Friday, May 22, 2020

Lying to save lives

I’m imagining a conversation between Alice, who thinks it is permissible to lie to Nazis to protect innocents, and a Nazi. Alice has just lied to the Nazi to protect innocents hiding in her house. The Nazi then asks her: “Do you think it is permissible to lie to protect innocents from people like me?” If Alice says “Yes”, the Nazi will discount her statement, search her house and find innocents. So, she has to say “No.” But then the Nazi goes on to ask: “Why not? Isn’t life more important than truth? And I know that you think me an unjust aggressor (no, don’t deny it, I know you know it, but I’m not going to get you just for that).” And now Alice has to either cave and say that she does think it permissible to lie to unjust aggressors, in which case the game is up, and the innocents will die, or she has to exercise her philosophical mind to find the best arguments she can for a moral conclusion that she believes to be perverse. The latter seems really bad.

Or imagine that Alice thinks that the only way she will convince the Nazi that she is telling the truth in her initial lie is by adding lies about how much she appreciates the Nazi’s fearless work against Jews. That also seems really wrong to me.

Or imagine that Alice’s non-Nazi friend Bob can’t keep secrets and asks her if she is hiding any Jews. Moreover, Alice knows that Bob knows that Alice fearlessly does what she thinks is right. And so Bob will conclude that Alice is hiding Jews unless he thinks Alice believes Jews deserve death. And if Bob comes to believe that Alice is hiding Jews, the game will be up through no fault of Bob’s, since Bob can’t keep secrets. Now it looks like the only way Alice can keep the innocents she is hiding safe is by advocating genocide to Bob.

It is very intuitive that a Nazi at the door doesn’t deserve the truth about who is living in that house. And yet at the same time, it seems like everyone deserves the truth about what is right and wrong. But at the same time, it is difficult to limit a permission of lying to the former kinds of cases. There is a slippery slope here, with two stable positions: an absolutist prohibition on lying and a consequentialist calculus. An in-between position will be difficult to specify and defend.


Avraham said...

Lying is not exactly in the Ten Commandments. It is lying under oath. Still there is a prohibition. But that does not seems different than others things where there is a hierarchy of values.` Still philosophical arguments for these positions seems hard. I imagine Leonard Nelson was trying to find a system of morality based on Kant that would go a bit further than his axiomatic principles. But I am not sure how far he got with that. Hegel also in his book on Right.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Old Testament does say that God does not lie as a human does, and the New Testament carries a number of condemnations of liars, though.

Avi said...

Relevant, down to the exact Nazi scenario.

Martin Cooke said...

I wonder if Alice could kill the Nazi? There seem to be a lot of problems associated with a prohibition against killing Nazis. And intuitively, lying to a Nazi is no worse than killing one.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think there is a way that lying is treacherous--it involves soliciting someone's trust and betraying it--while killing normally is not. (I would object to Alice "befriending" the Nazi in order to kill him.)

Walter Van den Acker said...


If Bob can't keep secrets, he should not ask Alice to tell him a secret.

And yes, everybody deserves the truth about what is right and wrong, but that does not mean everybody deserves to be told the truth about right and wrong in all circumstances.
I guess that even you would find it permissible if Alice doesn't talk to the Nazis an every occasion. So, Fritz the Nazi deserves that someone tells him he is wrong(if that's the truth), but that doesn't mean Alice has an obligation to tell him he is wrong when her life is at stake.
Fritz doesn't deserve Alice's trust either, and Alice knows she cannot trust Fritz, so there is no soliciting Fritz's trust and betraying it.
In short, the in-between position could be defended by specifying that lying is permissible
if there is no possibility of mutual trust.

Philip Rand said...

Again... the logical trajectory of the conclusion of the the piece requires the flow of time to be real.

wrf3 said...

Alice should follow the Nazi's question about lying to protect innocents with the question, "Are Jews innocent?" If the Nazi says "No", then Alice can respond, "then there is no need for me to lie to you."

Alexander R Pruss said...

wrf3: The clever Nazi then says: "But are you hiding anyone who *you* think is innocent?"

Walter Van den Acker said...


The clever Nazi then says: "But are you hiding anyone who *you* think is innocent?"

And Alice responds "No", because she is convinced that everyone she is hiding has very probably done something wrong in his or her life.

Now, what I like to hear from someone who is against lying is whether you would consider this a lie.
Or suppose someone asks me why I didn't finish a job and I reply "I was ill last week".
Now, it is true that I was ill last week, but it was only on Monday and I had plenty of time to finish the job, so, technically, this isn't a lie.

wrf3 said...

arp: "But are you hiding anyone who *you* think is innocent?"

alice: "I already told you, I'm not hiding anyone."

