Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.

Privileged Lies

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 13, 2006

Musāvāda-virati and “Privileged Lies”

J. Duncan M. Derrett
University of London

A privileged lie cannot exist where (1) lies are totally forbidden, or (2) lying is so common that no excuse for it is expected. A lie is “privileged” where it is commonly excused, granted that lying in general is reprehended. A good illustration is to tell a terminally ill patient that there exist hopes of his recovery. In a system knowing privileged lies these are usually harmless to the hearer. The answer “Not at home” is conventional, a piece of politeness. “I do not know” may well be a lie, but may avoid much trouble. In Buddhism, where there are no privileged lies, one may conclude that lies are so injurious that no convenience can excuse lying.

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