The answer to this question is “no, never” or “yes, and a lot more often than you might think,” depending on exactly what we mean by a “lie.” The problem is complicated by the multiple ways people use that term. For example, you’ll often hear someone confess to you, “I lied,” when what the person really means is nothing more than, “I made an error.” But being mistaken is not the same thing as lying, since lying requires a deliberate intention to tell a falsehood, a condition that is absent when we make mistakes. Thus, mistakes are not lies, and we would do well not to confuse them. Why? Because we use certain terms to convey automatic moral condemnation, and lying is one of these terms.
To see this, let’s use our best case for moral condemnation, murder. Murder is always wrong. We don’t make exceptions. In cases where a killing happens but we don’t think it is wrong, we rightly hesitate to call that a “murder.” Even our courts recognize a whole range of killings that we distinguish from the far more serious cases of murder. If a child runs into the road as you come round the bend, you might well hit and kill that child. But while this is a case of manslaughter, it is not a case of murder. In other cases, we even go so far as to recognize that some killings can be justified. So, if you kill in self-defense, we don’t call that a murder. We call it a justified killing. We say that your life is so valuable that you may kill a would-be murderer. Similarly, if you kill to protect someone else who is under lethal attack, we again consider that a justified killing, a case of third-party defense, a heroic intervention. So, we recognize that there are many cases of killings, and while we regret all human deaths, we do not morally condemn the killers in all of them. Those we condemn in the strongest moral terms we call “murderers.” Thus, murder—properly understood—is always wrong and cannot ever be justified.
We make a similar distinction in the case of theft. Stealing or thieving is always wrong, because these two terms imply moral condemnation. But there are cases where we recognize that taking what belongs to someone else is not only justified but even encouraged. Imagine you are a police officer responding to a domestic dispute. You come upon a man in his house drunk and belligerent with his wife, and you notice that he is cleaning his lawfully owned pistol at the same time. In many jurisdictions within the United States, as a police officer you are lawfully permitted (at least temporarily) to separate the man from his weapon. Again, in cases of mental illness where a guardianship is emplaced by a Probate Court, the Guardian can legally take over property owned by the subject of the guardianship. This is done for the good of the subject, to protect him from himself and the unscrupulous ways of others that might seek to victimize him. Our Probate Courts in the State of Ohio are recognized as the “superior Guardian” of every citizen within the State. They may lawfully and morally intervene in the management of my property if such need is demonstrated evidentially.
Let’s shift the context from civil society to the context of war. Killing enemy soldiers in time of war is an act that is morally permissible by our soldiers, however regrettable the loss of life truly is. Similarly, capturing enemy supplies or enemy vehicles is considered a successful military action rather than a theft against the enemy unit or its government. We do not call such captures “thefts.” We do not morally condemn them. We praise them.
So, in both the cases of killing and appropriating property, we recognize a moral distinction between those cases of moral condemnation and those of moral justification. We reserve the terms “murder” and “stealing” for those acts that are worthy of moral condemnation. Thus, in the more general cases of killings and takings, we say that murder and theft are always wrong. So, it would be curious if there could be lawful and morally justified killings and property seizures but there could never be any lawful and morally justified falsehoods, wouldn’t it? In the case of falsehoods, we would expect to find the same sort of distinction between justified and unjustified actions that we find in the contexts of killing and property-taking. And we do, so let’s explore them and their rationale.
Let’s start with a marital example. Successfully married men and women confide truthfully to one another about nearly everything. They must function as a family unit in their lives and sewing falsehoods into what the other person believes about the relationship tends to be very damaging in the long run. So, we would expect that legitimate falsehoods in marriages should be very few. Many married couples make an exception in the case of spousal gift purchases. If you go to the store to purchase an emerald necklace for your wife, and she asks you where you went on your errand, what are you going to tell her? Well, you’re not going to tell her about the gift purchase, are you? It’s supposed to be a surprise! It’s understood that it must be kept secret. While you may be able to deflect the question to avoid telling a direct falsehood, wives are usually experts at noticing verbal subterfuge. Your best bet is to tell her that you dropped by Home Depot to look for a replacement grill grate, something she will immediately believe when you add that you hadn’t found the one you were looking for. But you just deliberately told your wife a falsehood. Is this a lie?
