VIII March 17, 2010

"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," the eighth commandment (in some numberings, ninth) reads.

When I was growing up in Sunday school our teachers usually paraphrased the archaic King James Version English of that commandment as "don't lie." Teaching children not to lie is a good Sunday school lesson, but note that this isn't actually what the commandment says. It's much more specific, prohibiting a particular kind of lying — "false witness." A better children's paraphrase might be "don't accuse anyone of something they didn't do" or "don't make up bad things about other people."

The distinction and the specificity matters. Lying is a bad thing and if you're teaching small children in Sunday school about the importance of telling the truth, there are plenty of other Bible passages you can cite to make that point. But this particular kind of lying — bearing false witness — is singled out as particularly bad. It's corrosive and enslaving in a way that other lying may not always be.

To explore this, I'd like to revisit a classic Ethics 101 hypothetical situation involving, as so many of these hypothetical situations seem to, Nazis. (I apologize for violating the "Godwin" convention.)

Say you're living in occupied Holland during World War II and you've got a neighboring Jewish family hidden in your attic. A local busybody, a collaborator eager to curry favor with the occupying Nazi government, comes sniffing around looking for anything he might learn that would earn the oppressor's praise. Is it acceptable to lie to this man, to deceive him in order to ensure the safety of the innocent family you are helping to rescue?

Note that this classic hypothetical dilemma was not-at-all hypothetical for many actual people who lived it. The righteous gentiles of the Netherlands — people like the Ten Boom family or the many helpers who tried to save Anne Frank's family — were constantly confronted by this very real, high-stakes situation. And every time, they lied. They actively, aggressively worked to deceive the collaborators and the Nazis themselves, lying, misleading, forging papers and deceiving without hesitation or remorse.

I believe they were right to do so. I think this is obvious and uncontroversial. This is, in fact, the judgment of history. These people are remembered as righteous gentiles, after all, because they chose to lie to protect the innocent.

There are schools of thought which regard the moral duty never to lie as applying even in cases such as this. (Michael Sandel has an engaging discussion of  Kant's views on this, if you're interested. As far as that consequentialist/inconsequentialist argument goes, I'll see your Kant and raise you a Bonhoeffer.) My point here is not to rehash that argument, but simply to point out that this sort of lie — deceiving an evildoer to protect the innocent from harm — is a wholly different species from the sort of lie prohibited in the Ten Commandments. The rescuers lied, but they did not bear false witness against their neighbors.

That brings us to the distinction I want to make here. I do not think it is difficult to envision, imagine or identify a context in which it is acceptable — justified, moral, right, wise, obligatory — to lie to evildoers. But it is far more difficult to construct or identify a situation in which it is acceptable to lie about evildoers.

Lying about others — bearing false witness against them — is dangerously corrosive. It sets the liar on a downward path that leads not just to moral confusion, but to epistemological insanity. Bearing false witness will ultimately make you crazy.

What may start out as a well-intentioned choice to "fight dirty" for a righteous cause gradually forces the bearers of false witness to behave as though their false testimony were true. This is treacherous — behaving in accord with unreality is never effective, wise or safe. Ultimately, the bearers of false witness come to believe their own lies. They come to be trapped in their own fantasy world, no longer willing or able to separate reality from unreality. Once the bearers of false witness are that far gone it may be too late to set them free from their self-constructed prisons.

This slide from fighting dirty to embracing insanity happens in politics, obviously, but not only in politics. And regardless of the arena the end result is the same. The bearers of false witness make themselves stupid — so stupid that they don't even seem to notice that they've surrendered the argument by choosing to live in a fantasy world in which all arguments are irrelevant.

Anyway, contra Kant, I believe it may be justified and just sometimes to lie to evildoers. But don't lie about others, not even about those you regard as evildoers. That's never justified and it won't end well for you.

