This post is part of the series Morality of Communication
Other posts in this series:
In my previous post, I set out the basics on why lying is always immoral. But deception is permissible. In order to understand why lying is wrong, further understanding of deception is necessary. Determining when deception is permissible is a matter of justice. In order to act justly, deception may be necessary. But there are also other circumstances in which justice demands that deception not occur.
Deception, if intentional, means that one person believes something that is false because of an action one takes. Now not all beliefs are equally valuable. Personal beliefs – such as ones about our own health – are far more valuable than beliefs about what our neighbors are doing. If we cause someone to believe falsely, then the apparent harm caused depends on the belief that they falsely believe.
Deception is only necessary because there is some harm being prevented. Such harms could be the breaking of a promise all the way up to murder. Each of these harms must be weighed against the harm caused by the deception. If the harm caused by the deception is less than that caused without the deception, then this condition is met. This condition cannot make deception permissible alone though.
For suppose that it did. In that case, the only thing to consider in an act is whether or not the consequences were harmful or not. In that case, lying would sometimes be permissible. Also, it would even be permissible to kill an innocent person. All actions would be permissible given the right circumstances. This is contrary to what I have already shown.
In order for an act to be right, it has to have the right content, right intent and right circumstances. The previous condition is the circumstantial condition. I have already shown that deception is sometimes permissible, so it does have the right content. Further will need to be said on that matter though. But the right intent is the final issue. Our intent in deceiving others is always done in order to achieve the prevention of the harms we set out to prevent. So if we deceive another person in order to protect someone’s life, we deceive for that reason. We know that the person will be deceived, but we do not intent that deception.
The final condition seems problematic. It is obvious that if we knowingly deceive someone – especially if we do so in the message we are sending – then we are intentionally deceiving them. But this follows only if we fail to distinguish lying from deception. If we are not lying when we send our message, then we are always stating what is strictly correct. Therefore, although we know and plan for how someone will respond, other responses are open to them. So we do not intend to deceive because the content of our actions allow for something other than deception. If that person chose to avoid their evil act and was not deceived, then that would have to be acceptable.
Next, I will discuss who it is permissible to deceive and why deception is related to justice.