I am expected to tell the truth if asked. But sometimes I hide the truth. For example once , although I have diabetes, I ate sweet in a shop and then I withdrew money from atm. My wife called me and asked me what am I doing outside ? I said I am withdrawing money from ATM. I deliberately did not tell her that I primarily came out to eat sweets.

If a person hides a truth for his profit then does it constitute lying ?

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    This is usually called lying by ommission – Cedric Martens Nov 5 at 23:24
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    Deliberately choosing to misunderstand a question so your answer is more favorable to yourself is unethical, yes, whether or not it is technically lying. – ESR Nov 6 at 3:27
  • "Deliberately" is quite vague. Mood affects our behaviour, how we act "deliberately", and since these "deliberate" choices differ depending on mood, we can't say that we have a full control of ourselves. That's not a justification, of course. – rus9384 Nov 6 at 10:23
  • You used the ethics tag, but it would be helpful to be more precise about what ethics. Some human inherent stuff? Or to some (specific) religious understanding? It may matter. – hitchhiker Nov 6 at 21:04
  • @CedricMartens and if you're High Church, the "Sin of Omission". – RonJohn Nov 6 at 21:06

13 Answers 13

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Since that was to your wife (a person who has some responsibility in maintaining your health) it was equivalent you telling a lie. But it wouldn't be so if that was to someone who didn't have that kind of responsibility.

You may compare this with an incident in the Mahabharatha: Aswathama Hatha. Though it was a part of maintanance of Dharma, it was for cheating and so it was a lie.


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    I tend to agree with your basic point that the ethical situation in a conversation between husband and wife is different from the situation if a stranger or casual acquaintance asks the husband some questions which he doesn't happen to feel like answering in detail. – Lorendiac Nov 7 at 1:17
  • @Lorendiac, I have answered this question in detail as my second answer. You may read it. I believe that'd also be useful. – SonOfThought Nov 7 at 12:49

No it's deception not lying. There are many methods of deception, lying being the most prominent. Lying is bad because it's a form of deception. You can of course deceive someone into thinking the opposite of what's true using entirely truthful statements, that doesn't make it any better.

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    This is a good answer - deciding whether it is lying or not is mostly a debate about linguistic semantics (what does 'lying' mean) - but if you are talking ethics it is deceptive. If i label a flask of poison "healthy drink" and put it on your table it's the same. – Falco Nov 6 at 14:42
  • @Falco no, that's not the same, that's outright lying because it's not a healthy drink. If I see you grabbing a poison flask and you ask me if you can drink that and I say yes and think "but only once", then that's deception. – DonQuiKong Nov 7 at 8:39
  • @DonQuiKong One could argue lying is only "Verbally stating something untrue to someone with the intention of deceiving him." So writing something, or painting a picture to deceive or wearing a shirt that states something wrong is not strictly equal to "telling a lie" - your disagreement supports my point: it's semantics and quite subjective – Falco Nov 7 at 8:47
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    @Falco Isn’t that just begging the question? So we avoid semantically defining the term “lying” but we still need to semantically define the term “deception”. I don’t see how this solves anything. – Konrad Rudolph Nov 7 at 10:22
  • @KonradRudolph Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Falco Nov 7 at 10:36

Sissela Bok spends half a book on this. And her ultimate approach is not to answer the question, but to consider the motive involved. If your motive is to deprive others of power they should have, you are lying, whether explicitly or by omission.

But that consideration opens onto another range of questions: At what point do people deserve to have power? You may not tell your neighbors where you keep your extra keys, because it is perfectly legitimate to limit their power to investigate your home...

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    "Sissela Bok spends half a book on this." not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. – DonQuiKong Nov 7 at 8:40
  • She is very, very tedious... But she tends to converge on a specific set of criteria and defend them well. And her criterion is actually a five-step procedure that I am summarizing... – jobermark Nov 7 at 16:22

Lying is a communication intended to deceive or mislead. Lies of omission, and of misdirection, are lies.

One effort to limit the extent of "lying" is to try to distinguish between overt and implicit deceptive language. The assumption here is that the actual words are what constitute lying, and the effort to mislead through innuendo, skewed facts, or changing emphasis on workds or syllables -- is somehow NOT linguistic communication. But linguistic communication, of course includes both overt words and innuendo, and both syllabic and word emphases.

Communication is also often non-linguistic. Pointing to oneself, if a party is asked to identify themselves -- if one is not the party requested, is deliberate deceptive miscommunication. Whenever one knows that others are reading one's signals, then misleading them by sending out false signals is a deliberate effort to mislead.

