Monday, November 30, 2015

Lying, violence and dignity

I've argued that typically the person who is hiding Jews from Nazis and is asked by a Nazi if there are Jews in her house tells the truth, and does not lie, if she says: "No." That argument might be wrong, and even if it's right, it probably doesn't apply to all cases.

So, let's think about the case of the Nazi asking Helga if she is hiding Jews, when she is in fact hiding Jews, and when it would be a lie for her to say "No" (i.e., when there isn't the sort of disparity of languages that I argued is normally present). The Christian tradition has typically held lying to be always wrong, including thus in cases like this. I want to say some things to make it a bit more palatable that Helga does the right thing by refusing to lie.

The Nazi is a fellow human being. Language, and the trust that underwrites it (I was reading this morning that one of the most difficult questions in the origins of language is about the origination of the trust essential to language's usefulness), is central to our humanity. By refusing to betray the Nazi's trust in her through lying, Helga is affirming the dignity of all humans in the particular case of someone who needs it greatly--a human being who has been dehumanized by his own choices and the influence of an inhuman ideology. By attempting to dehumanize Jews, the Nazi dehumanized himself to a much greater extent. Refusing to lie, Helga gives her witness to a tattered child of God, a being created to know and live by the truth in a community of trust, and she he gives him a choice whether to embrace that community of trust or persevere on the road of self-destruction through alienation from what is centrally human. She does this by treating him as a trusting human rather than a machine to be manipulated. She does this in sadness, knowing that it is very likely that her gift of community will be refused, and will result in her own death and the deaths of those she is protecting. In so doing she upholds the dignity of everyone.

When I think about this in this way, I think of the sorts of things Christian pacifists say about their eschatological witness. But while I do embrace the idea that we should never lie, I do not embrace the pacifist rejection of violence. For I think that just violence can uphold the dignity of those we do violence to, in a way in which lying cannot. Just violence--even of an intentionally lethal sort--can accept the dignity of an evildoer as someone who has chosen a path that is wrong. We have failed to sway him by persuasion, but we treat him as a fellow member of the human community by violently preventing him from destroying the community that his own wellbeing is tied to, rather than by betraying with a lie the shattered remains of the trustful connection he has to that community.

I don't think the above is sufficient as an argument that lying is always wrong. But I think it gives some plausibility to that claim.


Mike Almeida said...

I have the opportunity in this case to do something wrong--thereby sacrificing my own moral virtue--in order to preserve the life of another. Call that a moral sacrifice. If I lie, then I make a sacrifice of my own virtue, and I do so in order to save the lives of others. Maybe there is conceptual space for engaging in such sacrifices in order to preserve life.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that the Nazi has forfeited his right to the truth in these circumstances and that I'd be under no obligation to tell him the truth. But perhaps you don't believe rights ground duties or think that one can do nothing to forfeit a right to be told the truth.

Then here's a different line of objection on the supposition that you know enough about the Nazi's psychology to have good grounds for thinking a lie will work and prevent the death of the Jew. It's good for the Nazi to be prevented from killing the Jew. So you lie for the sake of the Jew and the Nazi who would have had blood on his hands had you not lied.

Angra Mainyu said...


I think there are plenty of cases in which one would be clearly lying. For example, the Nazi might ask Helda what the name of the girl next to her is. If she says "Salome", the girl will very likely be taken. So, she says something like "Brunhild", to save her life.

Or - let's say -, Daesh enforcers ask a man whether he ever had sex with another man, and he denies it, so that they won't throw him off a rooftop and then stone him to death if he survives the fall, etc.

Or Saudi moral police ask a woman whether she posted such-and-such article on the internet, under an anonymous user name, and she says she did not, even though she did, because that was an article arguing that Islam is false, and she does not want to be flogged, imprisoned, and/or executed, etc.

A usual way to test theories is by considering whether they hold in specific scenarios that we can assess by other means, such as clear intuitions. As I see it, those cases are decisive evidence that it's not always immoral to lie, and enough to refute a theory that holds otherwise. In particular, I disagree with the view that it gives some plausibility to the claim. But it does not seem to be a case in which we can do much progress.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't have that intuition, though. (Maybe because I have the intuition that there is something sacred about speech and interpersonal trust?)

Angra Mainyu said...



I'd rather pass on speculating on why you don't have that intuition, but given that conflicting intuitions won't get us anywhere, I can give an argument from a pacifist perspective (just for the sake of the argument; I actually think the pacifist has no case, either), mirroring your own argument in the OP:

Pacifist: But while I do embrace the idea that we should never intend to kill a person, I do not embrace the absolute rejection of lies. For I think that just lies can uphold the dignity of those we lie to, in a way in which intending to kill cannot. Just lies can accept the dignity of an evildoer as someone who has chosen a path that is wrong. We have failed to sway him by persuasion, but we treat him as a fellow member of the human community by lying to him in order to prevent him from destroying the community his own wellbeing is tied to, rather than destroying any feeble link he might still have to that community by violently and permanently removing him from it. A lie might or might not weaken his connection to the human community - a link he can still choose to restore later, if he's alive -, but the complete removal from the community destroys that tie entirely.
In the case of Hilda, a successful lie would not even affect the Nazi's trust in the community (since he won't figure it out), and an unsuccessful lie is likely not to do much damage to his ties to the human community - surely, he knows already that humans more or less often lie, and do so often in the context of war; he would only come to consider Hilda a traitor -, while killing him removes him from the human community against his will and irreversibly.
Additionally, human life is sacred, and intending to destroy it is always immoral.

