Bioethics Blogs

Lying, Bullshitting, and Atul Gawande

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

Atul Gawande: “I came on board after she got diagnosed with that second cancer. And in my mind I was thinking ‘I wouldn’t offer this surgery because the lung cancer is going to take her life.’ And yet I didn’t feel I could say that to you. I think we started talking about the experimental therapy that you all were hoping to get on with the trial for the lung caner. And remember saying something I sort of regret, which was that ‘maybe that sort of experimental therapy will work for the thyroid cancer too.’ [laughs and shakes head] I said that. And I know it was a complete…I knew it was not going to…in other words, the reason I regret it is because I knew it was a complete lie. I just was wanting something positive to say.”

Patient’s husband: “I did not know it was an outright lie. You could lose your license for that you know?” [chuckling]

This exchange took place during last week’s Frontline episode on “Being Mortal” with Atul Gawande. It involves a powerful confession of what I would imagine is a fairly common phenomenon. Atul Gawande characterizes what he did as “lying,” but is there another way to think of it and what are we to make of it morally?

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has written about the distinction between “lying” and “bullshitting” in his essay On Bullshit. Frankfurt notes that lying involves saying something that one knows to be false (e.g., telling someone that something feels good when you know in fact that it feels bad).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.