It is not just humans who lie. I had a dog, who after being fed by my wife, would often come up to me and look mournful and hungry -- trying by misdirection to get double dinner. Both predator and prey animals will make feints in one direction or another, to mislead their adversary.

The best analysis of lying I have seen was from libertarian thought, and it treated lying as a degradation of the common currency of communication we all need to access the world and society, hence all miscommunication of any kind was harmful to all. This is treating humans as a primarily social animal, who rely upon the marketpalce of ideas to be functional to gain reasonable information -- and subversions of that marketplace serve as a parasitic behavior that degrades its value to all.

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    It might be good to add references. This strengthens the answer and provides the reader a place to go for more information. However, I do agree with your answer. – Frank Hubeny Nov 5 at 15:30
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    Agreed -- but this is not a conclusion I have drawn based on reading or references, it is simply a life experience -- IE the sort of wisdom that is philosophizing. – Dcleve Nov 5 at 16:30
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    If that is the case then this answer doesn't fall under the guidelines of how to write a good answer and is merely a comment. – Not_Here Nov 5 at 18:02
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    It does not even have to be referenced all the time and especially not in academic style. But it does not hurt if some namedropping is involved either. The main problem with this answer is that one-liners are generally discouraged. Even if you only had added the last comment as part of the answer, it would have improved it a lot. – Philip Klöcking Nov 5 at 18:53
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    @Dcleve, I've upvoted this answer, but I can explain why your definitional answer without the second paragraph was downvoted. First, it's not true that almost everyone agrees with it, and second and more importantly, on Stack Exchange, stating a definition that not everyone agrees with as though it is a bald fact, will attract downvotes. Stating even a very contentious definition that most people disagree with can get upvoted, if the answer makes it clear that it is a contentious definition. In short, help people place your statement into context and you'll get better votes on SE. – Wildcard Nov 5 at 20:08

The answer depends greatly on who you ask, and whether they benefit from you being labeled as a "liar."

There are some who will call it a "lie of omission." That phrase is indeed popular.

However, there clearly must be some other side to it, because merely labeling "hiding a truth" as "lying" labels a great many things that we typically don't think of lying. For example, if you ask me for my online banking password, and I refuse to tell you, is that lying? If a teacher knows the answer to a question on a test, and a student asks them for that answer, is it lying for the teacher to refuse? Is a soldier entrusted with national secrets lying when they refuse to hand them over?

These cases suggest that if there is indeed something to be called a "lie of omission," it must be nuanced enough to sidestep them.

  • An important distinction is that in your examples you aren't deceiving the listening into thinking that they have got a meaningful answer. You examples are honest about the fact that the truth has been hidden. – gmatht Nov 7 at 8:07

I'd disagree. In my opinion, a statement must be intentionally false to be a lie. That said, it's not ethical to deceive people by withholding information like this, and I'd consider it dishonest, but not lying. Also consider that you cannot be sued in the US for defamation as long as what you alleged was true. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/libel-vs-slander-different-types-defamation.html states that "Truth is an absolute defense to Libel and Slander". In other words, in the eyes of the law, it's not lying if it's true.

  • Well, in the eyes of US law, maybe. Other countries are different. – a CVn Nov 6 at 20:18
  • "... you cannot be sued in the US for defamation as long as what you said was true." Wrong. For example, if I say, "I heard that user45266 molests squirrels", that can be defamation even if I really did hear that you molest squirrels. The question is not whether the statement is literally true but whether or not the "sting" of the statement (that you in fact molest squirrels) is true. And that's why your answer is wrong. Here, the literally true statement has a false "sting" (that it's the primary purpose of the trip) and thus the argument that it's not intentionally false fails. – David Schwartz Nov 6 at 22:44
  • The absolute defense of truth applies like this: "I heard user45266 molests squirrels." "I'm taking you, @DavidSchwartz to court for defamation!" [in the courtroom] "But, your honor, user45266 really does molest squirrels!" "Is this true, user45266?" "Well, yes, but.." "If it's true, your character has not been defamed. Get out of my courtroom!" (like my creative tag placement?) – user45266 Nov 7 at 4:13
  • @user45266 Sure, but it doesn't apply like this: [in the courtroom] "But, your honor, I really did hear that user45266 molests squirrels, my cousin Edna said so" "Case dismissed". The "sting" of the statement is that there's a good reason to believe that user45266 really does molest squirrels and only if that "sting" is true is it a defense to a claim of defamation. The literal truth of the logical proposition asserted is NOT the claim tested in a defamation suit. – David Schwartz Nov 7 at 17:49
  • @user45266 Humans are not computers that state logical propositions. Humans state words that convey meanings to other people, and what matters for defamation is not whether the logical proposition stated is technically true but whether the impression those words were intended to create and do create in listeners/readers is true. In this case, words were chosen that, while technically true, deliberately create a false impression. This example perfectly shows what's wrong with your answer because it too looks at the logical proposition, not the intended meaning. – David Schwartz Nov 7 at 17:50

