When (if ever) is lying morally necessary and/or permitted?

This is, of course, not a new subject. I’ll post some previous threads below. But above is the context for this thread on lying.

There are, in fact, two different questions to consider:

  1. Is lying always a sin? Or, more simply, is it always wrong to lie?

  2. Is not lying ever a sin? Or, more simply, is it ever right to lie?

In addition, we have to take account of the fact that some Church teachings are dogma and others are not.

The classic example is the above “Nazis asking if you’re hiding jews” situation but, of course, one can reconstruct or invent many similar circumstances.

The simplest argument against a universal proscription against lying is the fact that there is no universal proscription against killing. To my mind, any situation in which it is morally acceptable (or even necessary) to kill is a situation in which it is morally acceptable (or necessary) to lie since lying is less destructive than killing.

Promethius states that lying is a disordered action to take but, of course, we live in a disordered (i.e. fallen) world. I don’t mean to suggest simply that two wrongs make a right but that one cannot ignore the nature of the world when considering questions such as this.

Other threads:

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=401990&highlight=lying

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=65954&highlight=lying

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=540052&highlight=lying

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=560837&highlight=lying

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=554789&highlight=lying

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=551253&highlight=lying

Sorry, whether this is a morally disordered world or not, one may never do evil, even if good may result. Or, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Once we start making exceptions we open the floodgates.

Because if we make exceptions for one reason, then why limit it? Isn’t there another reason that’s just as compelling? And if for one situation like the Nazis, then why not another which is equally serious? Etc. etc. etc.

Is physical death really the ultimate ‘evil’. . .or is it the evil which can destroy a person’s soul? Surely that is by far the greater evil.

For what does it profit a person to save his or her life–yet lose his or her soul?

This is the slippery slope argument which I won’t dismiss out of hand but let me ask you: given the above how do you account for the Chruch’s teaching on deadly force in self defense and just war?

Hi Bubba! This is the first time one of my posts has launched a branch thread! Sweet!

That’s technically TWO questions, since the second part is not a simplification of the first. Whether or not lying is WRONG is an objective question with a straightforward answer. Whether or not lying is a SIN is an entirely separate question because culpability in sin has qualifiers (knowledge, free will, matter). In other words, someone may do that which is WRONG, but because one of these factors is missing, they may not have incurred SIN.

  1. Is not lying ever a sin? Or, more simply, is it ever right to lie?

This is another tricky one. Properly stated, the more simple question is “are we ever morally obligated to lie”. Something might be right, but it might not be a sin for us not to do it. Giving to the poor is morally ordered and good, but if we do so to the extent that we starve our own family out of health and home, then we are wrong. So something may be right, but not obligatory. The first question asks if we are ever obliged to lie, the simplified version you give asks if it is ever morally commendable to lie.

In addition, we have to take account of the fact that some Church teachings are dogma and others are not.

Here I will argue that the ten commandments, deontological directives from God, are part of the Sacred Scripture. As such, the unequivocating statement “Thou shalt not lie” (which has no noted exceptions) is clearly dogmatic.

The simplest argument against a universal proscription against lying is the fact that there is no universal proscription against killing. To my mind, any situation in which it is morally acceptable (or even necessary) to kill is a situation in which it is morally acceptable (or necessary) to lie since lying is less destructive than killing.

Except this does not make sense in terms of dogma. One commandment says that we shall not murder for a reason: murder as an ACT is different from killing in general. Killing is taking a life, murder is a specific subset of killing which is taking the life of an innocent. Lying, however, in the commandments, is forbidden without caveats.

Second, there is a problem with your discussion in terms of responsibility. Let’s use the nazi example above: if you don’t lie, and the nazis violently demand to come into your home to kill your hidden jews, you are NOT responsible for their action in that regard. Their moral choice to attempt murder has NO bearing on your requirement not to lie.

You then defend your home against these murderous intruders. You do your best to fight them off without striking a mortal blow, but in the course of the fight, one of the Nazis is killed. You have not murdered him because you were fighting someone who was not innocent and you were doing so in fighting for defense of life.

Let’s say you CAN’T defend your home, the Nazis force their way in and kill the jews. Again, you are NOT responsible for their actions. You have done your utmost to defend life. They have chosen to overwhelm you in order to choose an immoral action, but you are not imparted with THEIR guilt for THEIR actions. In fact, we cannot know that this is not what God intended to draw attention to the plight and motivate others to join the cause against the Nazis. By lying, you may have removed an opportunity for accomplishing this and actually hampered the good!

