Lies of Omission

Posted on June 7, 2011


It seems fairly common practice for medical professionals to commit what are known as lies of omission. That is, they either do not reveal the truth at all, or they sugar-coat the truth so as to minimize the possible shock to someone for whom the truth of their diagnosis and prognosis may be worse than the thing itself. How does a doctor tell a patient they have three, six months to live? What if that patient also has a bad cardiac condition that may trigger a heart attack when confronted with the truth of their now-quite-limited future? This is not an easy question, though it appears less frequently to be the case. This may be due to the wide access to medical knowledge the Web affords, or perhaps more to the wide spread of medical dramas on television and film making the general population more prepared to hear the bad news.

But doctors are not the only one’s who commit lies of omission. Parents do it all the time. Police do it when trying to get a suspect to confess. We all do it from time to time, whenever we feel the other person does not need to be told everything. And this may in fact be the case. The risk here, it seems to us, is should the other party learn of this omission later, and usually from another source, they face a dilemma. Can they really trust us to be honest in the future? Or should they from then on doubt everything we say to them?

We would argue that while there may indeed be circumstances under which a lie of this type may be necessary, for immediate safety, as one example, the choice to commit such a lie should be carefully weighed. Any act we do  as individuals ripple outward, and usually have impacts we cannot foresee. Lies are one of those stones we can choose to throw that nearly always cause harm, whether we see the harm or not. And while it is indeed our choice to lie if we feel we must, it is likewise our responsibility when those acts cause harm.

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