For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”
Let’s imagine that you have a friend who is in hospital and near to death from a road accident. He asks you about his passenger – his beloved wife. In fact she was killed in the accident. You can say one of three things: Your wife is OK; I don’t know how your wife is; Your wife is dead. The doctors assure you that to tell him that his wife is dead will almost certainly bring about his own death. Yet the remaining answers: I don’t know, or, she’s OK involve telling a lie.
Which will you do? And, if you were the dying man, which would you want your visitor to do?
This is the dilemma which St Augustine proposes in his Letter to Consentius. He admits that he is weak and tempted. Yet he resists, and for two reasons: first, that you may not do a wrong in order that good may come; second that, once you go down the path of falsehood, eventually all truth disappears.
In another part of the wood we find the philosopher, Kant. He too believes that lies cannot ever be justified. He holds that any moral principle must be judged by considering what the outcome would be if everyone followed that principle. It is easy to see that a society which accepts lying as moral and usual behaviour would soon collapse.
The classic scholastic argument comes from the Natural Law: the faculty of speech is given us by God in order to convey what is true. To employ that faculty to convey falsehood is an abuse of the nature God has given us, and stands in the way of human flourishing.
No one disputes that cases of great difficulty can arise. The Catechism addresses this by use of “discreet” language. This appears to mean mental reservation. In the example above one might say “Your wife is OK”, but meaning “She is OK because she is dead and, we may hope, on the way to Heaven.” Or one might say “I haven’t spoken to the doctor yet.” Perhaps literally true, but quite consistent with having seen the dead wife.
Many people feel uneasy about this solution. It seems to mean that you can deliberately deceive as long as you avoid a direct falsehood. It looks as if preserving the form of truth matters more than the spirit of truth.
Blaise Pascal made merry of this in his Lettres Provinciales”– a wholesale attack on the Jesuits. For instance the writer is advised that the best authorities say that is the intention that determines the quality of the action. Thus to swear that one has not done something, which in facts one has done, is not a lie if one says, under one’s breath, “not today” or some such.
And we recall that it was the accusation of such mental reservation, as the “Catholic” justification of lying which was eventually to lead to Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua.
A more liberal view is to start from the principle that speech is given to us to convey truth to those who are entitled to the truth. Thus the Elizabethan poursuivant who asks if you have a priest hidden about your person is not entitled to the truth and may safely be told a lie.
However this does not cover you friend in hospital. Is he not entitled to the truth? And, following Augustine, what is the logical outcome? Perhaps we should accept that people may tell us lies for our own good. And what happens about lies on wartime. Propaganda, for instance. Harold Nicholson, in the House of Commons, 1938, said “During the (Great) war, we lied damnably.”
Every breach of the truth, whatever casuistry is used to justify it, corrodes the value of truth. One of my great disillusions was President Eisenhower’s direct lie that the U-2 reconnaissance plane, flown by Gary Powers, was not spying over Russian Territory. Krushchev’s subsequent production of both plane and pilot ended my innocent belief that “good guys” didn’t tell lies. That was 52 years ago, and I still don’t trust any politician – from whatever country.
It seems to me that our society is sagging at the seams with lies, deceits, and untrustworthiness of all kinds. What does it say of a society that the phrase “caveat emptor” is needed and used every day? But I wish I could put my hand on my heart and claim that I never spoke a lie. Indeed, that would itself be a lie.