From "The Gulag Archipelago" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, part 1 chapter 3 "The Interrogation" (bracketed clarifications added):

N. Stolyarova recalls an old woman who was her neighbor on the Butyrki bunks [in lockup] in 1937. They kept on interrogating her every night. Two years earlier, a former Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church, [equiv to a bishop or perhaps archbishop] who had escaped from exile, had spent a night at her home on his way through Moscow.

LADY: "But he wasn't the former Metropolitan, he was the Metropolitan! Truly I was worthy of receiving him."

INTERROGATOR: "All right then. To whom did he go when he left Moscow?"

LADY: "I know, but I won't tell you!"

Did the old lady lie to the interrogators? Was she morally obligated to answer their question as it was stated? I believe that the answer to both questions is "no".

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    An important distinction here is that in Solzhenitsyn's example, the fact that there exists unrevealed information is known to all parties, even if that information is kept hidden. Nobody is being mislead. Whereas in the OP's example, the fact that there exists additional relevant information is being withheld so as to mislead the other party. – Ray Nov 5 at 23:01
  • @Ray, the old woman admitted to knowing where the Metropolitan had gone, which ruled out "maybe she actually doesn't know" on the part of the interrogators. This was an act of honesty! – elliot svensson Nov 5 at 23:06
  • @Ray, I'm not sure that the woman was obligated to say, "I know, but..."--- she could have said, "I won't tell you". I think, though, that her honesty empowered her by unmasking her resolve. If the interrogators hadn't known that she held the information, they might have been more bold, supposing that perhaps her stance was weak. – elliot svensson Nov 5 at 23:10
  • @Ray, on further reflection, the morality of her stance would have been reverse: she would have been held in contempt if she were hiding, say, a grandson who had robbed somebody. But since we see that the authorities did not have the authority that they assumed, we can sense that for her to blockade their action was virtuous. – elliot svensson Nov 5 at 23:13
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    Whether she was obligated to admit that she was withholding information is a discussion unto itself. My point was merely that she did reveal that she was withholding information (which is, as you say, an act of honesty), whereas the OP did not. Thus the two situations are not especially analogous. There are three relevant concepts in play here: "withholding information", "misleading", and "lying". This example covers only "withholding information". The OP's situation definitely covers "withholding information" and "misleading", and the question is whether that constitutes "lying". – Ray Nov 5 at 23:21

"The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms." In this case, it entirely depends upon your definition of lying. If lying requires an explicit statement to be spoken which one knows to be false, as in Google's "an intentionally false statement" definition, it was not a lie. If lying instead includes the intent to decieve, as in Dcleve's definition, then it was a lie.

Hence, if the concept of 'lying' specifically is important in your ethics, you need to decide upon its definition to then discern how ethical an action is.

What may be more sensible is adjusting your ethics to instead concern itself with 'deception', which may even be your intended meaning and is a more clear-cut term.

It's quite complex philosophically, what constitutes a lie. A person can make a statement to gain personal advantage, believing it to be untrue, and yet still be literally telling the truth, because there is an error in their understanding of the world. Are they lying? Most people would say yes in that context, because they believe they are lying, even if they are giving accurate information.

This means that intention says a lot.

In your case, your intention was to mislead. Many people would argue that you didn't lie, others would say that you did in some fashion. But clearly you intended to mislead. You are manipulating the listener's understanding of the world to suit your agenda. It's clearly (at least) very similar to lying.

In this case the person who was supposed to speak the truth were you. Your wife was not asking what you were doing then. So, what you should do was to inform her the two main activities you did. Here your activities were transformed into spoken form. So, all the words you used and the tone/voice modulation had great importance. But you deliberately hid a part of the truth. There was no chance of filling up of your eating sweets. If there was, and you didn't feel ANY guilty of telling so, you could say that you were speaking the truth. Otherwise you were lying. If you are deliberately leaving some ambiguity in your reply, it can be treated as a partial truth or partial lie. (In your reply you didn't leave any ambiguity. So it cannot be treated as a partial lie.)

