Edward Feser has a fascinating post up on the ethics of lying. Feser, perhaps not surprisingly to his regular readers, follows Augustine in taking up a position in some respects even more extreme than Kant’s: a lie is always wrong, and a lie by omission – like Aśvatthāma the elephant – is just as much a lie.
Not agreeing with Feser’s Augustinian presuppositions, I also don’t agree with his conclusions. I do think that some unambiguous lies can be right because of their consequences, at the very least in extreme cases like the murderer at the door who asks you whether you’re sheltering his next victim (to which Feser refers, as did Kant). But that’s not what’s interesting about Feser’s post, nor is it his point (at least, not directly). Rather, he’s asking what a lie actually is. For him this question is vital because it directly implies which behaviours with respect to the truth are ever permitted and which are not. But it’s still an essential question for those of us who believe that there is something merely bad about all lying, even if that badness can on occasion be outweighed by other factors. Which speech acts possess that intrinsic badness?
Feser says many profound and interesting things in response to this question, but I was particularly struck by one of the first, on pleasantries, and I’m going to spend today’s post riffing on that point. According to Feser, it is not a lie to say “I’m fine, thanks” in reply to “how are you?” when you are not feeling fine, for in such a context “I’m fine, thanks” does not actually mean that you are feeling fine or doing well. Continue reading