When Someone Has No Right to the Truth

Article / Produced by TOW Project
When someone has no right to the truth

Another category of possible exceptions to the norm of truthtelling is when the person asking the questions has no right to the truth. For example, if a gun-wielding criminal comes into a convenience store for the purpose of robbing it, the employees are under no obligation to tell the truth about where the money is. Most people would accept that lying to the robber is justifiable. In fact, in some cases, explaining to the person that he has no right to the truth would be tantamount to giving him the information he is seeking. In those cases, it may be acceptable to deceive the person to the minimum degree necessary to prevent him from learning what he has no right to know.

Similarly, if you are in a position of keeping confidentiality, people who ask you to breach that duty have no right to the information they are seeking from you. However, in the case of confidentiality, the duty not to disclose information does not make lying justifiable. For example, if you work in the human resources office of your company and you have information about upcoming layoffs that you are to keep confidential and someone asks you for a “heads up” about their job security, you have a duty to maintain confidentiality.

It would be wrong to divulge the information, but it would be equally wrong to lie. The proper response is to point out that if you had any information about the topic, you would be unable to disclose it. This is the case even though the person may appeal to your friendship and may indicate that the reason they need this information is because of a pending purchase of a home or some other financial commitment they are making. In these cases, you must maintain confidentiality as a part of your loyalty to your company, telling the person that you can’t answer questions like those and you don’t appreciate being put in such a compromising position, one that could cost you your job if you disclosed that information.

The difference between the robbery example and the confidentiality example is that the human resources officer has another option besides outright lying. A store clerk cannot tell the robber, “If I knew where the money is, I couldn’t disclose that information to you”—at least not if the clerk hopes to survive the robbery attempt! But the human resources officer does have that option. This would also be the case if a customer inquired about your profit margin on the price of the product you’re negotiating. You don’t need to lie, but you can make the point that it is confidential information that you’re not authorized to disclose. This emphasizes the fact that the customer does not have the right to that information. The customer does have the right not to be lied to by you, however.

The situation is more ambiguous when the deception merely protects you from the consequences of your own actions. For example, your employer generally doesn’t have a right to know what you do when you are off the job. What if you choose to do something that would make you unpopular with your boss or co-workers or reveal deeply personal information? If someone mentions she saw you at a casino last weekend, would it be okay to lie in order to deny it? What about a civil rights march? A church service? A workshop for survivors of domestic violence? It is difficult to find a general rule in scripture or elsewhere for this kind of situation. Instead we can note that growing spiritual maturity tends to go hand-in-hand with greater ability to disclose truth in situations that seem to threaten personal difficulty. A new Christian might find it too difficult to admit to being at a church service if he fears it would diminish his co-workers’ esteem for him. More mature Christians might be willing to take the risk and might be capable of turning the situation into a positive experience for themselves and their co-workers. Yet even the most spiritually mature who convert to Christianity in a country where such a conversion is illegal might properly decide to deceive others to keep it hidden, at least until the time and place of God’s choosing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer advised his friends to give the Nazi salute (“Heil Hitler”) in order to hide their opposition to Hitler.[1] Here again, notice that in order to find a clear example, we have resorted to a situation far beyond what most Christians face at work. For most Christians at most times in most places, growing in Christ means growing more willing to disclose ourselves openly and without deception.

Deception to Obtain Information You Have a Right to Know

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There are situations in which deception is necessary to obtain information an organization has a right to know. This essentially takes an exception noted earlier, deception for national intelligence purposes and applies it to other workplaces. For example, imagine your job is to serve court orders to people who wish to avoid appearing in court. If you start by disclosing who you are and why you are attempting to contact them, they will probably never admit who they are. Yet your job is vital to the function of the system of laws.

Or consider the practice of mystery shopping. As a means of quality assessment, many retail, medical, hospitality and other customer service companies use mystery shoppers to visit their locations, pretend to be customers, and report on their experience. The information may be essential to assuring that customers are experiencing what the brand promises.[1] In order to make sure they are being treated like ordinary customers, mystery shoppers must conceal the truth that they are reporting to the company on their experience. Mystery shoppers—at least in these situations—are trying to obtain information their organizations do have a right to know, but could not obtain without deception.