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  • Pius Thicknesse

    First? :D
    Anyway seriously, the most egregious example I can think of involving bearing false witness is back in the Communist era of Eastern Europe, purposely accusing someone else of ‘counter-revolutionary activity’ to settle a score and get them sent to the Gulag.
    Runner-up is in modern times how Republicans seem particularly fine with making up the basest accusations against Democrat politicians and purposely hitting all the standard racist hot buttons that exist in the USA.

  • C.Gorsuch

    I had a wonderful argument in a chatroom with someone who said it was wrong to lie at any time, even to Nazis, but who didn’t see the irony that his profile pic was a picture of himself in full military camo. So it’s wrong to say, “No Jews here, just a solid wall,” but it is perfectly acceptable to tell some perceived enemy, “No humans here! Just plants!”

  • lonespark

    I agree overall. I would never, ever, ever want to be in a situation where it seemed like the best idea to lie about someone else’s actions or intentions. OTOH, sometimes things go better for everyone if you get the Romulans into the war.

  • pharoute

    I always thought of it as “the crime itself was false” eg being a Jew is a crime so testifying on the side of the crime was the bearing false witness.

  • walden

    The False Witness stuff is why James Dobson’s various comments about Obama’s intentions, and (the late)Jerry Falwell’s endorsement of a movie claiming Bill Clinton had murdered his political opponents in Arkansas, were both so especially troubling. Sure they despise what these politicians stand for — but wow, breaking one of the big X to do so!

  • Tonio (“Whaddya mean I’m defensive?”)

    I believe it may be justified and just sometimes to lie to evildoers. But don’t lie about others, not even about those you regard as evildoers. That’s never justified and it won’t end well for you.

    No argument there. My own reasoning for that is lying about anyone has the strong potential for causing harm, because we can grasp this from experience, while lying to evildoers won’t cause harm to them, as far as we know. It’s possible that the Nazi soldiers deceived by the Ten Booms might have faced discipline for not fulfilling their Jew quota or something, but that’s merely speculative.

    Michael Sandel has an engaging discussion of Kant’s views on this, if you’re interested. As far as that consequentialist/inconsequentialist argument goes, I’ll see your Kant and raise you a Bonhoeffer.

    I’ll check that out. I know about Bonhoeffer only from his role in the attempted assassination of Hitler, and from mentions of him in Robert Short’s books about the Peanuts strip. My parents bought me those books because they knew I liked the strip, and I doubt they cared about what the books were about. I tried reading a chapter or two but was hopelessly confused, so I just skipped over the rest of the text.

  • renniejoy

    It is apparently common in my corner of suburbia for divorcing partners to sic CPS on each other. (the men are the main perpetrators IMO)

  • JE

    There is no situation where it’s right to lie about an evildoer because lying to make them seem good is wrong and lying to make them seem evil is unnecessary, and if your lie is discovered might make people question the real evidence against the evildoers as well

  • renniejoy

    sorry, I meant in my Experience.

  • Lori

    There is no situation where it’s right to lie about an evildoer because lying to make them seem good is wrong and lying to make them seem evil is unnecessary, and if your lie is discovered might make people question the real evidence against the evildoers as well.

    This is the thing that bothers me so much about the tendency for the Professionally Moral to lie about their enemies. It plays well within their subgroup, but outside it “destroys their witness”. It’s so common and so predictable that one of the websites where I hang out refers to these people as Liars for Christ–it’s a blog tag and everything. Given that bringing the lost to Christ is supposedly their primary motive this is a problem.

  • Marcus

    Yet some people appear to find it necessary to lie about even the most heinous evildoers, in the apparent belief that what they really did just isn’t shocking enough. The various Jamie Bulger related groups on Facebook, mostly run by people who would hang ten year olds (to show that killing children is wrong), mostly contain accounts of his murder that introduce false elements to make it sound worse, as if it could be. On a bigger scale: Saddam Hussein never had a people-shredder, but apparently somebody thought his real atrocities weren’t quite bad enough, so they made it up. Then there are those who number the dead of the early modern witch-craze in the millions: apparently they think we just won’t be sufficiently outraged by the murder of mere tens of thousands.
    I can’t fathom how these people’s minds work. They look at some of the worst atrocities ever committed, and think: “That needs jazzing up a bit to get people’s attention.” Who thinks like that?

