When to Lie

 

Question #1

Your grandma has Alzheimer’s disease. This morning she woke up and could not find her husband. He died 5 years ago. If you tell her, she will be sad and upset… at least until she wakes up again tomorrow. Should you lie?

Question #2

Your grandma has Alzheimer’s disease. This morning she woke up and could not find her husband.  He died last night. If you tell her, she will be sad and upset… at least until she wakes up again tomorrow. Should you lie?

Question #3

Your grandma is sharp as a whip. This morning she woke up and could not find her husband. He died last night. If you tell her, she will be sad and upset… at least until she dies in 10 years. Should you lie?

Question #4

If you did not give the same answer for questions #1-#3, then how are the questions different?

UPDATE 8/13/2018 – So much for the Socratic method!

Of course my gut response to #1 is also to lie. That is not the question. I want to understand the principal about why it is OK to lie here but not other places. I want to know the answer to #4!

Most people quickly reply with something akin to “Lying to grandma #1 is different because she has diminished capacity”. So your principal is “It is OK to lie to someone with diminished capacity”?

Well, we *all* have diminished capacity. We all have imperfect memories to different degrees. So is it OK to lie to everyone based the “It is OK to lie to someone with diminished capacity” principal?

Ok, so now you likely say something like “No! There is some threshold level of diminished capacity below which it is OK to lie to the other person.”

Is it an objective or subjective standard?

If objective, is that threshold a fixed level of capacity? Or maybe based on a relative curve? If it is fixed, how do you objectively measure it? Who picks what the threshold is? Do you have a principal here? If it is relative, then what happens when the corpus changes? Should people have lied less 100 years ago when median IQ was lower? Unexpected consequence: If you and grandma lived 100 years ago maybe your test would require you to tell her the truth even though she had the same capacity as she does living in the present. Does that make sense?

If the standard is subjective, then who makes the determination? Clearly not grandma, right? How can someone without capacity determine if they have capacity? So you? What if your interests and biases are opposed to grandma’s? Do you want other people to lie to you because they unilaterally determine that you have insufficient capacity to accept the truth? Is this test subject matter specific, or does each person have a global capacity that applies to all their interactions? How often is your capacity rating updated? Is it right for your wife lie to you about cheating because in this narrow case she thinks you do not have the capacity to deal with the truth? Should I set my alarm to 5am so I can lie to you first thing in the morning before you had your coffee? Is there a duty to unlie to someone if they later regain capacity?

Can people opt out of being the target of capacity enabled lying? What if grandma handed you a letter while she still had capacity saying “I always want you to tell me the trust even if I have reduced capacity.” Would you still lie to her? What if she did not have capacity (based on your test) when she wrote the letter? Assuming you have capacity now, would you go ahead and write that letter to preempt people being able to lie to you in cases where you think you have capacity and they do not? Should the default be “assume everyone has a tell-me-the-trust letter unless they have specifically given you a dont-tell-me-the-truth letter”? Why not? Is that different than what we have today? If no, then does this change your answer grandma question #1?

Now you say (yell?) “These are unrealistic extreme edge cases!”. You are right, but I’d argue that if you do not know how to apply a principal in the hardest edge cases then you do not really have a principal.

And to be clear, I am only using grandma here because this case it so stark. The typical real-life cases when this comes up are far more subtle- but I think all depend on the same principal… and I do not know what that principal is. I want to. Any thoughtful guidance greatly appreciated – but please don’t tell me that I should lie to #1 grandma because that’s the right/kind/expedient thing to do! :)

13 comments

  1. William Hanisch

    Hi Josh,

    I’m not sure how I would answer your first two questions, or even if my answers would differ. But for question three, I would, generally speaking, tell her. That is, I would not lie to her. Since my answer to question three does not result in obvious answers to the first two questions, question four still needs consideration.