Just as it may be legitimate to use deceit to protect information that someone else does not have a right to know, it may also be legitimate to use deception to obtain information you do have a right to know. The same approach can be taken to learn about competitors' customer service, prices, etc., by sending a "competitive mystery shopper" into their locations. This is on shakier ethical ground. As long as the competitive mystery shopper simply observes publicly-visible prices, interactions, environments and the like, no deception is involved. But if competitive mystery shoppers are asked who they are or what they are doing, it would be unethical for them to give deceptive answers. Even worse would be calling competitors, misleading them about your identity, and asking questions they would not respond to if they had not been deceived.[2]

Information You Have No Right to Know

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Until now we have been discussing deception to obtain information you have a right to know. This is different from corporate espionage, which means using deception or other means to gain information that you do not have a right to know.The information is typically about the target company's products, strategies, finances, people or research and development. This is both unethical and illegal. Because the entity conducting the espionage has no right to know the information, it certainly has no right to use deceit to obtain it. For example, some companies attempt to gain inside information on competitors by having employees represent themselves as graduate students working on a thesis. They may say or imply that the information will be disguised or aggregated. Obviously, this is illegitimate. This fits the general model of corporate spying, using fraudulent means to gain access to information to which the competing company has no right.

A sidelight to corporate espionage is a situation in which you may un-deceitfully obtain information to which you have no right. For example, you are a sales representative staying overnight in a hotel in your prospect’s city. You discover that a sales representative of a competitor stayed in the same hotel room the night before and left a copy of the competitor’s bid in the drawer. All you have to do is leaf through the bid and you will learn the competitor’s prices, terms, and recommended products. From this you will gain a decisive competitive advantage. You have no right to the information, and in fact (in most cases) the bid will be clearly marked “confidential.” Yet you have not deceived anyone to obtain the information. Should you consider it a lucky break, or the due consequences of the competitor’s blunder in leaving a bid in a hotel room?

Because the principle we have been following is the one of "right to know," the only consistent answer is that you must not leaf through the bid or otherwise allow yourself or your company to learn its contents. Most reputable companies have a policy against using—or even becoming aware of, if possible—competitors’ confidential information. Managers and executives—if they are ethical—will enforce these policies and rigorously prevent the use of information to which the company has no right.

Social Implications of Protecting Information Others Have No Right to Know

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These discussions about the legitimacy of some deception when another party has no right to know may seem like a litany of excuses for questionable conduct. On a personal level, this may often be the case. But on a societal level, if there is no mechanism to protect people and organizations from having to reveal things others have no right to know, society may be harmed. Consider the following case reported to the Theology of Work Project:

I worked for a major pharmaceutical company, teaching a course intended to help managers and professionals investigate product quality complaints. So, if a product was discovered to have been manufactured and released although failing in fact to meet quality standards, there would be an investigation to uncover what had happened to cause that incident. In the course of doing the investigation, it is the professional thing to develop a list of possible causes which are then tested and eliminated by logic and further testing to determine which best fits the actual effect that has been reported. This is entirely comparable to the process a doctor goes through in diagnosing a mysterious set of symptoms; it would be malpractice to jump to premature conclusions without eliminating other reasonable and possible causes.

The company’s legal division, however, advised managers never to keep a record of having gone through such a list of possible causes, since those records would be subject to subpoena. If someone suing the company for another reason were to gain access to a document with a long list of possible causes of product defects, it could give the false impression that the company knows of many flaws in its processes, but is doing nothing to correct them.[1]

In this situation, the pharmaceutical company has internal information used to improve quality control. The company believes—justifiably, perhaps—that if this information is revealed to plaintiffs in lawsuits who have no right to know, it is likely to be misunderstood and used to harm the company. Because the company lacks confidence that what it regards as its right to privacy will be respected by the judicial system, it changes its process to prevent recording information that is needed to improve quality control. As a result, the public is harmed because the quality of drugs is not as high as it might be otherwise. You don’t have to agree with the pharmaceutical company’s opinion about exactly who has the right to know what to see that getting the balance right is a question that has important social consequences. The right to privacy, including the right to use deception to conceal information from those who have no right to know it, is too complex to be handled by a blanket prohibition of deception. In a fallen world, at least, truth and deception are actually complex issues, even in the light of biblical principles.