Speaking Truth to Evil


The Live Action case is very different from the Nazis-at-the-door problem, but lying is justified in neither situation.

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The recent conversation about lying has not been easy. I hope to make a further contribution to the discussion here, by responding to some of the criticisms frequently made to the view I have already defended (see my earlier contributions here and here, and criticisms from Christopher Kaczor and Hadley Arkes; also see my article in the American Journal of Jurisprudence Lying: The Integrity Approach” and my book Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry). I wish to begin with some more general points about the tenor of the debate so far, but it is essential first to issue the following clarification.

The principle that I have defended is this: false assertion (that is, assertion contrary to one’s mind) is always wrong. My claim is not that assertion of what is, unbeknownst to one, false is always wrong, nor that speaking words one knows to be false is always wrong; people sometimes speak erroneously without asserting contrary to their own mind, and, as I discuss below, people speak untruths without making assertions in various contexts. Moreover, one can “assert falsely” in my sense while actually saying something true, if what one believes is false.

In this essay, I address a criticism that can be formulated in two ways. Some of my critics hold that all false assertions are lies, but that some lies are not wrong. Others hold that all lies are wrong, but that only some false assertions—unjustified ones—are lies. Both types of critics hold that false assertion is not always wrong, a view that I reject. For reasons that will emerge, I think that all false assertions should be understood as lies, and that all lies, so understood, are wrong.

The claim that lying so understood is always wrong has been met with disbelief for many reasons, but among them is the simple fact, to which Professor Arkes draws our attention, that lying seems an essential part of our public life. Few would doubt that keeping secrets and engaging in subtle diplomacy regularly shades over into lying, or that journalistic, law enforcement, or espionage work often utilize lies. It would seem impossible for a polity to get along without them.

The appeal to practical impossibility in this, as in other, contexts should be resisted. Many people participating in this discussion would scoff at the notion that absolute prohibitions on, say, sex outside of marriage or the deliberate killing of the innocent are impossible for us to live out and thus not really binding. And so to see these same people nevertheless employ similar claims about an absolute prohibition on lying has been rather discouraging.

Likewise, appeals to what is “obvious,” to intuition, to experience, to the common sense of the many, and also to the tyranny of abstract principles should be resisted here, at least by those who, for example, resist these very same appeals in debates over the morality of contraception or abortion, where such appeals are regularly made in favor of such practices.

Finally, the temptation to simply refuse argument and self-scrutiny should also be resisted. It has been dismaying to see many pro-lifers deny that there is any reason to consider the possibility that some means in service of the pro-life cause might be impermissible. Some have suggested that the critics of lying in service of life are engaged in sabotage of the pro-life movement, or that they are hopeless academics who have not contributed to the real fight, or, and I quote, that they should just “SHUT UP!!!” and honor all those making a real contribution.

For any movement for justice to refuse to engage in criticism from within is for that movement to risk moral bankruptcy. Moral integrity can be maintained only by always being willing to subject one’s own actions, as those of others, to moral appraisal of the most exacting sort. Righteousness is not to be achieved by self-righteous indignation (a claim I recall the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus making), but by right-mindedly struggling to ensure that one’s every deed and word is above reproach.

Nevertheless, there are real argumentative challenges that require response, and I will endeavor to do several of them some justice here.

Only “Unjustified” False Assertion?

The first challenge has to do with the nature of moral absolutes, such as the absolute norm against murder, or, as I believe, the absolute norm against lying. Hadley Arkes and Francis Beckwith, while seeming to agree that these are moral absolutes, have both argued that absolute norms such as these contain within them a moral qualifier. The prohibition on murder is a prohibition on unjustified killing. Likewise, the prohibition on lying is on unjustified false assertion.

Yet no critic, speaking from the Catholic intellectual or faith tradition, has drawn the obvious conclusion from this that therefore the (absolute) norm regarding adultery is a norm against unjustified extramarital congress; or that the (absolute) norm against contraception is a norm against unjustified prevention of conception. And this is hardly surprising, for it is widely recognized that this is not, in fact, the nature of these norms.

