Monday, April 10, 2017

Peter's denial and the ethics of lying

On views on which lying is sometimes permissible, lying to save one’s life from unjust persecution is a paradigm case of permissible lying. But Peter’s lies about his connection to Jesus—his famous three-fold denial of Jesus—fall precisely under that head. So if it is sometimes permissible to lie, it is hard to see how Peter acted wrongly.

Of course, even if lying is sometimes permissible, the purpose behind the lie can be wrong. Was that the case for Peter? I doubt it. Peter’s purpose was not to be suspected of being one of Jesus’s followers. Suppose that he chose a different means to that end, say by dressing in a non-Galilean way and affecting a non-Galilean accent. There would be nothing at all morally wrong with that—that’s presumably the sort of thing missionaries in repressive countries do all the time, without anybody (other than the repressive regime!) thinking it’s wrong.

Perhaps the difference in purpose is the one between (a) Peter not being thought to be one of Jesus’s followers and (b) Peter being thought to not be one of Jesus’s followers. Maybe if Peter affected non-Galilean dress, he would merely be intending (a), whereas his lies were done with the intention of (b). And maybe there is in general something wrong with intending to be thought not to be connected with Christ. Note first, however, that the defender of the permissibility of lying cannot say that the problem is with the intention to deceive. For paradigm cases of lies thought to be permissible are precisely ones where there is an intention to deceive (Nazi at the door cases, say). Second, apart from general worries about the permissibility of intentionally causing false belief, it does not seem plausible to think that it is always wrong to intend to be thought unconnected with Christ. Third, Peter need not have had intended (b): he might simply have intended (a) or he might have intended something in between—that the people he talked to would on balance have evidence that he is not connected to Christ. It does not seem that these subtle distinctions are in play in the Gospels, given that the texts do not tell us which thing Peter intended.

Maybe, though, one can argue that Matthew 10:33 (“If anyone denies me before human beings, I will deny him before my Father who is in heaven”) constitutes a special divine command, a sui generis prohibition on lying about one’s connection to Christ. That’s probably the best move for the defender of the permissibility of lying to make. I think there are some problems with this move.

First, we should limit the invocation of special divine commands that go over and beyond the natural law. We should do so both on the grounds of Ockham’s razor as well as on theological grounds. It seems that the crucial difference between the life of the Christian and Old Testament law is that the latter includes many divine commands that go over and beyond the natural law.

In fact, I like the hypothesis there are very few—and perhaps no—divine commands applicable to all Christians beyond the natural law. One might think that, say, the command to be baptized is such. But I am inclined to think not. There are consequences of baptism—grace and the forgiveness of sins. And there are consequences of refusal to be baptized—lack of the grace and the forgiveness of sins. The virtue of prudence requires of us to be baptized, but there need not be any separate divine command. There is, of course, the authority of the Church: we are to obey the elders. However, that is an instance of the authority a community has over its members for the common good of the community. (This community is a special supernatural one, of course.)

Second, the context of Matthew 10:33 is the persecution that the Church will endure. Thus if a new command is being promulgated, it seems likely to be directed at future times when the Church needs to be spreading the Gospel (hence the verse before, about acknowledging Christ before human beings). But Peter’s denial is not a part of that time. The Church has yet to be founded: the death and resurrection of Christ have not yet happened and the Holy Spirit has yet to be sent.

Of course, those of us who think all lying is wrong still have a puzzle. A lie in order to escape unjust persecution even if wrong seems to be a very minor wrong. But the Gospels do not present Peter’s denial as a minor wrong. So there is still the puzzle of where the gravity of Peter’s sin comes from. But here the task seems not to be so difficulty. It is reasonable to think of certain kinds of settings as greatly multiplying the gravity of an offense. To steal something worth less than a day’s wages is a venial sin according to reputable moral theologians. But to steal from a church a cheap mass-produced icon that is worth less than a day’s wages turns the theft into a sacrilege, a much more serious offense. The gravity is explained by the fact that it is a sacrilege, but the wrongness is explained by the fact that it is a theft—if the pastor gave one the icon, one could permissibly take it away and it would have been neither theft nor sacrilege. Similarly, pickpocketing in church is a more serious offense. Thus, I think we can say that Peter’s denial was wrong simply because it was a lie. But it was as wrong as it was because it was a lie about Peter’s affiliation with Jesus.


Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Alex,

Have you seen the movie "Silence"?
Anyway, let's consider the following scenario (not exactly the same as any of the movie's, but similar):
Joe is a Christian prisoner, and a convinced Christian. The ruler of the place tells him that he must say that Christianity is false, that Jesus did not resurrect and was a cult leader, that Mary was not a virgin, and that he himself is a con man and always knew that Christianity was false.
If Joe fails to say so - the ruler says - he will remain in prison, but will not be harmed. However, his friends and fellow Christians will continue to suffer the horrific torture that they are at that point suffering - and which he is witnessing. They cannot speak, but their screams or attempts to scream are all over the place. They will last for days, and then allowed to recover, only to be tortured again, etc. (if needed, we can add that they will be repeatedly raped).

Joe has witnessed similar events: when a Christian made the required statement, all of them were allowed to go without further harmed. When a Christian failed to do so, the tortured continued as threatened.

In order to save his friends from that horrific fate - really, Hell-like torture -, Joe claims that Christianity is false, that Jesus did not resurrect and was a cult leader, that Mary was not a virgin, and that he himself is a con man and always knew that Christianity was false.

1. Did Joe lie?
I think that's clear:
First, Joe's statement was not sincere.
Second, if falseness is also required, at least one of the claims is false by hypothesis.

2. Die Joe behave immorally?
It seems clear to me that he did not. And yet, he lied about his affiliation with Christianity (of course, that's not a problem for me given that I'm not a Christian and it's pretty clear to me that lying is not always immoral. However, I think saying he behaved immorally or gravely immorally would be a big bullet to bite for Christians who hold that lying is always immoral and/or that lying about their Christian beliefs, etc., is a grave immorality. Then again, they might not see it as a big bullet...).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Joe behaved immorally. Yes, that's a big bullet to bite. But a deontological theory will always have such bullets to bite. For instance, it will say that it's wrong to rape one person even if that were to prevent hundreds from being raped and tortured.

Angra Mainyu said...

I don't see why a deontological theory has to be like that.
Just as an ontological theory does not have to hold it's always immoral to kill, it doesn't have to hold it's always immoral to lie. One that does is false in my assessment (by the way, I hold that if Bob had refrained from lying in that situation on account of a belief that it would be wrong to do so, he would have been acting immorally). On the other hand, I don't know whether deontology is true. For all I know, it may well be true.

As for cases of rape, I also think a claim that rape is necessarily immoral is also false.
I would offer the following horrific scenario as a counterexample:
In this counterexample, rape is not committed to save many others from being raped in tortured. Rather, it's committed to save the victim from being tortured in a far worse manner (including many more instances of rape, but not limited to them).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I take it to be definitive of a deontological theory that it takes certain acts (described in ways that do not contain information about the total consequences) to be prohibited no matter the total consequences. But of course that's just a matter of stipulation.

(By the way, I've wondered whether it is relevant that on theism, there is likely to be a necessary limit to just how nasty a scenario can occur. It could be that deontological theories in my radical sense will not be plausible apart from theism or some other axiological theory.)

Angra Mainyu said...

As long as you allow that intentions and information available to the agent be part of the description of an act, I have no objection to deontology, under your definition.

For example, while I do not believe that "Necessarily, if A is a person and A rapes B, then A behaves immorally" is true, I do believe that "Necessarily, if A is a person and A rapes B purely for pleasure, then A behaves immorally" is true. That is so regardless of the total consequences of that particular act of rape, or the expected consequences, or the consequences that A should have expected if fully rational, or any other consideration involving the consequences (that's an example; of course I believe that rapes are generally wrong if they have other motivations, like power, or a combination of power and plesure, etc.).

But perhaps that's not how you intended your definition?
Does your definition require that intention and/or information available to the agent not be part of the description of an act?

Your point about theism is interesting.

While under the assumption of theism I would reckon that my moral sense is severely damaged when it comes to assessing what an omnimax agent would do (because in my assessment some of the situations in the actual world would clearly be far too nasty to be possible if there were an omnimax (i.e., omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) agent), as long as I hold that my moral sense is a reasonably good guide to moral truth when it comes to the obligations of human persons, I would still reckon that lying is not always immoral, on the basis of scenarios such as the "Joe" scenario above. I think theists will generally agree that at least the "Joe" scenario in my first post is clearly possible; it's not very different from some actual historical scenarios.

