Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is it wrong to lie to HAL?

While it’s still 2010, let’s talk about 2010. I had occasion to watch it recently, and while it’s not as good as 2001, it’s still a pretty good movie (despite its naïve 80s-liberal “Can’t we all just get along?” take on the Cold War). There’s a great scene in it where Dr. Chandra, who has been told to lie to HAL (the computer that famously went rogue in 2001 but is rebooted in 2010), wrestles with his conscience before finally deciding to tell HAL the truth. Would it have been wrong for him to do otherwise?

From the point of view of classical natural law theory, lying is always intrinsically wrong. For as Aquinas argues, it is directly contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties, which is to convey what is really in our minds. These days, the view that lying is inherently wrong is often considered eccentric or even mad, but historically it is not uncommon. One finds it in Aristotle, for example, and in Kant. And while I would not go so far as to say that no rational person could doubt it, I would suggest that it is only in a culture as morally and intellectually rotted out as ours is by anti-essentialist and consequentialist thinking that it could seem (as it does to many people today) too bizarre to take seriously. Historically, most cultures have understood that what is good for us is in some way determined by the ends nature has set for our various capacities, and (accordingly) that some things are intrinsically wrong because they are contrary to those ends. And that is why the view that lying is inherently immoral is historically not uncommon. While there have always been those who doubted it, most people historically could at least understand why lying might seem to be inherently bad.

It is also important to be precise about what the view actually is. The claim is not that we must always tell others what is really on our minds. We can (and sometimes should) keep silent, or change the subject, or attempt to distract our listener, or in some other way avoid saying what we really think. We can joke, or act in a play or motion picture, because it is generally understood that the words we speak in such contexts do not even purport to express our actual thoughts. We can use expressions that might in a literal sense seem to be falsehoods but which have as a matter of convention come to be used in a non-literal euphemistic way. (For example, “He’s not in,” as spoken by a secretary, is generally understood to be a polite way of saying that whether the person in question is really there or not, he does not want to take any calls or visitors. “I like your new dress!” is generally understood to be the sort of thing one might say out of politeness even if one does not like the dress in question. And so forth.) Related to this, it is not necessarily wrong to speak with a mental reservation – for example, to use words generally understood to be ambiguous so that the listener could plausibly determine what is truly meant, though the speaker knows that the listener will probably take them another way. Finally, not every lie is gravely immoral; in Catholic terms, lying is not always a mortal sin, even when done with sufficient knowledge and deliberation. Context and subject matter are relevant to its gravity.

Still, an actual lie – deliberately speaking or otherwise communicating in a way that is unambiguously contrary to what one really thinks – is always at least mildly immoral. Classical natural law theory does not say we must never use a natural capacity other than for its natural end, or even, necessarily, that we must use it at all. But it does say that we cannot use it while at the same time frustrating its natural end. And that is what lying involves insofar as it entails using speech in its communicative capacity while deliberately frustrating the natural end of communication. (I won’t get into the general case for classical natural law theory here. See Aquinas, especially chapter 5, for the general theory; The Last Superstition, especially chapter 4, for application to the topic of sexual morality; and my article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for application to issues related to private property. The first half of the latter article also contains a sketch of the general theory, though the metaphysical background is more fully presented in the books.)

To return to our original question, then, would Dr. Chandra have done something immoral in lying to HAL? Given what has just been said, the answer might seem obvious: If he deliberately told HAL something he knew to be false, he would have been frustrating the natural end of communicative speech and thus acting immorally. But things are not quite that simple. For communication is of its nature interpersonal. As natural law theorists who write on this subject like to put it, you can’t lie to your dog even if you intentionally say something false to him. So, while it is true that Dr. Chandra would have been doing something immoral had he lied to HAL, it is another question whether he really could have lied to HAL even if he had tried to. For that would be possible only if HAL is a person. Is he?

