does not care about the consequences of the action but rather sees if the action falls in line with duty and does not allow lies to ever be told. I argue that Kelly should tell a lie to her father based on Mill’s Utilitarianism approach, which allows a lie to be the morally correct thing to do.

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In order to assess what the correct moral action should be according to Mill, we must understand his ethical theory, utilitarianism. This ethical theory is a branch of consequentialism which focuses on the consequences an action produces to determine whether it is moral or not. Utilitarianism holds the same grounds for evaluating moral actions with one added step: it takes into account the happiness generated from the consequences an action created. To Mill, “happiness is defined as pleasure and the absence of pain” (Mill 1 powerpoint slide 6). That is, happiness is a feeling of contentment and not one that holds any type of malefic intention. Mill uses this idea of happiness to create his principle called the greatest happiness principle or GHP for short.

Mill creates his greatest happiness principle in order to assess whether an action is morally correct. According to this principle “[A]ctions are right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (Utilitarianism, 7). That is, an action must produce happiness in order to be justified as morally correct, the more happiness produced the more morally correct the action was. In fact, the utilitarians created a scale in order to measure the amount of happiness created called “Hedonic Calculus” (Bentham). In this scale, all actions are measured in utiles, which is a measurement of happiness produced. The way happiness is measured is by taking into account everyone’s happiness that an action may have affected. For example, you may be invited to a friend’s wedding but have to pay for the plane ticket to go and see them. You can choose to spend the money on the ticket or donate the money to build a well for a needy village. According to Hedonic Calculus, we can assign the option of seeing your friends a +2 utile rating, while sparing the village the hard labor of constructing a well a +35 utile rating. In each case the inverse is true, that is if you go to the wedding the villagers get no well so that is a -35 utile rating, with a net utility rating of -33, while the other action of donating the money yields a -2 utile rating since you don’t see your friends but this leads to a net utility gain of +33. With these numbers assigned we can see that the morally correct thing to do based on the greatest happiness principle is to donate your money. Now with this in mind Mill steps up his principle by adding quality as a way to rate certain actions over others. Mill separates these qualities into two categories, higher and lower pleasures.

Mill adds to the hedonic calculus equation the qualitative trait; higher and lower pleasures. Pleasures are heterogeneous, meaning they are not of the same kind and thus leads to some being higher and some being lower. There is a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, the higher pleasure is pleasures that make use of the “more elevated” faculties, while the lower pleasures are often pleasures of sensation (Mill 2 powerpoint slide 7). To Mill, seeing your friends may have been classified as a lower pleasure while assisting in the preservation of someone else’s life IE donating a water well, would be classified as higher pleasure. The higher pleasure requires active engagement, in the case mentioned previously, the action of actively donating money may lead to a higher pleasure. In contrast, the act of seeing your friends may produce some happiness when you initially see them but as time passes the happiness begins to fleet and then just becomes something passive, which are traits of a lower pleasure.

The whole basis of what utilitarianism is built on is spreading utility which in this case is happiness. To lie to others only pushes us away from our “sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity” (Mill 22). That is when lies are told and spread we are pushing ourselves away from trust, which is the glue that holds society together, that allows us to confide in others. The act of telling the truth is normally beneficial while being deceptive normally harms. This is why lying is generally wrong, as lies are a source of heat that can begin to melt the glue of trust away. Even in cases where the truth can cause harm, according to Mill we should resist the urge to lie because by truth-telling, we cultivate a disposition in ourselves and others to honesty, and honesty is conducive to trust which is “the principle support of social well-being” (Mill 22). Through this analysis it would seem that Mill would say lying is never correct, however, this is incorrect. There does lie a possibility where lying can be morally correct, as long as it falls in line with his GHP and generates more happiness (utility) than unhappiness. Such an example of this would be to lie to a murderer who wants to kill your friend and asks you if you know where they are. By lying to the murderer you are producing more happiness with your friend staying alive than the murderer’s unhappiness by leaving empty-handed.

