I want to explore an argument against the moral permissibility of lying. Start with this thought:
- To assert p contrary to one's beliefs violates a genuine norm.
Next, I want to bring in this thesis which generalizes Aquinas' idea that legislation that commands immoral activity is null and void, an empty gesture, and not a law:
- No genuine norm requires one to do something immoral.
Finally, let's add an uncontroversial observation:
- If lying is sometimes morally permissible, then lying is sometimes morally required.
Now, let's see what follows from (1)-(3). For a reductio, suppose lying is sometimes permissible. Then it's sometimes required by (3). Suppose then you're in a situation where lying is morally required. But when you lie, you assert contrary to your beliefs. So by (1), when you lie you violate a genuine norm. Hence a genuine norm requires you to do something immoral, namely to refrain from lying in this case. But that contradicts (2). So, it can't be the case that lying is sometimes permissible.
I worry that the argument proves too much. Suppose that you're playing cards with a tyrant. If you win, innocents go free; if you lose, they are killed. Surely you should cheat. But cheating violates the norms of card-playing, so a parallel argument shows it's wrong to cheat.
I say that the rules of the game lack normative force in this case, and indeed that, as we would say, this is not a game anymore. I don't know exactly how to characterize games, but it seems essential to a game that, roughly, they just be a bit of fun. Russian roulette is not a game, and its rules have no normative force. Just as property rights cease in cases of grave need according to Aquinas, so too when so much is at stake it's not a game, and if it's not a game, the person who pulls cards out of her sleeve to save lives isn't cheating in a game because she isn't playing a game.
Could one, then, say the same thing about the person who says to the murderer at the door regarding the intended victim: "He's not at home"? The parallel claim would be that the norms of assertion don't apply, and hence the words aren't an assertion at all. The murderer is deceived into taking the words to be an assertion, but they aren't one at all. There is something attractive about this view, in that it would allow one to maintain the traditional Christian view that lying is always wrong while allowing one to solve the murderer-at-the-door problem. But I think this doesn't work. Unlike playing cards, asserting isn't a game, something that ceases when there is too much at stake. It isn't even like the institution of private property, which dissolves according to Aquinas in cases of grave need since it's ordered to the preservation of life. Assertion is ordered to a different good than the preservation of life: truth. Moreover, it just seems quite implausible to say that the person saying "He's not at home" to the murderer isn't making an assertion.