Kelly's Honorable Lie: Theories of Morality in False Statements

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Imagine a scenario in which a young Kelly has a father who suffers from a terminal illness. During his lifetime, Kelly’s father worked hard to manage his own business as a taxi driver, which turned out to be very successful. His only wish is for his children to continue running the business and maintain its profit. However, what he does not know is that two of his children are planning on selling their shares of the business. When Kelly’s father asks her if she thinks his business will continue with their family, she doesn’t know what to say. Kelly is debating whether she should tell her father the truth or lie because she knows the truth will cause her father great sadness. This paper will explain and evaluate John Mill’s expected response to this dilemma. Mill would most likely suggest Kelly lie to her father because it would cause him to be happy during his final days and everyone else to be content knowing he spent his last days happy. On the other hand, one might object to Mill’s approach because telling Kelly’s dad the truth would cause her to feel content for being honest and result in her father’s satisfaction that she told him the truth, although it hurts considering the circumstances. Ultimately, the action that would cause everyone to be happy according to Mill is to lie, because sometimes the right thing to do might involve decreasing your own happiness so others could live happier lives. The objection that telling the truth is the right thing to do in this case poses a serious problem for Mill’s approach since it assumes everyone would be happier if Kelly’s father knew the truth.

Mill’s Utilitarian theory of morality is based on the idea that the most important aspects of a situation when figuring out what to do are based on the greatest happiness principle. The greatest happiness principle can be defined as “...actions [that] are right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 7). As such, he claims that we ought to determine what to do by appealing to consequentialism, which states what makes an action right or wrong is the consequences that follow from the action. The specific kind of consequentialism that Mill represents is utilitarianism, which similar to the greatest happiness principle, declares actions are right to the extent they produce happiness or pleasure and wrong to the extent that they produce unhappiness or pain. Using Hedonic Calculus, a method of calculation that has to do with pleasure, utilitarians decide which actions are right and which are wrong. Utilitarians believe each person’s happiness is as valuable as every other person’s happiness, therefore the happiness of humankind is considered overall.

Within the greatest happiness principle, there also exists higher and lower pleasures. According to Mill, “... some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others” (8). Higher pleasures are those that make use of “more elevated” faculties, such as intellectual or artistic pursuits, and activities that challenge us. Some examples are learning to play an instrument like the cello or engaging in an intellectual debate. On the contrary, lower pleasure are pleasures of sensation that are often fleeting and passive. One example of a lower pleasure is watching tv, especially reality tv shows such as “The Bachelor.” These different kinds of pleasures can be incommensurable when introducing quality into Hedonic Calculus.

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Mill’s decision-making procedure is conducted through Hedonic Calculus. According to Mill, Hedonic is simply having to do with pleasure and Calculus is a method of calculation. For example, consider the case of a destination wedding. Deciding whether the right thing to do is attend the wedding or do something else with the money that would be spent, such as donating it for the creation of a well in an underdeveloped country, can be difficult. If we apply Hedonic Calculus, we would be able to decide what the morally right action would be. First, you take all the actions that produce pleasure and mitigate pain and put them on one side. Then, you take all the actions that mitigate pleasure and produce pain, placing them on the other side. You’d come to the conclusion that donating money to make a well is the right action. Even though you will miss out and your friend getting married will miss you, you will spare the villagers painful work, which causes more people to be happy. This is how Hedonic Calculus works to aid in determining what makes an action right or wrong.

Now that the basic principles of Mill’s view have been explained, his theory will be applied to the present scenario. Using Hedonic Calculus, we can figure out what the right action to take would be in Kelly’s situation. The first option, which Mill strongly believes in, is to lie to Kelly’s father. This choice would harm Kelly because she would feel guilty for keeping something from her father that she knows means so much to him. It can also indirectly harm her father because he would have no idea that his business is no longer going to stay in the family. In addition, it puts the business at risk because changing ownership can sometimes lead to significant changes that affect the businesses success. However, it benefits her father because he will believe that his business is in good hands. In addition, the rest of the family will be okay with the fact that he was happy during his final moments. Mill thinks Kelly should lie to her father because, as a utilitarian, he firmly believes that occasionally the right thing to do may require you to discount your own happiness, in order for others to be happy. Therefore, the option to lie to Kelly’s father should be implemented.

On the other hand, the second option is to be honest and tell Kelly’s father the truth. Mill did not suggest Kelly take this approach because he thinks it would cause more people to be unhappy than happy. This option would harm Kelly’s father’s feelings because he would face the sad reality that his business will not be taken over by his family, like he hoped for. It would also harm Kelly’s siblings because they wouldn’t have wanted their father to know that they were to do such thing, since they knew it would disappoint him. Still, this option would benefit Kelly because she wouldn’t live with the regret of lying to her father regarding the future of his business. Evidently, the first option to lie is the right choice because it considers everyone’s happiness, not only Kelly’s. However, telling the truth is a right action that can come apart from noble motives and virtuous character. In addition, the greatest happiness principle assesses the motives and characters indirectly.

This response is not without opposition, however. In objection, Kelly’s honesty should cause overall happiness because she would not live with guilt of not being honest forever. Growing up, we are all told to always be honest because it is the right thing to do. Considering the consequences of being honest, in this case, will be rewarding for Kelly. It could even benefit her father because he might feel that, although the truth hurts, he would much rather know the truth than die not knowing what’s right. To better understand this option, analyzing the text in Mill’s book is important. He states that telling a lie might appear convenient in this case, but lying enfeebles our “...sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity…” which is a part of our moral worth as agents (22). Furthermore, lying weakens the fabric of trust upon which social well-being depends. Therefore, lying is wrong in general, but it is not always wrong.

This objection poses a serious problem for Mill’s approach to Kelly’s situation because in general, telling the truth is right and not telling the truth is wrong. It clearly explains truth-telling is normally beneficial, even if telling the truth will cause deception, which usually causes harm. Even when telling the truth seems harmful, one should attempt to resist the temptation to lie because honesty is conductive to trust and dishonesty undermines trust (22). In Kelly’s case, lying would cause her father happiness, but deception in herself for not being honest. Likewise, telling the truth would cause her happiness, and her father deception for knowing the truth. However, most people would rather hear the truth even if it hurts, because they don’t want to live in a lie. For these reasons, I believe Mill’s approach is not the right approach to Kelly’s situation.

This paper has explained the arguments as to why Mill thinks Kelly should lie to her father instead of telling him the truth about the future of his beloved business. Mill thinks, although lying should almost always be avoided, this case is an exception because it would cause more people to be happy. A possible objection to his response was also considered stating lying weakens the fabric of trust and that telling the truth is more beneficial. This objection proved to be a serious problem for Mill’s approach because it brought to light the certain harms that would arise as a result of lying. Although Mill would much rather have Kelly lie to her father, the right action to take is to be honest and tell her father the truth. Quite possibly, knowing his daughter was being honest to him would cause Kelly’s father greater happiness compared to if she would’ve lied about what’s to come for his business. Mill’s utilitarian approach for Kelly to lie is not ideal in this case because the happiness that would develop is based on a lie that isn’t ethical.

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