Thursday, September 22, 2011

Two items elsewhere

1. First Things online has a piece by Chris Tollefsen and me on lying.
2. I posted an argument against some divine command theories on prosblogion.


Mark said...

Just read the article. Think maybe you can formalize the reasoning of the article?

I read in Kreeft's article, and have thought something like this.

I. Acs which share the same intention, consequences, and nature should share the same justifiability.
II. Lying to the Nazi and lying to the abortion clinic do share the same intention, consequences, and nature.
III. Lying to the Nazi and lying to the clinic do share the same justifiability.

I'm not sure where we fit in here the considerations about how, lying to the clinic will cause (in the sense of: if you do a, then he will do b; and you foresee it, though wish it were otherwise) the clinician to do something wrong. If the wife knew that lying to the nazi was going to result in the nazi beating up her husband, because the nazi would be so upset that there was no Jew in the house, does that really make the lying impermissible?


Alexander R Pruss said...

I think in the clinic case, it is not clear that the action has much *point* unless at least some of the persons lied to do something wrong. It's a bunch of wasted effort then, right? So it seems like it's intended that at least *some* do wrong, no?

As for your argument, I have some quibbles about II. There are some differences in consequences, especially in respect of the fact that by lying to the Nazi one is preventing the Nazi from sinning, but by lying in the clinic one is leading (intentionally or not) the person into sin.

There is also a difference in immediacy. In the case of the Nazi, one prevents imminent violence against the innocent, while in the case of the clinic, one is simply hoping to change public opinion, or to eventually get the clinic shut down, or something like that.

But all that is moot, since it's wrong to lie to the Nazi.

Mark said...

Well, one reason for doing the undercover questioning would be to decrease funding for planned parenthood, and so terminate the availability of assisted killing of innocent persons. So, in a sense, the goal of decreasing funding only works if the workers get caught doing something. And another intention I think is to reveal the attitudes behind the abortion movement, so an ethical education of a sort.

Let us think of both cases as both, leading a person into sin, and, preventing a death. You lead the Nazi to beat up your husband, because you knew that he would do this if there turned out to be no Jew in the house. In the abortion clinic case, the person says some nasty things that reveal their attitudes, but you also prevent the availability of services to help kill the unborn persons. Put this way, I don't see any important moral difference.

Now, as far as the immediacy, I see how the lying at abortion clinic just takes longer to actually save a life. But, let us put this on the Nazi case, and suppose the Nazi asked you if you would have a Nazi in your house come wintertime. You lie, saying that you would not have a Jew in hour home in the wintertime, but really you plan to hide a family during the wintertime.

I think lying to the Nazi is permissible.

My question is, what then? Do we just disagree about brute moral facts? I have the intuition that P, and you have the intuition that ~P.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Try this dilemma. One lies to Planned Parenthood either (a) to catch them doing something bad or (b) just to find out what they really are like.

If (a), then one is doing wrong.

If (b), then the lies are disproportionate to the goal. For presumably, on the view that lies are sometimes permitted, lies will only be permitted in extreme cases, such as to save a life. But finding out the attitudes of PP staff only saves lives (if it does at all) when the PP staff is doing something bad. So if the saving of life is the aim, one's aim is given by (a), not by (b). So in case (b), one isn't aiming at saving life, and mere curiosity about PP staff attitudes certainly does not justify lying.

"Do we just disagree about brute moral facts? I have the intuition that P, and you have the intuition that ~P."

Maybe, but in my case it's not just an isolated intuition about lying--it is something broader. I see lying as closely related to sexual sins such as masturbation and marital contraception. There is a similar kind of parodying of the good, and a similar sort of perversion of an essentially interpersonal good that negates its interpersonal giving aspect.

In both lying and in contraception, one is offering a fake good to a fellow human--in lying one is offering (at least as far as one can tell) a falsehood as a good and in the case of marital contraception one is pretending to offer one's body while holding back the relevant fertility aspect. There is a kind of resemblance between these actions and the sad case of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts, though there are some differences.

