Blogs & Comment

Lying for profit

Is it wrong to facilitate a lie or to profit from doing so?

Lying, generally, is wrong. Is it also wrong to facilitate a lie, or to profit from doing so? What if your entire business model involves helping people tell lies? No, I’m not talking about the big accounting firms, who only sometimes help clients lie, and typically do so through creative interpretations of accounting standards. I’m talking about something much less creative, namely bald-faced lies. And yes, there are businesses that are set up to help you do just that — everything from helping you fake your resumé to helping you establish an alibi (if, e.g., you played hooky from work, or need to spend some quality time with your mistress).

Here’s the story, by Marissa Conrad for Time Out Chicago: Businesses that lie — and are proud of it.

Now, this is not the sort of story that I would normally bother with. After all, you don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy or an advanced knowledge of the history of moral theory to sort through the ‘subtleties’ here. Yes, there are grey zones in ethics. And sure, lying is sometimes justifiable. But the exceptions prove the rule: deception is generally wrong. And deception of the kind that these companies facilitate is no exception.

But what’s interesting about these services, and what makes this story worth even mentioning, is the self-serving rationalizations that the proprietors of these services indulge in, in order to justify their existence. “Is lying on your CV justified?” they ask rhetorically. What if you really need the job? What if you’re a really decent guy who has caught some tough breaks in the past, and your CV needs a little boosting as a result? Who is to say? Well, the owner of one of these businesses is clear about his approach to the question:

“We believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” says [Reference Store] operations manager David Everett. “Is Robin Hood a criminal? It depends on who you ask.”

Now, presumably such companies render assistance to trivially few customers with Robin Hood’s claim to serve the greater good. And besides, Robin Hood-type characters achieve true hero status only in retrospect. We can’t conclude that Robin Hood’s actions were justified just because he himself thought they were. Likewise, the fact that lying is sometimes justified doesn’t mean we can afford generally to be agnostic about the ethics of particular acts of deception, let alone decide to facilitate such acts. The problem here really lies in the fact that these companies are unilaterally appropriating for themselves the right to make that determination, taking shelter in extraordinarily shallow self-serving rationalization, and abdicating their clear responsibilities to engage in at least a modicum of ethical reasoning.