As John Paul II labored to explain, there are acts which, independently of their further ends, or of their circumstances, are wrong precisely in virtue of the object chosen. That object—the form of behavior settled upon by the agent—is incompatible with the human good, including the human being’s ultimate orientation to God. Choices of these sorts are wrong everywhere and always. Their objects are designated “intrinsically evil” precisely to indicate that their moral character can be recognized by considering only the object of the act itself (other questions, concerning the gravity of any particular violation, for example, will require attention to ends and circumstances).

One does not, therefore, look to whether extramarital intercourse is being performed at the right time, with the right person, in the right way, or with a view to some good end (perhaps an abortionist will give up his trade if a married woman were willing to be his mistress, thus saving the lives of many unborn in the area). Rather, one recognizes that the choice of such intercourse is incompatible with the human good because of its violation of the good of marriage, full stop. In asserting that adultery is always and everywhere impermissible, then, the tradition does not hold that adultery is “unjustified extramarital intercourse,” but that it is simply extramarital intercourse as such.

Now I identified two aspects of the human good that I believe to be inevitably damaged in the precise choice to assert a falsehood in order to deceive. If that description picks out an intelligible object of human choice (the sort of behavior that a human being can choose to engage in) and if that chosen action always directly damages the goods of integrity (by deliberately dividing the unity between inner and outer self) and community (by thwarting the revelation of person to person that is the foundation of all forms of community), then there is an absolute moral norm prohibiting lying. And the object of its prohibition (false assertion with intent to deceive) is not itself already described with the moral qualifier “unjustified.”

I argued further that no “greater good” than integrity or community is available by reference to which one could judge it right to damage one good for the sake of another. I have seen no criticisms of my view thus far that engaged with these claims directly, save only those that suggest that it is obvious that one is not unloving to the murderer at one’s door when one lies to him.

Now I do not think that one is necessarily unjust to the murderer (or the Nazi, on whom more below) in lying. He is not owed the truth. But while moral absolutes of the sort I am discussing (not just that concerning lying, but also concerning intentional killing, adultery, and others) typically overlap considerably with demands of justice, they rarely, if ever, are exhausted by such concerns.

Consider the moral absolute against intentional killing of the innocent. Typically, adherence to this norm protects the common good—an injustice is done to those who are killed, usually against their will, and so the protection of human life against such acts of injustice falls to the state as among its primary tasks (which, at their most general, can be described precisely as the promotion of justice and peace).

But, surprising though it may seem, not all cases of intentional killing are cases of injustice. While self-killing (suicide), for example, is often against the common good, it is not contrary to the will of the victim, and some cases can be imagined in which it is not contrary to the common good either. Imagine a man trapped on a deserted island, losing hope, and perhaps in pain. He does no injustice, I suggest, by killing himself (leaving aside his relation to God, which is not here relevant). Nevertheless, such a man violates the absolute norm against intentionally killing the innocent: its demands are not simply those of justice but rather demands of the human good as such (of which the demands of justice are but one part). Similarly, one can now imagine on the deserted island two married couples, past child-rearing age, who decide to live sexually as a foursome. No one’s will is thwarted, and the common good does not seem here especially jeopardized; yet the norm against adultery applies in full force.

In this context, it is worth resisting a comparison suggested by Professor Arkes between the norm against lying, and the norm against stealing. The latter norm has always been understood to be unlike the norms against killing, adultery, and lying, in that it is entirely dependent upon the relationship between property and the common good; that is, the norm against stealing is entirely in service of justice. And the just, as we know, is dependent in many ways on circumstances and further intentions. To return a borrowed firearm to a neighbor is not to be done in the circumstance that the neighbor is in a homicidal rage. Justice, which usually requires returning a neighbor’s property, here requires the opposite. And because the goods of the world are, in a deep sense, for the benefit of all, and not just the benefit of those who, for now, have authority over them, it has been considered in the tradition right for a starving man to take the bread of another (provided this other is in no danger) to feed himself and his family. Thus the “absolute” norm against stealing really is a norm against “unjustified taking/holding of another’s property,” and “unjustified” in this context refers to the contextualized and circumstantial demands of justice. But, as I have argued, the norm against lying, while usually in service of justice, is not only about justice, and thus such exceptions are not built, as it were, into the norm’s mandate.

In sum: if there is genuinely an absolute norm against lying, as most commentators recognize is strongly suggested by a perusal of the authoritative sources, then that norm does not prohibit unjustified false assertion, but false assertion full stop. False assertion, which is what lying is, like intentional killing of the innocent (murder), intentional foreswearing of one’s faith, or intentional extramarital intercourse (adultery), is, on this view, simply never to be done.