  • lonespark

    That reminds me of a story in The Myth of Repressed Memory where a woman was getting phsychiatric care and had been raped as a child, and somehow the shrink or counselor was like, “Ok, but that wasn’t truamatic enough to have caused you all these problems. You must have also been abused by other people.” and Satanists or something. WTF and Go to Hell.

  • Kate

    Lonespark: That is, I believe, one of the best Star Trek episodes overall. I agree that I hope to God I am never in a situation such as the writers developed for Sisko. For the curious and non-fans, the episode is Deep Space Nine “In the Pale Moonlight.” The end, which is the most powerful part of the episode, can be found here:

  • lonespark

    Yeah, that’s my husband’s favorite episode, by far. I like too many to choose. It’s definitely Garak-tastic, which is always a plus. I wouldn’t recommend watching the end first. Watch the whole thing!

  • It is funny that you start off with a biblical scripture, and yet not one person points out the biblical example that mirrors the Nazis conundrum given: The story of Rahab in Joshua 2. She was a prostitute in Jericho who hid Israelite spies from the authorities and helped them escape the city. She was promised safety in the fall of Jericho and later was rescued after the destruction. She is praised twice in the New Testament (Hebrews 11:21 and James 2:25) and is listed in the genealogy of the Messiah. In all, the book speaks highly of her example where she lied. So this fully supports your point in that, though lying is frowned upon, the specific type mentioned in the 10 commandments is an egregious and destructive form of lying. Nice article.

  • Spearmint

    It is great, although it really makes Sisko look despicable. Either he involved Garak without thinking through the potential consequences, in which case he’s horrendously irresponsible and shouldn’t be in command of anything, or he knew all along what Garak would do and his moral outrage at the end is feigned. (Seriously, has a punch ever been telegraphed from as far away as the death of blue squid guy, in the history of the universe?) Either way he comes off as a total jerk.
    Also he’s got ethical qualms about paying Quark hush money but not about lying to the Romulans to drag them into a war on false pretenses, which shows a critical failure of priorities IMO.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    There’s other examples of bearing false witness: Kuwaiti Baby Incubators Allegedly Destroyed by Iraqis.
    What’s common about a lot of the false witness-bearing in the 1990s and 2000s by members of governments is how often it’s been used to support conflicts and wars.
    Since Republicans tend to act as though they were in a mortal struggle with Democrats, the language of war carries over and the same no-holds-barred attitude problem enters into it, wherein they believe that whatever mud they can throw, they should, just to see if some of it sticks.
    I wish the false-witness-bearers would realize what they are doing to the human race by corroding the basic trust between human beings, by lying so often and so long that the truth ceases to hold value.

  • LL

    Sorry if I’m slow, but is there any particular incident that we’re supposed to be familiar with here? Other than the obvious, ongoing campaign of idiocy and crazy that the Republicans have apparently committed to?

  • LM

    Isn’t it lying *about* the hidden people in the attic to say “there are no people in the attic”?

  • Isn’t it lying *about* the hidden people in the attic to say “there are no people in the attic”?

    Yes, but you’re not bearing false witness against them. You’re for them.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    I used the incubators example as one that most immediately comes to mind as the kind of “atrocity labelling” that is piled on just to lie people into doing something against someone one doesn’t like.
    It would be like me (hypothetically) accusing person X of being a child abuser just to settle a score. In the morally charged climate we live in today which tends to be almost excessively hypervigilant about such things happening, I could cause a lot of trouble for that person, even if that person was not a child abuser had no tendencies thereof.

  • lonespark

    I think LL was asking why Fred was posting on this subject now.

  • Shay Guy

    So is it okay to say someone didn’t commit a serious crime when you know they did?

