Friday, April 03, 2015

Authorized to lie

In the course of arguing for absolutism about the wrongness of lying, Jesse Johnson comes to the question of whether a government may lie. One might have thought that, being an absolutist, he would give the same answer to this question as he gave to the others—"No, absolutely not." However, one would have been wrong. For Johnson, lying can be acceptable in this context. He writes,
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.


  1. The various recent posts on the ethics of lying have been very instructive for me. Many thanks to the T-blog team.

  2. Considering the logic above and the case of Lot and his daughters it would seem plausible to mount an argument that incest, like lying and killing, is sometimes permissible, correct?

    1. Well, since you haven't actually mounted that argument, there's nothing to respond to. We can't respond to I.O.U.s. We have to see what you think the argument looks like.

    2. CR, this post was a response to the one you previously linked to. This post of mine has a light burden. Basically, I argued this: _Given_ the argument of the post you initially linked to, (a) not only was absolutism eschewed by the author, (b) a structurally similar argument can be given for the conclusion that the scope of circumstances that can affect the pro tanto wrongness of lying is broader than the author allows.

      Moreover, the post you now link to is at odds with the one you originally linked to. You implied you agreed with that post. But now you link to Poythress', who offers a truly absolutist position. So are you now dropping the argument of the first link and putting your chips on Poythress?

      Third, you seem to want to paint me in a corner and argue that incest is *never* acceptable. That is, under no circumstances whatsoever is incest morally permitted. Okay, let's assume that. Now, how do you do biblical geneology?

    3. CR,

      It's dishonest for you to link to posts which I've already addressed in detail, as if nothing has been said by way of response. I've evaluated both Grudem and Poythress:

    4. BTW, I took the exact same position 14 months ago when the issue first began to heat up:

    5. Ignorance isn't the same thing as dishonesty, steve. I'll check out the links. No need for imputing spurious motives.

    6. I gave the very same links in response to another commenter in a previous post where you linked to the Cripplegate article:

    7. I didn't see them, but I will check them out.

    8. In addition to the posts Steve just mentioned, here are more posts on the topic I found on Triablogue:

      Off-topic, but since CR brought it up, here are a couple of posts on incest from Triablogue as well:

  3. I didn't "drop" the Cripplegate argument in favor of Poythress, I'm sympathetic to both.

    I thought the Poythress piece interacted better with your post than with Peter's, as the state of the discussion has developed, which is why I chose to link it here.

    As for the incest hypothetical, I wasn't trying to paint anyone into a corner, but the matter seems to have been ceded sans argument. :0)

    Through the various posts and discussions recently I've come to realize that I need some refinement in my thinking on this subject, and T-blog, as usual, is proving to be both helpful and provocative.

    I appreciate the dialogue, I'm not trying to be contentious or glib, I'm no good at either.

    1. CR, how could Poythress' post "interact" with mine? Mine was *conditionalized* on your Cripplegate post. It assumed the argument was valid and sound and then said, "If it is, mine is." So, if Poythress' argument undercut mine, it undercut Cripplegate's too. In any case, I'm glad to hear that you're sympathetic to p & ~p. ;)

  4. I'm a sympathetic guy, illogic notwithstanding.

    1. For what it's worth, I respect your position even though I disagree with it. I do believe you are acting from a position of wanting to do the right thing and not trying to be argumentative for the sake of argument :-)

      To just give you something more to think on, I'll reiterate a bit from something I mentioned earlier, which was the time I deceived someone by speaking strictly the truth knowing he wouldn't believe me. Because the details are irrelevant, I'll truncate and modify it a bit, so this isn't *exactly* what happened, but close enough. Namely, one of my co-worker friends had a birthday and a friend we had in common and I decided to prank him by stealing a figurine he had of the Enterprise from Star Trek and holding it for "ransom". To get it, we needed him away from his desk, so when he needed to get some paperwork that was supposed to be given to him, but which we had arranged to be "misplaced", I told him: "It can't possibly be at X file cabinet" which, because I knew the actual location of the papers was on my person, was a completely true statement in that I knew it was literally impossible for it to be at the file cabinet. But my friend believed me to be speaking sarcastically, as I intended, and went off to fetch the paperwork, which provided us plenty of time to snatch the figurine and implement the rest of our plan while he was out to pick it up.

      Now here's the crux of the matter. I knew full well what the truth was, I fully intended to deceive my friend (even for a non-malicious purpose), I stated the truth in a manner I knew would cause him to come to a wrong conclusion, and exploited it. But suppose I did all of that with a malicious intention as well (say, to break into his safe and steal his life savings). I cannot see how I would not be held accountable for breaking the command not to lie, in addition to any other sin during that process, since I purposely deceived someone, even though no "lie" *technically* left my lips.

