Lying: Can it Ever be Done?
The year is 1941. There they are, the Nazis at your door. Behind you is a family of Jews hiding in fear. The question comes, “Are there any Jews in your house?”
What should you say?
I will be shamelessly defending the view that one ought to lie until one’s pants literally burst into flame. It seems that holding any other opinion requires either a season pass to the ivory tower or an intellect so prodigious it can believe something so ridiculous (looking at you Thomists). Find any level headed, common man, and ask that question. You will receive a quick and correct answer, followed by a blank stare of manifest confusion.
It feels like I am about to start explaining a joke to someone who didn’t understand the punch line. It seems harder to tease out the rightness of my proposed response than it is to simply see it and recognize the appropriateness from the onset. Nevertheless, I will propose a few arguments and go on to answer the common objections.
Misordering of Goods
Out of the Aristotelian tradition we have a picture of evil as a misordering of goods. This has been taken up into the Christian tradition through people like Aquinas. Imagine you are sitting by a cliff admiring the view. All of a sudden, a toddler starts heading for the edge as he chases a butterfly. There are two goods here. One is enjoying the beautiful view and the other is preserving the life of a small and sticky human. If one chooses the the serenity of the vista and subordinates the good of the child’s life, this is an evil act.
Does this view collapse into utilitarianism? In a word, no. In more than a word: this view looks to more than just the sum of individuals’ happiness. Instead, it encompasses the full suite of good things God allows us to order in our lives, including Himself. In this Nazi/Jew example, I would say the Jews’ safety is a higher order good than whatever is on the other side of this equation.
But seriously, what is the competing good? Can someone name for me the good thing outweighing the safety of those Jews? Preservation of one’s conscience? If so, how does letting Nazis murder a family of Jews preserve one’s conscience? Is “not lying” the competing good? If so, how can the absence of something be the good thing being referenced- the absence of something is non existence, and can therefore ground no goodness. If instead, the reply is that telling the Nazis the truth is the good, then this seems extraordinarily strange, since it seems to make a person an accomplice to murder. I fail to see how this is good, either.
But wait, maybe the contention is that lying is a mortal sin (which in this particular case I find highly dubious, if not absurd), therefore one is ranking the good of their own soul above the bodily safety of the Jews. If this is the calculus, then why have you not considered the souls of the Nazis? Your refusal to lie is guaranteeing their souls will be harmed by the still greater sin of murder. I would argue that even if we grant that in this case lying is a sin, it seems eminently Christian to take on sin in order to protect other people’s souls from being damned by sin.
A Mortal Sin? No Way
Here is what the Catechism says constitutes a mortal sin:
“1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments…”
In the next section, I will argue that lying in this case does not violate the any of the Ten Commandments and therefore the matter is not grave. However, that’s not the only problem. “Deliberate consent” is nowhere near met. The person who answers the door is being forced to lie or else the family of Jews dies. If I told you to give me your wallet or else I will slaughter a family of Jews, what would you do? I assume that you would hand it over and then call the police. But wait, you deliberately consented to handing over your wallet. Would this defense hold up? No; consent is not consent when there is a threat of death involved.
Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness Against thy Neighbor
The commandment does not read “Thou shall not bear false witness to thy neighbor”, rather it says “against”. When I lie to the Nazis, who exactly am I bearing false witness against? The answer is no one. In order to run afoul of this commandment, there must be someone I am witnessing against and there is not. I wish no one harm with my lie. In fact, much to the contrary, I wish to save lives.
When I tell a joke, or tell someone their revolting looking baby is actually adorable, I am not witnessing against my neighbor and therefore I am not lying in breach of the 8th commandment. In the first case, my intent is to use speech to spark joy and laughter. In the second case, I am not intending to deceive, rather I intend to affirm the parent’s love for their child, despite its uncanny resemblance to a sentient potato. The principle of double effect means that although deception is a side effect, it is not the primary goal of the action.
“Thou shall not kill” does not condemn the actions of a person acting out of self defense. Why? Because it is fine to use force with the intention of protecting one’s self, even if the force is great enough to kill the attacker. It is not the goal of the actions; if there was another way to achieve the same effect it would be preferable. That said, there are times when there are no other options. Likewise with the Nazis at the door, there are no other options except to engage in deception. The goal is to defend the Jews, not to lie for lying’s sake or our own selfish gain.
It seems odd that those who oppose lying to the Nazis do not oppose killing them. Is not the right to life greater than the right to truth? Here I am not talking about eternal truths about God or salvation, but spatiotemporal truths that if known, destroy others and damn the Nazis souls into a yet deeper hole in Hell.
I would argue that just as one can lose the right to life and be justly killed, one can also lose the right to the truth. In fact, I would go on to say the Nazis had no right to know the whereabouts of the Jews in the first place.
