Questions about dishonesty

  1. Is it a sin to be misleading, but not actually say something false? I.e., if you want somebody to think you sent them an e-mail but you didn’t, is it a sin to ask “did you get my e-mail?”, or is that being manipulative?

  2. As I understand it, it is OK to say something technically false if it’s a minor issue and you’re being polite, i.e., if someone casually asks how you’re doing, you can say “great” even if you’re having a bad day. Does this also apply to if somebody is asking you to do something wrong? For example, if somebody asks for a lighter, but no smoking is allowed in the spot he’s asking for; can you say “sorry, don’t have one”, even if you do? Or, if you’re taking a test and the person next to you tries to cheat and asks for the answer to one of the questions, can you say “don’t know” even if you do?

To intentionally mislead is a sin whether or not one actually lies or not. For example if you are privy to confidential information and are asked for that information by someone who doesn’t have the right to that information, saying you do not know is to lie. You reply it is not my place to say.

Or, if you’re taking a test and the person next to you tries to cheat and asks for the answer to one of the questions, can you say “don’t know” even if you do?

Saying “don’t know” would be lying if in fact you do know. The correct thing to say is “I am not free to say”. Then it is in his court if he questions the morality of your decision not to help her cheat. You can explain afterwards the answer and also take advantage of the opportunity to explain why cheating is wrong.

“Did you get my e-mail?” when you haven’t sent one is not a lie in the most direct sense, but it literally conveys the information that you sent the e-mail. I would see it as more than just inducing misguided reliance.

In some situations you may intentionally mislead. For example, this is perfectly okay in sport and in some competitions (feints in martial arts, gambits in chess etc). It may well be fine in combat. There are some limits you aren’t supposed to cross, however.

This however, may be explained by consent to the rules of the game (in game) and necessity or even acting under duress in case of war or assault (e.g. when you use a feint against an attacker). There is no such situation in what you describe.

Perhaps it might be helpful to consider that a lie is not just a formal, ritual act of uttering words that aren’t true, but it is a miscommunication that hurts the other person. From this point of view, an intentional miscommunication that harms the other person can’t really be seen as a good thing just because it doesn’t contain a direct lie.

If it doesn’t hurt the other person in some ostensible way and the person doesn’t have the right to the information which is distorted by the misleading communication, the person still has some right to expect to be communicated to honestly and not be led into error. Even if he doesn’t have the right to given information, he has the right not to suffer any wrong because of being given false information on which he might rely. I think we could even argue that a person has the right not to have his mind cluttered with worthless, false information by others.

This said, it may be perfectly right to withhold information. However, communicating a falsehood is not merely withholding the true information, for it is withholding the true information and also giving a false one.

Further, some things may not be a lie but may still be fraud. Fraud, in the ethical sense, is using someone’s lack of knowledge in a way detrimental to him.

  1. As I understand it, it is OK to say something technically false if it’s a minor issue and you’re being polite, i.e., if someone casually asks how you’re doing, you can say “great” even if you’re having a bad day.

It is customarily considered acceptable and even desirable. I prefer to give a non-false answer, however. Please note that “how are you doing?” is generally asking for an evaluation. It’s generally your opinion, your “grading” of your situation. It’s a bit like answering “no” when asked if you fear. In the latter case, it is seen perhaps as that you conquer your fear by saying you don’t fear, so even though you technically fear, you don’t fear because you have it under control. I’m not convinced it makes such an answer right, but I believe people aren’t doing wrong when they do that.

Some people will say that we ask “how are you?” out of courtesy and it’s not an invitation for someone to burden us with his problems. However, that would suggest we’re lying in some way because we’re uttering words which ask someone to tell us honestly how he’s doing, while the other person is supposed to pretend everything is okay and to pretend that we’re kind in asking how he does. That’s quite paranoid in my opinion.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that if someone knows the “how are you?” is not an invitation to burden the asker with your problems, then this is to be ignored. But one can always politely thank the asker for being considerate and give some answer that doesn’t invite further discussion. “Thanks for asking. Some things could be better, but I’m coping.” Note that, “Some things could be better but I’m fine overall,” perfectly merits a short, “I’m fine,” answer. If you’re fine overall, then you’re simply fine. Generally, this means that you believe what you say.

In this case, however, inducing a belief that you’re doing better than you really are isn’t fraudulent. It has more to do with withholding troubling information than with spreading falsehoods. If you’re fine overall but some things are bad, you don’t lie by keeping the bad things to yourself.

Does this also apply to if somebody is asking you to do something wrong? For example, if somebody asks for a lighter, but no smoking is allowed in the spot he’s asking for; can you say “sorry, don’t have one”, even if you do? Or, if you’re taking a test and the person next to you tries to cheat and asks for the answer to one of the questions, can you say “don’t know” even if you do?

In the given examples, the person “lying” is hardly doing a big wrong and in most cases, he’s also acting without deliberation. In fact, the person probably acts in belief that he’s doing the right thing. I may be splitting hairs here and being a Pharisee, but I would say that if one thinks about it, one should start giving non-false responses.

If a person asks for a lighter in a no-smoking area, one can point at the non-smoking sign and smile lightly. This should shame the asker into giving up the idea. If the asker were intimidating, I suppose it would be a case of duress. It would be similar with the test. Ignoring a request for unfair help shouldn’t be a bad thing to do - by this I mean simply not reacting to it, but without pretending one didn’t hear it. I suspect that one would be in his right pretending he didn’t hear the request.

Lastly, note that sometimes fiction isn’t wrong. Fictitious addresses of celebrities don’t strike me as wrong. Fake ID’s of undercover officers using fake names don’t strike me as wrong. Same way, pretending you didn’t hear a request for unfair help doesn’t strike me as wrong. I don’t want to delve into “technically wrong” territory because that’s splitting hairs and we have much better things to do than thinking about technicalities. :slight_smile:

And please note that minor things cannot be made into mortal sins, especially if one acts in error and/or without deliberation. I was answering from a philosophical standpoint and I may be wrong on some details. This was not a theological argument. I’d talk the same with a non-believer asking me the same question. :wink: I’m obviously willing to defend my positions, though. I simply point out they don’t pretend to be theological.

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