Granted, assuming theism, it might be argued that my damaged moral sense also results in a mistaken assessment on my part on the lying case, and the moral senses of theists are more reliable. But I think I would have good grounds to resist such arguments even assuming theism - and at any rate, there are also plenty of theists who would agree with my assessment that Joe did not behave immorally, so if I have to go by theists' moral assessments leaving my own moral sense aside, I don't think I would have enough info to reach a conclusion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, my attempt to define deontology was a failure. The thought is that there are something that it is wrong to intend to do no matter what purpose one intends them for or what consequences there are. But it's really hard, I now see, to formulate this precisely.

Moral intuitions differ, and your conscience's deliverances on lying are the ones you need to follow (even if your conscience is mistaken, though it is hard to tell a clear story about how that works).

I didn't mean to deny that there are times when great horrors can be prevented by lying, and that these cases are not only possible but are quite likely to be actual. But there is, I suspect, a limit somewhere to just how horrible the horrors could be in a dilemma.

I also do not find it very counterintuitive that acting rightly in edge cases might produce horrible results. The natural law streak in my thinking makes me think of right action as a species of proper function. And just as a machine in an environment it wasn't made for might produce really weird or bad results while nonetheless functioning perfectly properly, so too our acting rightly in edge cases might yield really weird or bad stuff. It is the proper function of our will never to embrace an evil, either as a means or as an end. In normal circumstances, this results in very good consequences. But there are edge cases where embracing an evil is the only way to avoid a greater evil, sometimes a much much greater evil (though with a limit as to how many times "much" is repeated :-) ). And in those cases doing the right thing leads to bad results.

Angra Mainyu said...

I think it's necessarily immoral for a person to intend to maximize injustice in the world.
Also, if what is intended has to be described in non-moral terms, I think it's necessarily immoral for a person to intend to maximize suffering in the world, with the caveat that it might not be always immoral to intend to cause suffering that happens to be maximal if the intention is to punish agents who deserve that suffering, but that's not the same as intending to maximize suffering: for example, if a new agent were to come into existence, there would be no intention to make them suffer; also, suffering would also be intended as proportionate to what is deserved, etc.
So, I still do not have an objection to deontology as you understand it, it seems to me.
If I got the idea of deontology wrong, I can try an ostensive definition: I look at paradigmatic examples of deontological theories, and of theories that are not deontological (e.g., consequentialist, virtue ethics), and try to get the concept intuitively, without an explicit definition in terms of other terms; I still don't have an objection to deontology, even though I do have objections to every specific deontological (or non-deontological) first-order theory I know of (because none seems to pass a test in scenarios where intuitions are clear).

Regarding acting right and bringing about horrible results, I also suspect that might happen in some situations (I would say in unusual situations, or even perhaps situations that are not so unusual today but were in the ancestral environment), but I think if that happens, usually the agent does not predict the horrible results, and not predicting them not the agent's epistemic fault.
On the other hand, if the agent predicts the results - or would predict them if she were rational about the matter -, I think probably the action that brings about the horrible results is not obligatory, or maybe not even permissible. However, I think there are exceptions. Also, sometimes the horrible results would happen but they would not be caused by the agent (at least, the agent is not a morally relevant cause) but by another agent.
So, generally speaking, I don't have an objection to the view that sometimes acting in a way that is morally obligatory would produce horrible results, either. I just disagree about specific cases.

With regard to natural law and proper function, in a sense I do think there is a natural law - in the case of humans, moral laws -, but I don't think the idea that one has an obligation not to act against an organ's proper function, or frustrate it, or however one puts it, is correct, because as I see it, the counterexamples are pretty clear. For example, it's not generally immoral to chew sugar-free gum, and it wouldn't be immoral even if it were completely free of calories, even if the proper function of chewing is to break up food for digestion and/or to begin digestion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Regarding deontology, like I said I don't know how to define it. But I do think it's crucial that the forbidden action types be ones not individuated with respect to things like overall consequences, on-balance consequences, intended overall consequences, foreseen overall consequences, etc.

Regarding natural law, I think the foundational insight of NL is that one should not act against the proper function of *the will*. The proper function of organs is a different question, and one can accept the foundational insight of NL while having different judgments in the organ case.

Angra Mainyu said...

Yeah, I think that under that condition, deontology is false. But I'm not sure why you'd like to include that condition.

Regarding the proper function of the will, I'm not sure whether it's always immoral for humans to act against it because it's difficult to figure out what that is. In fact, I'm inclined to say that it may well have plenty of proper functions, or a very complicated one. At any rate, it would seem to depend on the sort of agent we're talking about. It wouldn't be immoral in the case of possible non-human agents that have a will but aren't moral agents.