When Speaking Falsely is Right


All lying is immoral, but not all false utterances are lies.

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I come late to this dispute over the moral justification for speaking other than the truth and whether “lying is intrinsically immoral.” There may not be as much real dispute here as people imagine there to be.

There may indeed be an argument open about the tactics of Live Action, but the real passion and focus has turned on this matter of lying as an “intrinsic evil.” I don’t think that a couple of my dearest friends (see, for example, Christopher Tollefsen here and here) really wish to put themselves in the position of saying that those householders in Amsterdam were engaged in something “intrinsically immoral” when they spoke untruthfully to the Gestapo about the Jews they were hiding. Nor do I think we wish to say that the householders, who managed in that way to avoid making themselves accomplices in the project of genocide, were running the risk of corrupting their character by “undermining the love of truth.” Let’s stop for a moment to return to the moral ground of the argument.

As John Stuart Mill said, we stop using the language of “like” and “dislike” and start using the language of “right and wrong” to the extent that we think people may be rightly punished for what they are doing. And the converse is that we do not punish people unless we find compelling evidence of their guilt. The refusal to respect the difference between innocence and guilt then is indeed intrinsically wrong, and depending on the gravity of the case, intrinsically evil.

But we remind ourselves that we don’t cast moral judgments solely on the basis of the gross description of the act: “Smith takes the hose from the garage of his neighbor Jones.” Before we’d call it a “theft” we’d ask whether he had permission to take it. He might not have had permission, but he borrowed it for a moment to put out a fire and returned it. He had no permission, but we would be moved to say that his act, given the circumstances, was “justified”—i.e., just, not wrongful. And with the universal logic of a moral term we would be tempted to say that the act would have been justified for “anyone similarly situated.” The point is: Not every taking of property is a theft. Not every killing is a murder. A “murder” is an “unjustified killing.” An innocent person, set upon unjustly, could not be unjustified if lethal force offered the only means of rescuing himself from that unwarranted assault. Plainly, we could not put on the same plane the killing done by a Hitler and the killing done by those who would resist being killed unjustly by a Hitler.

In the same way, not every act of speaking falsely is a “lie.” As many people have recognized, nothing wrong has taken place when children decline to tell their father of the surprise they are planning for his birthday. A “lie” is an unjustified act of speaking falsely, as a murder is an unjustified act of killing. The untruth becomes a lie when it is directed to a wrongful purpose, as in deceiving for the sake of fraud and for the hurting of the victim. Now, if we are in the presence of something we could finally call a “lie” in that sense, it would seem to me to follow that lying is indeed always and everywhere wrong. But that is not what is done by the Dutch householders protecting the Jews they are hiding and speaking falsely to the Gestapo.

In case it comes as news, this understanding was held also by Immanuel Kant, the one most often invoked to proclaim the unconditional wrongness of lying. Kant put it in this way in his Lectures on Ethics:

Not every untruth is a lie….If we were to be at all times punctiliously truthful we might often become victims of the wickedness of others who were ready to abuse our truthfulness.… If my enemy takes me by the throat and asks where I keep my money, I need not tell him the truth, because he will abuse it; and my untruth is not a lie (mendacium) because the thief knows full well that I will not, if I can help it, tell him the truth and that he has no right to demand it of me.

Christopher Tollefsen is convinced that when someone lies, he is absorbing a deep wrong in himself. And I think that is likely to be true. But Tollefsen says that the very departure from truthful speech separates, sunders the person from himself. He goes on to say:

One's full self is not, in fact, disclosed just by one's physical being in the world; it remains for one to communicate much of who and what one is to others in acts and words. When that disclosure is truthful, inner and outer are brought into harmony; when dishonest, inner and outer are sundered. Could this division be anything but a harm to a person?

Again, put the matter in its more demandingly moral scheme: Are we really prepared to say that the Dutch householders, hiding the Jews, were in danger of absorbing a moral “sundering” of themselves because they were able to make a distinction between speaking an untruth for the sake of doing harm and speaking an untruth to avoid the kind of killing that was indeed intrinsically evil? And could one honestly profess to believe that these courageous people, risking their own lives in the rescue, had “harmed” themselves in that way?

I must flag one point: this not something to be dismissed as “reductio ad Hitler.” The case of the Nazis at the door was a real case, testing the courage and character of ordinary people in the gravest way. If our friends cannot answer the question posed in that case, that should give them pause and make them think again whether there might be something slightly off in what they are offering us as teaching. And so I’d insist on “calling the question”: do my friends really think that those householders in Amsterdam were engaged in something intrinsically wrong, absorbing corruption, undermining their love of truth?

Tollefsen says that:

Double effect reasoning is appropriate when there is a moral principle forbidding the intentional bringing about of some harm. Some actions, which bring about that kind of harm nevertheless can be justified because the harm is not intended, but merely foreseen. Thus, assuming that the taking of human life is a harm, and that it is always wrong to intend that harm, nevertheless, many moralists defend some actions, which result in death, because the death is not intended.

Is he earnestly saying then that householders speaking to the Gestapo at the door are obliged to refrain from speaking untruthfully, for they do not directly intend the consequences of turning in the Jews they are hiding? That those are merely consequences that flow, regrettably, from their insistence on avoiding the taint of speaking an untruth? Is he really willing to stand by that?

Tollefsen falls into an embarrassing ellipsis in side-stepping a matter pressed even more recently, and raised in the challenge by Christopher Kaczor on the matter of infiltrating terrorist cells: We have undercover agents working with terrorists, and they have managed to disrupt operational plans that were surely aimed at the killing of the innocent. Is Tollefsen really willing to bar that kind of subterfuge against evil and sternly turn away from any responsibility to act, where he could to save innocent lives? His response comes in a haze:

A firm commitment, by any person, or any group, to avoid all lies would inevitably have radical consequences. … Yet these are only consequences of my view, they are not themselves arguments, and anyone who believes, as members of the great Abrahamic religions do, that the Father of Lies is at the root of much evil, must make a constant struggle not to let their commitment to truth become obscured by the demands of the fallen world.

Not only is that finally a non-answer to a deadly serious question, but a response with no residue, no judgment, of moral substance. And it finally forces itself to the test in this way: Any man who holds to Tollefsen’s view and offers himself for the Presidency of the United States should be obliged to reveal to his fellow citizens that he would not use the devices of subterfuge even to protect the lives of innocent people put under his charge. I would submit to my friends—and here truly “call the question”—that anyone holding to that doctrine would forfeit any moral claim to stand in a position of authority in which he bears responsibility to protect the lives of the American people.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law (Cambridge).

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