You are Answering the Question Either Way
“I did not pick up that end of the see-saw, I pushed this end down”. This is what I hear when someone tell me they would avoid the Nazi's question or give a non answer. If you do anything other than give a clear and unequivocal answer, like “No, Jews are here”, then you are in fact saying something. Your non-answer is actually saying “Yes”. You just found an upside down or backwards way of doing so.
Therefore, the choice is between actively giving Nazis the information that Jews are in your house or not. The “or not” option is called lying. Giving them the information is called being a traitor and an accomplice and I would argue this is the mortal sin of the two.
Sun Tzu Says
“All war is based on deception”- Sun Tzu. Read the numerous stories of Hebrew conquest through the Bible and you will find countless cases where deception is used or even commanded by God. If deception were always bad, then would a surprise attack on those same Nazis by the Allied Forces be immoral? How about a feigned retreat? Or, my favorite example of all, if deception is always wrong then camouflage is immoral. After all, you are taking purposeful actions to tell the enemy your tank is a sand dune or your torso is a tree trunk.
Obviously, all of these are covered by the principle of double effect. In other words, we recognize that evil is from the misordering of goods. It is better that the enemy does not spot you than him having the morally and cosmically unimportant piece of trivia that you happen to be at X place at Y time.
Of course, you could defend camouflage by saying the intent is to conceal information about one’s whereabouts in order to protect someone, not to deceive, even if that is a result. Hmm, sounds a lot like what happens when a normal person chooses to lie to the Nazis as God intended.
Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them do Unto You
If you were a Jew, what would you want others to do for you? What if you were a Nazi looking back on your life after repenting? If I were one of the Jews, I would want you to have lied like a mad man and kept me and my family safe. If I were a Nazi, I would appreciate that your deception kept me from committing mortal sin. How does telling the Nazis the truth, or else doing so by dancing around the subject, fulfill the golden rule?
Objection: Intrinsically evil acts are like road blocks of moral decision making. Lying is intrinsically evil, therefore it can in no circumstances ever be done.
Answer: Let’s say the Nazis have tied 20 children to the train tracks on one track and one man to the other track. You are standing at the switch and they force you to make the train go one way or the other. I would switch it to save the 20 lives and kill 1. But wait, didn’t I just kill an innocent person? Isn’t that an intrinsically immoral act, or a road block of moral decision making?
No, it’s not. I didn’t kill anyone, rather the Nazis did by tying them to a train track. I was forced to simply choose between two bad things. If I choose against one, it automatically defaults to the other and is as if I made that selection in the first place. So, too, with our lying scenario and giving the Nazis the knowledge that Jews are in my house. I am not responsible for lying to them any more than I would be responsible for killing one man on the track; it is simply an unfortunate consequence of my choosing against the greater tragedy.
Our Nazi example is not a case where one act is intrinsically evil, granting this circumstance constitutes malevolent deception in the first case. One is betrayal and the other is a lie. What do we do if both roads are blocked? The answer is to crash into the least destructive place.
Objection: Natural law says the purpose of speech is to convey truth, therefore lying is contrary to the natural law.
Answer: If this proves anything, it proves too much. This means that jokes are immoral. After all, the badger did not actually walk into a bar. What a strange conclusion. I would say that speech has many purposes, such as amusement, expression, and defense of others.
Objection: Scripture praises those in “whom there is no deceit”.
Answer: Rahab the harlot, who lied and hid the Israelite spies, is in the hall of faith in Hebrews. Sure, being truthful is a good thing, but again, I do not dispute this. What I do dispute is whether or not there can be good reason to lie in order to secure a greater good.
Objection: The Church authoritatively teaches that we cannot do evil so that good will result.
Answer: You would not be doing evil. The Nazis are. They have forced you to either lie or betray the Jews. Again, you are choosing against the greater evil out of love for God’s children.
The Church authoritatively teaches the Golden Rule as well, and clearly lying in this case is in accord with the greatest commandment that can govern the actions of man with respect to his neighbor.
Objection: The way out is by having a “mental reservation” where you say, “I have no Jews in this house”, and then think, “That you can come and kill”. Therefore you have hidden the Jews and not lied.
Answer: To be perfectly frank, God doesn’t care about these word games. This magic words theory of ethics doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the morality of the act. You still told the Nazi the same thing in both cases. You had the same inner emotions and intentions in both cases. Adding a small step whereby you think words to yourself reflecting preexisting thoughts does not make this no longer a lie.
By this logic we can all start lying all the time, so long as we have mental reservations. I seriously doubt that this could be defended.
Don’t make Christianity look ridiculous with your freakishly impractical and suspiciously scrupulous moralizing. Wear some camouflage, tell a joke, affirm that your wife does not look fat in that dress, and proudly inflame your pants with a blowtorch of lies if you ever find yourself caught between a vicious Nazi and a hiding Jew.