An interesting debate on the concept of “lying by omission” has sprung up in the most recent comment thread. Specifically, we’ve been discussing the strategic vs. moral implications of having sex with multiple people, while evaluating which of those people, if any, you’d like to be exclusive with. What are you morally obligated to disclose about your sexual motives and activities to your various partners?
Obviously, if all parties are fully aware that the sex is no-strings and concurrent with other sexual relationships, it’s “No harm, No foul.” Everyone is making an informed decision. However, from there it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This may also be agreed upon, as in an open relationship: “I don’t care if you have affairs, but I don’t want to know anything about them.”
In today’s SMP “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has become the go-to strategy of opportunists trying to squeeze out personal gain at the expense of someone else while taking cover under a plea of ignorance. It may take the form of a woman leading a guy on to get the benefits of commitment without allowing the relationship to become sexual. Or a guy may lead a woman on to get sex without ever intending to offer commitment.
Generally, intentional misleading is referred to as lying by omission. While some commenters have stated that they believe the phrase is an oxymoron, it has been widely explored as a potential form of dishonesty by philosophers, ethicists and mental health counselors.
Lying by omission
Also known as a continuing misrepresentation, a lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions. When the seller of a car declares it has been serviced regularly but does not tell that a fault was reported at the last service, the seller lies by omission.
As I began to research lying, I was surprised to find that the topic of dishonesty has been a hotly debated topic for hundreds of years. From an article about the ground rules of lying in Time Magazine:
When is it permissible to tell a lie? Never, according to Augustine and Kant. Machiavelli approved lying for princes, Nietzsche for the exceptional hero—the Superman.
Tim Mazur is an ethicist and the COO of the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association. His article on lying for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has been frequently cited. He outlines the three philosophies that deal with the problem of lying:
The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong. He argued that all persons are born with an “intrinsic worth” that he called human dignity.
…Lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. My lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy.
In Kant’s view, which is also shared by Augustine, lying is wrong no matter what. For example, it is wrong to lie about your sister’s whereabouts in order to protect her from her abusive husband in this strict view.
II. Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics also maintains that lying is morally wrong, though less strictly than Kant…Though the nature of virtue ethics makes it difficult to assess the morality of individual acts, those who advocate this theory generally consider lying wrong because it opposes the virtue of honesty. There is some debate whether a lie told in pursuit of another virtue is right or wrong.
III. Utilitarian Ethics
According to utilitarian ethics, Kant and virtue ethicists ignore the only test necessary for judging the morality of a lie – balancing the benefits and harms of its consequences. Utilitarians base their reasoning on the claim that actions, including lying, are morally acceptable when the resulting consequences maximize benefit or minimize harm.
Unsurprisingly, utilitarian ethics comes under intense criticism for its rejection of morality in favor of a flexibility to be defined by the liar. According to Mazur, “People often poorly estimate the consequences of their actions or specifically undervalue or ignore the harmful consequences to society (e.g., mistrust) that their lies cause…The problem is that too few persons adequately consider any ethical perspective when facing a situation that tempts a lie.”
Why We Lie So Much, and Lies, Lies, Lies, articles in Time Magazine, describe a sharp rise in the frequency of lying in contemporary society.
Lies flourish in social uncertainty, when people no longer understand, or agree on, the rules governing their behavior toward one another.
…We are living in a time and culture in which it’s easier to lie than it has been in the past. The message that pervades society is that it’s O.K. to lie — you can get away with it. One of the things I found in my research is that when you confront people with their lies, they very rarely display remorse. Lying is not seen as being morally reprehensible in any strong way.
You can make the assumption that because it often makes social interactions go more smoothly, lying is O.K. But there is a cost to even seemingly benign lies…Lies put a smudge on an interaction, and if it’s easy to lie to people in minor ways, it becomes easier to lie in bigger ways.