When dealing with Satan, it's best to avoid word games.

Alexander R Pruss said...


People who think all lying is wrong disagree on that one. I have defended the idea that you should be interpreted as trying to speak the interlocutor's language, and hence the examples you give are likely to be lies. ( ) At the same time, that paper allows for another solution, which is to understand "Jew" the way the Nazi does, and say that one isn't hiding any "Jews", because one isn't hiding any "evil scheming subhumans" (though one may be hiding nice Jewish friends). A lot of people think that's sophistical, and of course there will be cases where it won't help. (Such as when the Nazi asks: "Are you hiding anyone who is Jewish in the purely ethnic sense?")

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

If you haven't actually lived under Nazis, then you are unqualified to be discussing this. My parents and grandparents have actually lived under Nazis.

Walter Van den Acker said...


Of course that is sophistical. The Nazi wants to know whether the people he is looking for are hiding there and your answer is that you are not hiding those people, which is untrue.


Alex uses the Nazis as an example of one of the worst evils imaginable. I don't think we are discussing Nazis here, we are discussing whether lying can be permissible under extreme circumstances.

Stan Patton said...

Consequence is supreme when we're talking "right decisionmaking." However, we're not equipped for pure consequentialism because we're so bad at appreciating the full consequences of the actions we take. So we have roughly three "Moral Voices" in any given dilemma: Green (hamfisted pragmatism), Blue (gut intuition, disgust, fear, etc.), and Red (rules and/or character guidelines).

Each of these act as heuristics under moral trial. When they sing in harmony they sound great. But sometimes one voice will be out of sync with the other two -- a "minority report" -- and can be right or wrong to be so. An exploration of "minority report" cases reinforces the supremacy of consequence as the "king" of right decisionmaking (which does NOT hand the crown to Green).

"To exercise her philosophical mind to find the best arguments she can for a moral conclusion that she believes to be perverse... seems really bad."

"Adding lies about how much she appreciates the Nazi’s fearless work against Jews... also seems really wrong to me."

I believe this is Blue objecting. Blue plumbs the depths of our subconscious, draws on the spirits of our ancient coding, huffs some oxytocin, and shouts, "Really!?"

But this time, Green's right. Alice should become a great actress, capable of convincing interrogators that she's an even better Nazi than they are. This job is tough enough without playing games with words and hidden meanings.

The advantage of "Moral Voices" is that it's not catastrophic that we feel significant moral reluctance or challenge with certain courses of action. Sometimes the voices argue; this is expected, because each voice speaks with unique sets of identifiable advantages and disadvantages. They're your council.

(To be continued...)

Stan Patton said...

"Bob can't keep secrets... it looks like the only way Alice can keep the innocents she is hiding save is by advocating genocide to Bob."

We all agree this recommendation is weird. But it's the weird product of a weird setup. The introduction of Bob is far-fetched, precluding too many things that we might attempt to "account for the Bob factor." But... is my complaint here fair? Are we not allowed to concoct whatever thought experiments we please, however much they funnel somebody into the objectionable, as a way to test the limits of moral theories?

The problem is that our "test results" are in the form of how many moral voices are alarmed, and how loudly. Just as one can build pipe to convey water, one can build a thought experiment to extort the agent into committing pragmatic atrocities while red and blue desperately object. This is no more revelatory than water coming out the other end.

These funnels have some signs: They usually grant the decider an unrealistic degree of predictive certainty about things we might otherwise try to work around (to avoid the extortion; to hop off the waterslide).

Think about a home invader experiment designed to get a pacifist to theoretically kill. "You KNOW he's going to kill you and your family." Do I? "You KNOW that no non-deadly force will subdue him." How?

The issue is that these strange gifts of implausible knowledge are the only thing making such situations interesting at all. If I don't know he'll kill my family, and don't know I can't overpower him, then I do some sort of gradual escalation of threat and force, and end up dead. That's not a dilemma, it's just peaceful people reacting acceptably and becoming victims.

The construction of moral puzzles is, I think, something we do for entertainment, not elucidation. Captain Janeway listened to minority-Blue one week (and turns out, her heart knew best!) and minority-Green the next (and turns out, only pragmatism would do!) and minority-Red the week after that (and turns out, rules are there for a reason!).

"An in-between position will be difficult to specify and defend."

Impossible, even. There isn't some single, correct point somewhere within the council's triangle to suss out by cobbling puzzles (or watching sci-fi).

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Please read "The Hiding Place" by Corrie Ten Boom.