Generally, truthfulness is considered a valuable component of the ethical life. However, a pressing question in moral philosophy is whether it is ever permissible to lie. The Bible contains general prohibitions against lying, in both the Old and New Testaments:
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16).
- You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another (Leviticus 19:11).
- These six things the Lord hates, yes seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look, a lying tongue... (Proverbs 6:16-17).
- [A]ll liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Revelation 21:8).
- But there shall by no means enter [eternal life—CC] anything that defiles or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 21:27).
The adherent to biblical doctrine is an ethical “absolutist” when it comes to lying; that is, he takes the position that lying is never the right thing to do. Furthermore, the Bible’s strictures against lying are, to him, sufficient grounds for his decision never to lie. However, the purpose of this article is to show that the biblical position may be defended against secular claims that absolutism against lying is unreasonable.
The secular ethicist might base his objection on so-called “common-sense morality.” In this case, he would decry the absolutist’s prohibition of lying in certain cases where it might seem right to lie. The most famous such scenario is that of the “murderer at the door,” as explained by Benjamin Constant:
The moral principle stating that it is a duty to tell the truth would make any society impossible if that principle were taken singly and unconditionally. We have proof of this in the very direct consequences which a German philosopher [Immanuel Kant—CC] has drawn from this principle. This philosopher goes as far as to assert that it would be a crime to tell a lie to a murderer who asked whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer had taken refuge in our house (quoted in Kant, 1994, p. 162).
Constant was responding to Immanuel Kant, a professed Christian (see Rossi, 2009). While Kant’s rational morality was not based on the Bible, he was an absolutist concerning lying: “Truthfulness in statements that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom for him or for any other” (p. 163). Recognizing the general distaste at the prospect of telling the “murderer at the door” that a friend is hiding in the house, some Kantian scholars have gone to great lengths to show that Kant actually misinterpreted his own categorical imperative in order to establish an absolutist principle (e.g., Korsgaard, 1986). Whether such efforts succeed is beyond the scope of this article, which is not designed to justify Kant.
Utilitarianism is a system that has been positioned as the formalization of “common-sense morality” (e.g., Sidgwick, 1893, pp. 162-176). The assertion that one should lie in order to save others might be grounded on the act-utilitarian principles of Jeremy Bentham. He summarized his moral philosophy in the following statement:
By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness (1907, p. 2).
According to Bentham, we must do that which maximizes happiness. To apply this principle to the case of the murderer at the door: It would seem that the happiness resulting from relieving the refugee of mortal danger would outweigh any negative feelings on the part of the murderer, should he ever discover the deception. (This comparison assumes that we give equal moral weight to the innocent and the guilty—an allocation which may be questioned.) The morally correct decision therefore, on utilitarian grounds, is to lie to the murderer. Probably most students agree with Bentham’s application.
Consider four available, extra-biblical responses to the utilitarian viewpoint:
1. The “murderer-at-the-door” case is extreme. Very few people find themselves in scenarios where a decision like this one regarding “murderer at the door” is necessary. So, ethicists should proceed carefully in criticizing biblical ethics, to avoid rushing to the conclusion that one extreme hypothetical case renders absolutism unreasonable.
2. Truth does not murder. Kant rightly states that “[Constant—CC] confuses the action whereby someone does harm to another by telling the truth when its avowal cannot be avoided with the action whereby someone does wrong to another. It was merely an accident that the truth of the statement did harm [but not wrong] to the occupant of the house” (p. 165, bracketed item in orig.). The truth-teller is not the murderer.
3. Outcomes are unpredictable. Human finitude dictates that none of us could be certain what would happen if he was to tell the truth to the murderer. Kant, for example, was aware of several potentialities:
For example, if by telling a lie you have in fact hindered someone who was even now planning a murder, then you are legally responsible for all the consequences that might result therefrom. But if you have adhered strictly to the truth, then public justice cannot lay a hand on you, whatever the unforeseen consequence might be. It is indeed possible that after you have honestly answered Yes to the murderer’s question as to whether the intended victim is in the house, the latter went out unobserved and thus eluded the murderer, so that the deed would not have come about. However, if you told a lie and said that the intended victim was not in the house, and he has actually (though unbeknownst to you) gone out, with the result that by so doing he has been met by the murderer and thus the deed has been perpetrated, then in this case you may be justly accused as having caused his death. For if you had told the truth as best you knew it, then the murderer might perhaps have been caught by neighbors who came running while he was searching the house for his intended victim, and thus the deed might have been prevented. Therefore, whoever tells a lie, regardless of how good his intentions may be, must answer for the consequences resulting therefrom (p. 164, parenthetical item in orig.).
The creative among us could imagine a large number of outcomes, both good and bad. Kant reminds us that we do not know that the truth-telling would result in murder, and therefore our decision cannot be based on certainty.
So, a decision to tell the truth is not a decision to kill the refugee. Furthermore, options are available. Silence is an option. Kant carefully stated that what is required is “Truthfulness in statements that cannot be avoided” (p. 163). The biblical ethicist does not assert that a person tell all he knows.
4. A slippery slope threatens. Another response to Bentham’s position is that it implicitly requires us to determine a standard of difficulty which, when met, makes lying permissible. This requirement is problematic. May we tell a lie when the inquirer at the door seeks only to injure the refugee? What if he wants to inflict only a harsh reprimand? What if the inquirer merely happens to be someone the refugee dislikes? Bentham’s principle leaves us in the problematic position of judging how “bad” things must get before utility merits a lie. This difficulty is one reason why some, including John Stuart Mill, sought to amend Bentham’s approach in order to provide concrete rules for behavior (Mill, 1895, p. 35; cf. Brown, 1997, p. 37). Kant seems to have anticipated this problem:
[T]here is the problem of how to make arrangements so that in a society, however large, harmony can be maintained in accordance with principles of freedom and equality.... [T]his will then be a principle of politics; and establishing and arranging such a political system will involve decrees that are drawn from experiential knowledge regarding men; and such decrees will have in view only the mechanism for the administration of justice and how such mechanism is to be suitably arranged. Right must never be adapted to politics; rather, politics must always be adapted to right (p. 166, emp. added).
While Sidgwick thinks that society would be worse-off if criminals could rely on others’ honesty (1893, p. 449), the options mentioned above demonstrate that society may be both truthful and unfavorable to criminals’ pursuits. Presumably, even utilitarians would agree that an honest society is worth pursuing (e.g., Mill, 1895, p. 41).
The Bible is unmistakably clear about the wrongness of lying. While we need not agree with Kant about everything, we happily acknowledge his assistance in showing how the biblical position appeals to human rationality. We agree with him that “[t]o be truthful (honest) in all declarations is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law...that admits of no expediency whatsoever” (p. 164, parenthetical item in orig.).
Bentham, Jeremy (1907), An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford, England: Clarendon).
Brown, D.G. (1997), “Mill’s Act-Utilitarianism,” Mill’s Utilitarianism: Critical Essays, ed. David Lyons (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield).
Kant, Immanuel (1994 reprint), Ethical Philosophy (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett), second edition.
Korsgaard, Christine M. (1986), “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 15:325-349.
Mill, John Stuart (1895), Utilitarianism (London: George Routledge & Sons), twelfth edition.
Rossi, Philip (2009), “Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, [On-line], URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-religion/.
Sidgwick, Henry (1893), The Methods of Ethics (New York: Macmillan), fifth edition.
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