Naturally, someone who accepts the computationalist conception of the mind might say that HAL is a person. But I would say that he is not. This is in part for Aristotelian-Thomistic reasons. A person is an individual substance of a rational nature, and artifacts are not substances in the strict sense. Furthermore, rationality entails immateriality. Therefore, HAL, being (like any other machine) entirely material, could not be rational; and being an artifact and thus not a true substance, could not possibly be a person. (Obviously this is just a summary; see chapter 4 of Aquinas for the details.) There are also the arguments against the computer model of the mind advanced by Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle, which I regard as decisive. Particularly important is the argument of Searle’s paper “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?”, which is less well-known than his famous Chinese Room argument but more fundamental and devastating. (It can also be found in chapter 7 of his book The Rediscovery of the Mind.)

Obviously this is a large issue, and there’s no way I’m going to settle it here. But if HAL is indeed not a person at all, but only a device which mimics the speech behavior of a person, then even if Dr. Chandra had intentionally said something false to HAL he would not have been lying. His actions would have been analogous to those of someone who, just for fun, uses the voice command “Two plus two is five” to activate an alarm system. Hence, Chandra should have had no qualms about “lying” to HAL, because he would not have been truly lying at all.

It is interesting, though – and, I think, telling – that the makers of the film thought, quite rightly, that this plot point had dramatic interest. Arthur C. Clarke (the author of the 2001 and 2010 novels) certainly had no theological or natural law ax to grind, and surely neither did the filmmakers. And yet they clearly intended for their audience to take Dr. Chandra’s moral dilemma seriously. Whatever we might say, Chandra regards HAL as a person who “deserves” to hear the truth: “Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference, we should each be treated with appropriate respect!” We’re not supposed to think: “Oh come on, even so, it’s obvious what Chandra needs to do. The lives of the crew are at stake. And HAL is likely to be destroyed anyway, so it’s better for him too if he thinks otherwise, for his own peace of mind. Consider the consequences of telling him the truth! What is Chandra, some kind of reactionary natural law absolutist?” Rather, we’re supposed at least to understand why Dr. Chandra feels uneasy lying, and indeed to regard his ultimate decision to tell HAL the truth as noble.

It would seem, then, that at least some among the liberal and secular audiences to whom a movie like 2010 is meant to appeal, who would likely scoff at the natural law position on lying as extreme and bizarre, nevertheless find themselves in sympathy with something like it when it is presented in a fictional context. However we might try to cover it over with some consciously articulated revisionist moral theory, our unconscious, inchoate grasp of the natural law can seep through in unexpected ways.

(This cognitive dissonance vis-à-vis what liberal audiences like to see in their fictional heroes but criticize in real human beings is something I’ve addressed before, in a post on Watchmen. I previously discussed the metaphysical issues raised by science fiction movies in a post on The Fly.)


  1. What would the natural law theorist's response be, then, to the classic "Nazi-at-the-door" scenario? Since you say it's always at least mildly immoral to lie, would telling the truth be the moral thing to do in this particular situation (assuming that all attempts at non-literal speech fail, or that we realize that it would be extremely unwise to risk using non-literal speech against a cold, hard-nosed killer (assuming that we're even clever enough to use it))? Or if telling the truth in this case is also immoral, then what style of thinking do we appeal to in order to go about deciding the right course of action? In such a situation, do we defer to consequentialist thinking? I bring this up primarily because I do not and cannot consider it immoral in any sense to tell a lie for the purpose of safeguarding the innocent from the malicious, and, secondly, even if it was mildly immoral, I couldn't ever consider the opposite action (telling the truth) to be moral.

  2. The response is exactly what you would expect: it is never right to lie, even to save another, because the wrongness of the lie is not due to the fact that it harms someone (in which case it would never be wrong unless it did harm someone) but due to the fact that it, itself, involves a rejection of the goodness of truth. But Nazi scenarios are always misleading because of their artificiality: the range of possible behavior is never as narrow as they suggest -- there is always more one could do than just the two options, lie or tell everything.