  • MZ

    This reading of the commandment reminds me a lot of the people who hear “Oh my God!” and get huffy about “taking the Lord’s name in vain”. Maybe it’s a little disrespectful to throw around “Sweet Jesus!” flippantly, but that’s not what it means, right?
    It means you don’t do things like invade a country and say you’re doing it “in the name of the Lord”. “In God’s name, hand over your money!”, that sort of thing. Or generally justify nasty behaviour by saying you’re doing it for God.
    Anyway, my point is just that if people actually thought about the actual content of the words they claim to live by, things would be pretty different.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    @lonespark: Oops, my bad.

  • Zyzzyva

    @Spearmint: I think there’s a large element of Sisko’s self-deception in there. He does sort of know on some level what’s going to happen, but he kept insisting to himself during the events that it was all on the up-and-up (well, relatively speaking) and so he could tell himself he wasn’t really culpable. He has problems with paying off Quark because it directly disproves his self-deception. He’s not irresponsible and his moral outrage isn’t totally feigned; he’s just covering up the fact that he can no longer pretend this is going to end like he hoped it would.

  • Will Wildman

    MZ: That makes a lot of sense. I kind of assumed the commandment was related to the taboo on saying YHWH, but I much prefer the interpretation of not claiming God is on your side when you do something otherwise inexcusable. Which is something that I suspect a lot of the ban-on-OMG people are rather more often guilty of than everyday profanity.

  • renniejoy

    It would be like me (hypothetically) accusing person X of being a child abuser just to settle a score. In the morally charged climate we live in today which tends to be almost excessively hypervigilant about such things happening, I could cause a lot of trouble for that person, even if that person was not a child abuser had no tendencies thereof.
    Yes, it does cause trouble. In some (many?) cases, causing trouble is the only reason for the accusation. I am saddened that I even believe this, but I have actually lived through it and I was only the good friend of the spouse. In my case, fortunately the investigation and fallout was as minimal as it could possibly have been.
    Just thinking about it is making me angry with the instigator. I had never experienced burning rage before I met this man.

  • Three Oranges

    You’ve gone from very specific on one side of the coin to very general on the other without bridging the gap. Routine lying about a political opponent and lying for a specific outcome in an almost clear cut case of good vs. evil are so different as to almost not even be on the same coin.
    Watch “Burn Notice” if you want some examples of lying about someone that more closely match the Nazi example. Falsely implicating the wicked in crimes they didn’t commit to stop the crimes they did is a recurring tactic on that show.
    Likewise, lying to the wicked on the broad political scale, leading to positive short-term outcomes that need continued deception to be maintained. Even if you accept that “good” and “evil” can be defined as clearly as in the Nazi example, how can the wicked become good when the good they see is shrouded in lies?

  • Hmm. I was taking a look at Walter Mosley’s The Tempest Tales (note: I only read a bit, so I don’t know how it pans out), and there’s a bit where Tempest defends himself to the angel who’s been assigned his case. The angel points out that he bore false witness. Tempest says that the guy in question had committed a lot of crimes, but hadn’t been convicted for various reasons; it was his lie about the crime the guy didn’t commit that finally got him away from the community and into jail.
    Though I can’t fault the protagonist’s motives, I’d still argue that bearing false witness in that case was still a bad idea, because if discovered it would cast doubt on all the other accusations made against the guy.

  • lonespark

    Pretty much what Zyzzyva said. And I don’t think it’s a failure of priorities because he wants to do everything that needs to be done to get the outcome he needs, but he doesn’t want to do more questionable things than absolutely necessary. Which yeah, it’s not realistic, but I think it does show that yeah, we have passed a moral event horizon, but we’ll probably be coming back. We’re not going over there to live.
    Of course if we’re talking about lying for what is arguably the greater good but preserving a sense of Federation values, it’s all about the Julian.

