Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lies for lives

I’m going to repost some comments left on a thread at Justin Taylor’s blog.

steve hays February 15, 2011 at 11:42 am
Some helpful analysis by John Frame:

Must We Always Tell the Truth?

John M. Frame

The third and ninth commandments, especially, commend the truth to us, as do many other teachings of Scripture. God is a God of truth. He doesn’t lie (Tit. 1:2, Heb. 6:17-18, Num. 23:19). He wants us to image him in that as in other ways. Note the biblical polemic against lying in such passages as Psm. 31:18, 63:11, 101:7, 119:29, 163, Prov. 6:17, 12:22, 19:5, 9, Zech. 8:16, Eph. 4:25, 1 John 2:21, Rev. 21:27, 22:15. Satan is the father of lies, John 8:44, and sinners are dominated by lies, Rom. 1:25, 3:8-18, 2 Cor. 4:2-4, 2 Thess. 2:9-12. Scripture condemns false prophets, who tell lies about God, Deut. 13:1-18.

But there are other passages in which people mislead other people without incurring biblical condemnation. Note:

1. Ex. 1:15-21, the Israelite midwives in Egypt.

2. Josh. 2:4-6, 6:17, 25, Heb. 11:31, James 2:25, Rahab’s deception. Note that apart from what Rahab told her countrymen, even hiding the spies amounted to a deception.

3. Josh. 8:3-8, the ambush at Ai. As John Murray recognizes, God himself authorized this deception.

4. Judg. 4:18-21, 5:24-27, Jael and Sisera.

5. 1 Sam. 16:1-5, Samuel misleads Saul as to the reason for his mission.

6. 1 Sam. 19:12-17, Michal deceives her father’s troops.

7. 1 Sam. 20:6, David’s counsel to Jonathan.

8. 1 Sam. 21:13, David feigns madness.

9. 1 Sam. 27:10, David lies to Achish.

10. 2 Sam. 5:22-25, another military deceit.

11. 2 Sam. 15:34, Hushai counseled to lie to Absalom.

12. 2 Sam. 17:19-20, women deceive Absalom’s men.

13. 1 Kings 22:19-23, God sends a lying spirit against Ahab.

14. 2 Kings 16:14-20, Elisha misleads the Syrian troops.

15. Jer. 38:24-28, Jeremiah lies to the princes.

16. Luke 24:28, Jesus acts as if he intends to go further.

17. 2 Thess. 2:11, God sends powerful delusion so that his enemies will believe a lie.

Nevertheless, the predominant view among Reformed Christians is that we should never tell lies under any circumstances. This view was held by Augustine and has more recently been defended by John Murray in Principles of Conduct.

Murray explains the above passages by the following principles: (1) In some of them, such as #2, Scripture commends what the liar accomplished without commending his/her lie. (2) As in #5, it is legitimate to withhold the whole truth from someone, but not to misrepresent. (3) As in #3, we need not always act in ways consistent with the mistaken interpretations of our acts made by others (in this case, the residents of Ai).

The first explanation is inadequate in regard to Rahab, for what Scripture commends is precisely her concealment, her creating a false impression in the minds of the Jericho officials.

As for the second principle, we can grant that it is sometimes right to withhold truth. But the question is whether it is ever right to withhold truth when withholding it may reasonably be expected to create a false impression in someone else’s mind. If it does, as it did in 1 Sam. 16:1-5 and other passages on our list, then it can scarcely be distinguished from lying.

And the third principle depends on a sharp distinction between words that mislead and acts that mislead. Murray is saying in effect that we should never mislead with our words, but we may mislead people by the way we behave. That distinction is not cogent.

And none of these explanations helps us to understand why God himself deceives people in passages #13 and #17.

Charles Hodge says that we are obligated to tell the truth only when there is a “virtual promise.” Essentially, Hodge here is placing the burden of proof on those who wish to require truthfulness. But it is not clear what a virtual promise is, or what the criteria are for concluding that one has or has not been made.

