Lying, Withholding Information; What’s the Difference?
“You withheld information; that’s the same as lying!”
This forceful accusation was delivered by Julia Roberts’ character to another in the 1990 American thriller Flatliners.
There has been a rash of cultural issues arising from the withholding of information.
Is it true? Is withholding information the same as lying?
First let’s look at acts of commission and what’s required to make them moral. Then we’ll look at acts of omission.
John and Paul Feinberg describe three conditions for a moral act in their book Ethics for a Brave New World.¹
- The person acts freely. Compulsion always strips the virtue out of an act. If you are forced to complete a moral action, your act may be wise, but it is not moral.
- The action itself is moral. You can freely act out of a sense of duty, but if the action itself is immoral, then the act is not moral.
- The person’s motivations are based on a sense of duty. You can freely choose a moral action, but if you’re doing it for the wrong reason, the act is not moral.
In other words:
- For an act to be moral, you must freely do the right things for the right reasons
What about acts of omission?
- A doctor withholds information from a patient. Doctors sometimes invoke therapeutic privilege when disclosing full information may very likely cause real and predictable harm.
- A POW refuses to reveal the location of friendly troops. The context of this example makes it easy to support the POW’s omission. Would lying about the information be different?
- A guy takes the 5th when the girl asks, “How does this look?” In this case, the guy may have a duty not to tell the truth. There may very likely be real and predictable harm. I recommend he freely abstain with the proper motivation.
These cases reveal a few examples where withholding information may be appropriate. When is withholding information inappropriate?
- Withholding information is immoral when you have a duty to disclose it
Some information is kept secret. Some information is distorted. Some information is temporarily withheld. When there is a duty to disclose, the pursuit of noble ends cannot include deceptive means.
And that’s all there is to it.
Or is there?
P.S. Here’s one more piece of information I just wouldn’t feel right withholding from you. I’m launching my first book, and it’s coming on November 10th!
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- The Problem of Pain and A Mission to WalMart
- Dead-Enders: Worldviews and their Logical Conclusions
- While He’s Away: A Poem About Being Gone
¹John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993) 20-22.