Deceiving Without Lying and Partial Truths

Yet two sorts of cases still provoke. One is the willingness of defenders of the traditional view, such as Aquinas, to identify actions and speech that might look like lies as not in fact lies. Thus, Aquinas does not think that military feints are lies, and others deny that common courtesies such as “I’m doing well, thank you,” or “That was a lovely meal” are lies even when not strictly true. For some, these cases threaten the boundaries of the definition of lying in problematic ways.

It is impossible to deal adequately here with all the disputed cases. Yet I would note that the case that generated this discussion in the first place does not seem reasonably disputed as a boundary case of this sort. There are reasonable questions over whether Live Actions’ false assertions were justified; but not really over whether they made the sorts of false assertions that are on my account to be considered lies. Nevertheless, some comments are in order.

First, it is essential to the definition of a lie that it be an assertion contrary to one’s mind. But, while one can assert through one’s actions, this is not usually the case, even though one knows that one’s actions are often taken as providing evidence for some further belief. Consider the action of leaving one’s lights on. This could be an assertion—“one if by land, two if by sea!”—but it is not usually. Yet turning one’s lights off can be taken by miscreants to indicate that one is not home, and one might reasonably take steps to prevent that harmful inference by leaving one’s lights on. Some examples of actions that are not lies seem to be like this: they do not assert, but only conceal what might be taken as evidence, and perhaps lead to the drawing of false conclusions.

In other contexts, whether involving action or speech, there is no assertion because, within certain limits, it is assumed by all participants that there will be no asserting. Under ordinary circumstances, the actor who says “The building is on fire” in a play is not asserting falsely, because he is not asserting at all. But if he were to stop the play, address the audience, and shout urgently, while pointing, “The building is on fire!” he would indeed be lying if the building were safe. Some misleading actions and speech in wartime seem to be akin to the theater: all participants know that, except in certain understood circumstances, assertion is just not on. But communications to the enemy requesting truce or suggesting terms are understood to return combatants to a truth-speaking context, and would be disgraceful if dishonest.

There are, further, contexts in which less information is given than would be necessary for some agent to accurately know what was going on. Gerard Bradley has argued, I think persuasively, that “buy and bust” police actions, or the transmission of information by a young man who hangs around a gang, need not involve lying. And the blogger Jennifer Fitz has provided a “quick tutorial” on how not to lie to someone who is not owed the truth that is brief but helpful. Argument at the margins of some of these cases is inevitable, but one should not mistake disagreement at the margins as a sign that the core of the view is in trouble.

The Nazi at the Door

Yet perhaps the most frequently mentioned objection is taken by many to be such that it alone could destroy the entire view that lying is always wrong. And this is the case—not, alas, unknown in history—of the Nazi at the door. Professor Arkes is just one of many who cite the good citizens of Amsterdam who hid Jews from Nazis, and, in some cases at least, lied to those Nazis bent on discovering them.

On my view, it is wrong to lie to the Nazis. But let us start with what this view does not say. It does not say that the lies of the Amsterdam citizens deserved punishment, that their moral gravity was even remotely similar that of the Nazis’ crimes, or that these citizens were, as a result, wicked or evil people (many, as noted by Brandon Watson, were heroes). Yet each of these claims has been attributed to defenders of the absolutist view with no textual evidence that I can find.

Nor does the claim about the wrong of lying identify what the Amsterdam citizens should do or say. In a distressing passage, Professor Arkes asks whether I am “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?” Similarly, John Zmirak, at Inside Catholic writes:

Do we really believe that almighty God wants us to save the innocent only when we can be clever enough to craft a "mental reservation" that deceives a murderous robber or SS trooper, without stating something that is literally untrue? If we're too surprised or stupid to concoct a really fabulous piece of misdirection, then should we be content that the innocent in our care must go to the gas chambers?

But neither Arkes’ nor Zmirak’s suggestions are any part of my view. I have nowhere suggested, and I would firmly deny, that one has an obligation to turn the Jews in. Nor do I think one should try to save them through crafty “mental reservations,” or be “content” when they are led away to the gas chambers. The view I will propose is radical, perhaps counterintuitive, but not in these offensive ways.

