Module 5: Module Notes: “Good” Versus “Bad” Lying

In school we were taught the famous legend of George Washington, who, as a youth, could not tell a lie when he admitted to chopping down a cherry tree belonging to his father. Whether or not the legend is true is not as important as the lesson it is supposed to communicate: that honesty is an important trait of anyone, but especially of a leader. As we examine the issue of lying in this module, there are several questions that we will encounter: What is a lie?  How do we know that lying is wrong? Are there reasonable excuses or rationales for lying? And is it ever acceptable for a public official to lie in the performance of his or her official duties?

In her classic book, Lying, Sissela Bok cites the absolutist position of the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., “Truthfulness in statements which cannot be avoided in the formal duty of an individual to everyone, however great may be the disadvantage accruing to himself or to another” (Bok, 1989) (p.38) Bok goes on to argue that “most have held the contrary view—that there are times when truthfulness causes or fails to avert such great harm that a lie is clearly justifiable” (p. 39). She further argues that this position leads to another problem: “The more difficult task remains: That of drawing lines.” (p.46)

This module is about where other people have drawn those lines—and more importantly about where you draw those lines. You will read several case studies and score them on whether or not you believe the central characters’ decision was right or wrong. By scoring the rightness or wrongness of the actions taken in the mini-cases, you are also revealing your own preferences as reflected in your scores in the Ethical Type Indicator. After you have scored the mini-cases, read the piece by Dobel and then revisit the cases to see if you might have changed your thinking.

Your assigned readings should be read in the following order:

  1. Read the set of mini-cases entitled “Ethical Problems in Public Careers: Lying.” At the end of each case, ask yourself whether the central character’s action or decision was “right” or “wrong.”  On page 10 of the case there is a score sheet; mark your answers to each case on your sheet. You won’t be judged on how you score but think about what you would have done if you had been the central character in each situation.
  2. Read the “Two Oaths of Richard Helms” case.
  3. Read Chapter 10 of Dobel’s book, Public Integrity.
  4. Then revisit the mini-cases and see if Dobel’s analysis led you to alter your thinking or your judgments on any of those mini-cases.
  5. Do the same with the Helms case.

The nineteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. stated a lie that is not accompanied by “any other material circumstances,” nor does not produce “any material effects” is really not offensive at all. It would be difficult to compose ethical rules to cover a multitude (infinite really) of situations in which people lie. With this in mind, we might proclaim that lies are relative and can only be judged against the set of circumstances in which they occur. The relativist probably determines that lying is then ethically neutral, depending on the circumstances. On the other hand, Bentham goes on to state that lying would be instrumental in producing “pernicious effects.” What kind of “pernicious effects” does lying produce? Think about how you might feel should you be on the receiving end of a lie.  Maybe it is not harmful to anyone, but once you discover that someone has purposely lied to you, you become suspicious and trust is, if not destroyed, then at least damaged. If lying was acceptable all the time, how would we be able to tell what is truth? In such a society, suspicion, mistrust, and cynicism would undoubtedly underlie all of our personal and professional relationships.

Although it is somewhat easy to identify situations where lying is wrong, can we also identify situations where lying is acceptable? Don’t we all lie, especially to save another’s hurt feelings? How about those white lies we use to get out of or over a commitment?  Are those kind of lies acceptable to most people?  We would certainly say that lying to save a life would be a “good” lie.

Once we agree that some forms of lying are “good” versus “bad,” then the question becomes one of drawing lines rather than of absolutes.  But what is a lie if not an absolute?  We know when we are lying and admittedly some people are actually very good at it. The website gives the definition of the word lie as “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.” This definition points to the speaker’s intentions.  Intentions though can depend on who is asking the question, how it is asked, and in what context. It is sometimes difficult to tell if there is a conscious attempt to deceive or if it was just a misunderstanding of what was meant.  Politicians use this technique often, taking back what you think they said or being purposely vague.  There are also examples of candidates making promises they don’t know if they can or will keep or diplomats telling each other of their countries’ mutual admiration for each other.

In this module, you will read some small case studies, called mini-cases that will require you to analyze ethical dilemmas.  These dilemmas require you to take a position of right or wrong but to also discuss when, if ever, deception is justified.  As a public service professional, you will be confronted with extremes of right and wrong but you will also face several situations in which the rightness and wrongness may not be so obvious.  The purpose of this exercise is to help you clarify and improve the reasoning process that leads to ethical decision making.  It is also important to examine considerations upon which your judgments rest, the inconsistencies or contradictions, and to bring out unconsidered arguments that might alter your judgments or at least lay the framework to formulate guidelines to make difficult ethical choices.


Bok, S. (1989).  Lying:  Moral choice in public and private life.  Random House, Inc. New York.

Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

Let’s turn our attention to a discussion about lying and what constitutes a lie. Please feel free to offer your personal experiences or share your organizational examples as well as cited sources from the readings when

M5D1: Acceptable Lying

This module outcomes addressed in this activity are:

  • Explain the rightness or wrongness of lying (CO5);
  • Compare the inconsistencies or contradictions of ethical decisions (CO4); and
  • Identify unconsidered arguments that might alter your judgments to make difficult ethical choices (CO4, 5).

Please contribute at least one original post. Keep in mind that if reply posts come in Sunday evening, this is not a robust discussion. I reserve the right to ask you to contribute sooner or more frequently if this will enhance learning.


Based on the readings and activities for this module, answer the following questions:

  • After reading the mini-cases and the Helms’ case, discuss your responses to the ethical hypotheticals on page 10 of the mini-cases.  Why did you vote as you did?
  • How would you compare the way in which ethical decisions were made in the cases?  Do you see any inconsistencies or contradictions in these ethical decisions?
  • Address the Dobel chapter and his concept of “political prudence.”  How would you use this concept to alter your original judgments on the mini-cases and the Helms’ case?  Explain your answer.


Your replies to classmates must be substantive; posting “I agree” is a start, but you also need to explain why. Replies should contribute to the discussion as a whole by integrating what you have learned from your required readings. When participating in the discussion forums, be both honest and respectful of ideas and comments from your classmates. Please remember the board discussions take place in an open forum, so refrain from vulgar language and racial, sexist, or any other comments that an individual might find offensive.

Consult the Discussion Posting Guide for information about writing your discussion posts. It is recommended that you write your post in a document first. Check your work and correct any spelling or grammatical errors.

This is a “post first” discussion forum, which means you must submit your initial post before you can view other students’ posts