The ethics of writing lies? Of course not. What could be ethical about lying? How could any writer write lies and think it was ethical?

Well, it depends on what kind of lies.

Whose lies are being told?  Yours? Someone else’s lies? White lies? Save-a-life lies? Damn lies? Big fat lies about your ex? Lies you are sure are untrue but turn out later to be true? Does timing make a difference? Do the circumstances matter?

A lie is known or intended by its source to be misleading, inaccurate, or false. We know this because the word has its own Wikipedia page.[1] When you tell one, you’re lying. When you write one, you lie cursively, printing-wise, or otherwise, such as in the Cloud or via magic e-Mail.

Why do people lie?  Who can count the reasons? Instrumental, interpersonal, psychological, pathological, self-defense, offense, desperation, depression, fear, fun, or just for the giggle. As one authority put it, “Lies are typically motivated by a desire to get other people to either do something or not do something, or to make a decision in the favor of the person doing the lying.” Someone might lie to get something they desire such as sex, money, status, power, love, elected, hired, not-fired, re-elected, beer, time-off, time-on, elected to a higher office, paid, paid more, paid for not-lying, or recently, not challenged in a primary, election. Merely reciting the most common reasons people lie suggests the volume of lying done in political environments.

A smaller percentage of lies arise out of pride. Lying is a tool to upgrade your image, reputation, eligibility or status. It often starts with a lesser form of lying: exaggeration. The larger percentage of lies is explained by the simple fact that it’s easy to do. Most liars are never discovered.

Now, finally, to the real issue. This blog is not about just lying; it is about writing lies. People who find lying easy often reject doing it in writing. People who are not sociopaths, find writing lies hard to do. When they yield and write a lie, non-sociopathic writers do it for important reasons: avarice, money, sex or reelection. You see it frequently in forgive-me-notes, responses to written attacks, answers to legal complaints, explanations to the IRS, or defenses filed in many work-place hearings, tribunals, mediations, arbitrations. While rare, short, hand-printed, unsigned notes, are found in confessional booths and jail cells.

We see two kinds of outright, no-doubt-about-it lies in published work. Lies by the author and lies about someone other than other. The latter is less unethical than the former. Telling a lie about someone else at his or her direction is sort of a venial sin. Telling your own lies is always a mortal sin, even for unbelievers.

Each category of lies—White lies—Save-a-life lies—Damn lies—Big fat lies about your ex—should be ethically examined under different ethical norms.

Many so-called white lies are written at the direction of a boss; he says, “Tell them I will be in trial, when in fact he’ll be on vacation.” Many are written by a parent about a child; Susie was sick last Friday, when in fact Susie was with her parents on a road trip to the shore. A friend writes some: “Jim was sorry he couldn’t come to the funeral; he was out of town.” Jim hated the dearly departed and didn’t mourn his untimely passing. Many are written by an enemy: “Julie can’t join us because she’s despondent over her former husband’s coming-out party in Key West.”

Some white lies are just fibs. The word is convenient when telling white lies. They are harmless or trivial, usually told, or written, to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. If that’s the case, then the ethics of writing them is problematic. Unless they are not written to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. The examples in the last paragraph are unethical because they are untrue and told to deceive, not relieve.

Save-a-Life lies are debatable, depending on one’s religious beliefs. During World War II, many people lied to save Jewish lives. “There is a strong view in the history of Catholic thought that says lying of any kind, for any reason, is always wrong. This view has been endorsed by some of the biggest names in Catholic theology, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas . . . the original edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church contained a definition of lying that seemed to endorse a proposal made some decades ago that restricted what counts as a lie to telling a falsehood with the intent to deceive a person who had the right to know the truth.”[2]

Gerald Dworkin wrote a New York Times essay entitled, “Are These 10 Lies Justified?”[3] He said, “We tell lies to one another every day. But when we commit other acts that are generally believed to be immoral, like cruelty and theft, we do not seek to justify them. We deny either that the acts we committed are appropriately described by these terms, or we feel guilt or remorse. But many of us are prepared to defend our lies: indeed, to advocate their general use. Of course the Nazi at the door inquiring about Jews within ought to be lied to.” I believe Prof. Dworkin’s assessment to be valid as to the writing of lies. The ethical norm should be whether the lie should be defended or denounced. To-save-a-life lies are defensible and therefore ethical in written form.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] A lie is a statement that is known or intended by its source to be misleading, inaccurate or false. The practice of communicating lies is called lying, and a person who communicates a lie may be termed a liar. Lies may be employed to serve a variety of instrumental, interpersonal, or psychological functions for the individuals who use them.