Meredith Kline explains the biblical examples of deception as “intrusion.” In his view, the ethics of the end-times differ from the ethics God has given to us in the law and Jesus’ teaching. In normal times, we are to love our enemies and protect them. But in the end times, the enemies of God will have neither a right to life or a right to truth. Now sometimes, Kline says, the end times enter our present time (and so “intrude”). The intrusion is a time of divine judgment, and, in that time, it is legitimate to kill the opponents of God (as did Joshua and David) and also to withhold truth from them.

Scripture, however, does not distinguish two different ethics. Some of God’s commands (like God’s command to Joshua to kill the Canaanites) are for temporary situations. And Kline is right to say that often those situations are instances of special divine judgments. But capital punishment and just war are also subjects of regular, normative ethics. There are times even in advance of final judgment when the wicked deserve to lose their lives. Perhaps even such “normal capital punishment” can be assimilated to the intrusion model, but if so we need to know that intrusion is a normal part of our ethical life, as limited and defined by God’s revelation.

It does appear that the Bible passages listed above all have to do with the promotion of justice against the wicked who are seeking innocent life. Whether or not we speak of these as intrusions, we should note that in the ninth commandment the requirement to tell the truth is conditioned on a relationship, that of “neighbor.” In context, that relationship is specifically legal. The neighbor is the defendant, and the individual “you” is called to the witness stand, in which he must not lie.

This is not to say that the commandment is limited to legal witness, for many other Bible passages, as we have seen, condemn lying more generally. But in these passages, our obligation to tell the truth is based (as in the ninth commandment) on a relationship. In Eph. 4:25, the relationship is our union with one another in Christ.

Now when one person seeks illegitimately to take the life of another, are the two people neighbors, in the sense of the ninth commandment? The Good Samaritan parable does, indeed, extend the meaning of “neighbor” to all needy people who cross our path. But in the situation where someone is seeking to destroy innocent life, rather than to help and heal, does such a neighborly relation exist? I think not. At least, I doubt that those who misled others in the seventeen passages mentioned earlier were in a neighborly relation to their opponents. Certainly those who deceived in those passages didn’t think so. And I think Scripture concurs in their judgment.

There are also other, more trivial situations where questions of truth enter the discussion. Is it wrong to mislead people as a practical joke? No, if it’s a sort of game that will bring enjoyment; not if it hurts. Is it wrong to engage in the flatteries that are a normal part of social etiquette (“Sincerely yours,” “I had a lovely evening.”)? In my judgment, many of these phrases have come to mean far less than a literal reading of them would indicate. Since everybody knows that, it is not hypocrisy to use them that way.

Jeremy Pierce February 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm
God didn’t just tell Samuel to omit information. He told him to say something false about his motivation for being there. He was there to anoint David, and God told him to say he was there to make a sacrifice. That’s clearly a lie.

Jeff Schultz February 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm
I don’t think lying to the Nazis to save lives is even a sin to be confessed. I would say that any authority which demands information to be used to unjustly kill others is an unjust authority and has no right to that information. In fact, one could argue that lying to the Nazi in that case is the best way to love the Nazi, since you are refusing to aid him in committing an evil against his own soul.

Jeff Schultz February 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm
Is that all the Bible has to say about our response to authority? I think it’s clear that we are under no obligation to obey a law or authority which would require us to disobey God or violate conscience. If the authorities demand that we tell the truth in service of evil, then we are no obligation to obey that unjust, ungodly command.
And what if those aren’t the only two options? What if the king would use use our honesty to bring about the suffering and death of others?
And I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing “They’re worse than we are” as a justification for dishonesty. That’s not a fair representation of others’ position.

Jeff Schultz February 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm
While a simple rule-based morality seems obvious (“always tell the truth,” “always obey authority”) it doesn’t do justice to the whole of the Bible’s instruction and example, doesn’t include all the relevant scriptures on moral obligations, and doesn’t help us deal the application of principles to specific situations.
Simply repeating the reference to 1 Peter 2 doesn’t really answer the questions I addressed in response to your mentioning it in the first place.