    Why can't you consider it immoral in any sense to lie as long as you do so with sufficiently good intention (which is what lying in order to protect the innocent amounts to)? There can be lots of ways in which a lie can result from a disposition and be part of an action that is not itself immoral, so that even the lie doesn't take away from the admirableness of the overall disposition or action (hence the midwives under Pharaoh, or Corrie ten Boom lying to Nazis); but this seems to fall well short of saying that the lie is not immoral 'in any sense' (as Corrie ten Boom herself recognized). I'm not sure what sort of reasoning underlies the intensifier here.

  3. Great post, as always!

    Could you explain why artefacts do not count as substances in a "strict sense"? Are they accidents, or what? I find that point confusing.

  4. Anonymous, the options you offer for analysis do not contain all the options possible. Other options include (as Dr. Feser suggested), (a) silence, (b)ambiguity, or (c) indirection, for example. Silence won't get you very far in this Nazi case - it will be taken as intentional non-cooperation (which it is, actually), and therefore you will still be searched, etc. Nevertheless, silence has the advantage that YOU are not responsible the results of the Nazis finding the Jews, you did not reveal their presence by your words. Not much to rejoice about, when both the Jews and you go off to jail, but it's better than nothing.

    Intentional Ambiguity: You say "Are you crazy? I know you guys would haul me away to my death if I had Jews here. No Way! I wouldn't DO it for that reason." Of course, the real reason you would do it is completely other than in order to be taken off to death, so you are telling the truth. But of course, what you say is, also, very similar to an extremely common mis-placed modifier type of language usage, and you hope the Nazi fools himself into thinking that what you meant to say was "that is the reason I wouldn't do it", when in fact you said exactly what you meant. (May I point out that "No Way!" is an exclamation rather than a proposition, and thus is neither capable of being true or false? In the context, it registers strong negativity, but is indistinct as to what the negativity is toward.)

    Indirection: The Jews are in a hidden cellar, whose access is a trapdoor under the rug under the dining room table. You say: "Help, Help! The Jews, take them away. My father never could stand Jews. Please, oh please I beg you, get them out of here. They are right there, under the table! Look, can't you see them? Ugh, I can't stand this, you have to get them out of here! What's wrong with your eyes. Aren't you going to help me, pleaasseeee?"

    May be urban legend, but the way I heard the story, this tactic was successfully used. Nazis walked away shaking their heads at the crazy woman.

    There are additional tactics that could work, that do not involve the Nazi captain being fooled: Offers to buy him off, for example. Or appeals to his better nature, or his love of (insert one: mother, country, God, music, girlfriend, etc).

    Admittedly, none of these approaches are exactly likely to work. Neither is a straightforward lie, though, so using a non-lie tactic isn't all THAT much worse. But at least with one of the methods that doesn't involve a lie, you can at the same time be praying for God to step in and perform a wonder and help you out, and have a reason to at least hope for assistance.

    Arthur C. Clarke (the author of the 2001 and 2010 novels) certainly had no theological or natural law ax to grind, and surely neither did the filmmakers.

    Arthur C. Clarke - from what I read of his later works - gradually came to an extremely bitter hatred of traditional religion, and of traditional morals, especially as espoused by the Catholic Church. Fortunately for anyone who might want to think about his stance, he was childishly ignorant about what Christianity actually claims, and about the basis for morality that underlies traditional morals - so much so, I think, that virtually anyone can "see through" his blind hatred with only a little unbiased effort. (He also substituted for religion a puerile new-age notion of some mystical framework, but he did it so poorly, in my opinion, that it damaged his literary craft beyond repair. He became an SF hack.) It is indeed ironic that Clarke was so ignorant about what traditional morals really are that he could think that his character Chandra could be fighting off the evils of the cultural norms by insisting on truthfulness. But I would hesitate to ascribe too much to Clarke, since the movie-makers probably warped his story anyway.

  5. Anon @ 12:28,
    The short answer to the Nazi scenario is this: he should lie, because it is a morally good thing to save innocent life. But it's true that insofar as he lies he does do evil. So am I saying that evil should be done so that good may come from it? No. Am I saying that sometimes one has no choice but to do evil for the greater good? Not exactly.