  • Lee Ratner

    Jews do not see the Eighth Commandment as a prohibition on lying. While lying isn’t generally seen as a good thing but it is seen as a necessity at times; either to save the life, either one’s own or another person’s life, and in Judaism practically anything is allowed to save a life, or to keep the peace or some other notion of the greater good. Its recognized that bluntness is not always a virtue. The Jewish interpretation of the Eighth Commandment is generally in line with Fred’s children’s paraphrase and goes along with all the subsidiary mitzvah about avoiding fraud and dishonesty in commerce, slander, and gossip.
    The point about the Evangelical interpretation of the Eighth commandment being one for little kids is telling. Often the Evangelical way of interpreting the Bible seems to be one that would be made by children.

  • Shay Guy asked:

    So is it okay to say someone didn’t commit a serious crime when you know they did?

    Here’s another question that was tackled in a Star Trek episode! Specifically, TNG’s “The Wounded” (summary here).
    I have to say, the “Minstrel Boy” scene was very moving.

  • kcs_hiker

    I’m to the nearly to the point of being unable to even converse with these people and remaining polite. Makes getting a haircut, going to church, reading my facebook etc… much harder.
    Am unsure if this feeling will pass or not.

  • LL

    RE lonespark: I think LL was asking why Fred was posting on this subject now.
    Yep… I’ve been really super busy at work, so didn’t know if I’d missed out on some sort of unusually heinous “bearing false witness” episode that has made the news or been going ’round the intertubes.
    Or if it’s just the usual Republican (mostly) capers. Not that the usual Republican capers are good or not to be commented on (as an example of what not to do), just wasn’t sure if I was out of the loop. I generally avoid news that isn’t weather or traffic related. The only political “news” I purposefully watch is The Daily Show.
    If it makes anyone feel better, I’ve been tuning out about 98% of everything that comes from anybody who identifies Republican for about 10 years now. Most of what I do accidentally hear/read sounds like the ravings of a lunatic, so I doubt I’m missing actual useful information.

  • Ursula L

    Even if you accept that “good” and “evil” can be defined as clearly as in the Nazi example, how can the wicked become good when the good they see is shrouded in lies?
    Well, when the level of wickedness reaches a certain level, having the wicked become good becomes a secondary consideration to not having the innocent become dead.
    Besides, if you don’t keep your work protecting the innocent hidden from the wicked, you are no longer protecting the innocent, and therefore no example to lead the wicked to good. The truth, in that circumstance, annihilates the good.

  • SOA

    The Vatican isn’t above calumny and bearing false witness(from NCR):
    On March 13, the Vatican countered by strongly defending the pope against what it said was an aggressive campaign to drag him personally into the widening sex abuse scandal.
    “It is evident that over recent days some people have sought, with considerable persistence, … elements that could personally involve the Holy Father in questions of abuse. To any objective observer, it is clear that these efforts have failed,” Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said in a written commentary.”
    They attribute false motives – people, especially Catholics, just want the truth, whatever it is. And for that truth to be dealt with, morally, legally and financially.

  • This really hits on what’s so frustrating about the people who are nominally on my political ‘side’. My mother watches Glenn Beck, and I hear the guy giving a fantastic articulation of a basic American principle like “our Rights do not come from government, they come from the Creator”… and then he completely ruins it by stating the most outlandish, ridiculous things about the Obama administration. And I think the idea that he actually believes what he says is scarier than the assumption that he’s lying about it.

  • Tricksterson awaiting his just and rightful slaughter.

    Of course Rahab also betrayed her city and thus abetted the slaughter of every man, woman and child in it but since Yahweh approved that made it okay. >:P
    Something at least semi-relevant. Friend of my mother who is A) Republican and B) buys everything anti-Obama uncritically because C) she’s not terribly bright told her that the current bill will cut off elderly drug benefits after a certain age. now I’m pretty sure this is utter bullshit but does anyone have the 411 on how the current bill will affect drug benefits for the elderly, if at all and how will it effect the elderly in general.