Let’s consider another example to add to the complexity of the problem. Let’s suppose that the next weekend you and your wife attend the theatre to watch a performance of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare. While there, you are surprised when someone three rows in front of you jumps to his feet enraged at the actors on the stage. He shouts that this imposter is not Julius Caesar and such lies should not be acceptable in a civilized society! How would you respond to this fellow? I’ll bet you’d think that someone needs to get in here and take him away for a psychological evaluation, right? But he’s not mistaken about the underlying fact, is he? That actor is not Julius Caesar, yet he just said that he was. That’s a deliberate falsehood. But do you think that the actors are telling lies? Do we morally condemn them?
Let’s add one final example to add yet another dimension to the complexity of this issue. Let’s suppose that in your job you work for the Drug Enforcement Agency (the DEA) in support of undercover operations. You routinely watch as your undercover officers try to sell bags full of powdered sugar to suspected criminals (I am dubious that they attempt this, but work with me for the sake of the example!). The undercover officers tell the suspects that these bags are full of cocaine, but this isn’t true, is it? They are deliberately deceiving them, intentionally telling them a falsehood in order to bait the hook. But is this wrong? Is this a case of lying?
I think that most of us would agree that in each of these cases—the gift purchasing spouse, the actor, and the undercover DEA officer—that though a falsehood is deliberately being imposed, it is not immoral. We might have been tempted to call these “little white lies” in order to distinguish them from the darker, immoral ones. But given that we must reserve the term “lying” for morally condemned cases, there cannot be any “white” lies. If these deliberate falsehoods are justified, then they aren’t lies at all. We should instead classify them as justified falsehoods under the more general category of justified deceptions. Notice that all deliberate falsehoods are cases of deception, but not all deceptions make use of explicitly stated falsehoods. Lying strictly requires a deliberate falsehood. Omitting key facts or allowing someone to erroneously believe something false are not cases of lying, but instead cases of deception. Some people do call immoral deceptions that exclude deliberate falsehoods “lies of omission” in order to maintain the consistency of the moral language about truthfulness, but this confuses the generally understood requirement that lies require directly false statements. Lying is a specific form of morally unacceptable deception which requires an explicit and deliberate falsehood, but there are other forms of deception where we would also distinguish the unjustified from the justified cases, just as we did in the above three scenarios. To sort this all out, then, we must figure out what makes these deliberate falsehoods justified so that we can clearly identify and then avoid the always-immoral lies.
So, let’s return to the marital case and imagine a different situation. In this case your wife notices on the credit card bill that you spent $650 at a nearby sporting store. You had not discussed this purchase with your wife. You had kind of hoped that she might miss it when she paid the bills this month. But you have been caught. And now a very potent temptation rises within you to make up a story in order to justify this expense—that you bought something for your buddy Bill who promised to pay you back—because in reality the $650 bought you a share in a fishing trip with your friends. You had planned to tell your wife that on that fishing weekend you’d be on a business trip. You had it all figured out. Until this moment when she caught you. If you tell her falsehoods here to try to explain away the purchase, it’s very difficult to see how they can be justified. You have a common income and money management system in a marriage, and unless you grant each other unrestricted personal spending allowances each month, you have a duty to tell each other the truth. In fact, if you did have agreed-to allowances, you’d not hesitate to tell her the truth, would you? The hesitation is caused exactly by the fact that you knew the expense violated your marital financial duties and you didn’t want to get caught. We don’t tend to lie about good things, do we? This does suggest that we’d be tempted to lie a lot less if we stopped doing things that we know are wrong! But here you are, caught by the wife. Your marital duty requires you to come clean. She’s not going to be happy, not just with the $650 you spent, but far more because you tried to hide it from her. Men that try to hide things from their wives are men that might be trying to hide things far more serious than a weekend fishing trip. The doubt caused by these lies sews toxicity into the spousal trust critical to successful marriages.
All right, so now let’s compare the falsehoods employed in the two marital cases, the spousal gift purchase vs. the fishing trip expenditure. What makes the spousal gift purchase falsehoods acceptable but the fishing trip falsehoods unacceptable? In the case of the gift purchases, you and your wife had an agreement, either explicit (which is probably the more prudent course) or implicit, that deception is permissible in the case of hiding gifts from the other spouse. Your wife gave up her usual right to expect the truth from you in the special case of gift purchases by her explicit consent. Notice that this is likewise the solution to the theater case. When you purchase a ticket to the theater, you are giving up your right to expect the actors on the stage to be themselves. You want them to act out the parts! You are paying them to pretend to be the characters from the play. This is why we think that that the aggrieved fellow in the audience is demented, because he fails to understand what the theater is. Actors on stage are not telling lies, even though they are deceiving the entire audience. Why? Because the audience came to the theater with the intention of being so deceived! Thus, we can give up our rights to the truth by explicit consent in the marital agreement case or by implicit consent in the theater ticket purchase case.