      I look forward to your thoughts on that scenario. :-)

    2. So...I finally read through all the links. You guys have spent a fair amount of time thinking through this subject.

      Here are my takeaways:

      i.) I remain convinced by Scripture and conscience that lying is always sinful, and thus is always impermissible for Christians.

      ii.) Scripture does not approve of lying.

      iii.) Christ didn't lie, and Christians are called to imitate Him.

      iv.) Christ never broke any of God's commands, and since He was "in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin", it's not possible for Heb. 4:15 to be true if Christians will face situations where they are forced to disobey one of God's commands (a "lesser" command) in order to obey another (a "greater" command), or else Jesus would have been faced with such a situation too.

      I'll need to ponder Peter's pranksterism a bit more, but I do think it's a clever conundrum.

    3. Hi CR,

      Thanks for sharing your "takeaways." However, I'm afraid it doesn't sound like your takeaways interact with the material though? It sounds like they're mainly bare statements (without supporting argumentation).

    4. You're correct rwh, it would take a pretty lengthy dissertation or several blog posts to deal with all the material. I don't suspect T-blog is open to a guest post, and I don't think it best to spam the combox with a series of delimited posts.

      But the interaction has been very helpful and challenging, which I truly appreciate, no lie!

    5. Thanks for your reply, CR. :-) Another option: why not start your own weblog and post there? That could be pretty interesting!

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Hello CR,
      As RWH suggested, if you do post your own blog, I would be more than happy to interact with your views more directly. Also, you can feel free to e-mail me directly. My e-mail starts with petedawg34 (and if you do send an e-mail you might want to put something descriptive in the subject line so I don't disregard it as spam).

      As a quick response here, you said: "I remain convinced by Scripture and conscience that lying is always sinful, and thus is always impermissible for Christians." In which case, I believe that lying would be sinful for you due to the principal of Romans 14, especially verse 23. I would counsel you not to go against your conscience even when I believe you are objectively incorrect, as I do in this instance. Of course, I believe that it is still right for us to debate each other on the issue, and thankfully I cannot foresee any way in which that that may somehow put a stumbling block before you, but I ask you to inform me if you believe otherwise. :-)

      As to your fourth point, you said that if there were a conflict between a "lesser" command and the "greater" command, that Jesus would have been faced with such a situation. In response:

      "He said to them, 'Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice," you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.'” (Matthew 12:3-8).

      See also Mark 2:26 and Luke 6:4. Each time, Christ points out that David broke the Law by eating food that was only for priests, yet was guiltless. He does not argue that the disciples were innocent of breaking the Sabbath. Instead, he argues it was breaking the law for David to do what he did, *BUT* that David was justified in breaking the law given the circumstances he was in, and therefore the Pharisees had no basis to condemn the disciples either. And while this does not directly address lying, I think it does address the fact that the Bible does acknowledge that breaking a lesser command in service of the greater command not only happens, but when it does happen it is the righteous action.

    8. I also see after having posted this that Steve already essentially mentioned this argument in his post earlier today. :-) Heh heh. One of those times where I should have read the blog before commenting! :-D

  5. my two cents worth.

    Aren't Christians governmental ambassadors of the Kingdom of God? Might this have some bearing on the topic? I'm not sure. The way I see it, the Nazi intention to persecute, abuse and (often) kill Jews is contrary to the law of love in God's Kingdom (the rightful, legitimate and ultimate authority). Also, since all truth is God's truth, and since the Nazis wanted to abuse God's truth (i.e. there are in fact Jews hidden in the house) in a serious way (via the Holocaust/Shoah), didn't they forfeit the right to the truth?

    I don't think God merely wants us to speak propositions that correspond to reality as an end in themselves. He wants us to speak truthfully in order to advance His Kingdom priorities of love, justice, mercy, and God's rulership/dominion in the world and in human hearts. That's why I don't think the Egyptian midwives, Rahab or the Magi were wrong for lying. These are simplistic answers, but I'm a simple person. They make sense to me unless I'm shown otherwise.

    1. We're to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). That means it's possible to speak the truth in indifference or hate. Obviously, it's possible to speak lies in hate. But maybe it's sometimes permissible to speak lies in love.

      Shakespeare's Sonnet 138

      When my love swears that she is made of truth,
      I do believe her though I know she lies,
      That she might think me some untutored youth,
      Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
      Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
      Although she knows my days are past the best,
      Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
      On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
      But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
      And wherefore say not I that I am old?
      O! love's best habit is in seeming trust,
      And age in love, loves not to have years told:
      Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
      And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

      Some of the statements in Song of Songs are hyperboles and "lies" as well.