In our personal lives, is it better to be diplomatic or to tell the truth?

Deontology and Utilitarianism

There are two major philosophical views on the subject of truth. Deontology states that duty is a key ethical concept that cannot be defined in terms of what is good or beneficial. Hence, deontologists maintain one must do one's duty even if the consequences of this action would be detrimental to oneself or others. On the other hand, utilitarianism expresses the view that the best action is the one that will provide the greatest expected utility, or happiness, to the greatest number of individuals.


In order for our society to function, people must trust each other to a reasonable extent. When people tell the truth, it establishes trust. If no one told the truth, there would be no reason to listen to what anyone had to say. Communication would break down and without communication, society could not function. Therefore, for society to maintain itself, people must tell the truth.

Communication and Altruism

One of the main reasons for telling the truth is in order to establish reliable communication, which enables society to function better. There are, however, other reasons why telling the truth is a moral ideal common to all human societies. Telling the truth will not usually provide any benefit to the individual. Therefore, being truthful will, in general, lead to the avoidance of actions motivated by self-interest, whereas lying is more likely to promote greed and the desire for personal gain. Telling the truth is an easy way to adhere to the deontological principle of doing the right thing for its own sake.

Is telling the truth always justified?

Deontology states that a morally obligatory act is one enjoined by a system of moral duties. There is much variation between the moral codes of different cultures, but nevertheless most of them would agree that it is essential to tell the truth. Although, there are other moral laws shared universally by human cultures, deontologists state that people should tell the truth all the time. However, telling the truth cannot always be morally justified, for instance few would claim that those families who revealed the location of Jews in their village to the Nazis were acting morally. If there is a higher moral law, such as justice, or a higher natural law, such as survival, involved, then it is morally acceptable to lie to uphold that principle.

Lying as a moral choice

Since society can still function as long as most people tell the truth most of the time, lying can be an acceptable moral choice. People do not necessarily have to tell the truth all the time; they just have to be truthful enough so that people can usually accept what they hear as truth when there is no obvious reason for the person to be lying.

Trust can still be maintained if people lie when they have something worthwhile to gain from doing so, but if people lie when they have nothing to gain, a person could depend on reliable information from no one but himself. On the other hand, if people were to tell the truth almost all the time, even when it were inconvenient to them, communication would yield huge amounts of reliable information that could be useful to people in many different ways. If people always told the truth, we would never have any doubts to the validity of information, and could use everything we heard as verified fact.

Detecting deceitfulness

However, this extreme is unnecessary, we can trust one another to tell the truth most of the time. Usually, we can detect deceitfulness by taking into account what we feel about the informant’s propensity to lie. If we think that there is a motive for deceit, we can analyse the information more closely. Otherwise, we can depend on the information enough of the time not to worry about the veracity of the information with which we are presented.

Diplomacy in speech

Diplomacy in speech is a method of lying in order to minimise the level of offence caused to others. Although this cannot be defended using the deontological argument, utilitarianism would determine this action to be morally correct unless as the consequences of this deceit outweighed its benefits. Diplomatic speech is most commonly used in what our society terms “little white lies” which usually entail lying about your personal preferences. There are few people who have never uttered a white lie and even fewer who would consider that to do so would be morally reprehensible. In moderation, lying will not affect how much we trust one another, and through being careful with the truth we can increase the sum total of humanity’s happiness.


Ideally, we would live in a society where lying was unknown but while we do not, it seems better to be diplomatic in speech, which is not the same thing as compulsively lying. By adhereing to the utilitarian ideal of bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people we can do better than to use the hard, inflexible moral logic of deontology to justify telling the truth in all circumstances, regardless of the harm that this may cause to others.

Cletus the Foetus says Isn't it possible that by lying you do more harm than good? What about the greater pleasure of having a friendship that includes hard knocks? I feel the conclusions are a little superficial here.

I agree, however, I feel that while it is certainly true that lying can do more harm than good I was trying to make the point that there is usually little harm in telling ‘white lies’ in order to make others feel better.

I don't myself feel that lying is an acceptable moral choice but am simply trying to argue that society can still function even if people do not tell the truth all the time.