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Can a Lie be Ethical?

door Jennifer Jordan


We all have been in these situations – a boss gives a less-than-thrilling presentation and asks us what we thought of it; following an impending downsize, an already stressed colleague asks us if he is likely to stay in the company when you know that his division is likely to take the biggest hit; a romantic partner asks us if you think she was wrong to send the incendiary email to her boss when you actually know it wasn’t the wisest move – at a time when she is clearly experiencing anxiety over the choice. What do you do? Do you tell a lie? Tell the truth? What is the most ethical option and how will your choice be perceived?

These questions are partially answered by the potential liar’s own philosophy around lying: some people believe that all lies are wrong – regardless of the outcome (this is considered a more deontological perspective, as it looks at the “rules” functioning in the situation) and some people believe that telling a “white lie” is right – as long as it benefits the other person (this is considered a more utilitarian perspective, as it looks at the outcome of the situation). But how do others judge an “altruistic lie” (Erat & Gneezy, 2012)? Can a lie ever be perceived as the most ethical outcome?

Recent research by Emma Levine and Maurice Schweitzer (2014) from The Wharton School in the United States suggest that, under certain conditions, it can. These researchers varied a single game (which they labeled as, “The Number Game”) across three separate studies. In short, the game operated such that participants believed they were watching the outcome of a game that just took place between two people. The rules of this game were that there was a Sender and Receiver. The Sender supposedly drew a number (between 1 and 5) from a random number generator; in actuality, a 4 was always chosen. The Sender could send the Receiver a message about what number was chosen and the only information that the Receiver would have exposure to was the message sent by the Sender. The Sender had one of two options for what to send to the Receiver. Option A was an honest message (i.e., “The number 4 was picked.” And the Receiver always picked 4.). In this case, the Sender would receive $2 and the Receiver would receive $0. OR the Sender could send Option B, which was a lie (e.g., “The number 1 was picked.”). In this situation, if the Receiver selected the wrong number (i.e., something other than 4), he/she would get $1.75 and the Sender $1. Thus, in this experiment a lie benefitted the Receiver more than the truth. In this experiment, Senders who sent a lie (that is, Option B) were seen as more ethical and benevolent than those who sent the truth. These results suggest that liars can be perceived as more ethical than truth-tellers.

What can we take from these results to help guide us in our business interactions? First, they tell us that if we tell a lie that benefits the other person, people around us might see us as more ethical. That is, they suggest if we tell our colleague in the precarious job role that he shouldn’t worry because his job within the company is very secure, others would perceive us as more moral than if we tell him he has reason to worry. However, they don’t say anything about how the receiver of this lie perceives us or how we perceive ourselves when we lie. Nor do they look at situations in which lying may bring benefits in the short term (e.g., using the example above, our colleague is less anxious in the present) but permit benefits in the long term (e.g., by telling a lie, our colleague is discouraged from looking for another job to cover him once he is fired). (Side note: the Levine and Schweitzer research also looked at situations where the Sender received nothing for telling the truth. Here, Senders were also seen as more moral than when the truth was told and they received something).

There is theory that when we tell an altruistic lie (and the receiver discovers this; e.g., our friend finds out that we knew his job was in danger when we told him otherwise), the receiver might not only feel that we are less trustworthy but she may look at the world around her with more skepticism. In addition, it is possible that by telling a lie – even with altruistic motives – we will see ourselves as possessing less integrity (Bok, 1978). Thus, clearly more research is needed. However, the results from the Levine and Schweitzer (2014) research suggest that under some circumstances, lying can be perceived by observers as ethical and as bosses, colleagues, and subordinates, we should be aware of this when put in the situation of being asked a difficult question.

Bok, S. (1978). Lying: Moral choice in public life. New York: Pantheon.

Erat, S., & Gneezy, U. (2012). White lies. Management Science, 58(4), 723–733.

Levine, E. E., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2014). Are liars ethical? On the tension between benevolence and honesty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 107–117. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.03.005

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