[This post won a Jolly award from Jollyblogger. You can see his writeup giving the award to me by clicking on the picture below. The post itself begins under the image.]
This is really a day late. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation, and I decided to do my month-delayed post on lying. Well, I didn't get to it yesterday, so it's today, the 30th anniversary of Gerald Ford's first full day as president in the aftermath of Watergate.
Is lying always wrong? I say no. Immanuel Kant argued that lying is always wrong, but what would you do if you were holding Jews in your basement and the SS troops showed up to ask if you were holding Jews in your basement? If you turn them in, you're doing something wrong. It would therefore be wrong not to lie in this case. Most philosophers are convinced by this sort of case. Kant dug in his heels and said that you just need to tell the truth. He went so far as to say that if we tell the truth in such circumstances then we're allowing the Jews in the basement to escape, while lying means if the Jews try to escape then they'd get caught because the soldiers wouldn't be in the basement where they should be if you tell the truth. If it takes that kind of denial of what's really likely to happen, the view doesn't have a lot going for it. I understand that some would say God will reward truth if only we're trusting enough to speak it, even when it seems we'd be condemning someone to death, but usually people who say such things believe the Bible, and I think lying in some cases is biblically defensible for a Christian.
I'll look at the relevant texts given on both sides, and then I'll come back to the issue of presidential lying in the cases of Nixon and Clinton and also the purported cases of Reagan and George W. Bush. I was originally planning to use the title "What if Bush Really Did Lie?", but there are so many other issues I'm discussing here that using a counterfactual title would have been misleading about the main content of the post, so I've just gone with a generic title.
One thing people often say in defense of the view that it's always wrong to lie is that you can always simply not say anything. This is correct. One can always choose silence. There are, however, some cases when being silent is just as deceptive as lying or when saying something literally true is just as deceptive as lying. Is it the fact that one is saying words that aren't true that makes lying wrong, or is it that one is trying to deceive? I don't want to get into virtue ethics vs. action ethics here, but in this case I think it's pretty clear that the intent to deceive is the problem and not that one's explicit words are false.
Let's consider a couple cases of deception. When Athanasius, great defender of orthodox beliefs during a time when heresy was gaining force, was being hunted by those who would kill him, he was approached by some people looking for him. They asked if he knew where the traitor Athanasius was, and he replied "not far". They continued on their way, not knowing that he was Athanasius. He told the truth, but he deceived them. Only a Pharisee would see what he did as any different in motivation from telling them that he didn't know. It's just as deceptive, and if lying would be wrong in that case then so should what he did.
What if the Nazis come to the door and ask if the Jews are in the basement? Can you simply stare at them and not answer or change the subject? You could say that you aren't 100% sure their exact position at the moment, but there isn't really anything you can do that won't raise their suspicions without simply lying. If this case allows some way out, it would be easy to construct one that doesn't, e.g. if someone asks a yes-or-no question and won't accept any other answer than yes or no.
On the other hand, we do deceptive things all along without using any language, never mind actually stating an untruth. Whether this is wrong, I believe, usually depends on who is being deceived and why. The Gnu gave me an example that strikes me as dead right. We leave the light on when we go out sometimes, in order to deceive those who might commit a crime. This is the same motivation as lying to prevent someone from committing a crime and to protect one's property. It's like lying to the murderer. It's just that you didn't actually say any words to do it. There's nothing wrong with it, yet it's deceitful.
That's important to say first, because it affects how one might interpret some of the biblical passages about lying. Some passages don't tell us much. There are plenty of examples of lying that are spun in a bad way by the text. One important example is Abraham's deceit in calling Sarah his sister (Genesis 12) when she technically was his half-sister, but he was hiding the fact that she was his wife. The text clearly spins this in a negative light, as it also does the second time he does it and when Isaac does it (though he didn't even have the right to claim Rebekah as his sister to begin with). So here's even some biblical support for the view that any deceit is wrong.
Jeremiah lies in Jer 38:24-27, but it's at the command of his king. It may have been just an omission and not a lie, but deception is deception, as I've just argued, and he does seem to tell them something deliberate here that's false, as I read the passagfe. Maybe it's to protect his own life, maybe the king's, maybe something greater. The passage doesn't explain Jeremiah's motives. More importantly, it doesn't say whether his lie was wrong or the right thing to do in the circumstances. I can't even detect a contextual sense as in other passages, e.g. that he did this and it went well for him or that he did this and had negative consequences. The point of the passage seems to be about Zedekiah and what led to this situation, not about whether what Jeremiah did in the situation caused by it was the right thing to do in that situation.