UCLA Political Science Professor Barry O’Neill has written A Formal System For Understanding Lies and Deceit. In it he describes a kind of lying via manipulation:
Manipulation is inducing someone to do something while withholding information relevant to their decision, information that they would want to know. Another is to say that manipulation occurs when one persuades another using knowledge of their particular psychology, rather than rational means. Both of these touch on the idea of the idea that the manipulator is using broader knowledge than the victim.
One example is “when the person does nothing active to induce a false belief, but deliberately hides their own actions that would correct it.” Another is “evasive talk, often to avoid blame. It is a lie but does not include anything literally false.”
The All-Important Question of Intent
In yet another Time article about the lying that goes on in political campaigns, writer Paul Gray acknowledges he difficulty of judging the morality of lies, but sees a solution:
Fortunately, there is a way out of this logical blind alley. All lies, regardless of their relationship to the truth, have one thing in common.
“We must single out,” writes Sissela Bok in Lying, “from the countless ways in which we blunder misinformed through life, that which is done with the intention to mislead.” Lies may confuse everyone who hears them, as they are meant to, but liars know exactly what they are doing while they are doing it.
In Telling Lies, Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California medical school in San Francisco, provides a slightly more elaborate definition: “One person intends to mislead another, doing so deliberately, without prior notification of this purpose, and without having been explicitly asked to do so by the target. There are two primary ways to lie: to conceal and to falsify.”
Clearly, lying by commission is to falsify with deliberation, and lying by omission is to conceal with deliberation. Why is it so easy to conceal the truth from people? According to Eben Harrell at Time:
We are not very good at detecting deception in other people. When we are trying to detect honesty, we look at the wrong kinds of nonverbal behaviors, and we misinterpret them. The problem is that there is no direct correlation between someone’s nonverbal behavior and their honesty.
What’s more, a lot of the time, we don’t want to detect lies in other people. We are unwilling to put forward the cognitive effort to suspect the veracity of statements, and we aren’t motivated to question people when they tell us things we want to hear.
This last statement is crucial in our understanding of the impact of lying by omission. Each one of us is responsible for putting forth the required cognitive effort to make good decisions, and when we enter a state of denial we willingly avoid the truth. When we fail to do these things we commit an error of judgment, but not one of morality.
This does not in any way dilute or supersede examination of the morality of the person who does conceal. When it comes to ethical issues, intent is king.
Alex Lickerman, MD is a Buddhist physican who reflects on issues of morality. He suggests that all deceit is designed to offer protection for:
- Ourselves: avoid suffering painful consequences,shame, embarrassment, or conflict.
- Our interests: to get what we want.
- Our image: to look better to others.
- Our resources: to avoid doing what we don’t want to do.
- Others: spare others’ feelings.
What are the implications for relationships?
1. If you have information that you believe might change another person’s choice about whether to enter a sexual or dating relationship with you, you are morally obligated to reveal, rather than conceal it.
2. It is invalid to excuse lying by omission by deploying utilitarian ethics or moral equivalency. Examples might include:
- “Lots of men lie to women and lead them on, so I should be able to do the same thing to them.”
- “Feminism screwed up the SMP so badly that lying by omission is necessary to level the playing field. This will benefit society.”
- “Creating a mentality of abundance requires concealment, because honesty would reduce my options.”
- “High heels, push-up bras and makeup are all forms of lying. This deception is no different.”
- “It’s for his own benefit, I think he’d really rather not know.”
3. Our culture rewards liars. Seek a partner who subscribes to a value system of honesty as a virtue. Reject any involvement with a person who relies on utilitarian principles for moral guidance.
4. Finally, the National Survey of Family Growth found that 6.6% of American men have concurrent sexual relationships, though researchers believe the number is closer to 10%. This is a significant risk factor for STD transmission, especially for women. From WebMD:
Concurrent sexual relationships were particularly common among these groups:
- Unmarried men
- Men who had been in prison
- Men who reported being intoxicated while having sex
- Men who have had sex with men
- Men with female sex partners who had concurrent sexual relationships of their own
5. Habitual lying is a sociopathic behavior. It goes hand in hand with low empathy and is common among narcissists.