A Time-Honored Thought Experiment on Lying–Revisited

A Time-Honored Thought Experiment on Lying–Revisited May 16, 2013

I have been instructed many times by readers that not only is lying morally acceptable, but it is actually morally obligatory in life or death situations. Also, the CIA and undercover cops lie, so there you are. Many, many people have made clear to me that only a posturing Pharisee, moral idiot, or craven coward (in my case, all three) would say otherwise. And the proof of this is that time-honored moral dilemma, the Nazis-at-the-door scenario.

Let’s revisit that, shall we?

SS Ubergruppenfuehrer Hans Todt appears at your door with orders to round up the priests in the city, including the one you are hiding in your secret hidden room in the attic. That priest is an extraordinary saint, a veritable second Fr. Damien. Upon his survival depends the survival of an entire network of Jews and gypsies he has squirreled away in various hideouts all over Amsterdam, which he still coordinates from your attic. That’s why they want him. To betray him is to betray them down to the last man, woman, and child.

Todt, being a reasonable fanatic, offers you a deal: All you have to do is swear on a copy of Mein Kampf that you do hereby renounce, abjure, blaspheme and curse the names of Jesus Christ and the Jewess Mary and declare with your whole, heart, soul, mind and strength that you worship Adolf Hitler as your Lord and God. Do that and he will make sure that nobody ever comes to your door again to bother you.

So. What would you do and why? If it’s just fine to tell lies–in fact, morally obligatory to do so–to save innocent lives, then why on earth would you not tell this one? Describe for me, a self-righteous Pharisee, contemptible moral idiot, and craven coward who thinks that it would be a grave sin to tell this lie, why I should obviously do this.

Mind you, I’m not saying I am confident I would refuse to deny Christ. I am made of solidly Petrine chickenflesh and can easily imagine myself burbling out whatever the Nazi demanded–three times if necessary. But I am wondering how any Christian who argues that lying is not merely permissible but morally obligatory in such a circumstance could possibly make the case that, for instance, Peter was wrong to deny Christ “as long as he didn’t really mean it” in order to save the lives of his fellow apostles (and, who knows, maybe the life of his wife? He was, after all, married you know).  Why where the early Christians not complete moral idiots for refusing to tell a little white lie and offering a teensy pinch of incense to the Divine Caesar?  After all, as I am instructed, the Romans “had no right to the truth’ and so lying to them isn’t even lying (don’t ask me to explain how that works).  What could possibly be wrong, since lying is morally obligatory, with just going ahead and pretending to renounce Jesus while telling God “I don’t really mean it.”?

So. What would you do and why? And if you would not tell this lie what rationale do you have for distinguishing it from other lies?

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  • John

    did you mean to write “…Peter was not wrong…” in the second to last paragraph?

    • chezami

      Nope. I’m asking why, if it morally obligatory to lie to save lives, it was wrong for Peter to deny Christ. As good and solid a life-saving lie as ever there was.

  • Rebecca Duncan

    I would not swear that oath or say any of that stuff. I guess it might bring down a lot of evil on innocent people, but God brings good out of evil…not me. So, I would not swear that evil oath and I would just have to trust in God with the consequences.

  • Michelle

    As sympathetic as I generally am to your POV, Mark, I’m afraid you’re mixing bananas and kumquats. It is perfectly possible to both refuse to swear an oath that denies Christ and to maintain that you have no idea where the Nazi might discover the priest he’s looking for (which I would maintain is a legitimate mental reservation and not a “lie”).

    • chezami

      Oh. I totally get that. It’s just that here, I’m assuming my critic’s position that lying is not only permissible, but *obligatory*. The problem is the Nazi is *demanding* you swear. If lying is obligatory, what’s the big deal with renouncing Christ? It’s just one more lie, right? And it’s not really even a lie, I am reliably informed, since when you lie to people who “have no right to the truth” you are aren’t actually lying. Or so I’m told.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      I would say that “I don’t know where you might discover the priest you’re looking for” isn’t a lie at all. “I don’t know where the priest is” is a lie.

      Being Jesuitical isn’t necessarily sinning, but a deliberate telling of something that isn’t truth is.

      Also, I think all these hypotheticals are getting away from the actual subject a bit. No one came to LiveActions’ door and asked where the babies were so they could abort them. They chose to go into a clinic, chose to blatantly say things that weren’t true. No one put the screws to them. They entered into this situation willingly.

      • Bryan

        If you are hiding the priest in your attic, then saying “I don’t know where you might discover the priest you’re looking for” is a lie. You absolutely have an idea where to look — a great idea — your attic!

        • Andy, Bad Person

          Ah, but you didn’t say “I have no idea where you should look” for the priest. You said, “I have no idea where you will find the priest.” I mean, sure he’s in the attic now, but you might find him in a completely different location at a later time.

