As absolutist as that sounds, the Bible keeps room in its moral constructs for war time ethics. God uses countries to bear the sword and punish evil doers. It is expected that war includes both deception and violence. An army can fake left and go right, because they are bearing the sword to suppress evil. But that is fundamentally different than a person—a civilian, if you will—who lies because they have a secret moral agenda. Even if their morality is right, it is undercut by lying because (remember) God will never put you in a position where lying is right thing to do.To my mind, this sinks his case. I'll briefly explain why.
First, I want to take just a moment to question the distinction Johnson draws between person qua solder and person qua civilian. Since the same person can bear both designations, let's name the person Rob (short for Roberta). Now, Johnson seems to be suggesting that Rob cannot lie when wearing her civilian hat, but Rob may lie when wearing her bureaucrat hat. On this view, there is a circumstance, C, that is morally relevant to some action, A. Thus, C partly determines the moral status of A. Now, let C be something like "Rob's being a platoon commander in a just wartime situation." Let A be "lying to the enemy in order to secure a victory." Thus, Rob's being in C is morally relevant to the wrongness of A; and in this case, it justifies A-ing. But, if we let C* be something like "Rob is at home and hiding a woman from an abusive husband" and A* be "lying to the husband as to the whereabouts of his wife," then C* is morally irrelevant to morally justifying Rob's A*-ing.
Thus, in Johnson's view, some circumstances are morally relevant to the rightness of the (course-grained) act "lying", and some are irrelevant. But this is exactly what the non-absolutist argues! Our position is that there may be some circumstance such that being in it can either justify or excuse an action—lying, in our case. So, to my mind, Johnson simply disagrees with us about the scope of the circumstances that morally bear on the permissibility of lying. We can debate the justifying circumstances, but on the reconstruction I've sketched above, this is an in-house debate between Johnson and us. I thus welcome Johnson into the non-absolutist club.
Second, I'd like to look at the structure of his argument. To my mind, Johnson's argument employs a principle like this:
AUTHO: If X is authorized by God to do Y, and doing Z is necessary to achieving Y, X may do Z.
AUTHO is really just a variant of a popular thought in political philosophy that if R is a right, then whatever is needed to secure R is also a right. A popular iteration is that innocent citizens have a right to life, thus they have a right to self-defense, thus they have a right to own a firearm. Now, I think AUTHO can stand to do with some Chisholming, but I think the general idea is at work in Johnson's argument, and I think I can make the point I want to make sans Chisholming.
So, the way AUTHO works in Johnson's argument is like this:
1. Governments are authorized by God to punish evildoers.
2. Sometimes lying is necessary to punish evildoers.
3. So governments may sometimes lie to evildoers. (1, 2, and AUTHO).
We'll grant that this argument is valid. We'll even grant that it is sound. Now look at a structurally similar argument.
4. Civilian fathers are authorized by God to protect their children from evildoers.
5. Sometimes, lying is necessary to protect your children from evildoers.
6. So civilian fathers may sometimes lie to evildoers. (4, 5, and AUTHO)
Since we granted that the argument constituted by 1–3 was valid, then so is the argument constituted by 4–6. The question that remains is whether 4–6 constitutes a sound argument. I think it does. If Johnson thinks it does not, then he must reject a premise. Premise (6) is simply the conclusion, it is true just in case (4) and (5) are true. So Johnson must challenge (4) or (5). (He may challenge AUTHO, but then I'm not clear on why he thinks governments may justifiably lie, since the Bible doesn't explicitly say that they are, and Johnson's reasoning seems to assume AUTHO. Nevertheless, that's another option, but I'll proceed on the assumption that he accepts AUTHO.) Also, it's important to note that, while I do think (4)–(5) is sound (or more properly, can be shown to be sound on an appropriately Chisholmed AUTHO), I'm mainly arguing for it conditional on the viability of Johnson's argument. That is, given that his argument is good, then this one is likewise.
Challenging (5). Will Johnson challenge the truth of (5)? It seems to me that (5) is clearly true. That is, there is some case such that in the case, the only way to protect your children from an evildoer is to lie to the evildoer. (5) does not take a stand on whether this is right or not, it just states a fact (in the interest of brevity I won't bother to give examples as I assume they're easy enough to come up with). Responding with 1 Cor 13 won't work here either. For again, (5) doesn't assert that you must lie, it just asserts that you must if you are to protect your children. Thus there is still a "way out" of lying. You don't do it and lose your children. So, (5) seems secure.
Challenging (4). That seems to leave (4). Are fathers authorized by God to protect their children? Again, this seems obvious to me. The negation seems flat-out absurd. I won't bother to defend (4), but I think it follows from natural rights as well as the general equity of the sixth commandment. So I think (4) is true.
So I think Johnson should think (4)–(6) is sound. But, I don't think I've scored an easy victory. Surely Johnson will reply that (4) is true, but is a pro tanto right. That is, the right can be defeated. Surely (4) wouldn't morally allow me to do something all-things-considered immoral. And lying is all-things-considered immoral. But this can't be his response, as we saw from the military example, Johnson doesn't think lying is all-things-considered immoral. Why? Because Johnson himself raises a consideration in which lying isn't immoral. So I'm at a loss as to the basis on which he would object to my argument. I don't think I've said all that needs to be said, there's places to push, and it'd be interesting to see where Johnson pushes back. However, I think that any pushing will also push against the example he gives of permissible lying. So it'll be a fine line he has to walk.
A note on hypotheticals.
In his blog post Johnson seems bothered by hypothetical counterexamples to absolutist principles. I have noticed this dislike of hypotheticals in many circles, mainly appearing on the interwebs. Here's a justification for using hypothetical counterexamples. Look at the logic of the absolutist. The absolutist says that moral principle M is true in all cases, there are no possible exceptions. Now, how would one show that M is false? Well, think of any easier case. What if someone said "there are no tigers." How do you show that false? You show them an example of a tiger. But that's a real tiger, not a hypothetical one. Okay, what if someone said "there are no unicorns." How do you show that that's false? You find a unicorn. There aren't any, so it's true. But now, what if someone says this: "Unicorns are impossible." Here they're saying that there couldn't be a unicorn, no matter how the world turns out. Show that this is false is different from showing that the claim "there are no unicorns" is false. Here we might say, "Well, suppose God made a unicorn. This seems like something God can do. Creating such a beast doesn't seem like creating a square circle. There is no logical incoherence in the very idea of a unicorn. Hence, unicorns are not impossible." So here I've shown that the claim "unicorns are impossible" is false, and I did so by appealing to some contrary-to-fact scenario. Similarly, then, when Johnson makes the claim that "lying is impermissible for civilian person S," he's making a similar deontic claim to the above modal claim about the status of unicorns. Saying "X is all-things-considered impermissible" enters a game where I can show that it's false by raising a consideration where our intuition is that X is permissible. In other words, all things considered includes hypothetical things. So the absolutist is saying, "You can't show me a consideration according to which my principle fails."It would be dialectically dishonest to then refuse to allow certain considerations to bear on the truth of the putative absolutely true moral principle.