Truth is one of the most basic foundations of both philosophy and science, even though people may quibble about its precise definition.

Though most people probably consider truth a virtue, some would excuse or even praise lying under certain circumstances, including the following:

  1. "White lies" (e.g. telling someone who isn't attractive that they are to avoid hurting their feelings)
  2. "Crisis lying" (e.g. lying if it's the only way to escape an unjust prison sentence or to save the lives of one million innocent people)
  3. Tit-for-Tat lying (e.g. someone cheats you out of a million dollars by lying, so you get your money back by lying in return)
  4. Wartime lying (e.g. a general sending out the message that he's going to attack Location A when he's really planning on attacking Location B)

Do most notable philosophers accept such lies as virtuous or at least acceptable, or do they condemn ALL lies?

If you know of any philosophers or philosophical schools that have really explored this topic, it would help if you could mention them.


2 Answers 2


1 S. Bok, 'Lying', New York : Pantheon, 1978. This book is easy to read and has become a minor classic.

2 S. Bok, 'Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation', New York : Pantheon, 1982.

3 Thomas L. Carson, 'The Definition of Lying', Noûs, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 284-306. Includes consideration of morally justifiable lying.

4 Thomas L. Carson, 'Lying and Deception: Theory and Practice', Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010. (Book - fuller detail than previous article.)

If you check out Bok's first book, you will find references to major philosophers and their views on lying. More up to date, but not necessarily more important, references are given in Carson's article and book.

  • I bought the Kindle version of the first book on your list just now. Feb 26, 2018 at 0:44
  • @David Blomstrom. Good ! Thanks indeed for letting me know.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 26, 2018 at 9:21

Try this essay Truth & Politics by Hannah Arendt, first published in the New Yorker in 1967.

She begins by writing:

The subject of these reflections is a commonplace. No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade. Why is that so? And what does it mean for the nature and the dignity of the political realm, on one side, and for the nature and the dignity of truth and truthfulness, on the other? Is it of the very essence of truth to be impotent and of the very essence of power to be deceitful? And what kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm, which more than any other sphere of human life guarantees reality of existence to natal and mortal men – that is, to beings who know they have appeared out of non-being and will, after a short while, again disappear into it? Finally, is not impotent truth just as despicable as power that gives no heed to truth? These are uncomfortable questions, but they arise necessarily out of our current convictions in this matter.

She ends with:

Herodotus tells us in the very first sentences of his stories that he set out to prevent “the great and wondrous deeds of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” This is the root of all so-called objectivity – this curious passion, unknown outside Western civilization, for intellectual integrity at any price.Without it no science would ever have come into being...However, what I meant to show here is that this whole sphere [ie politics], its greatness notwithstanding, is limited – that it does not encompass the whole of man’s and the world s existence. It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will. And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and to change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.

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