The problem in that last paragraph is a modern one: reluctance against martyrdom. We don’t want to believe that people are going to suffer or even die because they did the right thing. It’s more comfortable to believe that anything that causes death and suffering trumps the need for righteousness. That is not true. We should never seek to avoid suffering or martyrdom by doing what is wrong. We should all pray for the grace to do what is right no matter how much we will suffer as a result.

Promethius states that lying is a disordered action to take but, of course, we live in a disordered (i.e. fallen) world. I don’t mean to suggest simply that two wrongs make a right but that one cannot ignore the nature of the world when considering questions such as this.

Right and wrong are objective. They have nothing to do with the fallen state of the world. Because of the fallen nature of the world, we might be put in a situation of duress where our will is not totally free to make moral decisions and this might mitigate the stain of sin as a result of doing wrong, but that does not change the fact that objective wrong is still wrong.

I’d be interested to see if you can come up with a valid example of where lying is morally desireable and/or required…

This is my claim stated in a general form:

  1. In any situation where it is morally permissible/necessary to kill and where lying, instead, will acheive the same moral ends with lest harm, then lying is morally permissible/necessary.

  2. The Catholic Church has sanctioned killing in self defense and in just war and it has, at times, called for war (e.g. the crusades). It is generally recognized that, as part of their morally sanctioned duty, police and soldiers are called upon to kill but that, in addition, there are recognized situations where non-professionals may face the same duty as, for example, a father protecting his family.

That’s technically TWO questions, since the second part is not a simplification of the first. Whether or not lying is WRONG is an objective question with a straightforward answer. Whether or not lying is a SIN is an entirely separate question because culpability in sin has qualifiers (knowledge, free will, matter). In other words, someone may do that which is WRONG, but because one of these factors is missing, they may not have incurred SIN.

This is another tricky one. Properly stated, the more simple question is “are we ever morally obligated to lie”. Something might be right, but it might not be a sin for us not to do it. Giving to the poor is morally ordered and good, but if we do so to the extent that we starve our own family out of health and home, then we are wrong. So something may be right, but not obligatory. The first question asks if we are ever obliged to lie, the simplified version you give asks if it is ever morally commendable to lie.

I agree, we can break this quesiton down in many ways. I intended to draw the particular distinction between may and must but you are right that sin not the same as wrong though obviously they overlap. Let’s just bear in mind that there are many ways to pose and answer this question.

Here I will argue that the ten commandments, deontological directives from God, are part of the Sacred Scripture. As such, the unequivocating statement “Thou shalt not lie” (which has no noted exceptions) is clearly dogmatic.

Except this does not make sense in terms of dogma. One commandment says that we shall not murder for a reason: murder as an ACT is different from killing in general. Killing is taking a life, murder is a specific subset of killing which is taking the life of an innocent. Lying, however, in the commandments, is forbidden without caveats.

Obviously I disagree. And let me state my disagreement in the following way: In the english language we have two words: “murder” and “kill”. As I’m you must be aware, considerable confusion has followed from the confusion of these words. Many people read the fifth comandment as “thou shalt not kill” and infer pacifism from it. I know you know better but at least in this case we have different words to distinguish the concepts.

The question is: is there a similar distinction with respect to lying? What does the ninth commandment actualy say and mean beyond the literal words of a given english translation?

To begin with, the more accurate translation is “Thou shalt not bear false witness” or even “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

Now we understand “neighbor” more broadly than the Jews of the OT but, nevertheless, there is an implicit understanding that we are talking about some sort of otherwise amicable relationship. The Hebrews originally understood this to be a prohibition against lying to fellow Jews. But as Christians are we really enlarging this to include our proverbial Nazis asking our assistance to murder?

Second, there is a problem with your discussion in terms of responsibility. Let’s use the nazi example above: if you don’t lie, and the nazis violently demand to come into your home to kill your hidden jews, you are NOT responsible for their action in that regard. Their moral choice to attempt murder has NO bearing on your requirement not to lie.

You then defend your home against these murderous intruders. You do your best to fight them off without striking a mortal blow, but in the course of the fight, one of the Nazis is killed. You have not murdered him because you were fighting someone who was not innocent and you were doing so in fighting for defense of life.

Let’s say you CAN’T defend your home, the Nazis force their way in and kill the jews. Again, you are NOT responsible for their actions. You have done your utmost to defend life. They have chosen to overwhelm you in order to choose an immoral action, but you are not imparted with THEIR guilt for THEIR actions. In fact, we cannot know that this is not what God intended to draw attention to the plight and motivate others to join the cause against the Nazis. By lying, you may have removed an opportunity for accomplishing this and actually hampered the good!

