Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is it always wrong to lie?

Is it ever right to tell a lie?

Utilitarians will say Yes, to avoid a bad consequence; Kantians will say, No, truth telling is a categorical imperative. The hard test of the Kantian position is when your friend asks you to hide him because a murderer is chasing him. When the murderer knocks on your door and asks whether your friend is there, should you tell the truth? Utilitarians would say no, the consequence of truth telling would make you complicit in the murder; Kantians would say telling the the truth is sacrosanct since if you become a liar, you are morally compromised. They would recommend a misleading evasion. "I have no idea where my friend is at the moment," would be true since he might be in a closet or under the bed, but also misleading since he is in your apartment. Bill Clinton was a master of the misleading evasion since as a lawyer he was bound to tell the truth. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

Some might say that Jesus was a Kantian. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" "Show me a penny." "Whose figure and inscription is that?" "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's"

I would take neither view since the utilitarian position is impossibly compromised by unnatural consequences - Cock fighting rather than opera should be supported from public funds; but the Kantian position does not reflect the real world. We must be aware of the consequences of our actions and not take a Jesuitical position of willing one consequence yet not being brave enough to let our conscience be pricked.

If we lived in a perfect world there would be no murderer at your door and you could tell the truth with impunity. But we live in a fallen world where not everyone buys into the concept of truth telling. Murderers have forfeited the right to be told the truth, just as the Gestapo had in World War II. Clinton told the truth yet he told a moral lie and his motive was to save his skin. Corrie Ten Boom, who hid Jews in Holland told lies yet her motive was to save the lives of others from a tyrannical regime. Who was in the right? Would a misleading evasion have made her lie more moral? By no means! Because her lie was a] putting herself at great risk (she eventually was sent to a Concentration Camp) and b] motivated to save others, it was of great moral value. To be branded a liar by the Gestapo is a badge of honor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rahab - Hebrews 11