Jeff Schultz February 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm
Unfortunately, it isn’t always that simple. “Are you harboring Jews?” demands a simple yes or no answer. One can refuse to answer, but that in itself is an answer, and one that’s as likely to lead to the deaths of others as a “yes.”
And I think Frame’s analysis above gives us a number of examples in which dishonesty in the face of evil sadly ends up being the least bad option available.
Jeff Schultz February 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm
I think the answers to your questions would fall along the same lines as provided by the restrictions around just war itself.
The concern over utilitarianism is a valid one, but that’s always the case with moral reasoning. God has not given us a rule for every possible circumstance we will encounter. He has given us law, goals, values, virtues, principles, examples, instructions — and sanctified wisdom. I don’t think there’s any avoiding proper moral casuistry which takes all those into account in specific circumstances.

Jeremy Pierce February 16, 2011 at 8:51 pm
You don’t have to be a utilitarian (or for that matter a consequentialist) to think consequences are morally relevant. There are views according to which they never are when there’s a duty not to do something, e.g. Immanuel Kant’s view. But W.D. Ross proposed a view according to which duties are very serious but can sometimes conflict with each other, and in such cases one duty can become more important than the other. So the duty to save a life, for instance, might be more important than the duty not to lie. The duty to protect innocents might become more important than the duty not to kill combatants in a just war.
In the end, he wouldn’t treat them all as genuine duties. They’re prima facie duties, and the ones that are your actual duties in a particular situation are the only ones that we morally ought to follow. This view is clearly deontological and not consequentialist. Yet absolutists (which isn’t the opposite of relativism; it’s the view that there are never exceptions to moral principles) regularly confuse it with utilitarianism or with relativism, and that’s just uncareful.
steve hays February 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm
Martin Pitcher:

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour (Exodus20:16) That in and of itself should put us on the proper path regarding this issue. We are responsible for making the right moral choices even when the opponent does not. Yes, they are our neighbors, but we can not sink to their level in order to get the results that we would desire. The end does not justify the means.”

That doesn’t follow by any valid inference from your prooftext. The passage prohibits perjury and slander. And even then, it’s clearly dealing with a type of situation where, for instance, an innocent defendant is wrongly convicted because he’s falsely accused by a witness of a crime he didn’t commit.
Ironically, some commenters are cutting ethical corners to defend what they think is ethical. But zippy one-liners like “the end doesn’t justify the means” is a simplistic criterion.
It’s easy to come up with examples in which some ends justify some means. For instance, it’s ordinarily wrong to cut someone open with a knife and remove a vital organ. If, however, that’s a heart surgeon conducting a heart transplant, his actions are both permissible and commendable. So sometimes the situation does make a difference between right and wrong conduct.
Take the OT laws governing dangerous livestock. If an ox is known to be dangerous, the owner is liable for failing to prevent a fatal mishap. That is taking the consequences into account. Same thing with the OT regulation about placing a fence around your roof to lessen the risk of accidental death. That’s a means-ends calculation.
The ends don’t justify any means whatsoever. Some ends are unworthy. And if something is intrinsically wrong, then circumstances can’t make it permissible or obligatory.
But whether or not deception is intrinsically wrong is the very point at issue.
steve hays February 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm

“I still don’t buy the notion that ‘Their worse evil leaves me with no option but to commit lesser evil.’ This seems to rule out the possibility of a sovereign, promise-keeping God who tells us he will never tempt us beyond our ability to resist.”

Perhaps you’re confused about basic terminology. “Evil” is a term of art. It’s not synonymous with moral evil. Take “natural evil” (in theodicean discussions), viz. a tornado.
A “lesser evil” isn’t synonymous with wrongdoing. The lesser of two evils doesn’t mean the lesser of two wrongs. Rather, it’s like a battlefield medic who lacks the resources to save all the wounded. So he has to choose which ones to save. Maybe he chooses to save those with the greatest chance of survival. That’s a lesser evil, which isn’t a lesser wrong or moral evil. The alternative would be to let all the wounded die. That would be the greater “evil.”
Your appeal to divine providence in this context is fatalistic. We do have a moral responsibility to consider the probable consequences of our actions. To make risk assessments. The alternative is to be reckless, which is not a Christian virtue.