The basis of ethics is love. Love is a relationship that always aims at mutual self-giving and mutual trust. Actions that replace the self-giving with a simulacrum, as in masturbation, marital contraception and lying, are deeply problematic. Likewise are actions that are naturally directed at fostering love's trust and yet betray it, as in the case of sexual activity between the unmarried or in lying.

This is of course very abbreviated.

Mark said...

I would guess that B saves lives indirectly. Of course this just matters on whether we're successful. But, even supposing it to be very very likely to be unsuccessful, it seems to not change my intuition when I put it on the Nazi case. Say that the Nazis know that people are hiding Jews and are lying about it when asked, and four times out of five, they usually dismiss what the homeowners say and just search the house themselves to see if any Nazi is hiding. Since it turns out to be unlikely that lying will be successful in saving the life of the Jew, does this importantly change the moral evaluation. For me, it doesn't.

Whether or not is it accurate to describe the lying as lying for reason A, is I guess something we might just disagree about. They're not lying to 'catch' them, they're lying to stop killings via stopping funding via uncovering attitudes (catching them). It's a foreseen possible consequence that the person get's 'caught', but this is not the main purpose of the action. be honest, I'm not sure whether it's accurate to describe the action as oriented towards A.

Do you think the moral evaluation will change depending on how we describe the action? If so, then maybe we ought to disagree about what's the correct way to describe the action? I'm not sure how to go about this, but I'm open to considering it.

Also, I see the similarities you are drawing between lying and other actions, but it's not quite giving me an argument for why I should think that lying to the Nazi is wrong. And if it can't do that, then it's not really showing me why my argument I provided isn't both valid and sound.


Alexander R Pruss said...

I also think it is a (I've even played with the idea that it is the) defining feature of the assertion that p that it be an action that may only be performed if p.

Now, normally, philosophers who say this (i.e., ones who adopt the truth norm of assertion) say that this "may" is the "may" of epistemic or linguistic permissibility. However, I want to collapse all normativity into moral normativity. Or more weakly we could take moral normativity to belay all conflicting normativity, in the way in which a general's command belays a captain's command.

In this way, we might be able to ratchet up the epistemic or linguistic impermissibility of asserting the false into a moral impermissibility of asserting the false. (This isn't exactly the prohibition on lying, but it's close enough, since liars take themselves to be saying the false.)

If you don't like the truth norm of assertion, and prefer a knowledge or belief norm, the same point can be made.

But of course this depends on my very controversial views on normativity.

By the way, how low do you think you can go? Can you lie for a 1/1000000 chance of saving a life?

Mark said...

I'm not sure how effective your lying (to save the life) would have to be in order for it to be justifiable.

I only tweaked the example, to show that lying would still be permissible if it was as unlikely as the particular scenario I drew for the Nazi case.

Suppose there's a serial killer who goes to the homes of families with children. When arriving at each home, he asks for the parents. When he meets them, he asks them if they have knives in the kitchen. If they say yes, then he rolls a dice. If the dice lands on one particular side, he shoots the adults with the gun he was hiding, gets the knives, and kills the children.

Suppose even that the dice has 1000 sides to it. And that only if the dice lands on side S will the serial killer go ahead and do what he is known to do.

So, the serial killer shows up to my door, and asks me if I have knives in my kitchen. If I hadn't been so absent minded, I would've moved my knives to the garage, so that I could honestly tell him no (I don't like lying). But, there are knives in the kitchen. What do I tell him when he asks?


Alexander R Pruss said...


I think there are two principles one might have that permit lying:

1. It is permissible to lie to really bad people to thwart their evil designs.
2. It is permissible to lie to prevent really bad events.

In my post, I was arguing against something like #2. I think that if you go for #2, then low probabilities of success won't be good enough to justify lying, just as it is not permissible to engage in a war if the probability of success is too low.

But I think your intuitions incline towards #1 instead. There is a big difference between these two views. For instance, #2 would justify lying to a just court of law to save an innocent friend, but #1 would not justify it. I think #1 is the better of the two views, though I think both are wrong.