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>Moral perspectives on lying

>There are a range of Christian theories on the moral acceptability of lying.

The issues around lying seem difficult to fully categorise in English. The problem is a lack of simple words to express subtle differences in meaning. To illustrate this note that the concept of lying can be considered analogous to killing. With killing we have sub-terms such as murder, manslaughter, and capital punishment. We also recognise killing in a variety of situations such as warfare and self-defence. The debate about the morality of types of killing is more transparent because we agree on meaning, even if we disagree or the moral acceptability of them.

Whereas “lying” merely means distorting the truth irrespective of the circumstances. There are terms such as deception, falsification, untruthfulness, but these are basically synonymous. There are situational terms though, such as perjury.

So is falsehood a single conceptual category? I have long thought it meaningful that the 9th commandment is not, “You shall not lie,” but rather, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” I have previously distinguished between reality and what one perceives as reality stating that affirming a false belief is not lying. I have also made the distinction between voluntary and forced disclosure of information which I wish to expand on here.

The moral debate is that either:

  • lying (or specific types or lying) is objectively wrong, that is, various forms of absolutism; or
  • lying is not intrinsically wrong (for all people), (though it may be preferable to avoid in certain situations for other reasons), that is, forms of subjectivism.

Christianity claims that morality has its source in the moral law giver, thus it views the morality of truth telling as objective: the same rules for all people at all times. Here are particular forms of such absolutism.

1. Unqualified Absolutism

Lying is always wrong. People should never lie ever. No matter what the situation or consequences.

Doug Beaumont explains such unqualified absolutism.

Unqualified Absolutism is based on the idea that most moral actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and because sin is always avoidable there can be no actual moral conflict. Given a choice between telling the truth or lying to avoid a murder, for example, one must choose telling the truth for in that instance it is not the one speaking, but the murderer who is sinning. In that case it is better to permit sin than to commit it. This view states that moral “oughts” are viable regardless of their consequences, for any moral philosophy that has exceptions results in relativism. Moral law is based on God’s unchanging nature, therefore moral law itself is unchanging. Logically, if an act is intrinsically evil, it cannot become good because of a changing situation. Finally, God can always provide a third alternative to sinful actions.

This is how many people view lying. It is a somewhat reasonable but it lacks depth. Exceptions to rules don’t intrinsically mean relativism. True, exceptions can be special pleading or hypocrisy, but they may be legitimate (eg. age based rules). And as I note below, unqualified absolutism may conflate intrinsically different actions.

2. Conflicting absolutism

Lying is wrong, but it needs to be considered within the situation. If lying conflicts with another moral commandment then one must do obey the higher moral. But lying, while required, is still sinful.

Such a position acknowledges that we have moral conflict (at least in this age). I think this is an improvement as it notes that as bad as lying may be, it may not be the greatest evil (though lying is a bigger evil than many acknowledge). This position encourages people to do good and love their neighbour.

It fails in that it suggests at times all options a man may have involve sin. However if we wish to do right, Scripture suggests we are able to do so (thru God). Further, how much less are we to blame when others have placed us in a dilemma, rather than our own prior choices.

3. Graded absolutism

Lying is wrong unless it conflicts with a higher moral commandment. Obeying the higher moral by lying is not wrong or sinful.

This resolves the dilemma or not being able to make a right choice. It affirms moral conflict, but it claims that the choice to do the better is good. And not sinful if a greater good is being done. There may be some support from Jesus’ words to the Pharisees. It discussing tithing garden herbs Jesus states

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

While one could claim that tithing herbs and doing justice are morally equal—Jesus does say not to neglect the former—the context would suggest that doing justice is a higher moral command. Apologists for unqualified absolutism could argue Jesus commands they do both, but there is no conflict between moral obligations set up here, so unqualified absolutism cannot be proven from the passage. I am merely illustrating that moral commands are graded.

It is important to note that this is not arguing that the end justifies the means. Yes, the end is considered, but for the sake of doing good, not for preferred result. Doing good may have unpleasant consequences.

4. Libertarian absolutism

Lying is wrong if one is voluntarily giving information. One need not tell the truth if one is being compelled to divulge information. I am responsible for my actions, not yours.