Where we diverge is your statement: “You have done your utmost to defend life.” In fact, you have chosen a more violent alternative that results in more death. Yours, the Jews you are hiding, and the Nazis you kill in the process.

The problem in that last paragraph is a modern one: reluctance against martyrdom. We don’t want to believe that people are going to suffer or even die because they did the right thing. It’s more comfortable to believe that anything that causes death and suffering trumps the need for righteousness. That is not true. We should never seek to avoid suffering or martyrdom by doing what is wrong. We should all pray for the grace to do what is right no matter how much we will suffer as a result.

Now one may go the martyr route by choosing neither to lie nor to fight with probably the same result. And, if anything, that would have an even greater impact psychologically on any Nazis that might still have a shred of conscience. But the Chruch does not demand that we choose that path, it certainly does not demand that police and soliders eschew deadly force, as noted above.

Right and wrong are objective. They have nothing to do with the fallen state of the world. Because of the fallen nature of the world, we might be put in a situation of duress where our will is not totally free to make moral decisions and this might mitigate the stain of sin as a result of doing wrong, but that does not change the fact that objective wrong is still wrong.

I agree that there is a objective, true and correct answer to what is the right choice in any given situation. I disagree that our limited reasoning capacity can reduce such choices to simple rules like “never lie”. Note the difference between the two. Because we live in a fallen and disordered world we often face difficult choices that require deeper analysis than a simple application of general rules.

Bubba:

“1) Is lying always a sin? Or, more simply, is it always wrong to lie?”
–No. There is simply no authority for this proposition.
–On a commonsense level, there are abundant instances where lying is not a sin. “Nazis at the door” is a good instance. Will any of us ever be asked “any jews here?” by Nazis? No. But many a father may be asked “is your daughter at home?” by a bad potential suitor who dad has sound basis to suspect will do his daughter no good. Police lie to suspects as part of their means of investigating crimes, and courts allow them to do so. National defense operatives deceive foreign enemies as to troop movements, military capabilities, etc

“2) Is not lying ever a sin? Or, more simply, is it ever right to lie?”
–If lying can be “not a sin,” it would appear that there would be times when “not lying” IS a sin. Gangbanger at the door asks for daughter. You KNOW your daughter is terrified of him…yet you say “she’s upstairs.” I say that’s a sin, inasmuch as it reflects a failure to protect your daughtyer from a potential harm.

I see SO MANY posters on this board who say, “Lying is ALWAYS a sin.” That may work for folks needing hard & fast rules for 100% of all circumstances they encounter…but morality is often much more complex than that. We live in a hard cold world where bad people prey on the innocent, and the fact is that numerous instances present themselves where lies may be a means to save a life, protect the innocent, etc.

Now, a word about Tantum Ergo’s post, with which I must disagree:

TE writes “…one may never do evil, even if good may result. Or, two wrongs don’t make a right.”
–That assumes that saying “no Jews here!” is “evil.”

“Once we start making exceptions we open the floodgates”.
–We make exceptions to moral issues all the time, without opening floodgates. Some war is moral, other wars are not. Some killing is allowable; some is not. Lying is no different.

“Is physical death really the ultimate ‘evil’. . .or is it the evil which can destroy a person’s soul? Surely that is by far the greater evil.”
–Yeah, but the fact is that physical death is still really really bad, and life is precious. Simply saying “there are worse than death!” ignores the fact that life is precious in and of itself, and if we can avoid death to ourselves or the innocent we should do so.

I forgot to provide some examples. Here are three:

  1. Playing games. There are many games that entail lying or otherwise misrepresenting the truth. Of course, such lying is within the context of the game. I have even read some rules that invite the players to cheat! I would argue, simply, that people who play such games knowingly enter an environment of play in which lying is sanctioned. (It goes without saying that people who have difficulty seperating the game from reality should not play such games.)

  2. Espionage. National defense often requires spies to lie in order to do their jobs. Are Catholics prohibited from serving in the CIA? Are Catholic countries now allowed to conduct espionage?

  3. Undercover police. One of the standard methods for police forces to prosecute violent organized criminal gangs is for undercover cops to infiltrate it. Needless to say, undercover cops are misrepresenting their identity. Even something as simple as a prostitution sting will involve cops pretending to be who they are not (e.g. johns or hookers).

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