Exodus 1, however, does seem to say something about a particular instance of lying. When Pharaoh commanded the midwives of the Hebrews to kill all their sons upon birth, some children were spared, and the midwives told Pharaoh that he had come out so quickly that they couldn't stop it. The text says that God dealt favorably with these midwives. The implied reason is that they had done right. There are conflicting views here. Calvin thought the midwives were wrong to lie but were rewarded simply for sparing the children, while Luther justified it. Lightfoot claimed there wasn't even a lie here. I think Luther has the easiest position to defend, textually speaking. They said that all the Hebrew women were so vigorous that they were delivering faster than the midwives could get to them. This sounds to anyone who knows anything about childbirth to be a clear lie. Pharaoh may have been fooled in his ignorance, and perhaps so too was Lightfoot, but I know enough about childbirth to think Lightfoot's interpretation is stretching. As for Calvin, there's a clear implication that the midwives did right and God was favorable to them. It even says they acted this way out of their fear of God, though those holding Calvin's view might say that their saving of the children was out of fear of God but not their lying. Even so, if their action had been colored with some impropriety amidst goodness, shouldn't we expect to see something about that in the text? Judges has signs of that all through it. There's none here. So I think Luther is right, and though I admit it's not an airtight argument I still think it's the best reading of the text.
Joshua 2 recounts Rahab's lie that she didn't know where the Hebrew spies were. A couple things she says contradict what she knows, actually. There's no question that she lied. The text doesn't necessarily endorse her action, as Exodus 1 seems to endorse the lie of the midwives. Still, Heb 11:31 gives her actions in this instance as an example of her faith. Some have insisted that all the author of Hebrews lauds is her friendly welcome of the spies, and it's consistent with that that she was also wrong in deceiving her people. That may be so. This strikes me as having a presupposition affecting your interpretation, though. If you're already committed to all lying being wrong no matter what, then you can avail yourself of this to show that the passage doesn't contradict that. Yet it seems to me that a plain reading of the passage not colored by that will give the impression that Rahab's actions in this situation were all noble. When you include James 2:25, which says that when "she received the messengers and sent them out another way" it was a good work, it's pretty hard to argue against seeing her whole action as good. Her sending them out another way was part of the deceit.
I Samuel 16:2 is a strange case, but I think it's even clearer than the previous two. It seems as if God tells Samuel to deceive Saul by saying his purpose of going somewhere is to perform a sacrifice, when his real purpose is a divine mission Saul would not have approved of. There is potential risk of life in this case, and it's Samuel's own life. Some use the "tell the truth deceptively but don't lie" defense here, claiming that Samuel doesn't say anything false, but I've already explained why that approach has no moral weight. What Samuel does here is clearly deceptive, and God commands it of him. The one response I could find in the commentaries is by H.W. Hertzberg, who claims that it's not a subterfuge sacrifice but one of Samuel's duties that he would do anyway. That may be so. The sacrifice doesn't have to be a subterfuge for Samuel's statement to be a subterfuge if he deliberately leaves out information in order to deceive. So it seems pretty clear here that God is commanding his prophet to deceive Saul.
Some verses are held up against the sort of interpretation I've been taking. Some cite the 10 commandments, one of which says not to bear false witness against your neighbor (Ex 20:16). That's no absolute prohibition on lying, though, just a command not to lie against your neighbor with false testimony in a court of law. Prov 12:17 is in the same category. Lev 19:11-12 says not to steal, deal falsely with each other, lie to each other, or swear by God's name falsely. Is it an absolute prohibition against lying? It clearly values truth. It does restrict it to "each other". That means it's a command within the camp of Israel to be honest with each other among the community of God's people. It doesn't say anything about they should relate to outsiders or to people of the camp who are "cut off" for high-handed sins or how people not in Israel should act (though Eph 4:25 gives a parallel principle for those within God's new covenant people). Four proverbs discuss the virtue of honest (16:28, 30; 17:20; 24:26). This is talking about an overarching character trait, not whether any given lie is wrong no matter the circumstances. Proverbs are by nature not case law but general principles. People who tend to do X tend to be like Y. These are no different. Honesty is definitely a good character trait. That doesn't mean there aren't occasional circumstances when it's not wrong to lie.
In II Cor 4:2, Paul says that in preaching the gospel to the Corinthians he didn't practice cunning or deceit. Well, of course, in preaching the gospel we wouldn't want to mislead anyone. The truth is a major theme in John. John 3:21 talks about doing what is true, i.e. doing what is truly of God. It begs the question to assume that that requires never deceiving evildoers. John 8:32 speaks of those who know the truth about Jesus and its setting them free. That's fairly irrelevant. John 8:44 says the devil always lies and is the father of lies. It doesn't say that leaving your light on when you're not home is wrong. Nor does it say that misleading someone doing the devil's work is wrong.
Are there other passages? There probably are, but they probably don't go much beyond what's already here. Honesty is a virtuous character trait, one worth pursuing. In ordinary circumstances, one should always be truthful. Being transformed into the image of Christ with a new nature will lead to being truthful. That all seems consistent with there being some moral dilemmas when moral principles or virtues conflict. Perhaps one is more important than the other and simply trumps it. Perhaps there's just a sense of a lesser of two evils, and you have to do something wrong either way. Perhaps it's just that these principles are context-dependent. In most contexts, being honest is the best policy. In a few, it's not. However you choose to resolve moral dilemmas, I think it's obvious that they're there.
