Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Trust in the virtuous and the morality of lying

Helga is well known to be perfectly virtuous. Her best friend Kurt is accused of conspiring to peacefully overthrow a tyrannical government, and will be tortured to death and executed unless Helga can convince government agents that he did no such thing. As a matter of fact, Helga has conclusive first-person evidence that Kurt did no such thing, much as that government deserves to be overthrown.

Suppose that it is sometimes permissible to lie. Then surely lying to save a peaceful conspirator against a tyrannical government would be a paradigm case of permissible lying, and indeed of obligatory lying. Thus, if Helga testifies to government agents that Kurt is not a conspirator, she is doing precisely what a perfectly virtuous person would do if Kurt were a conspirator. Thus if she is known to be perfectly virtuous, her testimony to Kurt's not being a conspirator is unworthy of credence. In fact, her testimony would be more worthy of credence if she were somewhat less virtuous and rigidly opposed to lying in all cases. Thus the permissibility of lying would make the testimony of the virtuous be worthless in a number of high-stakes cases.

But the virtuous are precisely the people whose testimony should carry weight, they are precisely the trustworthy, at least in cases where they are in a position to know whereof they speak. So the conclusion that Helga's truthful testimony about Kurt is worthless is paradoxical. And this paradox gives one reason to reject the premise from which the paradox was derived, namely that it is sometimes permissible to lie.


Anonymous said...

Maybe in a 'passive' sense it is permissible to lie when one has a 'Nazi at the door' scenario while hiding Jews. However 'active' lying where one has not been forced is not always.

Lying is giving what is due according to justice but like taking a gun from an armed aggressor ('stealing')it can be permissible on specific occasions.

I am not an 'absolutest' in the sense but then I wouldn't even be calling such disinformation lies in the moral ('sin') sense.

Anonymous said...

*in the usual sense

Anonymous said...

Actually in the 'Nazi at the door' scenario the ethical thing to do might be withhold information (even by giving false information) that they are not to be given according to justice because of their reason for asking.

I suppose two words for these things grouped as 'lying' might help if this ethical theory were true.

SMatthewStolte said...

The case seems to show that if lying is not always wrong, then some people, sometimes ought to believe a falsehood.

But maybe that’s true. Here’s a line of thought that occurs to me (but I refrain from endorsing it).

If I have been a tyrant, and it would have been just for Kurt to conspire against me, then the virtuous thing for me to do would be not to punish Kurt (and I could leave Kurt free without making a judgment about his role in a conspiracy). But given that I am a tyrant, I am not virtuous. So whether I punish Kurt will either be arbitrary or else it will depend on the judgment I form about Kurt’s involvement. Now, if my decision about punishing Kurt will be arbitrary, and if Helga more or less knows this in the same way she knows I am a tyrant, then Helga would have no motive to lie about Kurt. So I ought to believe her testimony in that case. But if decision about punishment depends on my judgment about Kurt’s involvement, then I ought to believe Helga there too. For I ought to let Kurt go free, and (by supposition) my doing so depends on my believing that Kurt was not a conspirator.

It’s true that my knowing that Helga is virtuous gives me some evidence to believe that Helga is lying (provided I admit I’m a tyrant). But it only gives me this evidence on the supposition that I ought to believe her whether she is lying or not.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Very interesting!

Maybe also the defender of lying (in such limited circumstances) can say that Helga's trustworthiness implies not that what she says epistemically-should be trusted, but that what she says morally-should be trusted. (Of course, it's not clear how one could actually trust an assertion that one takes not to be likely to be true.) That would damage my argument.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Irish Thomist:

Taking a gun from an armed aggressor is not stealing. It is called self defense and protection innocent life by the least violent of means. This is endorsed by the Catechism - protection of innocent life by least violent means. If you know some one is out to commit violent acts with a fire arm, and you steal their gun and hide it so as to prevent a deadly shooting, you are being a responsible citizen not a thief. I once read some where about a primitive tribe that uses poisoned arrows to hunt where when the men are having an argument the women hide the arrows. Now those people have common sense, well at least the female half does. By the way, I'm an NRA member.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


If "Helga has conclusive first-person evidence that Kurt did no such thing, much as that government deserves to be overthrown." then I'm trying to see where the lying to save Kurt comes in. Either Kurt did it or he didn't, and if he did no such thing, then he's done no such thing. If the evidence is conclusive then the evidence is conclusive. That is unless the tyrant happens to be a paranoid Stalin type, in which case all that is needed is suspicion on the part of tyrant, and any evidence conclusive or not is useless, and any testimony whether truthful or not is useless. Since a lot of people are like Helga or try to be, then when they are called to the witness stand in a court room is their testimony worthless?

SMatthewStolte said...


Helga doesn’t lie in this case. The question concerns the credibility of her (true) testimony. The claim is that, if lying would be permissible to protect Kurt, then her (true) testimony would (all else being equal) be less credible than that of a less virtuous person who is rigidly opposed to lying. But that seems weird.