Ethics Quiz: Lying To The Dying, Or Trump Derangement Meets “The Magnificent Seven”

In “The Magnificent Seven,” the original classic, not last year’s disappointing re-make, Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) had always been convinced that the real reason the Seven had agreed to help a poor Mexican village fight a predatory bandit band was because the town had a secret treasure to share. (It didn’t.) Harry refuses to join the rest as they make one desperate effort to help the farmers, then at the peak of the gunfire gallops back into the village to join the battle–and is promptly shot. Dying, he begs Chris (Yul Brenner) to confirm his suspicions…

Harry Luck: Chris… I hate to die a sucker. We didn’t come here just to keep an eye on a lot of corn and chili peppers, did we? There was something else all along, wasn’t there?

Chris: Yes, Harry. You had it pegged right all along.

Harry: I knew it. What was it?

Chris: Gold. Sacks of it.

Harry: Sounds… beautiful. How much?

Chris: At least a hundred and fifty.

Harry: My cut would have been what?

Chris: About seventy thousand.

Harry: I’ll be damned. (He dies)

Chris: Maybe you won’t be.

Today’s news has another story involving lying to a dying man, a really stupid story.

Michael Garland Elliott, 75,  died of congestive heart failure in his Oregon home ,surrounded by his caregivers, neighbors and friends.  Right before the end, his ex-wife,spoke with him over the phone from her home in Austin, Texas.

She told him that President Trump had been impeached.   “I knew it was his very, very last moments,” Teresa Elliott told reporters. “I knew that would bring him comfort and it did. He then took his final breath.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is it ethical to lie to dying friends and loved ones?


The liar in this story of  Love And Trump Derangement described her ex-husband as a “news junkie,” though apparently one who was stump ignorant about history, the Constitution, what constitutes impeachable offenses and the news over the past four months. Maybe he was fan of Maxine Waters.

“If I could leave him with a happy piece of news then why wouldn’t I?” Theresa said. “And maybe in the end it won’t turn out to be a lie.”

This was obviously a real swift couple. See, Theresa, if it’s a lie when you say it, subsequent events can’t make it a non-lie. Never mind; this is obviously too complicated for you.

As for your question,  the answer is, “Because it’s a lie.” Why is it acceptable to leave a loved one with a lie? Is it better than other lies because they will never discover you lied to them, being dead and all? Is that the theory?

If it is, why not go whole hog? Why stop with simply satisfying Michael’s Trump-hate? Tell him the doctors says he’s going to recover. Tell him his kids just won the lottery. Tell him Jesus is in the parlor and says that there will be peace and prosperity for all time, starting now. What’s the difference? if you are going to lie to loved one and think that’s a wonderful thing to do, why not go big?

How about this: if feel you have to lie, at least make it a less insulting lie than “They impeached Trump.”

31 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Lying To The Dying, Or Trump Derangement Meets “The Magnificent Seven”

  1. I must agree. I also have to say that, if you are spending your last moments of life thinking about Trump, that definitely constitutes “Trump derangement.”

  2. “Is it ethical to lie to dying friends and loved ones?”


    This whole story sounds a bit far fetched even for people suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome.

    P.S. My x-wife if the kind of person that would have told a Trump supporting x-husband the exact same thing. Actually my x-wife is such a beacon of hope she’d probably come up with something a little more like “I’m going to kill myself right after I hang up so I can be waiting for you on the other side and you have to deal with me for your entire eternity” (click… dial tone…) Yup, my x is a real “jewel” representing the best that humanity has to offer.

  3. What a wonderful thing to do for ex-wife to lie to dying Michael! She should be presented with the Mother Teresa award for bringing comfort to those who can’t handle the truth. Do I smell an ulterior motive here?

  4. Hey, Jack! I agree with you! Telling the dying something beautiful.. Forget
    politics or those engaged in said. profession. When one is dying,.,it’s
    Insane to bring up impeachment….
    But I would not lie at a time like that. Just love the person, share good
    memories…dragging in lies…No Pass!
    We have heard lues all our lives. They do nothing for us.
    I want no lies when I die…

  5. Dead people don’t matter.

    Case in point: “All dead people are losers!”

    *Waits for droves of the un-dead to begin clamoring down his door.*


  6. Tough one.

    Leaving aside Kant’s Never Lie rule, these are not really analogous.

    In Magnificent Seven, the dying person wants to believe he died for something he believed in (no matter how petty or selfish that was). It is a desire that one’s life (or death) has meaning

    In Saving Private Ryan, he felt obligated to live a good life for those who sacrificed themselves for him. I always HATED the utilitarian aspect of that film. But, it is similar to this. Doing your best to justify a sacrifice, so that others who died did not do so in vain.