This has the advantage over graded absolutism in that it recognises that voluntary information and compelled information are categorically different. It is somewhat analogous to saying that predatory killing is sinful but self-defensive killing is not.

Interestingly Jesus’ words may shed some light on our understanding here.

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.

About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. (John 7, emphasis added)

Jesus said he wasn’t going but then he did. This implies that Jesus’ answer was not true. In fact some manuscripts say, “I am not yet going up to this feast.” Which would seem to make Jesus’ answer more honest. Looking at the passage it is clear Jesus wished to go without others initially knowing he was there. He
is asked if he is going, however Jesus does not wish to tell this person. Being evasive may be construed as a yes. Jesus says that he is not going to this feast. Within the libertarian absolutism view a request is made of Jesus to divulge information he does not wish to give and he is at liberty to answer in a way that does not divulge same information.

This position is distinct from graded absolutism in that one is not weighing up morality in conflict. The distinction is in will for informing.

Although one could think nothing one hears in conversation is reliable, the solution is listen to what people wish to tell you.

5. Authoritative absolutism

Non aggressive version

  • Lying is wrong in non-aggressive situations. Self-defence against an aggressor allows for lying. Authorities are owed the truth.

Libertarian version

  • One need not tell the truth if one is being compelled to divulge information unless being compelled by a legitimate authority.

Authoritative absolutism states the voluntary information must be true as per libertarian absolutism, or that all information must be true unless facing an aggressor. It states that, in general, compelled information does not need to be true though there can be variation on what is meant by compulsion.

But this position does allow an appropriate authority to force information (whereas strict libertarian absolutism would not). A person following libertarian absolutism would allow one to lie in court if he did not wish to divulge the truth. Non-aggressive absolutism would mean that it is eumoral (morally good) to tell the truth in legitimate courts and immoral to withhold it. Note the caveat: obeying a lesser authority is not required if that means disobeying a higher one. Obeying a policeman, a ruler, or a court is necessary even unjust ones, or in unpleasant circumstances; unless doing so compromises a higher earthly ruler or God.


People may argue for the legitimacy of any of these options within Christian theology. Unless one recognises that the concept of lying may include more than one category, graded absolutism is as far as one can advance and this seems to be the best approach. However the knowledge of a permissible sub-categorisation based on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary knowledge sharing allows for more nuanced views.

Categories: ethics, truth
  1. 2009 October 26 at 13:25

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to use the word “libertarian” the way you do there. It gives the connotation that libertarians think that perjury is a small offense, when that is not the accepted, mainstream view among libertarians. In fact, perjury is one of the most common gripes that libertarians have because it is so commonly associated with bearing false witness against a defendant in court.
    Personally, my take is that lying is permissible if there is a clear need to deceive another, such as stopping a murderer from finding their target. If Jesus gave us permission to break the Sabbath to save our neighbor’s sheep and life, then why not lying?

  2. 2009 October 27 at 05:35

    Fair enough. I struggled to come up with a term. Perhaps non-aggressive, though that seems to be applied to situations where compulsion for information is to do evil, such as your murder example. What I meant was here was the freedom to not answer uninvited questions (without implying the answer). If you have a preferable term let me know. Do you know what the Latin or Greek is for compel?

  3. Jason
    2009 December 2 at 10:33

    There was a concept of honourable lying in the ancient world. A lie could be told to protect others, or to avoid giving offence to another.
    The Chinese have a similar system. For example in negotiations they might say something like “We will talk about this later” and then disappear never to be seen again. What they meant was “We’re not interested” but to avoid offending you they lied.
    29 aggareuw aggareuo ang-ar-yew’-o
    of foreign origin, cf arga, 0104; ; v
    AV-compel to go 3; 3
    1) to impress into public service, to employ a courier, dispatch a mounted messenger; hence to compel to perform a service {#Mt 5:41 27:32 Mr 15:21}
    Aggareuw were public couriers ( tabellarii), stationed by appointment of the king of Persia at fixed localities, with horses ready for use, in order to transmit royal messages from one to another and so convey them more speedily to their destination. These couriers had the authority to press into their service, in case of need, horses, vessels, and even men they met.
    That was the Greek for compel.

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