Let us start with what one should say to the Nazis at the door when one is not hiding Jews as this will shed light on the disputed case. It would be natural to think, I suppose, that the householder should simply deny that he has any Jews in the house. After all, it is true!

But the Nazi is not owed the truth as to whether one is concealing Jews even when one is not. His mission is wrongful regardless of whether one conceals or not. He has no legitimate authority, that having been lost long time since by the regime and those who worked for it. Yet he is a human being, and a child of God, and one cannot assume that his soul is beyond saving. One’s obligation, I hold, is to refuse to answer his question regarding the whereabouts of Jews (for he is owed no answer) and to tell him further that he is engaged in a wicked activity and to encourage his repentance.

What are the likely consequences of such action? One possible good consequence is this: a firm policy never to answer (especially if this policy is shared by others) makes it difficult for the Nazi to infer anything accurate from what he hears about the whereabouts of the Jews on any occasion. Having heard this twice when no Jews were to be found, he might, in fact, infer that there are no Jews hidden on the third occasion, though in fact there are. Moreover, a systematic policy of denying the authority asserted by wicked regimes can begin to break that power down—wicked regimes depend for their power on citizens remaining subjects. Of course, it is also possible that a refusal to answer will enrage the Nazi to the point of violence, even if no Jews are discovered. But one would be speaking truthfully and lovingly to this wicked but not God-forsaken man in the only way that could conceivably do some good for him, and in a way that does no evil to one’s self.

I suggest that the policy I have outlined should be adopted also when one does have Jews hidden in one’s house. And here again, the likely consequences are not good. In both scenarios, a search will likely be conducted, and in the second, the Jews found. What then?

I do not think one could in good conscience allow the Nazis to depart alone with the Jews. Physically resisting would likely be futile, but not necessarily wrong. One could offer to go with the Nazis in place of the Jews; and if that failed one could insist that one be brought with the Jews (it is very likely this decision would already have been made by the Nazis). And one should be willing to accept that a possibly significant degree of physical harm, perhaps even death, would be visited upon one’s person while one continued to proclaim the truth to the Nazis about the wickedness of their mission.

In all such actions one would act in solidarity with the Jews and charity towards the Nazi. One would witness to the truth in ways that, were more to do so, could conceivably be the undoing of the regime. And one might occasionally sway a young wrongdoer, one raised as a Christian, perhaps, but gradually corrupted by his culture, recollecting him to his better self and turning him towards the good.

It would be folly to predict that this is how I would act, or to assert that I would have the necessary courage for this were I put to the test—one reason, perhaps, that Christians pray not to be put to the test. And one might object as follows: In other less extreme circumstances, we need not risk all by speaking the truth to our enemies, and all of us keep silent in various circumstances where to fully speak our mind would be detrimental. Why go out of one’s way to speak the truth (not, I repeat, the truth about the hidden Jews) to the Nazis and risk such terrible consequences as one’s own martyrdom?

Here I will invoke, to considerably different purpose, an idea of Michael Walzer’s, that the threat of National Socialism constituted a “supreme emergency” against the ideals of civilization. Those ideals are closely linked to the ideals that I identified, in my first piece on this subject, as central to the pro-life movement itself: truth and love. National Socialism was built on lies and hate. Against such an enemy, one’s personal service to civilization could only be by a radical embrace of truth and love, in defiance of all consequences. Walzer’s suggestion regarding the supreme emergency was that the norms of a decent civilization—including that the innocent should not be intentionally killed—needed to be put on hold to defeat the Nazis. My suggestion is exactly the opposite.

Those who doubt the feasibility of such suggestions would do well to read the work of those brave individuals who struggled against the lies of totalitarian societies precisely by means of radical honesty: Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik in Poland, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union. Michnik’s words can stand in summary for the three:

Start doing the things you think should be done, and . . . start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.

I abhor lies not, as Samuel Johnson reportedly felt about medical lies, because they have been frequently practiced against me, but because I feel the temptation to dishonesty and deception keenly, and the subsequent strains on my integrity with great force. It would be madness to think that my criticisms of the lies of others stem from a thought that they have failed where I have succeeded. Quite the opposite. I cannot read Michnik’s words without feeling the sting of their reproach. I have written these three essays as much for myself as for anyone else who might care to learn from them.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.

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