In my previous essay I argued that lying is incompatible with the love of truth that all human persons should have. I turn now to Augustine’s claim that lying is always, precisely because of its opposition to the good of truth, also in opposition to God, who is truth. I will characterize this as involving the claim that lying is contrary to the good of religion.
As with the good of truth, I will identify what religion is, how it is good, and how the lie stands in opposition to this good. To begin, let us identify the nature of religion as the attempt to make peace with, and live in harmony with, whatever greater-than-human source of meaning and value there might or might not be. At one extreme, “religion” so understood would simply involve making peace with the fact that there is no such source. At another extreme, “religion” so understood would potentially involve (as both Augustine and Aquinas believed it did) a relationship of friendship with the divine personal being who is the source of everything.
Such a relationship, including as constitutive aspects of that relationship an understanding of whatever truths, practical and theoretical, were necessary in order to pursue it, seems clearly to be a basic good. We can want to “get right” with that source of meaning and existence for its own sake, apart from any other benefits. There is ample evidence in the testimony of human cultures and in institutional religions that this effort has been thought by many to be an essential aspect of human well-being. And the horizon of success in pursuit of this good seems to be one that is continually expanding: no human person claims to have successfully achieved, in its totality, all that religion requires.
So religion seems reasonably to be considered a basic good, and offenses against it to be in some way morally bad. I will characterize such offenses as instances of impiety. But, as with the virtue of truth, it is not clear that the good of religion can ground a moral absolute in quite the same way that the goods of friendship and integrity can, for not everyone believes that there is a God with whom one can establish a personal relationship of friendship. And so it is not clear that lies are impious for everyone, in all circumstances. Nor is it clear that the liar must always intentionally damage his relationship to God, as he damages his integrity and the good of sociality. Nevertheless, I believe that there are at least three ways in which Augustine’s claims can be vindicated, at least one of which bears even on the condition of unbelievers. Consideration of these three ways in which lying is an offense against the good of religion, and a form of impiety, will thus give us a fourth reason to think that lying is always wrong.
One of Augustine’s two essays on lying was prompted by the infiltration of Christians into a heretical sect; the Christians were trying to expose the heresies of this group (called the Priscillianists). Augustine objected strenuously to this practice, and his objections emerge from some claims he makes concerning the appropriate orientation that Christians should have to the truths of religion: the relationship should be one of free belief, rather than coercion or trickery. Augustine believes this is so because God is truth, and free belief is the stance normatively required in our relationship to truth (a claim importantly endorsed in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae). These claims are important for my first two Augustinian arguments.
First, given these claims, we can see something about how, normatively, unbelievers should come to embrace belief; and also something about how all believers should believe. In both cases, the motivating factor should be a commitment to, and love of, truth—the love of truth that I identified in the previous essay’s discussion. This should be at the heart of the believer’s, and the seeker’s, practical orientation. But, from the previous argument, we can see that every liar commits himself, in his willing, to the favoring of some good or other over the truth; there is a preference for falsity in service of whatever other good is at stake in the choice to lie: the exposure of heresy, the end of abortion, and so on. And this willingness in itself weakens love of the truth, since we love less that which we love conditionally, rather than unconditionally.
Accordingly, if the desire to come to know God and continued belief in God, in the right way, and in the fullness that is permitted to us in this life, requires a wholehearted and unconditional commitment to truth, with no reservations, then lying seems to corrupt the motivation to the good of religion that orients us toward inquiry into the being and nature of God and ultimately toward initial and continued faith. So both the unbeliever, who still needs to seek the truth, and the believer, whose love of truth is compromised, have their relationships to God negatively affected by their willingness to lie.
The second argument is somewhat similar. Consider again the identification of God as truth, as well as the claim, normative for Christians, and I believe for Jews and Muslims as well, that God is to be loved above all things. This seems to set up a very strong argument for Augustine: how can lying be compatible with love for a God who is Truth? Here the issue is not specifically about the relationship between one’s belief or inquiry and God-as-Truth, but about one’s love of God-as-truth. As I noted in the previous essay, following Plato, true and committed love loves all that is of the beloved; but all truth is both of God, as source, and like God, as image. So true and committed love of God must spill over into true and committed love of the truth, and the latter is compromised, Augustine plausibly thinks, by lying. Accordingly, so is our love of God compromised.
There is a third way in which lying is always contrary to our relationship with God, a way that is dependent on what I have already argued, in these and previous essays on Public Discourse, regarding the morality of lying. Our relationship with God is partly constituted in the way that any relationship of friendship is: by the mutual willing of one another’s good. God, we can take it, wills our good—or there would be no creation in the first place. But we cannot will God’s good in quite the same way, for we cannot will that benefits and goods accrue to him that he otherwise would not have had; nothing that we can do can benefit God in any direct way. However, the good of another is willed when we will the goods that that other wills. For example, I not only wish good things for my wife, such as health and other blessings; I also will her good by willing what she wills; her desire that something be the case is a reason for me to will it (assuming her desire is for something truly good).
God, of course, as an all-perfect being, does not will things in the same way that we do, as following from some potentiality in need of actualization. But God does will, on a plausible account of God’s relationship to us, our good. Thus, as Aquinas says, “We offend God only by doing something contrary to our own good.” So a friend-like relationship with God—one in which the community is one of shared and mutual willing—is one in which we will God’s good by willing what he wills, and hence by willing our own good. But I have argued that lying is contrary to our good in at least three ways: it is contrary to our personal integrity, and it is contrary to the good of sociality, and it is contrary to our love of truth, by all of which we are perfected. So there is a kind of supervening damage to our relationship with God that arises from lying in every instance, since in every instance of lying, we do something contrary to our own good, and thus offend God. So once again, Augustine’s view seems vindicated.
The case for the claim that there is a moral absolute against false assertion is thus very strong. As I have argued before, lying always involves intentional damage to the goods of personal integrity and community; and we now can see that it is also always incompatible with a virtuous orientation toward the goods of truth and religion. And these considerations do not even yet raise questions of justice, which are often implicated in the wrong of lying. The use of lies in service of a cause of such overwhelming importance as the saving of unborn human children from willful destruction is thus, as tempting as it is, nevertheless a temptation that the virtuous, and all who are committed to genuine human goods, will resist.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He is the editor of Bioethics with Liberty and Justice: Themes in the Work of Joseph M. Boyle. Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.