Thursday, September 18, 2008

How wrong is lying?

Some (e.g. Alexander Pruss) say that lying is always wrong, but I wonder. (The question arises in the context of teaching, where you have to teach what is to be taught, not what you yourself believe, and where the naturally sociological aspects of teaching can be counter-intuitive, as with the recent Michael Reiss stuff.)
......The familiar counter-example is the knock on the door in the dead of night. It’s the Nazis, come to ask you if there are any Jews hiding in your attic. There are (say) and if you don’t say anything, or if you say anything they don’t like, then they’ll investigate further. Convincing, I find; but I also suspect that the Nazis might not count. Perhaps they’ve left the linguistic community within which lying is wrong, by their actions, and joined the ranks of the dangerous animals. (Language-use is a pretty complicated business, I find.) So suppose you’re a doctor.
......Your patient is fatally ill, with no known cure. Still, if she thought there was a cure, there might be a placebo effect. So you might lie to her, e.g. tell her that there is a new drug being tested. She could join its trial (you might tell her), with a 50% chance of getting a placebo. You cannot tell her any more details (you might tell her) in the interests of scientific objectivity (and in her own interests, naturally). There need be no real trust betrayed here, because people might (say) know that you’re scrupulously honest in general, that you would only lie in this sort of case.
......Suppose your patient knows you might be lying, but doesn’t know that you are. (That would hardly affect the placebo effect because, in a real drug trial, she would know there was a good chance of not getting the drug, and would not know how good the drug would be even if she got it.) Is lying in such a case wrong (as it must be if lying is always wrong)? E.g., is it the lesser of two evils? But if so then what is the other, greater evil? Letting nature take its course when there is nothing (that is morally acceptable) to be done about it, presumably; but if so, what’s wrong with that?
......Of course, you (the doctor) could get the same (or maybe a better) result without lying, e.g. by giving your patient a homeopathic remedy; but the same question will arise: If you are peddling such remedies, is it wrong for you to lie as part of a system that enables doctors to avoid lying? You need not be lying when you say that homeopathey works (since it works insofar as placebos work), but you would have to lie at some point unless you were very naive (dangerously so, since you claim to be selling medicine), so why not let the professionals take care of such things directly?

2 comments:

Jeff said...

One issue that I think ought to be considered is that the doctor's lying is only useful in a medical system where it is an exception.

This might seem to fly in the face of the example you give from medical trials... but your example leads me to a question:
In medical trials where they use a placebo, do they generally remind patients about the placebo effect?
If they don't, even if patients are distantly aware of the placebo effect, it's probably not foremost in their minds that they are possibly getting a sugar pill rather than real meds.

If people suspected that doctors lied then they would think "My doctors lying to me, too, about my chances. Things are much worse than he'll admit." I wonder if this would lead to a reverse-placedbo effect, where people would actually worsen their physical state by assuming things are worse.

I think that Kant's on to something, with the categorical imperative. There's something wrong with the idea of suggesting that some dr.'s take advantage of the network of trust set up by all the other dr's.

I response to the question of "Is lying always wrong" is "Yes, it is. But in some cases it is even more wrong to tell the truth." The nazi's are a case where it is more wrong to tell the truth, but it is still wrong to lie.

Committing any sort of wrong would call for repetance, or regret, or some similiar sort of attitude. So perhaps the necessary lies-- such as those told to Nazi-- should properly be accompanied by a sense of sadness that the world is in such a state as to require this act from us.

I'm not sure I have any good philsophical reason for liking this response. It resonates with my Christianity, I think, while I also recognize it might seem almost silly, like mandatory feelings of guilt.

Alrenous said...

First of all is the difference between lying and deception.

For me, the case for lying is trivial; of course it's not wrong to lie per se, or novels would be evil, and that's nonsense.

Moreover, when I was young and naive, I took up the challenge of never lying. (Except in self-defence, as per usual.)

I was mostly successful. I remain successful, actually, but what I've found is that it's trivially easy to deceive without lying.

Which is a second reason to think that lying per se is not evil.

Things are much worse than he'll admit." I wonder if this would lead to a reverse-placebo effect, where people would actually worsen their physical state by assuming things are worse.

An excellent example of the harm intentional deception can cause, an a priori reason to consider deception, rather than lying, wrong.


Let me just amend Enigman's doctor analogy.

"Well, madam, your condition is (not very good.) But, we do have a treatment available."

"What does the treatment do?"

"There are a variety of effects, we won't be sure until we administer it, but your condition should improve. We can try other things if it does not.

"Fortunately, there are only very rarely negative side effects to this treatment."

The treatment, of course, is a sugar pill, and it will probably improve her situation - because an authority told her so. There's no lying here. The other treatment is not a different pill, but a different deceptive rigmarole.

Nevertheless, as Jeff has brought up, if anyone uncovers the deception it will stop working, and indeed the whole system is parasitic on the reputation of doctors. Deception is dangerous.


Though, come to think, is it parasitic? If I were very sick and my doctor's only option was to rely on the placebo effect, would I want them to? I'm thinking yes. "Yes Doc, please lie to me. Tell me it's all going to be all right." Sound familiar?

(Actually, for me in particular, I wouldn't. I'm weird, though.)

It's quite possible that people would willingly enable intentional placebo treatments.

Still, in general, deception is dangerous, despite particular instances of the contrary.

While the primary reason I wouldn't want to be placebo-ified is emotional, the practical reason is that I want to plan ahead, which I can only do properly with accurate information. It's a fact that people act differently when they're moribund.


Incidentally, the fact that placebos work means you have indirect conscious control over your illness, and in fact your general physical condition. You do not, however, have to rely on deception to get it to work.

It should be possible to set up a system of placebo treatment without actual sugar pills.