Lies and Truth


Insofar as our lives are governed by reason, we cannot live without truth and a love for it.

Nearly a year and a half ago, Public Discourse hosted an important conversation concerning the tactics of the pro-life group Live Action. Those tactics include the use of false assertions, such as the false claims of their undercover agents to be pregnant, to be involved in the sex trade, to want an abortion, and the like. On any ordinary person’s account of what a lie is, those false assertions were lies; and I, following the witness of the Christian and natural law traditions, argued that all such false assertions—all lies—are morally wrong.

Live Action has once again conducted its sting operations on Planned Parenthood, this time with a view to revealing the willingness of some Planned Parenthood workers to help women obtain abortions for sex-selective purposes. It is difficult to be too terribly surprised that some such workers would be willing to aid in obtaining abortions for this reason, since, by the premises usually used to justify abortion, almost any abortion is morally permissible. If anything, the unwillingness of many pro-choice thinkers to countenance sex-selective abortions is the surprise here. And it is unsurprising as well that Live Action has returned to the approach for which it is most famous, since the once nearly universal consensus among Christians that lying is always wrong has been considerably eroded, and since their work was met with widespread acclaim among the pro-life community.

In my previous essays for Public Discourse on this topic, I argued that lying, understood as making false assertions, is always a violation of the goods of personal integrity and of sociality. That argument was Thomistic in inspiration. But St. Augustine is also important in the history of moral reflection on the wrong of lying, and especially of lying for a good cause. In this and the following essay, I look at two goods that were of special concern to Augustine where lies are concerned, the goods of truth, and of religion.

Augustine’s deepest objections to lying are that lying is, as he puts it, “always opposed to truth,” and that God is truth. Thus, by implication, the liar always stands in some kind of negative relationship to God. In this essay, I consider the opposition to truth that Augustine sees present in the lie; in the sequel, I consider the opposition to God that Augustine believes follows. In each essay I will first identify what the good at stake—truth or religion—is; then I will discuss the question of whether these are basic human goods; and finally I will address the issue of whether a lie is an act that is directly contrary, or intentionally destructive of, or in some other way opposed to, the goods of truth and religion.

We are all familiar with the experience of judging a proposition’s truth. As Aristotle held, truth, in so judging, is to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. So I have the truth about the cat’s being on the mat if, and only if, when the cat is on the mat, I judge that the cat is on the mat.

Is truth, like personal integrity and sociality, a basic good? Like those other two goods, truth seems to provide sufficient reason for some of one’s actions if one is attempting to discover it. While truth is clearly of instrumental value (we are enabled to build bridges only by knowing certain truths), nevertheless, it seems also possible intelligibly to pursue the truth for its own sake. Thus, a student in a university may reasonably enroll in a course on the history of film, not (only) because it will help him to find a job after graduation, but also (or only) because he is interested in the subject and wishes to know more about it.

Like other basic goods, truth is a good of breadth and depth: there are many ways of pursuing truth, and the pursuit of truth in a systematic and cooperative way typically has the effect of opening new avenues for the pursuit of truth. Thus, scientific or medical truth pursued over generations has opened up new horizons for the pursuit of new truths, using new methods, that themselves open up new horizons, and so on. And there are reminders of the good of knowledge and truth in the willingness of important theorists of the human condition to identify “the desire to understand” as an essential part of human nature, and knowledge of truth as an essential dimension of human well-being. So it seems reasonable to judge that truth is a basic human good. Accordingly, a relationship of openness to truth, and an unwillingness to act directly contrary to that good, are both aspects of an upright character.

That a lie is directly opposed to the truth might seem even more obvious than that it is opposed to personal integrity or to sociality. The lie involves an assertion contrary to what the liar believes is true, contrary, that is, to the liar’s own understanding of how the world is. We could say that the liar chooses falsity in his choice to lie, and this seems like a choice contrary to the good of truth.

However, the case may not be so straightforward. The lie blocks the hearer’s access to what the liar takes to be true; but so does refusal to speak in response, for example, to a question. It cannot simply be the fact that another is prevented from coming to what one believes to be true that constitutes action intentionally destructive of the good of truth. Moreover, the lie is not directly contrary to the good of truth in one’s own person, for one’s own access to the truth is not blocked by the lie. Most generally, it is not obvious that, every time one makes an assertion, there is an opportunity for truth that is thwarted in one's decision to lie. So the Augustinian claim that the lie is opposed to truth is not obviously right.

But Augustine’s claim that the lie is always opposed to the truth does not seem obviously wrong either. Willingness to lie seems, in particular, to be contrary to, or incompatible with, a perfect love of the truth. For as Plato argued, one who really loves something loves the whole of it. And therefore one who loves the truth loves the whole of it, and entirely shuns falsehood. The repugnance that the lie will have to one who loves the truth will, it seems, track the two ways in which the lie is false. In one way, and always, the lie involves duplicity, and the lover of truth will despise the falsity of self in which lying implicates him, not simply because of the division of the self it effects, but precisely because of the falsity as such. And, since the lie always presents as true what the liar takes to be, in fact, false, the lover of truth will also always hate the lie as opposed to what he takes to be the truth.

St. Thomas frames his discussion of the wrong of lying around the virtue of truthfulness. The agent with that virtue orders his communication truly in ways that comport entirely with the goods of sociality and integrity; in keeping with the plain sense of the word, though, we should hold that an agent with this virtue also orders his communication truly in ways that comport entirely with the good of truth itself, and in so ordering his communication, he will, to paraphrase Plato again, entirely shun falsity.

Ought a person to have this overriding love of truth? I believe the answer is yes (and this will play a role in the discussion of the next essay as well). While not the “best” or “most important” good (no good has those features), nevertheless, truth is a good of overriding and overarching importance because it is essential to our efforts with regard to all the goods. We need the truth about those goods, both at a very general level, and also as regards more fine-grained demands of those goods, if we are to be successful in our pursuit of human well-being. So truth is essential to one half of reason’s life, its practical half. Yet it is also clearly central to the other half of reason’s life, its theoretical half, for truth just is the object of reason in its theoretical mode. Insofar as our lives are governed by reason, whether practically or theoretically, we cannot live without truth and a love for it.

To repeat, this does not mean that truth is the only, or the most important, good. But it is sufficiently important, in a systemic and architectonic way, to make us aware that concern for truth—of the sort that could rightly be characterized as a love of truth—is required by the demands of all the goods, as well as the good of truth itself. So every agent should possess the virtue of truthfulness, and this virtue should include, amongst its constitutive dispositions, a love of truth. And if love of truth is incompatible, for the reasons suggested above, with a willingness to lie, then the lie is, in fact, a violation of the good of truth, just as it is a violation of the goods of personal integrity and sociality. The wrongfulness of lying, even for a good cause, is thus triply confirmed.

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.


Related Reading


Web Briefings