There's a famous dispute about truth between the French political thinker (and novelist) Benjamin Constant and Immanuel Kant. In his essay 'Political Reactions' (1797), Constant mocks Kant's moral absolutism; Kant's deduction of the moral right seemed to allow for no exceptions meaning that, for example, it is never right to lie. How can that be right? asks Constant.
Le principe moral, par exemple, que dire la vérité est un devoir, s'il était pris d'une manière absolue et isolée, rendrait toute société impossible. Nous en avons la preuve dans les conséquences très directes qu'a tirées de ce principe un philosophe allemand, qui va jusqu'à prétendre qu'envers des assassins qui vous demanderaient si votre ami qu'ils poursuivent n'est pas réfugié dans votre maison, le mensonge serait un crime. [Des Réactions Politiques, Section 8]
[For example, the moral principle that holds truthfulness to be a duty, if taken in an absolute and isolated manner, makes the whole of society impossible. We have proof of this in the direct consequences drawn from this principle by a certain German philosopher, who goes so far as to maintain that it would be a crime to lie to a group of murderers who are pursuing your friend and want to know if he has taken refuge in your home.]
Kant's response was to write a notorious essay 'On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy' (1797) in which he confirmed that this was indeed his position. You are not morally entitled to lie to the murderer at the door. Kant's position, despite its apparent dogmatic clarity is actually quite hard to figure out, in part because Constant's jibe is itself not very fully set out and so it's not clear what Kant thinks he is responding to. He argues that if we say that the benevolent consequences of a lie are sufficient morally to permit lying, then we have to accept all of the consequences, not just the benevolent ones; what if the murderer doesn't believe you, pushes past and into the house, finds your friend and kills them and then kills you too for lying? Now the consequences seem to be worse than if you had simply told the truth.
Few people have found this very compelling. When transplanted to a more concrete case, say the Nazis turning up at the house in which Anne Frank is hiding, it seems outrageous to hold to Kant's principle. That said, Constant's position, such as he explains it, may seem like common sense but has some awkward consequences, as Kant points out. If, after all, we believe that everyone is permitted to lie when they think it will have good consequences, we will be disinclined to take anyone at face value and the whole efficacy of lying falls down. You're not going to protect Anne Frank by lying if the Nazis don't believe you anyway.
So lying is a problem for moral philosophy, at least in this version of the debate.
It occurred to me recently to wonder if part of the problem might be thinking of telling the truth as something appropriate to discuss morally. This seems a counterintuitive question: surely lying is one of the most basic offences against morality - such that if we do admit of any exceptions we have to invent special categories, the lie of omission, the little white lie, and so on. Lying is prohibited in the ninth commandment (thou shalt not bear false witness). Lying seems not just to be a practical inconvenience but go to the heart of someone's character. Are you calling me a liar? is not a question ever asked calmly.
We know that there are various things that people are duty bound to do that are nonetheless non-moral. Could truth-telling be a non-moral duty? If so, of what kind? Here are some instances of non-moral duties: you should wash regularly if you can; you should not pick your nose (in public anyway); you should say thank you when given a gift. I guess you could cash these out in elaborate ways to connect them to moral behaviour, but by and large I'd call these non-moral duties. They are about having consideration for others, maintaining a level of decorum, observing certain strengthening rituals of group behaviour. But they are not moral.
Truth-telling is not of this kind. It is possible to imagine a world in which the social rules are different and in which, therefore, one might be permitted (even obliged) to pick your nose in public, in which washing regularly might seem wasteful (or environmentally damaging), and where thanking someone for a gift is so unnecessary that it seems insultingly sentimental. But it is hard to imagine a world in which the social rules can abolish the requirement to tell the truth. So it seems not to be this kind of non-moral duty.
There is another class of behaviours that people are duty bound to adopt, I think, which are less dependent on social rules. For example, I think it is generally the case that we ought to be broadly consistent in our behaviour. We don't have to be dully uniform and, indeed, a touch of spontaneity and caprice and imagination is part of being an interesting person. But the sort of person who is kind to their friends one day and unpleasant to them the next is very trying. I think we would wish they were different, not just for our convenience but because we think they ought to be more consistent.
This isn't a moral duty though. Being consistent is not in itself moral. After all, it depends what you are consistent in doing. The philanderer who launches an extramarital affair every January gets no moral brownie points for their consistency. Dr Shipman is not to be preferred to Dr Crippen because of the former's consistent commitment to murder.
And yet, it is not clear that inconsistency is easily compatible with moral behaviour. I suppose you could be inconsistent about non-moral things (I know I said I don't like toffee apples, but lately I've rather taken to them) as long as you are broadly consistent about the moral things. So consistency seems to be a condition for moral behaviour while being in itself morally neutral.
Maybe truth-telling is like that. Maybe it's not moral or immoral in itself to lie; maybe being broadly truthful is a condition for moral behaviour, though what you actually do with that truth-telling is what counts. In other words, aiding a murderer to kill your friend is certainly not moral; the fact that you did that by telling the truth doesn't add a drop of moral goodness to your actions.
J. L. Austin can help us here. There are, of course, occasions where the truth-value of what you say is only a very tiny part of the speech act. Telling your friend that his haircut is awful is truthful may be truthful but it has the 'perlocutionary force' of upsetting him greatly. You could probably have upset him in a similar way without telling the truth as such (laughing immoderately as he appeared for instance). So again, the truth-telling seems to contribute nothing morally to the act.
If this is right, or at least if there's something in it, the Constant/Kant division would seem to be over a chimera. Neither telling the truth not lying can be morally required. What does seem clearly required is not to lead a murderer to your friend. In general terms, it is better to be truthful than not, as a rule, but this is a non-moral consideration. One could not easily lie all the time to everyone for moral reasons, since it would seem to start destabilising your ability effectively to behave morally, but clearly one could lie to the murderer if that is the best way of effecting your moral aim.