Ethical Dilemma #5 – Would You Lie?

Running out of time
Creative Commons License photo credit: DarkB4Dawn

The last four ethical dilemmas have been really popular and some amazing discussions and insights have resulted. I really like asking these questions because I learn a lot about my readers as well as the topic we are discussing.

Today’s ethical dilemma stems from some thoughts I have thinking about the absolute nature of ethics. Many people who practice and study ethics seem to think that there is no room for movement when it comes to practicing morality. But I’m not so sure. Read this dilemma, have a think and leave a comment with your thoughts. I will be really interested to hear your ideas.

You are out for a walk one night and you see a man running towards you. He looks terrified, stressed and panicked. He comes up to you with tears in his eyes and says, “I am going to hide right here. I can’t run anymore. I didn’t do anything wrong. Please, promise me you won’t tell them where I am!” So you promise the man, he hides behind a bush and you keep walking.

Ten seconds later four men turn the corner where the panicked man had come from and head towards you. As they get closer you see that they are, indeed, police officers. They walk up to you and ask if you have seen the man they were chasing. What do you do? Do you lie? Why?

I have been thinking about this one a little bit today and I will share my thoughts once all of the regular readers have weighed in. I will be really interested to see what people come up with to justify their actions. Go for it!

45 thoughts on “Ethical Dilemma #5 – Would You Lie?

  1. I need more context… What type of country is it? Dictatorship or Democratic? Cops? Show me some ID if it’s Democratic, if you’re good, we’re good. That’s part of what holds societies together.

  2. Heh, that’s a tricky one if only because either way you’re technically lying — you either lied about your promise, or lied to the officers. The best thing would’ve been to not make that promise in the first place; because… well, you’re promising you’ll lie.

    But in this hypothetical, I think lying to the officers would be my right thing to do, because a promise takes on a higher tier than honesty with strangers (police or not).

    Of course, after that, I think it should be balanced out by looking for the guy again afterwards, and if possible, discussing with him whether running from the law is really his best option.

  3. Short answer: I could lie.
    It would depend on how much I trust the man – purely based on my gut feel.
    It would also depend on the country I am in: whether the Govt, systems and police is corrupt or honest. In many countries innocent people die in jails without any trials.

    A question I have thought about often: if I get an opportunity to kill a serial killer, would I? If the choice was between me taking his life and him running away and taking many more lives.

  4. This isn’t much of a dilemma.

    “I don’t know officer” and keep walking.

    I would feel much worse helping the government imprison an innocent man, than not helping them catch a guilty one.

  5. Tricky. The choice seems to be either to break your promise to the man, or to hide the truth from the police. I’m not sure if being quiet is the same as lying though.
    If I hadn’t promised the man secrecy, I’m pretty sure I’d tell the police. I like to believe we can still trust our law enforcement to be fair and reasonable.

    I’d tell the officers that I had seen the man go by but I couldn’t tell them where he was now. It’s the truth, it doesn’t break the promise, and if presented correctly would not lead the police to believe you were concealing information.

  6. I am battling with this one. If I could rewrite the situation I would not make the promise in the first place.

    But the question is what would we do? Would we lie?

    Being the police I would not lie BUT would feel terrible about the promise I broke.

    Lies vs Broken Promises – its a hard one to choose…..

  7. I would answer to the police with something like “i’m not sure.. i saw a few people pass by.. what did he look like?”

    and then ask questions, why, and what has happened..

    then i’ll listen to what the police say, and what the person said.. and put things together.

    With my own judgment if I really feel the police are lying, or it sounds too complicated, i won’t reveal the person. But depending on the situation.. I may reveal the person to them.

  8. I’ll tell them where he’s hiding.

    If he was a criminal, you probably have saved lives.

    If he was innocent, he’ll be out by no time.

    Why would he run if he’s innocent? And that’s a typical ‘Bad Guy’ thing to say. He wouldn’t say “I’ll kill you if you tell them where I am” cause you’ll probably tell them afterwards, if not even call for help.

  9. I would tell the police where the person was hiding. However, I would then become actively involved in finding out what all of the circumstances are in the situation. If the man truely did nothing wrong I would make sure that he was represented fairly and let go.