    Nobody, save for possibly a few extreme masochists, enjoys hearing about the death of a loved one. But we as humans are emotionally equipped to deal with death through the process of mourning. Experience has shown me that those who allow themselves to mourn properly fully heal, while those who prevent themselves from feeling the immense sadness which mourning generally requires–perhaps from wanting to avoid feeling deep pain–never fully recover and live with lowing lying sadness and anger for, sometimes, the rest of their lives. (Such people often don’t realize their low level sadness and anger–and even deny it–but those who have to be around them certainly do.)

    The grandmother in question three, being sharp as a whip, would know that something is amiss. Being denied the truth, and thereby being denied the opportunity of dealing properly with the truth, she will most likely suffer far worse over the next ten years, than she would if she were allowed to properly mourn her husband’s death. She may be extremely sad for a couple of months, but with proper mourning and family support she will be able to live the remaining ten years of her life much more fully than otherwise.

    Questions one and two, however, are not so clear. Do the grandmothers in those questions have the capacity to mourn? I do not know. Incidentally, in the first paragraph of this comment, I qualified my answer to question three with the words “generally speaking.” If that grandmother is incapable of mourning, I would not be able to answer the question so easily.

    At any rate, and perhaps I could have said this with far fewer words, the capacity for mourning, and the positive effects it has, makes it possible to coherently answer your first three questions differently from one another.

    William

    • bigjosh2

      What if you knew that your sharp grandma in question #3 was going to die tomorrow- before she would plausibly know that something was amiss with her husband on her own?

      • William Hanisch

        If I somehow knew should would die tomorrow, then I probably would not tell her. There would be no point in making her miserable on her last day alive.

          • William Hanisch

            I don’t know what the test for the cutoff is, or even if a general test is possible. Is there a non-arbitrary way to determine the exact point where a tree ends and the earth begins? Mother Nature doesn’t distinguish between tree roots and dirt. Only us humans make such categorizations. But I digress.

            I thought of another way to exposit your dilemma, which, I think, removes some (though not all) of the emotional aspect of it, thereby hopefully making it clearer to reason about.

            Suppose a high school kid is on his way to take the SAT (or pick some other important event in a kid’s life which requires much focus). The night before, his grandmother had passed away. Should the mother, who is currently driving her son to take the SAT, tell him about his grandmother on the way there? Or should she wait until after the exam ends? What if his grandmother had died two days before? A week before? A month before? A year before?

            I think mostly everybody would agree that the mom should not tell her son until after he finishes the exam, if his grandmother died the night before. Likewise, everybody would agree that she should tell him if the SAT were a year away. But I don’t know if there are general principles to determine the exact cutoff point. It would depend on all sorts of factors, not the least of which are how close the son was to his grandmother, how supportive the family is, how quickly he recovers from emotional trauma, how much it matters for him to get a high score on the SAT, etc.

            You’re asking for a test to determine such a cutoff, but what kind of test do you have in mind? Would some complicated highly nonlinear formula of, say, 350 variables constitute a test to you? If so, should it be based on theory the way physics and the other hard sciences proceeds? Or merely statistical inference the way much soft (some would say pseudo) science is done?

          • bigjosh2

            Is there a non-arbitrary way to determine the exact point where a tree ends and the earth begins?

            Perhaps the boundary of the cell wall of the outermost layer of cells on the tree roots?

            I think you can get even more precise if necessary, and it is even possible to make a definition that lets you accurately sort every atom in the universe into either that tree or not-that-tree.

            Then it is up to you to decide which atoms are part of the soil and with are part of the rest of the universe. :)

            Should the mother, … tell him about his grandmother on the way there?

            This is not a question about lying, it is a question about omission. We all must omit facts in every encounter we have with others since it would be impossible to always tell everyone everything we know. You can ask if/when there is every a duty to disclose some kind of fact (there are legal and moral principals available that cover this), but I don’think this is the same kind of question as the binary lying questions.

            [Side note – what if, for argument, if you decided on principal that it was your duty to disclose everything you know? Is it you duty to also disclose things that you would know if you thought about them (“what is your favorite color if that color was a sound?”)? I think this becomes impossible because of the halting problem! So much for full disclosure even in principal!]