(I don't actually understand the word "sacred" means in this context; I'm just trying to mirror what you're saying).

Alexander R Pruss said...


I like your parody. I'll need to think about it more.

The intuition I had about my response to the pacifist was that there is a way in which violence respects the evildoer's autonomy, her free choice, better than lying does. Kant must have had something like that intuition, too.

It may make a difference that I don't think death removes one from the human community, though it does remove one from the earthly human community.

I suspect that the best way to get a concept of the sacred is to pick it out as the sort of thing to which certain paradigmatic emotions are an appropriate response. I'm thinking of something like the project in Otto's book on the holy. But it's a project that I haven't done.

Angra Mainyu said...


With respect to the concept of the sacred, thanks, but I'm afraid I don't know what the paradigmatic emotions in question might be.

As to the rest of your points, here's a potential pacifist reply:

Lethal violence restricts generally freedom and autonomy a lot more than lies, and that applies to our scenarios.
For example, let's say Adolf is the Nazi, and Hilda lies about the name of Salome. If Adolf doesn't believe the lie, he can make free and informed choices as much as before. If he does believe it, he still has freedom, and can choose whether to, say, keep looking for Jews to take to the concentration camps. I don't think his freedom has been altered very significantly.
But if Hilda kills him, he has no free choice to make ever again before he dies.
If there is no afterlife, Adolf's autonomy is compromised a lot more in the case of lethal violence. In fact, Adolf's autonomy is destroyed, alongside Adolf. And the same happens to his ties to the human community.

What if there is an afterlife?
That would depend on the afterlife, but let's say it's a Christian afterlife.

If Adolf is killed, he is still removed by force from the living community. Even his autonomy to later repent, confess his sins and go to heaven, is lost. A lie would not have that effect.
Moreover, Adolf very probably ends up in Hell. I don't know whether there is free will in Hell, but even if there is, his autonomy and freedom seem to be vastly diminished. In particular, he cannot escape Hell, no matter what he might choose. That's definitely far worse for him than anything that might happen during his life.
Granted, he's not removed from the human community, but from the Earthly human community. However, his connection to that community ends up far more damaged in Hell than by being lied to. And unlike the case of lies, the damage is irreparable.

But what if Adolf goes to Heaven?
That seems very improbable, though in that case, it seems killing him fully restores all of his ties to the community, whereas a lie does not.
If there is Purgatory and he goes there, he can at least eventually restore his connection to the human community.
Then again, if he is lied to, he still has choices that can lead him to Heaven, eventually, whereas such choices are terminated if he is killed. In particular, it seems likely that if he would go to Heaven even as a Nazi, he's not going to end up in Hell later (how would he worsen his fate even further?).

So, in brief:
1. Adolf is at least not more likely to end up in Hell if he's lied to, than he is if he's killed (he's already a Nazi!).
2. Adolf's connection to the human community is damaged irreparably in Hell, but at most damaged reparably if he is lied to.
3. Adolf's autonomy and freedom to make choices that will take him to Heaven is terminated against his will if he's killed, but not if he's lied to.

So, it seems his ties to the community and his autonomy are probably more damaged if he is killed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, this is pretty damaging to the autonomy line of thought, though I should note that I didn't talk of promoting autonomy, but of respecting autonomy. There are times when respecting autonomy leads to less autonomy on the part of the person whose autonomy is being respected. For instance, if I chose to brainwash myself, your respecting my autonomy could keep you from forcibly preventing my self-brainwashing, while your promoting my autonomy could lead you to prevent me from brainwashing.

But that said, the idea of respecting is obscure and needs more work, and I don't have much more at the moment...

Angra Mainyu said...

I agree that sometimes respecting autonomy - e.g., allowing the Nazi to commit suicide - leads to less autonomy.

However, in the cases in which a person (e.g., Hilda) kills another person (e.g., Adolf) against the the second person's will, the first person is not respecting the freedom and/or autonomy of the second, and additionally, it's ending it (or irreparably diminishing it :-)), at least in any usual sense of "respecting" I can think of, except perhaps in a moral sense in which a person's autonomy and/or freedom is respected as long it's not unjustly suppressed and/or reduced. In that sense, you might object to the pacifist's line of thought and say that when the killing is just, there is no unjust suppression. But then again, the pacifist can mirror that and say that when the lying is just, that also respects the autonomy and/or freedom. And if you say lying is never just, the pacifist can say killing with intent never is.