  10. Nick, your answer is spot on; my thoughts exactly!

    If I felt that he genuinely was innocent, then I would not alert the police to his whereabouts.

  11. Isn’t it sad that a lot of us have lost our respect for Law Enforcement! It doesn’t seem fair to the good cops that are out there risking their necks for us everyday. Saying that I have to tell you I’ve just moved from a very corrupt city. Everyone is corrupt from the city judges on down the line. I would also say “I did see someone running by” That way I wasn’t breaking my promise to him and I wasn’t really lying to the police either. If they continued to question me, I would probably protect the man. I know it is terrible, but if he was that desperate and he asked me not to tell, I probably wouldn’t tell. Let them figure it out. Who knows they could be trying to pin something on him and he may very well be an innocent man. I have lost faith in out judicial system:(

  12. I will agree with nick.

    Once, a major scientist known as Pascal developed a theory that is called, at least in my mother language, as Pascal’s bet.

    It pounders wheather God exists or not and if he should belive in him or not.

    Well, the key to awnser this question is to analyse the consequences.

    If you belive in God and then lives a rightful life, if god exists, you will go to heaven. If it doensnt, you will have missed some pleasures in life because you were to afraid of what god would think of.

    If you dont belive in god and live a life of pleasures and god doesnt exists, you will have lived a life of pleasures, if god exists, you will probably go to hell.

    So, what we are gambling is a rightfull life with eternity in hell.

    The same fought applies here. We are gambling an inocent ‘s life in prison or a thief on the run. What would be worst?

    I think that a inocent’s life in prison. So, i would not tell the chasers.

    (sorry for my bad english)

  13. I agree with an earlier comment that perhaps the best approach to this situation is to apply the rule of never making a promise you may not be able to keep. In this sense your obligation is foremost to adhering to your own pre-established moral principle, and less so to keeping promises to either another individual (the passerby) or a representative of a social institution (the police).

    This question is often classified as an example of situational ethics-“cases in which decisions about ethical choices are made on the bases of intuition and are entirely relative to the situations in which they arise.” While they are intriguing, these questions require that on some level we relinquish moral principles since the circumstances require that either decision brakes a moral principle (i.e. breaking a promise).

    If the goal is to illustrate the concept of “room for movement in morality”, situational ethics may not provide the best example- it doesn’t provide a gray areas as much as it provides a situation in which morality cannot be followed in making either decision.

    There is a school of thought that advocates a more explicit example of this “room for movement”, often called “flexible ethical thinking” which can be described as ” an ability to understand personal aspects of ethically significant situations even if one is not a direct participant and to emphasize with those involved in the situation”. A useful example may be an ethical dilemma involving cross-cultural understanding, where the moral values differ between the each side of the argument and understanding the point of view of the other culture requires a perspective of morality contrary to one’s own.

    The benefit of this approach is that it requires examining ethics from a unique perspective, potentially abandoning or revising the moral code/ethical stance we personally understand and often develop from our unique cultural background and experiences. It does not require that all moral constructs be thrown out, but rather than we empathize with different perspectives on morality-this sense of empathy helps us to develop an appreciation of the flexibility of morality in situations that are diverse and multifaceted.

  14. Well, I wouldn’t have promised the guy from the first place.
    I think promises should be made when trusting the one and caring for him or her, and in this case, when not knowing who the guy is, and probably not figuring out that from the first impression, it would be impossible to give such a promise,
    and to whom had already given that promise, I’m sure he or she would lie to the police, without even thinking about it, because giving a quick promise like that, without having any background of the consequences, shows how the person is irrational and unfounded !
    And I’m fortunately not that kind 🙂

  15. I wouldn’t have given the promise from the first place !

    Giving a promise to someone you don’t know who he or she is, and without having any idea of the circumstances and the accident, shows how irrational and unfounded the person is!
    Fortunately I’m not the kind to give such promises,
    and anyway, I believe if the promise had already been given, the person would unconsciously lie to the police, without even thinking about it, because as I had said before, the person who gave the promise is most likely to be tenuous and baseless.

