Socrates Exchange: Is it ever right to do what is wrong?

May 27, 2010

Do the ends ever justify the means? Assuming, for example, that lying, torturing, stealing, and murder are wrong, are such actions justified in rare instances in order to avoid some terrible consequence, or to achieve some great good? If so, how far does this go? Are all actions potentially justified, so long as the benefit is sufficiently great? Or are some actions so horrible that they are never justified, no matter what the consequences? What makes actions right or wrong in the first place-the consequences, or something else?


  • Max Latona, Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Anselm College



Background Reading

Here’s a hypothetical to generate some thought on this question taken from an article in the Phoenix Examiner... “Suppose your neighbor knocks at your door and you let him in. He explains there is a hit man trying to kill him. He asks you to hide him and being a moral person, you do. A few minutes later, there is another knock at your door. It is the hit man. You know who it is because your neighbor gave you a good description. The hit man tells you he has dropped in to visit your neighbor who doesn’t seem to be at home at the moment. Then he asks you the important question: “Do you know where he is?”” How do you respond? Do you lie and tell him you don’t know where he is? You have been brought up being told that lying is wrong. Do you do it anyway to save your neighbor’s life? Or if lying is wrong, do you tell him he’s hiding in your bedroom closet which most likely means your neighbor will be killed? Every day we are faced with questions where we need to choose between right and wrong. Most don’t come with fatal consequences. Do I speed to get to work on time? Should I fib about my evening plans to keep the secret of a surprise party intact? Do I not answer someone honestly for fear it may hurt their feelings? Our answer to the question “is it ever right to do what is wrong?” might depend on how we define ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ and how strenuously we maintain a boundary between the two.

Different philosophers have answered this question in different ways. Absolutists such as Immanuel Kant believe that there are certain absolute rights and wrongs which we have a duty to do (and avoid doing), with the result that actions like lying, stealing and murder are never acceptable. On the other side are utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill, who look at the consequences that an action brings to determine if it is right or wrong, and specifically whether it promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So for Bentham and Mill, it is quite possible that an action (such as lying or stealing) that is usually wrong could, in an unusual circumstances, be the right thing to do. Thus, while Kant would never permit us to lie to the inquiring murderer, Bentham and Mill would demand that we do so—in so far as it prevents the pain and suffering associated with the death of your neighbor.

Personally, I have struggled with this question. I was brought up by a mother who told me it was never OK to lie. So, growing up I never did lie to her. It was understood as I got older and was a little more responsible, that if I was going out and did not want her to know where I went, then “out” was an acceptable answer to “where are you going tonight?” I felt good about my mother’s strict rules about lying. I felt proud I could look her in the eye with a special understanding of trust. Now my mother has Alzheimer’s disease and because of this I have resorted to lying at times. She has been recently asking me about her mother, who died in 1971. She has no short term memory and I know that if this is on her mind, she will ask “do you know where my mother is” 5-6 times in one visit. Telling my mother the truth will upset her, telling her the truth 5-6 times will upset her 5 or 6 times as much. Science has shown that although Alzheimer’s robs you of factual memory, it many times does not rob you of emotional memory. So she will not remember that her mom has passed, but that something sad has happened to her several times in a short period of time. So I choose to lie to her. I make up some story about her mother and why she can’t be with us at that minute and the moment passes. This is a decision I feel OK with because I guess I’m taking the utilitarian route and choosing the lesser of two evils. The line between right and wrong can get blurred whether Its lying to the hit man, to your mother with Alzheimer’s disease or making a decision to kill one human being in order to save others. This is the final question we’re asking in our first season... one with a lot of angles. Have fun, challenge each other and most of all GET SOCRATIC. 

-Keith Shields, Project Director