Incidentally, giving up one’s rights to the truth is what justifies all forms of government secrecy where that secrecy has built-in oversight and accountability. When you become a citizen, you grant your government the right and the duty to protect you from enemies, foreign and domestic. Such protection requires that governments form military, spy, and police units that try to ferret out what hostile parties might be planning. To do so, they must conceal those efforts, not just from the hostile parties, but from you, because exposure of their methods and agents would neutralize their effectiveness. Thus, citizenship implicitly grants to the government the power to classify certain information and activities as deception-worthy and, thus, secret. If you work in a classified department within the government or in a business with classified government contracts, you might be directed to deceive your friends and family about what you are working on. The deceptions that you employ in these cases—even if deliberate falsehoods—are not lies. You should not feel guilty about deceiving people in these cases, since your deceptive activities function to protect those very people from potential harms. And protection from harm is a fundamental reason we are citizens. Thus, your friends and family already implicitly granted you the authority not to tell them the truth, to deceive them, to directly state falsehoods to them about your classified work. Therefore, there is not and never has been a public “right to know.” You’ll not find any such thing in our Declaration of Independence or within our Constitution or any colonial era listing of our natural rights. There cannot be a public “right to know” without that very public being endangered.
Now, having said that, you’ll probably worry about wrongful government actions covered up by claims to national security secrecy. And you’d be right to worry about this, because we’ve seen far too many cases of this in the past hundred years. Notice in the last paragraph that I said that government secrecy is justified where that secrecy has built-in oversight and accountability. Though the public does not have any general “right to know,” all actions within a republic devoted to the protection of individual liberty and the common good must be accountable to other parts of the republic. Thus, to use an American example, if the CIA is running a top-secret operation in a foreign country, there is accountability, not directly and publicly to the citizens, but instead to their elected representatives. First, the CIA is answerable to the President and his office, because that agency is an agency that acts, i.e., executes action. Thus, the CIA falls within the Executive Branch. But since our republic is built upon separate but balancing powers, the funding for the CIA is authorized by acts of Congress, the Legislative Branch. Thus, Congress also has the right of oversight over what the CIA is doing, but that oversight must safeguard the secrets. To achieve both the required secrecy as well as the required oversight and accountability, the House of Representatives and the Senate have special committees that govern intelligence operations. The members of the House committees are rightly required to take a special oath of secrecy so that what they are evaluating will not be revealed to the public. Leaking classified information for political purposes is highly problematic and erodes the confidence that the public places in its government. Similarly, using classification to hide or disguise executive (or any other) branch misdeeds is terribly worrisome for a constitutional republic’s success. Notice that the executive branch includes all the various policing agencies such as the DEA, IRS, and the FBI, the foreign intelligence services such as the CIA and the NSA, as well as all the military branches. When agencies such as these tell falsehoods to cover up their misdeeds, these falsehoods are lies, because the citizens (or their elected representatives) have a right to the truth in any case where a government official employs his powers beyond right.
Okay, so we now have a pretty rich understanding of cases where we do and where we do not consent to give up our right to the truth. In our marriages we have a deep expectation of spousal truth-telling. In entertainment we have a broad expectation that acting is not truth-telling. In our government we hope that our government officers and elected officials would safeguard the public by the proper use of secrecy. In each of these cases we have either explicitly or implicitly given up our rights to the truth.
Before moving onto the final case of the undercover DEA officers, let me address one corollary marital case. Many married couples believe that they are entitled to cover up for their partner in cases where private information that belongs to the couple is being sought by an outside party. Precisely because the information in question falls within marital privacy, the couple is justified in deceiving external inquirers. You can see the parallel to national secrecy here.
All right, let’s now turn to the DEA officer case, because it does not seem to fall under the rule of consent to be deceived. The suspected criminals will insist that they never consented to be tricked into purchasing fake bags of cocaine! So, how can undercover operations of this kind be justified? Or, are the officers in question lying through their teeth?