Kant, on the other hand, would argue that a lie should never be told as that breaks your duty to honesty. In order to counter Mill’s principle of the greatest happiness principle, Kant creates two principles, the hypothetical imperative and the categorical imperative. In order to fully understand the categorical imperative, which is the main counter to the GHP, I must first explain the hypothetical imperative. The hypothetical imperative is an imperative that requires reason to assess what needs to be done. For example, if someone wishes to pursue law school, reason will tell them to begin studying for the LSAT, in these cases the commands of reason are conditional (Kant 2 slide 18). With this in mind, we can now examine how the categorical imperative differs. First off, the categorical imperative lacks circumstances, there is simply an action that will be performed regardless of the circumstances. To be clearer, the categorical imperative does not depend on us choosing to pursue some end, in this case, the commands from reason are unconditional (Kant 2 slide 18). The two imperatives contrast each other in the sense that in the hypothetical case we need to know the person’s intentions before we know what has to be done. In the categorical imperative since reason is the driving factor, it tells us that our maxims, our wants, must conform to the laws of reason, which are universally valid (Kant 2 slide 20). Upon applying this concept it then boils down that there is only a single categorical imperative, “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant 4:421). Here Kant is saying that you should only act upon your actions if you can consent to that action being performed on you by everyone else. This lays the groundwork for what Kant derives as The Formula of Universal Law.

Kant has established this Formula of Universal Law to be the first version of the categorical imperative. This formula put into simple terms serves as a test to any maxims you wish to entertain. It holds that any action you wish to do must be universalizable in order to be morally sound. If your maxim cannot be universalized then it is morally impermissible and should not be acted upon. As mentioned before since this is like a test to see if your action is morally sound there are two ways your maxim can fail the test. The first way to fail is if it contains a contradiction in conception. To fail this test your maxim must violate a perfect duty, which are duties that are not permitted to be violated. “When I believe myself to be in need of money I shall borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I know that this will never happen” (Kant 4:422). Here, Kant is presenting us with a maxim that would fail the formula of universal law. In this scenario, the person is rationalizing telling a lie so they may have a personal advantage. Kant then turns the light to see if this maxim could ever be universalizable. “I, therefore, turn the demand of self-love into a universal law and put the question as follows: how would it be if my maxim became a universal law?” (Kant 4:422). This maxim could never be universalizable as this would nullify any type of promises made, promises would no longer function if this maxim were to be made universal law since this would be self-contradicting. It simply does not make sense to make something a universal law that allows everyone to lie in order to help themselves. The second way to fail the test is for your maxim to have a contradiction of will. Let’s say you wish to keep to yourself and do not want to help others but at the same time you don’t want others to help you, that sounds logical but according to Kant, it goes against one of our imperfect duties (Kant 4:423). We have an imperfect duty to provide aid to others, in other words since this an imperfect duty there is some room to determine how to help others but nonetheless, help must be given. You simply cannot wish to only focus on your needs and ignore the needs of those around you. It is with this idea that you should help those in need that leads us to Kant’s second formula, the Formula of Humanity.

The Formula of Humanity is the second version of the categorical imperative. In this version, Kant is stepping back to assess how we should be treating each other. In contrast to the Formula for Universal Law, this view takes a look at what the grounds for relationships are for the categorical imperative rather than what can be universalized. Kant expresses the importance of humanity stating “so act, that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant 4:429). Humanity in this sense is the ability to set and pursue ends, ends that we deem worthy to pursue in order to benefit ourselves or others. Kant thinks humanity is the key to having a strong grounding relationship because we should seek to pursue everyone as an end rather than simply a means. “The ground of this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself” (Kant 4:429). We are rational beings so we are the end in itself which in turn provide the ground of the categorical imperative. “The human being necessarily represents his own existence in this way; so far it is thus a subjective principle of human actions” (Kant 4:429). Every human wishes to pursue their own personal end. We should not inhibit others from pursuing their ends as by doing so we would not be treating them as a rational being. It then follows to say that since we should never use humans as a mere tool, we should never lie to one another then, as that would contradict this formula of humanity.

When it comes to lying, Kant stresses that is never permissible. To tell the truth is a perfect duty that must never be broken. “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is . . . a sacred command of reason prescribing unconditionally, one not to be restricted by any conveniences.” (“On the Supposed Right to Lie for Philanthropic Reasons”, 1799). Here Kant is breaking down exactly what his previous formulas stated. In reference to the formula of universal law, it makes sense that any maxim rooted in truth is to be universalized as it coincides with the upholding of our perfect duty to never lie. In regards to the formula of humanity, by telling the truth we are treating every person as an end rather than a mean. We are treating them with dignity and acknowledging that they possess reason that must be respected. With this in mind it holds that even if it were to make others happy or even ourselves, a lie must never be told.