Jeff Schultz February 16, 2011 at 1:33 pm
In that unique case, God directly intervened to remove from Abraham’s moral consideration the normal concern he would have to protect his son’s life. If God directly, verbally tells you you do something, you don’t argue or question the outcome.
Under ordinary circumstances, we do have to take into consideration the impact of our moral choices on others. If, for example, I am married and have children, I cannot take the command to “preach the gospel to all people” to mean I am allowed to abandon my family to become a solo missionary overseas. I could say “God will provide for them” but that would be abdicating my responsibility as the agent through whom God has chosen to provide for them.
Take the case of the pregnant woman who develops a serious illness. Left untreated, the illness will kill her. Treating her will cause the death of her unborn child. You can save the mother, but not both mother and child. I don’t think it’s morally right to say, “I refuse to take a life to save one. Let God decide who should live.” That is condemning both to die. We have to use moral reasoning to make a choice and not simply trust that God is able to save both.
In the case of the Nazis demanding that you tell them whether you are hiding Jews, you have good reason to believe that by telling the truth you are abdicating your neighborly responsibility to protect them from immediate threat of death. Of course God could miraculously intervene to stop the Nazis from lining them up and shooting them, but he usually works through ordinary means — that is, moral agents like us.
Moral reasoning means that we take into account the reasonable outcomes of our choices. It doesn’t have to mean we’re putting ourselves in the place of God.

Jeff Schultz February 16, 2011 at 8:32 am
Assume that WWII was a just war (legitimate authority, last resort, right intention, just cause, reasonable hope of success). A Christian serves in that war, and in the process kills several enemy combatants in pursuit of justice and the defense of the weak and innocent. He is morally justified in doing so.
There are also civilians in that war who are hiding Jews and supporting the Resistance. The absolutist position says that the soldier may legitimately kill others, but the civilian can never legitimately lie to those same enemies, even for the same ends (defense of innocent life).
I find that moral reasoning unpersuasive.

Jeremy Pierce February 16, 2011 at 9:32 am
I’ve long thought lying and killing should be in the same moral category, i.e. things that are almost always wrong because they involve evil in the sense that Steve Hays earlier pointed out. They involve bad consequences, and they involve bringing ourselves to do things that we only should do with great hesitation.

steve hays February 16, 2011 at 2:36 pm

“Still, when it comes to the notion of ‘just lying’ I’d have to ask, then, at what point do we draw the line? If it’s okay (or even our duty) to lie to prevent unjust murder, is it okay to lie to prevent unjust injury? Is it okay to lie to prevent burglary, or hijacking? Is it okay to lie if it brings about financial gain to the church? Is it okay (or even our duty) to lie if it results in conversions to Christ?”

i) You could raise the same kinds of questions about killing. Do borderline cases thereby justify pacifism? Is there no right of self-defense unless you can address every conceivable contingency?
ii) What’s wrong with deception to prevent hijacking? Where’s the argument?
iii) There are situations in life where we don’t always have ready-made answers. Where we don’t know the right answer. But that doesn’t mean we’re equally uncertain about everything, does it?
“I’d be very concerned that it turns into a utilitarian calculus, where lesser bads are justified if they can reasonably be expected to result in greater goods.”
i) To begin with, we’re often confronted with forced options in life. We don’t have the luxury of being noncommittal. Both action and inaction have corresponding results.
ii) You yourself are raising a consequentialist objection to consequentialism. You’re resorting to the slippery slope argument. You’re saying we shouldn’t lie, for if we make an exception in this case, then what about x, y, and z? Well, isn’t that an outcome-based objection?
iii) In addition, your objection is very lopsided. You act as though worst-case scenarios only apply to deception. But, of course, it’s easy to come up with worst-case scenarios for the opposing position as well. Shouldn’t your concern be more evenhanded? Why is your concern limited to the consequences of deception, but not the consequences of your alternative? Hypotheticals cut both ways, you know.

No comments:

Post a Comment