Let’s go back to the cases of justified killings and look more closely at self-defense. What justifies you in killing your attacker in these cases? How do you suddenly acquire an authority that you would not normally possess—the authority to take a human life? Well, we’d probably insist that if this criminal had not launched an attack on you, then you’d not have acquired that authority. And you’d be right. So, what is it in launching attacks that changes the equation? In normal society we share an expectation of peaceful relations, that I should behave toward you as I wish to be treated, and vice-versa. The reciprocal morality of the Golden Rule is the foundation for all successful civilizations. But when someone launches a personal assault and so violates that common rule, they similarly place themselves outside its expected protections.
The philosopher John Locke called this the doctrine of rights forfeiture. Thus, when the criminal assaulted you, he denied you your expected treatment and violated your fundamental rights to life, liberty and the preservation of your property of person and things. By the logical consistency of the Golden Rule, if by my actions I violate your natural and God-given rights through an assault, I cannot at the same time lay claim to any such rights to protect myself. My own actions forfeit my protections under the natural law. If I attack you, I convert myself into a legitimate target, forfeiting my own natural rights. In cases of self-defense and third-party defense, an attacker can be resisted with justified lethal force because that attacker has by his own choice placed himself outside the protections of the Golden Rule and the Natural Law.
Similarly, in the cases of stealing, if someone steals from you, he places his own liberty and property in jeopardy. A court can imprison a thief and require restitution. The thief abandoned his right to liberty and the security of his own property by violating your right to the liberty to use what you own as you see fit. Thus, the doctrine of rights forfeiture also applies in the cases of stealing.
So, how does the doctrine of rights forfeiture impact our evaluation of deceptions employed in undercover investigations? Here again, we have a case of people suspected of criminal activity. If they are acting in criminal ways, they have placed themselves outside the usual protections of the natural and criminal law. But of course, we do not yet know if they are acting in criminal ways. So, if there is enough justified suspicion to launch an investigation, then our laws recognize the powers of police agencies to use undercover officers to ferret out criminal behavior and justify those suspicions. Hence, an undercover officer deceiving and telling deliberate falsehoods to suspects is not a case of his lying to them. If the suspects are indeed committing criminal deeds, then their own criminal conduct forfeits their right to expect the truth from policing officers. If the suspects were not committing criminal actions, then the implicit consent of their citizenship warrants legitimate and accountable investigations by policing agencies including the authority to deceive. There are limits to these lawful powers, of course, such as the prohibition on officers to entrap citizens by persuading them to engage in the very criminal actions they are then charged with. Similarly, many jurisdictions are recognizing the need for limits on the use of deception by police during interrogations of children and the mentally challenged. But in general terms, law enforcement officers who in the line of duty deceive suspects are not lying to them. If you work within one of these undercover spheres, the criminals you are trying to arrest have forfeited their rights to the truth, and any innocent citizens have implicitly granted to you the power to protect them, even if that protection requires deception.
In summary, then, we should tell the truth in cases where people have a rightful expectation to the truth. Deliberately telling falsehoods in these cases is immoral and captures what we mean when we prohibit lying. However, in any case where by explicit consent (and in many cases of implicit consent) we agreed to be deceived, our expectation of truthfulness is abandoned in favor of an alternative good that we seek (the spousal surprise gift or the theater performance). Furthermore, in cases where we act in violation of the natural rights of our neighbors, they acquire the authority to deceive us for the purposes of halting such violations. Our own behavior forfeits our rights to the truth, even if we still want our neighbors to tell us the truth. If I suspect you of credit card fraud, I’m not going to supply you with my real credit card number. That’s on you, not me. Governmental agencies of public protection both domestic and foreign acquire vast powers of legitimate deception but only for the public good and only if fulfilling proper accountability to legitimate oversight. They may use significant levels of deception on criminals or foreign enemies, but they are far more limited by law in cases where they only suspect some criminality. However, when governments act in violation of the natural rights of their citizens, then those citizens acquire the authority to resist those violations, powers that include the right to deceive. So, in the infamous case of the Nazis kicking down your door and demanding that because you are a good Christian, you’d better not lie but instead tell them where you’ve hidden those Jews, you are morally authorized to deceive them and tell them whatever falsehoods that are required to protect your neighbors. Your third-party defense rights kick in against a tyrannical government who by its own conduct forfeits its right to expect that its citizens will conform to law. This is truly loving your neighbor as yourself.