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Now although according to Kant a lie can never be told, this is not the case for Mill. With regard to Kelly’s case, I could see Mill allowing for a lie to be told to her father. Since Mill only cares about the consequences that result from an action it makes sense to think that the consequence from lying to her father would produce happiness. If we think about it, lying to someone who is on their deathbed letting them know their final wishes will come true would allow the person to enjoy their time left here on Earth. With this in mind, Kelly should indeed lie to her father in order to produce the most amount of happiness. Let’s imagine the truth were to be told and now the father has to die knowing all his hard work was for nothing, not only would the father suffer unhappiness from this but most likely Kelly would generate unhappiness because she caused her father to feel worthless. In this scenario, Kelly’s consequence produces only unhappiness, even though “we should usually resist the temptation to lie” the truth does more harm than good (Mill 2 slide 21). Although the truth would cause more harm sometimes telling the truth sets you free, or at least it keeps you in line with your duty according to Kant.

Kant would never allow a lie to be told. To lie is to go against our duty to uphold honesty and to spread truth. Kelly should bite the bullet and tell her father the truth regardless of the outcome. To Kant the outcome doesn’t matter, Kelly should treat her father as a human being and treat him as an end, not a means. To elaborate, she should allow her father to know the truth and not simply use him as a means to make herself feel better. She should not lie to him in order to spare his feelings because it could well, in fact, be she is lying to protect her own feelings as to know she didn’t cause further harm to her dying father. If Kelly were to lie to her father she is ignoring his humanity and simply treating him as an object with no respect for his dignity (Kant 4:429). Kelly should instead show respect and uphold her duty, to tell the truth to her father and let him die with the truth being known. However, Kant’s idea of always telling the truth could lead to some questionable situations.

 Kant argues that we are morally bound to comply with whatever duty we must follow but this can hold some flaws; for example, it is our duty to always be honest and not inhibit someone else’s self-preservation. Let’s say you are a teacher at an elementary school and a school shooter enters the campus. One by one, you hear the: screams of children, loud bangs, and the thuds of bodies falling across the hallway, leading towards your classroom. You know it is only a matter of time before the shooter reaches your classroom, so your initial response is to hide your children in any small covered location such as the cabinets and closets. The shooter enters the room and asks you, is there anyone else in this room before I kill you? According to Kant, you should disclose the location of your students, even though it will result in their death. This example shows that by telling the truth at all times you are breaking your duty of not inhibiting someone else’s self-preservation as by telling the truth you might as well have killed the students yourself. In contrast, Mill would allow you to lie as that would cause more happiness overall, your students get to live so that would be something like +1000 utiles and the shooter only kills one person something like -100 utiles, overall more happiness is generated through the lie than through the truth. Now, this sounds like a good idea, to lie in order to create happiness, but this can’t always be the case.

For Mill’s ideology, there lies a major fault. It seems as though humans can be sacrificed as long as happiness is generated. Mill’s reasoning is more persuasive than Kant’s for the sheer possibility of flexibility. In Mill’s reasoning, he allows for the use of lies which if used properly, can generate more happiness than unhappiness which coincides with his greatest happiness principle. Kant, on the other hand, condemns any form of lying as that would not only degrade the person you are lying to but create a situation where the person may begin to lie back to you. Mill’s argument is much more practical as it takes into account actions for their consequences rather than for just the action as per Kant’s argument. To Mill, what is important is what arises from the decision you make rather than the decision itself. This gives the action meaning and doesn’t simply write it off as some sort of meaningless action.

Now let’s step back and examine what Kelly should do. I think Kelly should lie to her father on the grounds that he has the right to be at peace in his final days. I wholeheartedly agree with Mill’s greatest happiness principle that this decision is the morally correct thing to do. As noted previously, the truth seems to only lead to unhappiness while the lie promotes happiness. Her father has the right to be happy by any means necessary and although it may not be conforming to Kelly’s duty, to tell the truth, I think Kelly has a bigger duty to her father and owes it to him to keep him happy in any way possible. Since utilitarians allow the use of sacrifices, Kelly should sacrifice herself, in the sense that she should eat the regret she may feel from lying to her father; sacrifice her emotions for his happiness.

In this essay, I have explained and analyzed the ethical principles of Mill’s greatest happiness principle and Kant’s categorical imperative, which contradict each other. Mill allows for the use of lies in order to promote happiness, while Kant never allows lies to be told as it is our duty to always be truthful. Overall, I argue for Mill’s greatest happiness principle, as it is more practical and readily acceptable for Kelly’s decision of whether to lie to her father or not, considering the ideology allows for more flexibility in everyday life. A question that I would like to explore in the future is how Kant would respond to a situation where a lie would save a life? I would like to know if somehow the goodwill is self-contradicting since it is the goodwill that says one should never lie, but how can a goodwill be good if it is at the expense of other people?

Works Cited

  • Kant, Immanuel, et al. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press, 2012
  • Mill, John S, and George Sher. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1979. Print.


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