On the Wrongness of Lies

11 Pages Posted: 20 May 2020 Last revised: 26 Feb 2021

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: May 6, 2020


Why are lies wrong? The Kantian answer sees lies as a close cousin to coercion; they are a violation of individual autonomy and a demonstration of contempt. By contrast, the utilitarian answer is that lies are likely to lead to terrible consequences, sometimes because they obliterate trust, sometime because they substitute the liar’s will for that of the chooser, who has much better information about the chooser’s welfare than does the liar. The utilitarian objection to paternalistic lies is akin to the utilitarian embrace of Mill’s Harm Principle. It is possible to see the Kantian view as a kind of moral heuristic, welcome on utilitarian grounds. The Kantian and utilitarian objections to lying have implications for the family, the workplace, advertising, commerce, and politics, and also for constitutional law.

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., On the Wrongness of Lies (May 6, 2020). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 21-05, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3594420 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3594420

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