A parallel example is the case of just war. In a fallen world, there is sometimes a need for war or violence. Self-defense, protection of others, and correcting injustice are all viewed by most people as good reasons to use limited violence, with certain restrictions and caveats. It's not ideal, but it's sometimes the best response to evil in the world. All I'm saying here is that telling the truth is something like not doing violence to other people. In rare and dire circumstances, it might be ok to deceive people, particularly when the people being deceived are trying to do pretty evil things and especially when they're trying to get you to do evil things.
Let's consider a couple examples to test out how this might go. A World Magazine post [dead link removed] discusses a man who set up a fake abortion clinic to mislead women into thinking they could have an abortion and then keep putting them off until it was too late to have an abortion. Isn't this strangely like the Hebrew midwives? The difference is that the midwives were ordered to do the killing themselves and were lying about why it didn't happen so that they could keep doing it. This guy is lying to the people seeking to have help in doing something bad. He hadn't been asked to do it himself, so he's inserted himself in the situation. It's not clear that he has the place to step in here and cause others to do what's right by deceiving them.
Compare with the case of lying to Nazis to save Jews or lying to a murderer to save a life. In both cases, one is asked for information that will aid in killing someone. In other words, if you're asked to be complicit in a murder through your words, you have no obligation to comply. In some cases, being silent would lead to complicity, so you have to say something. Deceiving through saying true but misleading things is still deceiving and is morally equivalent to lying anyway. So motivation and context seem to make a difference in whether lying is absolutely forbidden or whether it has some other moral status (lesser of two evils, excused, justified, etc.).
I wouldn't necessarily condone lying to protect oneself against those hwo persecute Christians, because Jesus said to expect persecution and not to resist persecutors. Still, some of the things people will do in missionary settings in closed countries is at best misleading, e.g. going as an engineer to a country where missionaries aren't allowed for the express purpose of being a missionary. Is that always wrong?
Clearly lying is wrong if it's to protect one's reputation, to hide some wrong one has done, or to get ahead in life, particularly when it smears someone else. Bill Clinton's lying under oath falls under this category, as does Nixon's. If Reagan did lie about Iran-Contra, that would have been here. Standard politics in an election year can easily fall under this category also, and people who work for both major candidates have done this, though I'm not sure the candidates themselves always realize that it's misleading.
What about exaggerating a threat when one believes it to be serious enough to be worth military action but not serious enough that a corrupt U.N. or partisan citizens of one's own country would accept an argument based purely on no exaggeration? I don't think Bush has deliberately misled anyone. I haven't seen any evidence of that. That may not be so of everyone in the administration, but I think he's innocent of that sort of charge. But what if it were true? I've heard many people compare Bill Clinton's little indiscretion about a private matter that's no one's business with Bush's leading our nation to war. If both had to do with lies, they say, then Bush's was clearly worse because it had worse consequences.
I just don't see this. Once you see the real motivations in each case, it makes little sense to compare them in that light. Saddam Hussein did have WMD programs and actual WMD that he could have given to terrorists, he did have contact with consideration of cooperation with terrorists, intelligence on these matters wasn't always good and thus falsehoods in his speeches may well have been from false information given to him, and he had moral concerns with allowing Saddam to continue all along, not just after the WMD argument failed. So if he was exaggerating anything to make the case a little stronger, it may well have been to overcome obstacles in those who don't receive what already is a good argument, perhaps because they are unwilling to due to corruption, as Tony Blair suspected all along and has now been shown true. So any exaggeration wasn't on a grand scale, and it was to heighten a case that already had a moral imperative.
If you disagree with me on that, you at least need to grant that it was that way in his mind. Lying in such circumstances may not be the most honorable policy, but it's certainly not as bad as lying to cover your posterior when you've betrayed your wife's trust and taken advantage of a young woman under your employ while serving in the highest position of power that can be abused in the United States. I believe there are clear degrees of how bad lying can be, and I think this is a fairly strong argument that Clinton's acknowledged lie was one of the worst sorts in terms of the character it shows, while the kind attributed to Bush (which I still doubt) is perhaps bad but in comparison much better due to what are likely much better motives, not at all selfish or even self-interested but for the sake of the Iraqi people and the safety of the entire nation he has a responsibility to protect. Only a true conspiracy theorist would assume the worst motives, but that's exactly what the anti-Bush crowd has done. If Bush really did lie, it's certainly not one of the worst kinds of lies. I don't think he did anyway. Those who had no problem with Clinton's lie have no business complaining about Bush and deceit, though.
I should say that Joe Missionary's post on this last month was some of my inspiration for thinking of this, and the World Magazine post was just a catalyst to getting it done given that yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Nixon's resignation. I'd wanted to do this a month ago, and Joe deserves credit for prompting this. Also, Keith Burgess Jackson raises some of the same questions here [dead link removed] with slightly more detail on the philosophical views involved, no emphasis on the biblical arguments, and a more pointed application of these issues to the relevance of lying to whether the war was justified.
[If you'd like to read the original comment thread on this post at its original location, you can see the Wayback Machine archive of the post.]
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.