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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