  16. After reading this 3 times, I have decided that I’m not convinced that I would tell them where he is. Why are they looking for him? Is it because someone has lied about what he “may” have done and they just want to get him into trouble? Are they really officers or impostors? I have no way of knowing….

  17. In the given scenario a person would have to lie or “change their mind” about keeping a promise.
    There are only 3 possibilities:
    1. You lied to the the man who was running when you made the promise.
    2. You lie to the police when asked if you had seen the man.
    3. You “change your mind” about keeping the promise when confronted with the fact that the police are in pursuit of the man, and then you tell them where he is.

    I don’t believe that people lie “subconsciously”; they lie to protect themselves from something they deem threatening. This scenario doesn’t address whether it is right or wrong in any give situation (morality or ethics), nor is there a culture on earth in which lying is acceptable. Even criminal cultures won’t accept being lied to. Simply ask your self ask “would you lie in this given scenario”. I think that it wise, as abdicated by a few, not to make the promise in the first place, but in this case you did make the promise.

    The only way that I see that an individual would not being lying in this example is if “changing your mind” was not considered lying after getting more facts i.e. the police were pursuing this person.

  18. I reply: “I may have–what does he look like, and what has he done?”

    Depending on their answer back to me, I would go with my gut feeling. If I have already made the promise to begin with, that is what I have already done. I would not lie, but I may misdirect…..

  19. Manar,
    We were given a scenario and asked to answer it honestly. In the scenario the picture was already painted that the promise was made. What would you do in this situation? Would you trust the police or protect the man? I’m just curious?

  20. I wouldn’t promise the guy in the first place. In order to do so, I’d have to make a judgment on his innocence, which I wouldn’t be prepared (or qualified) to do.

    However, I understand that the dilemma calls for me making that promise. Therefore, when the police approached me, I wouldn’t lie to them (which is a crime), nor would I tell the truth (which may or may NOT be the right thing to do), I simply would not answer them. This could, perhaps, draw me further into the drama and require me to then have to legally defend myself, but I really can’t see any other way of handling it that would set well with me. In a situation like this, it is hard to know who the good guys or bad guys really are.

  21. Whether or not the man is innocent is, in my opinion, beside the point. He has been running and, too exhausted to continue, has thrown himself on your mercy. He has offered you a position of power, and you have accepted. And sometimes that means doing things you would normally find questionable. You have to lie to the police, in order to be consistent with your own character.

  22. First instinct : lie
    But you would not lie if you had to really give solid arguments regading why you would choose t lie .

    But we all know one thing : as part of a society , our personal good is less important than that of the group we’re part of
    => if you would want to be morally correct , you would have to tell the officers where the guy is and let them sort it out

    If the guy was being framed or the officers were corrupt , are things that don’t really concern you because things happened the way they did and tough break ,you cannot gather more info.

    Plus , being moral and respecting the popular ethic values is only one small piece of a huge machinery , and in that system all the other pieces have to act according to these moral rules (the officers , the guy hiding , etc) .

    But even though we have to be moral , we can choose not to . And this thought only gives more fuel to those thoughts of vigilanties and of taking matters into our own hands.

    But all thiese being said , personally i would hide the guy and enquire afterwards about the situation . I don’t really trust the system because humans run it and are morally corrupt , it’s just the way we’ve been brought up .

  23. In my opinion i believe that it’s in peoples first nature to tell the truth to an authority figure if they themselves have nothing to hide. If it was myself, I would have no clue after making said promise that he was being chased by cops, so I would automaticly assume that the man being chased is a criminal(innocent people dont run from cops).

    Also, if it were 2 goonish looking fellows, that would be totally reversed. In that situation, I would probably lie. Condemning a man to be harmed is against most people’s basic instincts of being decent humans.

    In the end, it depends on who is chasing the man.

  24. Simple simple simple.

    You made a promise to the guy by agreeing no?
    It’s no difference to you regardless, unless you’re stuck in some Hollywood mindset.

    Lie about it if you can. Karma will set things right regardless. The cops won’t stop, neither will the runner. All things will come out in the wash whether something gets you involved or not.