  • Bryan

    My question would be, do you think all lies are equal? Is lying by renouncing your faith the same as lying and saying you don’t know where the priest is?

    • Michele Quigley

      No, all lying isn’t equal “The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.” CCC 2484 BUT “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” CCC 2485

  • Brian

    I appreciate your take on lying debate and sympathize with your position, however I still struggle with certain aspects of it.

    As for your current scenario, I don’t think it really gets to the heart of the argument. Someone can simply say that they refuse to blaspheme or deny Christ, but will still lie about hiding Jews. If saving the lives of the Jews requires lying (without denying Christ), no problem. But, if you must deny Christ in order to save their lives, you cannot comply. They are essentially different commandments.

    Like I said, I tend to agree with much of what you say. I think that one of the problems with debate is conflating scenarios. What Live Action is doing is not the same type of scenario as the Nazis at the door.

    • Brian

      To clarify, I am not concluding it’s ok to lie to the Nazi’s at the door, just putting forth what I see as a potential argument.

    • Fair enough, but what about Mark’s other example — Peter’s denial? It could be considered blasphemous, but it was also a straightforward lie. Or change it a bit, and have Peter simply say he was not with Jesus. Was it ok for Peter to lie to save his own life, and possibly the lives of others?

      I agree with you that Nazi analogies are unhelpful — they are completely unlike what Lila Rose does, they come close to violating Godwin’s Law, and frankly, whether you are a person who vows never to lie or a person who proudly declares you would lie to save a life, you cannot possibly know how you would react until you actually face such a scenario. That’s what many people forget — we are all flawed, emotional, unpredictable human beings.

      • Imp the Vladaler

        Was it ok for Peter to lie to save his own life, and possibly the lives of others?

        No, because the command to take up the cross and follow Jesus – and His explicit command to spread the Gospel, even though He knew that it would get them killed – trumps any other consideration.

        Denying Christ is bad because it’s a lie. Perhaps lies can be excused or not considered to be lies at all, under certain circumstances. But denying Christ is also bad because it involves disobedience to a specific command that Christ gave us. That can’t be excused, even if a lie can.

  • Imp the Vladaler

    Mark, I think if you generalize your question and break it into two parts, you’ll have your answer. (1) Is there any hierarchy to moral obligations? and (2) if there is, does any moral obligation come ahead of confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord? I contend that the answers to these questions are Yes, and No.

    Let’s answer #1 first: Tending to the needs of the sick is something that Christ directly charges us with doing. We’re also taught, by the authority of His Church, that it is morally obligatory to attend Mass every Sunday. At some point in your life, those two moral obligations may conflict. You may be the only way for your sick neighbor to get to the emergency room on a Sunday morning, and driving him there may cause you to miss Mass. That doesn’t make missing Mass good, but if that’s the only sin you brought to your confessor, I’m pretty sure he’d chuckle and tell you to get lost. (Incidentally, this is more or less what happened in the parable of the Good Samaritan, right?)

    Likewise, spreading the Gospel, professing Christ crucified, and taking up your cross and following Jesus, even to your own death, is a direct command from Him. Given the gravity of what He asked His followers to do – profess that He is Lord until it got them killed – I don’t think any moral obligation comes before that, including protecting innocents from murderers.

    So if lying is morally obligatory (I don’t think it is), that obligation takes a backseat to the obligation not to deny Christ. You’ve got to tell the Nazi that Jesus Christ is Lord.

  • AAC

    A very informative piece at the National Catholic Register, yesterday: “Pope Francis and lying to save life… Cardinal Bergoglio seems in these situations to have used methods that bear a striking similarity to the kind of tactics used to save life in other situations.” (http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/pope-francis-and-lying-to-save-life/)

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    I never knew this was promoted by Disney- I’ve loved this song for decades.

  • Joe

    I suck at this thought experiment. I keep telling the truth to Ubergruppenfuehrer Hans Todt, inviting him and his men into my home so that I can dispatch them with a katana.

  • Jacob

    Would I lie by denying Christ? No, even if they threatened to kill me on the spot, I hope I would not do that. Would I lie that I’m housing a priest? Yes, and I’d not feel very guilty about it (but still go to confession later). In the first case, I would be failing to be a good witness to Christianity and let down all my fellow Christians in the process. In the second, I don’t feel I’d be doing any such thing. The evil I prevent the nazi from doing is much greater than the evil of that lie. Denying Christ however, would be (in my mind) a greater evil than the murder and it would be on my own conscience.

  • wineinthewater

    Though I am sympathetic to your position, I don’t think this thought experiment works. Your hypothetical involves not just a lie, but an expression of apostasy/blasphemy. It layers another sin, a much more serious sin, on top of the sin of lying.