THE ETHICS OF LYING IN CONFUCIANISM AND TAOISM.
Sometime ago NYT magazine had an article by Robin Marantz Henig on lying. It gets caught up in the current technology for detecting lies, but comes around to some of the interesting ethical issues about lying. In referring to the research of psychologist Belle DePaulo, Hening notes:
Still, DePaulo said that her research led her to believe that not all lying is bad, that it often serves a perfectly respectable purpose; in fact, it is sometimes a nobler, or at least kinder, option than telling the truth. "I call them kindhearted lies, the lies you tell to protect someone else's life or feelings," DePaulo said. A kindhearted lie is when a genetic counselor says nothing when she happens to find out, during a straightforward test for birth defects, that a man could not possibly have fathered his wife's new baby. It's when a neighbor lies about hiding a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Poland. It's when a doctor tells a patient that the new chemotherapy might work. And it's when a mother tells her daughter that nothing bad will ever happen to her.
So, there can be good lies and bad lies: that seems uncontroversial. But what would Confucianism and Taoism have to say about it?
I think, on the face of it, Confucianism would agree that some lies can be good. Most famously, in the Analects Confucius suggests that it is good for a son to lie to protect his father from prosecution for a non-violent crime (from the Lau translation):
The Governor of She said to Confucius, 'In our village we have an example of a straight [upright, virtuous] person. When the father stole a sheep, the son gave evidence against him.' Confucius answered, 'In our village those who are straight are quite different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. In such behaviour is straightness to be found as a matter of course.'(13.18)
This is not to say Confucius is free and easy with lying. When confronted with an inconvenient truth, a noble-minded person should not lie to protect one's own personal interest:
Tzu-lu asked about the way to serve a lord. The Master said, 'Make sure that you are not being dishonest with him when you stand up to him.'(14.22)
The Gentleman speaks truth to power, which could be personally dangerous for the Gentleman, should the ruler decide to kill the messenger of bad news.
In sum, a Confucian approach to lying would be something like this: lying is generally to be avoided; best to live an honest life that does not require lying. But if lying is necessary to preserve the social relationships through which we enact our humanity, and magnify humanity in the world, then dishonesty is acceptable. Lying is not good, however, in those situations where speaking the truth will improve the nature of political rule or serve some other larger social purpose.
Taoists would take a dimmer view on lying. Lies are social conventions and, as such, would be seen as unnecessary diversions from the ultimate truth of Way. Fate is more powerful than human thought or action; so, any untruth we utter in the course of our lives is largely meaningless in the face of the natural unfolding of ziran - "occurrence appearing of itself," in Hinton's translation. We cannot lie our way out of death or discomfort. We may be able to trade one discomfort for another but, since we cannot control Heaven's fate, lies are ineffective.
But here's a classic conundrum for a Taoist: would he or she lie to protect a Jew from the Nazi's? To this I think the best answer is: maybe. On the one hand, a great evil like that of the Nazi's is so obviously not in keeping with Way, and it's general avoidance of violence and coercion, that lying to them might be consistent with wuwei, or "do nothing." Generally, wuwei is understood as doing nothing that might contradict the natural flow of things. But, if Nazi's were seen as already contradictory to the natural flow of things (and that point might be debated by Taoists; perhaps humans are naturally evil...), then deceitful resistance against them would be acceptable.
On the other hand, I do not believe there would be, in Taoism, a positive necessity to lie to protect Jews from Nazi's. Unlike Christianity, which has more direct ethical commandments that might bolster strong action, Taoism's ethics are more diffuse and contextual. If a Taoist did not try to protect Jews, he or she would not face the same kind of moral critique a Christian might face (of course, it should be noted that many, many Christians did not protect Jews, Pope Pius XII being one [emphasis mine]). For a Taoist, protecting Jews or not would rest on how one responded to circumstances at the moment. If a natural impulse welled up from within to lie and protect Jews then that would be fine: one would be following their natural inclinations. If no such natural impulse arose, then there would be no overarching moral standard to be applied one way or the other. Not lying would be morally acceptable to a Taoist.
In the end, Taoists would generally eschew lying and they would be ambivalent, I believe, on the difficult question of lying to protect a person from bad acts.
But I could be wrong. Opinions from readers would be appreciated.
Dang! Just don’t lie thru your teeth to save yours or somebody’s ass!
Your parents and kids gotta be proud of you, yah?