  25. Whether or not the man is innocent is, in my opinion, beside the point. He has been running and, too exhausted to continue, has thrown himself on your mercy. He has offered you a position of power, and you have accepted. And sometimes that means doing things you would normally find questionable. You have to lie to the police, in order to be consistent with your own character.

  26. I wouldn’t make that promise in the first place. Even if I did, that would be negated when I see police ID. The runner has already lied to me by telling me he’s done nothing wrong when he is apparently resisting arrest. I don’t always have faith in the judicial system, but I have more faith in that than I do in my own ability to make a snap judgment under pressure. I know nothing about this man, what he’s accused of, or why he’s running. The police and courts presumably would.

  27. It seem like it’s hard to judge that other people are irrational and unfounded. Some of us react on emotion. Some of us are probably better than others at reading other people. I think a typical human reaction is to want to protect someone terrified and desperate. Being placed in that situation so quickly and unexpectedly, looking into the mans eyes and hearing his pleas then being so terrified hiding, I don’t know, were his eyes evil. Did he seem like he was truly in danger of taking his last breath? Would it be so bad to say, yes several people have ran by me? Let the police figure out where he is now. Assuming they are good at what they do. There are so many scenario’s, feelings, emotions, a lot tied into it. Tough call… Tough call…

  28. I agree with prufock. Better to let the court make that decision than me.
    Even if I did make the snap decision to the guy running, I would still tell the cops.

  29. Well if we consider Kantianism theory then we have to say the truth to the police! If we dont want lie to be a universal law then we have to say the truth just because we want truth to be a universal law! Thank you!

  30. hey u should always tell the truth even if u promised

    someone and espicially if it is a police officer, so

    tell the truth and make him go to prison 😉 🙂

  31. My initial response… say nothing to the police! I am not saying it is okay to lie – just that you have the right to remain silent. While this may be considered top be aiding and abetting a fugitive you are not morally obliged to help them. However, you are morally obliged not to the man running away regardless of his innocence since you gave him your word.
    What would be interesting is if people would go back on their word if the police disclosed the “alleged” crime of the individual. If it was a shoplifting offense, it may be easy to maintain you were keeping your word… but what if he was a serial rapist, a pedophile or granny murderer… not so easy to justify keeping your word now is it?

  32. I will say to the officers:

    “Yes, I did see the man you are chasing, about 10 seconds ago. He said he couldn’t run anymore. Unfortunately that’s all I can say, because I promised him that I would not tell anyone where he was going to hide.”

    If the officers were any good, they can find the guy based on what I said. Whether or not the guy was guilty, I still upheld my promise. At time I wouldn’t be in trouble for ‘obstruction of justice.’

  33. If the justice system is fair and just then the innocent would have nothing to fear.

    Now say it was a black man in Texas in 1850 running away from two white police officers who I knew happened to be racist – that would then be a totally different matter.

  34. So much depends on circumstance and appearance. Is he covered in blood or is he well-dressed? Is it the middle of the night or sometime in the day? If the police were to run off, would I be stuck alone with this potentially dangerous man? So situational.

  35. it is perplexing to say the least. First of all I would have a problem with someone asking me to not disclose where they are at and they are seen running, panicky and scared . Something serious has happenned previously and this person may be involved in the matter. I would tell the officers and let them figure out the morality of the situation

  36. I beleive this to be fairly simple. I would ask the cops
    what crime had been committed. Then based off the answer I would decide whether or not to give the man up to the law. I also believe a promise to a stranger holds no weight.

  37. After reading many comments I have to say this one person stated something about GOD. Can I tell a lie and look at myself in the mirror in the morning, knowing that what I did or did not do could cost a LIFE. Now here is the GOD part is GOD’s law more inportant that the law of the land. and where do our morals stray from our ethics. If we have none then —> right there he is!
    But I would have to say that Depending on the city and since I never go on walks with out protection I would tell the cops he went that way and talk to the man and if he tried anything funny I would shoot him myself saves a trial. Because thinking about it a man doesn’t run away with out a hostage or the possibility of a hostage if guilty. If he was covered in blood, i would shoot him anyway and tell the cops he tried to mug me.

  38. it depends because you do not know if he is guilty or not. I would just say ‘I never saw any man’ because you did promise not to tell and what if the man wasn’t guilty?

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