Is Deception Wrong?





In the dictionary, the word deception means to deceive, to cause another to believe what is not true. To mislead. At face value, this is quite immoral. Generally, we would say it would be highly improper to mislead anyone to believe something that is not true. Yet Sun Tzu endorsed this practice in his [book], The Art of War. Like many concepts in life (and as you might expect), nothing is as simple as it seems.

We will present two examples to fully examine the morality of deception. The first example is about the idea of stealing. We all tend to believe theft is wrong. In almost all cases, taking someone's property without payment is extremely inappropriate. However, would it be immoral for a penniless parent to break into a drugstore to get medicine for his sick infant? Some would believe not in this instance. Why? Although this is still considered stealing, it's overshadowed by something good: caring for a helpless child. This first example is to show how even a disagreeable idea can be made proper under the right circumstances.

Our second example is a story about a determined monk. He vowed to never tell a lie, to never deceive, i.e., to never use deception. This monk is obviously someone committed to staying moral. One day, while meditating under an oak tree, he was interrupted by a young boy. The boy said people are after him, but he claimed innocent to any wrongdoing. The youth further stated that he will now climb up the oak tree and urged the monk not to tell anybody where he's hiding. The monk believed him and promised to not say a word.

When a group of angry people came and questioned the monk if he knew whether a young boy had passed his way, the monk thought hard about the inquiry. If he tells them where the boy is, then he would break his promise. If he tells them no, then he would be lying. Finally the monk had the solution: he simply pointed up -- in the direction of the youth. The boy was then dragged down and subsequently punished. Needless to say, the monk was relieved he had kept his unbroken record of never telling a lie. Nevertheless, he had placed his ideals above bringing harm to someone innocent. This act is cruel and hardly moral. The second example is to show how an agreeable idea can be made improper under some circumstances.

The question still remains: is deception wrong? To Sun Tzu, it is the Way of warfare; it must be applied. For him, deception increases the chances of a quick victory. With it comes reduced hardships and the sparing of soldiers' lives. In fact, if the general can successfully deceive the enemy, he will likely achieve the highest accomplishment in warfare -- victory without fighting.

Implied throughout the Art of War, Sun Tzu preferred using implements of psychology (such as deception and diversion) over direct attacks by military force. It's apparent which results in the least amount of loss. He knew that psychological damage can be returned to normal over time but a "destroyed nation cannot exist again, the dead cannot be brought back to life."

Therefore, one can only conclude that deception is amoral; the degree of its morality would depend on the situation, and of course, the observer's perception. Note that from the perspective of a hardened warrior and strategist like Sun Tzu, deceiving someone is simply a duty that must be brushing one's teeth. You brush your teeth so you can keep them clean. This promotes a healthy body. Likewise, he uses deception so he can achieve military victory. This promotes a secure nation. In these particular instances, both acts are neither sinful nor pious, and have little to do with morality. 


The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.