Truthfulness and the person living with dementia: Embedded intentions, speech acts and conforming to the reality

Julian C Hughes*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Highly reputable bodies have said that lying is to be avoided when speaking with people living with dementia, unless it cannot be. And yet, the evidence is that many professionals looking after people who live with dementia have been lying to them. I wish to consider an underlying philosophical justification for the moral position that allows lying under some circumstances whilst still condemning it generally. It can seem difficult to ignore the immorality of lying, but thinkers have developed arguments to get around the absolute prohibition. I shall argue that in concrete circumstances the object and the intended end of an action are not as clearly distinct as has been presumed. Further, looking at how language functions allows us to appeal to speech acts and to see the illocutionary force of a statement as way to broaden its purview. We need not think that the only options are between lying and not lying; there is also the possibility, in exigent circumstances, of 'conforming to the reality', which would allow a more nuanced account of moral acts, where the intentional nature of the act is no longer to lie. There are, thus, extreme concrete circumstances where not to speak the truth may be excusable, even if regrettable.

Original languageEnglish
Early online date10 Jul 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 The Authors. Bioethics published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


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