    To die happy because you believed a Trump was impeached is not even comparable. First, it involves no personal sacrifice, like the other examples. The dying person gains no greater esteem if the lie were true. It is a gratuitous lie for a pathetic person, who would find solace in such a lie.

    If you want to lie to me, tell me good things about my kids; I hope they won’t be lies (fingers crossed).


  7. My view of this is that it matters if it’s a push or pull. If she concocted something random he’d want to hear and pushed that on him, then I’m not on board.

    If he was pulling it out of her, then I’m okay. If you’re dying and you’re asking someone to tell you something you want to hear, then I think that person can then proceed to fulfill your dying wish, whether it’s true or not.

    There’s something to be said for the M7 example above, in that the dying person was asking for a lie.

    It might be that this doomed individual did instigate the discussion and asked for the lie, I don’t think there’s enough detail. But there’s no indication of it here. Also, way to taint his obituary and turn it into a political pot-shot. To each, their own. You’re paying for the space, but really?

  8. Truly hilarious.

    Upon reading the summary from “The Magnificent Seven,” I assumed there was a more direct connection to the mythical existence of the gold and the dying person had been told James Comey had just held a new conference where he played the tape of Donald Trump telling Vladimir Putin Trump would lift the sanctions on Vlad and his cronies, take all the missiles out of Poland AND allow Vlad and his buddies to buy The New York Yankees and and Microsoft and Tesla for five hundred bucks and some cereal box tops if, but only if, Vlad would have his boys would steal John Podesta’s and Donna Brazile’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s emails. That would have been GOLD, bags of it.

    (You sure this story is legit? Sounds like The Onion to me.)

  9. Once again my home state proves why I want to get the (expletive) out of Oregon. Just chalk it up to the craziness of the place. Though I must admit not pumping my own gas is kinda nice.

    My grandma’s last words to me (she was 102 when she died) was “I don’t want to die.” It was heartbreaking to hear how upset she was with the dying process & I wanted to make her have less fear & pain. But to lie to her about anything at that moment wouldn’t have changed her death a few days later & I’m not sure lies would have taken her fear of dying away. Death is a mystery for which we have to allow the dying the dignity to work out on their own.

    In the end each family has to chose what to communicate to a dying loved one. However I’m not convinced conning them, especially about politics, will bring any greater comfort. It seems the lie is for the living, not the dead.

  10. I think it is ethical (with some conditions) to lie to a dying person, but I do not think it was ethical in this case.
    When my Mother-in-Law was dying, or perhaps already dead, I spoke quietly to her that her grand-kids (my kids) all wished they could be with her and sent their love. None of them had said exactly that, nor did they ask me to speak to her on their behalf. Obviously, I thought that stretcher was okay at the time, and I still do.
    I would have agreed to the lie in the case of Mr. Elliott, too, if it had been done quietly, just between him and his ex-wife, with the reasonable expectation that it would bring him comfort. She has portrayed the lie as if he believed it to be the truth, and that he therefore died in peace. If she believed he had the faculties to understand what she was saying, and she did (“I knew it would bring him comfort”), then she had to believe he had the faculties to know it was a lie. Fine, a comforting lie. But, publicizing to the world his apparent belief of an impeachment (by contacting the NY Daily News and putting it into his obituary) just makes him look to world like a dunce. Even if that were the case, which I doubt, doing that to someone without good cause and especially upon his death is not ethical.

    • Very good point. I had not thought about the ethics of publicizing the lie. Even if I were biased enough to want my last thoughts to be of Trump’s impeachment, I sure as hell wouldn’t want the world to know it!

      • We only have her word for it though, which was why I was disgusted when I read this story this morning. I’m sure the very last thing on a dying man’s mind was Trump. What a thing to hog someone’s last seconds with, while he’s in a room full of people who were actually there doing something for him. Funny how last thoughts or words of the dying always seem to flatter/agree with/benefit the teller of these kinds of tales…

        She wasn’t there for whatever reason, but she’s made herself star of the day. Blech.

  11. My thought is twofold:
    1. To each his own. If that sort of silliness makes a dying man happy, then so be it.
    2. They both must be very sad sad people with sad sad lives if the most important thing either one of them can think of to share as their final thoughts to each other is a lie about Donald Trump.

    • Maybe this is crazy like a fox! She supports Trump (I know, there are a total of three Trump supporters in the People’s Republic of Austin, and the odds she is one are slight, but bear with me) and knows he is violently opposed (maybe she is BECAUSE he is violently opposed. She is an Ex, after all). She believed in an afterlife. So her virtue signalling is really a last, unanswerable gotcha. He goes to the afterlife and finds out Trump is still President, and knows she got one last dig in!

