I very much appreciated Leah Libresco’s succinct treatment of the topic of lying that was featured on Strange Notions today as the third in a series of articles about the topic. Her title was “Interfering with the Eschaton:Why Lying is wrong”.
As I have read the various explorations of the topics over the past couple of years I have had to agree with Leah and others who conclude that lying simply can’t be rationalized the way we sometimes want it to be. The world is broken and in need of healing and any time we deal with this difficulty through sinful means, we have passed the buck. We have insisted that the heroic virtue is someone’s else’s job,
This is not a comfortable conclusion but it is the one that seems most logically coherent with how I understand the world. It makes me uncomfortable in precisely the way that the cross makes me uncomfortable.
Near the end of her article, Leah introduced a very important point:
Honesty is a starting point; you can take the duty to avoid passive deception much further. Humans are prone to any number of biases that make it hard to hear or notice the truth. You may be telling the truth when you use CAPS LOCK, but you’ve made it harder for your interlocutor to listen to you. Tone can be as effective a barrier to truth as misdirection.
This caught my eye because the problem of inadvertently (or sometimes intentionally) erecting unnecessary barriers for other people to come to the truth is a favorite topic of mine and one I plan to write on more. On the topic of the morality of lying, this excerpt introduces an aspect of the the debate that I have wanted to address.
To Leah and others who have so eloquently treated this issue and explained the tough conclusion that lying is simply wrong, I would like to make a suggestion per not erecting unnecessary barriers to others whom we would like to help see this truth.
While I myself have come to accept this tough conclusion, I sympathize (perhaps because of the recency of my change in thinking) with those whose gut-reaction in response to the hypothetical Nazi scenario is to rationalize lying. One of the difficulties here is that we have too much hollywood and not enough saints. We have a plethora of mental images of how easy it would be to lie and all the goods that might come in consequence, and we have little mental material with which to imagine the alternative.
I think it would be helpful (as well as charitable) for some of the excellent writers and thinkers on this topic to indulge people who are morally paralyzed by such hypothetical scenarios by exploring what the alternatives to lying might be. If the Nazis really do show up at our doors tomorrow morning, and yet we are convicted against lying, what should we do? What does it look like? Let me be quite clear: I am not asking this rhetorically as a sort of “gotcha” as is the cliche, I am sincerely asking a question which I suspect is probably on the minds of many well-intentioned but troubled souls. We need to help re-populate the moral imaginations of those who find this a “difficult teaching”. (Would any good fiction writers out there like to take up the task? Or do you have some good sci-fi scenarios to recommend?)
Refusing to sympathize with such people and to address their concerns, I think, would be an example of one of these unnecessary barriers to truth. We may be tempted to consider such concern with contempt, perhaps recollecting our own past weaknesses and rationalizations, but we mustn’t lose souls in our enthusiasm to assert the point. Just as the rejection of lying involves embracing the Truth over what is immediately gratifying or comforting, so does tempering self-satisfaction and indignation such that we can speak charitably and sympathetically to those in doubt. As Leah states: “Love begins by not placing any new obstacles in the way of our neighbors.” If we want more people to be freed by this tough truth, let us love them enough to attempt to tell the Truth in a way that will help them better hear it (i.e. wight he CAPS LOCK turned off for starters).
In closing, we should expect to be challenged by the Truth and suspicious when we aren’t. In this case, the easy but ultimately wrong road is unfortunately a very familiar one in our minds. Speak the truth in charity, sympathize with those who are troubled, and regarding this particular topic, help people imagine what the hard but right road might look like – you may give them the nudge they need to embrace the cross.
(Caveat: Any potential character flaws alluded to in this piece are directed at the only soul I have first-hand knowledge of: my own. They may be of limited relevance to the rest of the world.)