            Would some complicated highly nonlinear formula of, say, 350 variables constitute a test to you?

            Yes. I don’t particularly even care what the variables and coefficients are – only the underlying principal(s) that you would use to pick them.

          • William Hanisch

            Perhaps the boundary of the cell wall of the outermost layer of cells on the tree roots?

            I think you can get even more precise if necessary, and it is even possible to make a definition that lets you accurately sort every atom in the universe into either that tree or not-that-tree.”

            But this begs the question. Cells, cell walls, and outermost layers of cell walls are meaningful concepts only when viewed from a distance. Atoms don’t care if we humans consider them to be part of a cell or not, and it’s not possible, as far as I understand modern physics, to meaningfully talk about whether an atom is at any moment part of a cell or merely near it, anymore than it’s meaningful to say that the electrons shared between the covalently bonded atoms in a water molecule belong to one of the two hydrogen atoms or the oxygen atom. And if we consider the quantum effects, this only gets more difficult to distinguish.

            This is not a question about lying, it is a question about omission.

            Fair enough, though we can easily make it about lying by specifying that the son asked how grandma was just as the mom was considering to tell him or not.

            My point was not so much to remove the lying part or make it about omission, but rather to illuminate the difficulty in coming up with satisfactory and generally applicable principles (by the way, I think you mean principles, and not principals) to formulate such a rule.

            But let’s see if we can say more about this. First off, let’s establish that it’s not generally wrong to lie. (I’m not suggesting that you’re implying that it is generally wrong to lie. I just think it’s worth stating here.) If a group of hunters asked me if I saw a deer go by, I would have no problem whatever not being truthful with them.

            So the problem is, I think, what are the general principles involved in determining when it’s appropriate to lie, or at any rate, not be entirely truthful. But before we can begin to try to answer this, I think we should first discuss whether it’s sensible to even speak of objective principles. Can we have a sufficient set of principles such that all are objective and none are subjective? And if so, would they merely be arbitrary principles? What does it even mean to have non arbitrary objective principles?

            Can you offer a different problem where there is such a set of objective, non arbitrary principles, so we can compare and contrast it with this problem?

    • bigjosh2

      Your Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandma in #1 definitely can mourn – you know because you have told her yesterday and she spent the rest of the day mourning – up until the moment when she feel asleep sobbing. Now she is awake again today and asking where her husband is, do you tell her again so she can spend today mourning again?

      • William Hanisch

        What I meant by mourning in my first comment involves the entire process, which takes time. It’s not possible to mourn in one day, which why I stated my ignorance as to whether it’s possible for someone with Alzheimer’s to mourn. Maybe in some way she can mourn, and after several months she’ll either stop asking about her late husband or quickly remember that he had died after being reminded. I really don’t know.

        But if she can’t mourn in a lasting way, and will otherwise relive the immediate pain of learning of her husband’s death anew each day, then I don’t see the point in telling her.

  2. james

    I wrote a more nuanced reply, but a combination of WordPress commenting reqs. and browser caching issues fubarred my comment. Anyway. To answer question 4, lie in 1 and 2 because A) you’re unlikely to be caught in the lie and B) the downside if you are caught is minimal. Tell the truth in 3 b/c, granny’s feelings not withstanding, you are likely to be caught, and the repercussions will stick with you for a decade.

    • bigjosh2

      So the test is “If you are unlikely to get caught, and lying benefits you, then you should lie”?

      Does that extend to other moral questions? “If you are unlikely to get caught, and stealing benefits you, then you should steal“?

      Murder? Rape?

      Would you like to live in a society where everyone followed this principal?

  3. LLOYD ENGLISH

    MY MOTHER RECENTLY DIED OF DEMENTIA; I FACED THIS QUESTION EVERY DAY; AT FIRST I TOLD THE TRUTH; LATER, I SIMPLY SAID SHE WOULD SEE HIM SOON, WHICH I HOPE WAS THE TRUTH.

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