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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L106-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

Humans are the only species capable of speech and thus of lies. Choices regarding truthfulness and deceit are woven into all that they say and do. From childhood on, everyone knows the experience of being deceived and of deceiving others, of doubting someone’s word and of being thought a liar. Throughout life, no moral choice is more common than that of whether to speak truthfully, equivocate, or lie – whether to flatter, get out of trouble, retaliate, or gain some advantage.

All societies, as well as all major moral, religious and legal traditions have condemned forms of deceit such as bearing false witness; but many have also held that deceit can be excusable or even mandated under certain circumstances, as, for instance, to deflect enemies in war or criminals bent on doing violence to innocent victims. Opinions diverge about such cases, however, as well as about many common choices about truthfulness and deceit. How open should spouses be to one another about adultery, for example, or physicians to dying patients? These are quandaries familiar since antiquity. Others, such as those involving the backdating of computerized documents, false claims on résumés in applying for work, or misrepresenting one’s HIV-positive status to sexual partners, present themselves in new garb.

Hard choices involving truthfulness and lying inevitably raise certain underlying questions. How should truthfulness be defined? Is lying ever morally justified, and if so under what conditions? How should one deal with borderline cases between truthfulness and clear-cut falsehood, and between more and less egregious forms of deceit? And how do attitudes towards truthfulness relate to personal integrity and character? The rich philosophical debate of these issues has focused on issues of definition, justification, and line-drawing, and on their relevance to practical moral choice.

Citing this article:
Bok, Sissela. Truthfulness, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L106-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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