Monday, January 28, 2019

Lying to prevent great evils

Consider this argument:

  1. It is permissible to lie to prevent great evils.

  2. Not believing in God is a great evil.

  3. So, it is permissible to lie to get people to believe in God (e.g., by offering false testimony to miracles).

But the conclusion is absurd. So we need to reject (1) or (2). I think (2) is secure. Thus we should reject (1).

I suppose one could try to calibrate some great level E of evil such that it is permissible to lie (a) to prevent evils at levels greater than E but (b) not to prevent evils lesser than E. I am sceptical that one can do this in a plausible way, given that not believing in God is indeed a great evil, since it makes it very difficult to achieve the primary goal of human life.

Perhaps a more promising way out of the argument is to formulate some subject-specific principle, such as that it is wrong to lie in religious matters or for religious ends. But it is hard to do this plausibly.

It seems better to me to just deny (1), and be an absolutist about lying: lying is always wrong.


Walter Van den Acker said...


Why is the conclusion absurd?
The only reason I can think of is because believing on the basis of a lie does not count as really believing. After all, God is supposed to be truth.
But then let's ay for the sake of the argument that it is true that God exists, but the resurrection is false. Now Steven believes in God because he is convinced by the resurrection argument. Yet the resurrection argument is false. Steven believes in God, so we can't say he is evil. Yet, Steven believes on the basis of a falsehood. Is Steven's belief genuine of not?
Likewise, suppose the resurrection was a lie invented by Mark to convince people to believ in his God. Now, Steven believes in God on the basis of a lie.
I don't see what difference this makes for Steven. Sure, you can say in that case Mark is a sinner, but that doesn't make the conclusion absurd.
The conclusion may be wrong because (1) is false, but there is nothing inherently absurd about it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's absurd to think that we should make use of lies in evangelization. If you don't share that intuition, then I don't know how to move forward in the conversation.

Wouldn't you think worse morally of me if I posted, with as much credibility of tone as I could muster and including photos, an account of a friend's amputated hand growing back after a visit to Lourdes, in order to help convince atheist readers, and then a week later it turned out that my story was a complete fabrication (the photos had their dates reversed, etc.)?

Walter Van den Acker said...

Of course it's absurd if one rejects (1), but, remember, you are trying to prove that (1) is false, so your reasoning here seems a bit circular.

And, no, I wouldn't think worse morally of you if I thought that convincing atheists was so important to you because you wanted to prevent as much as possible the great evil of atheism, and this was the only way to do so.

Tom said...


I think we can distinguish two senses of premise (1):
1' It is always permissible to lie to prevent great evils
1''It is sometimes permissible to lie to prevent great evils

If we go with 1', the argument works but it just shows that either 1' or 2 is false (since I agree that 3 is absurd). But rejecting 1' is not mean we ought to be absolutists about the impermissibility of lying

If we go with 1'', the argument as presented is invalid so the absurdity of 3 can't be used to reject 1'.

Now, if we want to use 1', we have to come up with some story as to when lying is permitted to prevent great evils. And it may turn out that such a story will inevitably be problematic. But I don't think that this argument here tells us either way.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Perhaps the better way to read (1) is something like:

1'''. Other things being equal, it is permissible to lie to prevent great evils.

Then the defender of lying to prevent great evils who thinks 3 is absurd is going to have say that something about the evangelistic context makes for a relevant difference.

Maybe there is. I feel a pull to the idea that a sacred context makes for higher standards. For instance, while I think lying is always wrong, I don't think it's always wrong to do things that are deceitful. It's not lying, for instance, to lay a false trail for an enemy to follow and it need not be wrong. But it seems wrong to produce the illusion of a miracle, even if one isn't lying in doing so.


I assume that most people think (1) is true. And I think that even among those, most people think really poorly of religious frauds. Perhaps they are inconsistent in so thinking? Or perhaps they are cynical and think the frauds to have other motives, like wealth or self-aggrandizement?

Walter Van den Acker said...


The reason those people think poorly of religious frauds is probably because most of them don't think (2) is true.
Consider this argument

1 It is permissible to lie to prevent great evils
2 A nuclear war in which millions of people are killed is a great evil.
So, it is premissible to lie to prevent a nuclaer war.

Do you think that in this scenario, people who agree with (1) will think the conclusion is absurd?

So, if people find the conclusion of your original argument absurd, it is because in their heart, they feel that not believing in God is not such a great evil after all.

And on top of that, the history of religious frauds indeed shows that most of them were not too concerned with preventing great evils.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But even if not believing in God isn't a great evil, the fraud may *think* it is a great evil, and that seems enough.

You're right, though, about the history.

Walter Van den Acker said...


If the fraud thinks it is a great evil, we are back to my original comment. On that basis, the conclusion would not be absurd at all. It may be wrong, but not absurd.