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« Blind Human Rights Lawyer Beaten and Isolated in Chinese Crackdown | Main | Why Are We So Anxious? »

02/22/2011

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Jimbino

No, the gravest sin is not to "honor thy mother and thy father."

HaHa. What a crock!

Felapton

I have never found the old Nazi-on-the-doorstep thought experiment very useful. It just does not seem plausible that in a matter of such importance a simple lie would ever solve the problem.

I mean, do Nazis really say, "Oh, OK, if you say so, we'll just move on and ask your neighbor. Sorry for bothering you. Good night."

To really hide Jews would involve a much more elaborate and sustained deception, including lying to your family, neighbors and friends about the danger you are assuming, probably danger to them as well. It may still be the moral thing to do, but it's more complicated than the classic thought experiment.

Can't you come up with a more convincing example?

Felapton

As to undercover cops, don't entrapment laws usually prohibit them from outright lying? Aren't they required to identify themselves if directly asked?

Taryn

The last thing I want to do is give lying doctors ammo, but the Bible has its own "Nazi on the doorstep" stories.

In the book of Exodus, Shifra and Puah, two midwives, "fear God" and tell a hilarious lie rather than kill the Hebrew infants as Pharaoh had directed. "Gosh, those Hebrew women are tough! They give birth and run off before we midwives can even get to them!" And God "dealt well" with these women.

In another story, (1 Samuel 16) God tells Samuel to lie to Saul, ("uh, tell him you are making a special trip to offer a sacrifice or something and leave out the part about how you are actually going to anoint David to be the new king.") In other words, to save himself and further a better political outcome, Samuel is told to make stuff up and leave stuff out.

These are not the first two stories which come to mind when I'm constructing an ethic about truth-telling, but there they are.


David Nickol

Felapton,

I'm trying not to take sides. I think Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen are presenting what I take to be the official Catholic position: lying is always wrong, and telling an untruth with the intention to deceive someone—whether or not that person has a "right to know"—is lying. As for the people who lied in a selfless attempt to save innocent lives from evildoers, I would have to say I hope I would have the courage to do the same thing under the circumstances.

I do think we have a right in many of the hypothetical scenarios involving Nazis and Jews to assume people were acting under duress. The Catechism says, "1735 Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors."

Many of the arguments against Robert George amount to asking if you really want to tell people who lied to save lives that they did something wrong. Of course no one does. The answer may be that they did nothing for which they are culpable, but had they not been under duress, they would have been guilty of lying.

It is difficult for me to imagine LiveAction or the physicians who handed out false medical excuses could claim to be under duress.

David Nickol

Taryn,

I think it is a mistake to look at the great men and women in the Old Testament, or even to God Himself as depicted there, as role models. Abraham married his half sister. Lot's daughters got him drunk and conceived by him (an act which many commentators believe was being presented as heroic). God lies to Abraham when he tells him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham lies to Isaac to keep him in the dark about what he plans to do. Jacob lies to Isaac and steals Esau's birthright. God tells Saul (through Samuel) to kill all the Amalekite men, women, and children—and cattle, too! Are we really prepared to say the Old Testament justifies incest, lying, and genocide?

Felapton

In retrospect I think the way I wanted to describe my objection to the Nazi-on-the-doorstep thought experiment is this: it postulates a scenario in which the harm done by telling the lie is minimal and the harm done by telling the truth is great. But I think the nature of the universe is that if the one is great, the other is (almost) inevitably great too. I would like to hear an counterexample in which one is minimal and the other great.

I'm not authorized to speak for Pope Benedict, but I think he might say the harm is mitigated by the circumstances so that the lie is wrong, yes, but very venial. I'm not thrilled with this, because it seems to imply that there is always a better (i.e., not-wrong) option.

I agree with you that Old Testament narratives are not generally regarded in the Catholic tradition as being stories about exemplary role models. Usually, if they seem to endorse something truly atrocious they are interpreted allegorically. Some of the patristic attempts to explain, for example, Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter are pretty embarrassingly far-fetched.

Felapton

Oh, in the first paragraph I meant "a counterexample in which the harm done by telling the lie is minimal and that done by telling the truth great."

An example in which the harm done by telling a lie is great and that done by telling the truth is minimal is easy, as in "Yes, that is a bottle of poison."

Taryn

Maybe the thing to say is that Christian tradition has champions on both sides of this question.

Here's what I have read (I'm out of my depth, so all I can do is relay somebody else's take): Aquinas, Augustine - absolutists. (Although I spoke with a grad student yesterday who thinks this is the wrong way to understand Augustine.)

And the non-absolutists: John Chrystostom, Cassian, Origen--"like medicine,--as little as possible, and with distaste," Grotius, and Martin Luther. Always for some "greater good" -- protection of an innocent, or protection of the Church. (Sigh, that's Luther.)

And here's an essay about the matter in Jewish law. http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/hf_LyingPermissible.html

Faced with a menacing figure on my front porch and an innocent in my basement -- my plan is to lie like a rug.

True Religion Outlet

We use friendship writing a book, a thick book.

Supra Skytop

Really? Admirable but useless. Look, everyone knows that Blanton will be the first guy out the door in a trade to lower the payroll. And with Andy Petitte having retired, Brian Cashman will come calling for Fat Joe any day now if not already.

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