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The Ethics of Lying: One Humanist’s View

Filed under Morality

Anne Frank

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series on the morality of lying. Our first post came yesterday from Deacon Jim Russell. Today, we hear from atheist blogger James Croft. And tomorrow we'll hear from Patheos Catholic blogger Leah Libresco.

The UK's Guardian newspaper once relayed a well-known Broadway legend regarding a theatrical version of Anne Frank's diary:

"When the play was revived in New York some years back its lead actress, Pia Zadora, was frankly not adequate in the title role. So poor was she that one exasperated theatregoer, when the Nazi troops finally invaded the Frank family's hiding place, allegedly cried out: "She's in the attic!""

This legend—a favorite of my father, who joyfully retells it after almost every terrible theatrical performance we see—neatly highlights the difficulty of devising a simple rule to govern the ethics of lying. It seems intuitively clear that the audience member—however we might sympathize with their plight—were they in the position to actually reveal Anne Frank's location to the Nazi troops, would have done a clear moral wrong by condemning someone to death, even though they told the truth. In such a situation—when telling the truth to those who mean another harm would lead to terrible harm being caused—it seems obviously wicked to say that lying (in the commonly-used sense of "purposefully not telling the truth") would be morally wrong. The ethics of lying are complex, and the view of St. Augustine as glossed by Deacon Jim—that "all spoken falsehood with intention to deceive is immoral"—seems immediately inadequate.

Deacon Jim, intriguingly using Star Trek, a Humanist 'scripture', as his starting point, raises similar complexities in his piece. He points out that, "For two thousand years, the Catholic Church has left this question somewhat unsettled: whether or not all falsehoods spoken with the intention to deceive are immoral acts of "lying.""

Humanists are quite happy with "unsettled" questions of this sort. The Humanist approach to morals and ethics does not seek to offer a set of "settled" rules for conduct which will guide a person easily through every quandary. Recognizing the complexity of our moral lives, and the infinite potential situations which might be faced by any given person, or by a society, Humanists prefer to construct robust moral and ethical principles to guide action, and are quite unsurprised when these principles collide in interesting and challenging ways.

There are principled reasons to avoid ethical dictums which the idea of "settling" ethical questions brings to my mind: consider, for instance, the extraordinary harm which has been caused by the Catholic insistence that artificial forms contraception not be used. As our technology, our conceptions of human sexuality, and our knowledge regarding how diseases can be spread through sex have all advanced, this teaching should certainly be revised, but its status as a "settled" ethical issue prevents progress and causes significant suffering.

Seeking to "settle" the question of lying—by determining some fixed rubric by which we would decide whether, for instance, (to use Deacon Jim's example) "all falsehoods spoken with intention to deceive are immoral acts of “lying,” or not"—would, in a similar way, be to deny the inherent complexity of human relationships and to close down opportunities for future growth in our moral and ethical understanding.

The position of judgment Catholics are placed in by the "unsettled" nature of Catholic teaching regarding lying is a good position—it's the position we should be in regarding all judgments which affect others (I will leave aside the highly dubious claim that "The Church completely recognizes and respects the rights of conscience of its Catholic members").

Toward an Ethic of Goodwill

Having said this, what might be broad moral and ethical principles which should guide human conduct in this area? I think Deacon Jim gives us a way to approach this question when he raises what he calls "the 'societal' or 'common-good' aspect of truth-telling":

"The stability of human society really depends on the good will that ought to exist among individuals, and that common good can only be realized by truthfulness."

While I certainly agree that many other societal goods depend on good will between members of a community, there is good reason to doubt "that common good can only be realized by truthfulness." Indeed, the apocryphal anecdote with which I began speaks against this view: the audience member imagining themselves to be revealing Anne Frank's location, though speaking truthfully, is not promoting the common good or improving good will between members of the society. Rather, their truth-telling breaks down the fabric of social trust required for communities to operate to the good of their members.

How so? Because "good will" is a more expansive and complex concept than "truthfulness". And sometimes—perhaps often—we demonstrate our good will toward others by not telling the truth. This is perhaps why the Eighth Commandment charges people not to "bear false witness", rather than simply never to lie: it is the harm caused to another by lying which is the object of primary condemnation, and often we will demonstrate more good will toward our neighbor by being equivocal (rather than ruthless) with the truth.

Ultimately, to live happily in society among others, we do not want to live with ruthless truth-tellers who always tell the full truth regardless of any contextual factors. Rather, we want to live beside people who have our good in mind, and who act to maximize our good—even though this may lead them to be equivocal with the truth at times. Humanists accept the many ethical complexities such a position places us in, and recognize that all ethical reasoning—just like the Catholic position on lying—is "ultimately a work in progress." Felix Adler's ethical maxim should be the guiding principle, not some ossified rule regarding truth-telling:

“Act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby in thyself.”

(Image credit: The Independent)

James Croft

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James Croft is a candidate for an Ed.D in Human Development and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). He works alongside Greg Epstein as Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard, trying to create a true Humanist fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts. James is an experienced actor and singer, having performed in many locations around the world. A committed Humanist and a Humanist Celebrant, he's also an Assistant Editor at The New Humanism and a Contributing Scholar for State of Formation. His blog at Patheos is titled Temple of the Future.

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