A colleague of mine recently confided to me that he was in difficult circumstances: He was in over his head, owing millions of dollars to investors. On one particular day, they paid him a polite visit at his home and inquired about the status of the investment and how soon they might receive their promised return. My colleague was about to tell them the unfortunate truth — that because of circumstances beyond his control, their investment had been lost — when a moment from his own childhood flashed before his eyes.
When he was 17 years old, he loaned an associate $50, a lot of money for him at the time. Weeks passed, well beyond the time the $50 was to be repaid, yet he heard no word from his associate. When he finally managed to confront the boy who owed him the money, the boy stated truthfully that he did not have the means to repay the loan. This so enraged my colleague that, without thinking, he nearly beat the other kid unconscious and left his face almost unrecognizable.
Now the shoe was on the other foot. Fearing the wrath of his investors, my colleague lied and said there would be a delay of about a month. Nonetheless, he assured them that they would receive their money.
About two weeks later, he happened to talk with one of the investors. The investor said to him, "I'm glad you told us that you were getting us the money, because we were prepared to take you out."
Although the investors sensed that the money was lost, they were not prepared to hear the truth. Even though they had read my colleague's body language and sensed that he was not being truthful, the lie nonetheless gave them hope. That hope saved my colleague's life, or so he believed.
This story clearly might allow one to reason that it is OK to lie in certain instances. Lying is what saved his life, at least for the time being. Many people would act as he did, hoping that somewhere along the line they would get a break that would allow them to repay the money. I can understand this perspective.
The only problem is, now my colleague has to live the lie that he will repay the money. He has to pretend to go on business trips to fictitious destinations in order to shop for nonexistent products. He uses an alias when he travels and is constantly looking over his shoulder. He even tried to deceive another set of investors, promising them a wildly exaggerated profit so he could pay back the original investors. His life has been reduced to a shambles. He doesn't enjoy his food, finds it hard to sleep and has no peace. In his mind, he suffers a thousand deaths as a result of his campaign of fabrications. Who knows, had he been truthful, he may have died only once or not at all.
In fact, I would argue that his behavior definitely makes matters worse. My friend is creating the same situation over and over again — like Bernard Madoff's and Arthur Nadel's Ponzi schemes in recent years — which can lead only to economic disasters for the victims and further degradation of the moral fabric of society as a whole.
It is in this context that I want to bring up my own philosophical struggles with this issue. I have often told a close friend that I would lie in a heartbeat if I thought it would save his life. Of course, this raises another issue of whether it's acceptable to intentionally deceive in order to protect someone else. We can all think of extreme situations where people are faced with this dilemma — in the times of the Underground Railroad, for example, when some hid runaway slaves and aided them in traveling to freedom and safety in the North. Or with those who hid Jews during World War II, knowing that betraying them meant they would be sent to concentration camps and almost certain death.
This brings us to an "ends justifying the means" argument, which is always a slippery slope, and I have no easy answers for it. Is it OK to lie to save someone's life? That raises the question of whether the end can ever justify the means. Generally speaking, it does do not — especially since we, as humans, can never see the whole picture; therefore, our choices are flawed because our perspective doesn't give us enough information to be sure we're making the right call.
• Armstrong Williams is the author of the book "Reawakening Virtues." Join him from 4-5 a.m. and 6-7 p.m. daily on Sirius/XM Power 128. Become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.