  12. A Left Coast Inspirational Family Film…

    “Honey, I want to take this final moment we have together to tell you one last thing…the thing I know you new to hear the most…”

    [gasps] “…”

    “Something terrible happened to that person you really, really hate.”

    [smiles] “Awe….some…” [dies]

    [Country ballad plays.]

  13. Give me a break. Horrible. But perhaps the ex knew him better than those who wanted to make him feel happy and loved. I suppose if this guy was a real nut, what she said was good for him. But appropriate? Send him off with hate in his heart instead of a sense of those who loved him? I don’t know what happens after death, but I sure wouldn’t want partisan politics to be my last thought on this earth.

    Answer to the question: Tell the truth to the dying when you can. If the person doesn’t need to know that he will shortly meet his son in the great beyond, then don’t tell the person. When my mother asked me “is this it?” I said (hard as it was): “Yes, Mom, I think it’s pretty close. You know how much I love you.” She smiled and said yes. Nothing more was needed or said, and two hours later she died. I have no regret about that night.

    But by the way, her concern at that point had nothing to do with current events and politics at the time: if they had, I would have thought that dementia, not cancer, had killed her.

  14. Didn’t you already cover this one, when someone requested they put their dog to sleep after they die because “they won’t be happy without me?” You concluded that, in that case, hell yes, go ahead and lie if the person won’t let it go, and then DON’T just kill a dog for no reason.

    Obviously, that’s a request that would hurt a lifeform that isn’t about to die, so I can see the distinction. But if the question was, “is there ANY circumstance in which lying to a dying relative is ethical,” then I’d say yes.

  15. Lies and ethics….

    My general rule of thumb regarding the ethics of lying is to ask the following clarifying question: Whom does the lie benefit?

    From there it’s a lot easier to figure out. Telling a lie that is for the benefit of the person being lied to can be and maybe always is ethical. Think Santa Claus. Think sparing someone’s feelings. Think keeping them out of danger.

    Yes, think making someone’s last moments happier in some way.

    In this particular case, I think the content of the lie being the fictitious impeachment of the President is just ick factor. But in his case, it apparently made him happy (or at least she honestly thought so).

    I’m going to go with YES, ETHICAL.


  16. Okay. I’m coming in late to the party, but might as well contribute. As a forewarning, I haven’t read most of the above comments, so I may be repeating a few points made by others.

    Bluntly, I think that the question itself is flawed… or at least leading. To illustrate, let me take another hypothetical example.

    Imagine Elliott — still a Trump hater — dying while on the phone with his wife. However, instead of telling him that Trump had been impeached, she told him that Trump had set off a nuclear war and that he shouldn’t worry — she’d be joining him soon. As such, he (contrafactually) died utterly horrified and worried for his family’s future.

    This would, of course, be clearly unethical. There are a number of other such lies which I could throw in. “Oh, don’t worry, dear, I’ll be fine — I’ve been seeing Mr. Smith for years…,” for instance. The question as worded lumps these all together.

    That’s my problem with the central question: It focuses exclusively on the negative aspect (the lie), thereby ignoring the actual ethical dilemma.

    In this case, it’s a balancing issue. The liar is trying to do something good and ethical (comforting someone who’s dying) via means that are unquestionably unethical in isolation (lying). Any question about his sort of case should ideally frame it in a way that encompasses each half — to do otherwise is to lead the people being asked in one direction or the other.

    To further add to the issue, your central question, as written, invites confusion with another ethical question altogether. To wit, one of the usual explanations for why lying is wrong focuses on the consequences to the person you’re lying to. They may, in other words, be harmed by the lie — by acting contrary to their interests on the basis of the false information, for instance. The inevitable response is to point to cases where this breaks down — to cases where the person being lied to can’t do so and may even benefit from the false belief — and ask for an analysis there.

    Then again, this blog isn’t exactly focused on academic/theoretical ethics… but that question was where my head initially went when I saw your question (which was in big text, leading to me seeing it while scrolling down the page independent of the rest of the article).

    A better wording would be something along the lines of, “Is it ethical to comfort a dying friend or loved one with a lie?” Or perhaps, “Is it ethical to use a lie to comfort a dying friend or loved one?”

    All of the above said, I don’t think there’s a real answer. I know my own opinion (I wouldn’t want to die believing a lie), but that’s my own, personal, selfish response. Beyond that? Like with any other ethics conflict, it depends on the relative value you place on each half of the metaphorical scale.

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