You might argue: "In future, scientists might discover that 'consumption of sweets doesn't have any relation to diabetes', would it be a lie then?" Yes. Since your intention was not to speak the truth (you were hiding an important thing of that time), even in such a situation your reply is/would be a lie.


The meanings given for the word 'Lie' (Noun/verb ) in some dictionaries:


  1. A lie is something that someone says or writes which they know is untrue.

  2. An intentionally false statement.


  1. to deliberately tell someone something that is not true

  2. to say or write something that is not true in order to deceive someone

Meanings of 'Deception':

  1. the act of hiding the truth, especially to get an advantage

  2. a statement or action that hides the truth, or the act of hiding the truth

Both in deceiving and in lying, hiding of truth happens and the liar (deceiver) gets some advantage also.

When we omit some words in a sentence sometimes they become false statements. (What happens if you omit the word 'not' in this sentence: 'All that glitters is not gold.')

Just remember how a child complains to their teachers or parents after quarreling with another one. Does the liar tell all the things he did? Truth often comes out only after questioning. So the statements that mislead someone are lies. The same thing is done in courts.

Lies mislead the sufferer (or the listener) and most often it becomes a deception if viewed from the sufferer's side. Even if the listener is not there to hear the lie, lie has been told (even in the absence of deception). That was another reason for treating your statement as a lie (rather than a deception).

To make it clear,

Suppose, a third party is listening to your conversation. Then, your lying wouldn't be a deception to your wife if she is not (at the other end) to listen to your reply. Even from the third party's point of view there is no deception in such a situation. In your particular case, you deceived your wife by telling a lie. Lie came out first and it affected her as a deception. You may say that your lying is the cause of deception. But you can never say: "Deception is the cause of your lying."

Please note: Telling a lie may be a part of practicing Dharma. I mean, if you lied and if you were asked ("Were you lying to him?"), without any hesitation you could say that you were lying. So, if no other alternative is available, in order to protect a greater Dharma, you may deviate from the maxim-- 'Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death.' (You may refer the Mahabharata.). So you need not reveal all the secrets to all.

Since so many viewers are interested in this question, I believe this doubt also is latent in your question.

That depends on how technical you want to get.

If you were at the ATM when you said 'I am withdrawing money', then technically, it was not a lie. But if you were at the shop and said that, then yes it is a lie.

But, as you said, your primary intention was to eat sweets, holistically, your actions fit with Google's definition of lying ("An intentionally false statement").

As said previously, a lie of omission is still a lie.

Lying and hiding a truth are different things, but they may have the same intention.

Lying is saying wrong information when you know it is wrong. The intention is to make a person think and behave in some specific manner.

I can't tell what hiding a truth is. But the intention is the same: to make a person think and behave in some specific manner.

They are different but may be considered to be ethically equivalent because they both cause the same consequences. But I guess lying is usually considered to be more unethical. It's probably because lying is active tactics, and hiding a truth is passive tactics. But anyway it is subjective.

Whether or not that being silent on or not including information constitutes lying (deceitfulness) or not depends upon the expectations of the other party to which information is being given or withheld and also how that party is or can be reasonably expected to interpret the information with which sie is going to be furnished or not furnished.

Deception, after all, means to purposefully communicate to someone something with the intention of causing to arise in them a belief in the truthfulness or reality of that which is not true or not real. In particular, if there is an expectation that the information that is given is to be taken as representing all details (at least to some level of specificity, e.g. typically not "I had 3 buttons on the shirt I was wearing that day") of what occurred in the situation, then to omit details communicates the message that they did not exist. If, in fact, they did, and you know this and omit these details purposefully to create a picture in their mind where they are not present, then you are causing to be communicated to them such a false picture and thus are committing deception.

And that's what I'd think happened in this case - though there seems like there might be a bit of wiggle room given how you've phrased it (which is exactly the kind of thing lawyers love, and why Maths, English and Philosophy all would make great Pre-Law undergrad degrees, I'd think) in that you've said "asked me what I am doing outside", which could be interpreted as "what are you doing outside at this present moment" - in which case actually you communicated the truth acceptably since there is no expectation then to be informed of any other details, or it could be interpreted as "what compelled you to go outside", in which case you are then omitting relevant facts to create a false perception of your motives and thus deception in accord with the previous understanding.

protected by Philip Klöcking Nov 6 at 9:44

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