    Look, there are two ways one can consider a case of having no choice but to do evil, absolutely and practically. Now to have absolutely no choice but to do evil is a situation that never exists; for all things are possible with God for those who have faith. But speaking practically, let's face it, the average beer-guzzling German who finds a family of Jews hiding in his cellar then has the Gestapo at his door is not going do the right thing with saintly perfection. He's going to cut corners; he's going to lie, which is bad. Nevertheless, he will have done well overall.

    I may be flirting with consequentialism with this answer. I welcome objections.

  6. I cannot accept that lying to the Nazi would be in any way immoral, and this is one of those things that has troubled me about the Church's position.

  7. Christ did lie (John 7:8-9) but did not sin. And that's not even a Nazi-Scenario, for he could e.g. actually have stayed away from the fiest.

    I'll have to think about where the hole in Prof. Feser's argument is, but there is one, for the truth doesn't contradict itself.

  8. It's interesting how often in movies climactic moments, or at least pivotal moments, involve the protagonist's going against consequentialist or utilitarian considerations in their moral choices. Like Luke Skywalker ignoring Yoda to go to the rescue of Princess Leia and the others. Or that Star Trek film where Captain Kirk says, "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many". Our culture seems to accept, on a deep psychological level that only surfaces in our big-screen dreams, that there is something ennobling in such moments.

  9. Anonymous at 3:35:

    What is it that makes it so that you cannot accept that lying to the Nazi would be in any way immoral? What's the underlying reasoning here?

    With regard to occasional visitor's reference to John 7:8-9, most mss., of course, have a 'yet' which eliminates the problem entirely, so one has to assume that this is a scribal emendation; but even if one does so, Jesus is responding to a demand that he go up to the feast publically, and he responds that it is not his time &ec., and therefore the response is at most ambiguous in its actual context; and even if that weren't the case, there is nothing in the passage to indicate lying intent, because a man may honestly change his mind.

  10. @Occasional Vistor:

    Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary proposes two resolutions:

    "He did not say, I will not ascend, but only, I do not ascend; that is, in your company. (St. Chrysostom, hom. xlvii. in Joan.) --- Or, I do not go up to this festival, viz. the first or second day of the feast, which lasted eight days, and to which you wish me to ascend: but he went afterwards, when the first part of the festival was over. (St. Augustine, tract. 28. in Joan.)"

  11. Dismissing concerns about global nuclear war while arguing the morality of a lie? Talk about straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

  12. Brandon, you started out great, but the last bit falls apart.

    Since this is within the Book of John, the divinity of Christ is already stated in Ch 1. As such, his divine nature cannot be contradicted, as it is perfect and immutable.

    @Anon - you beat me to it.

  13. Also, I find that sometimes stating the explicit truth, or varnished towards exaggeration, in a sarcastic manner is more effective than a lie. I suppose that in this society, both lies and cynicism are so prevalent, that the most cynical response is deemed the truest.

  14. @Patrick:

    I'm not sure how well your critique of Brandon holds up. Christ (pace the Monothelites) had both a human and a Divine will, and while Christ's Divine Will is, of course, totally immutable, I see no reason to affirm that of His human will.

  15. Anonymous @5:48 is quite right; reasoning from divine immutability doesn't work here; precisely the same reasoning would require us to say that Jesus must never have walked anywhere, because walking presupposes mutability.

  16. Christ (pace the Monothelites) had both a human and a Divine will, and while Christ's Divine Will is, of course, totally immutable, I see no reason to affirm that of His human will.

    I'm not sure exactly what is meant by the above, but if its intent is to imply that Christ's human and divine wills, united in the one divine person, were on occasion at war with each other, then it's false.

    Ed (and Brandon), I've always had difficulty seeing a falsehood told to one who has no right to the truth as a lie. If a Nazi asks me if there are any Jews here (being slow-witted and unable to come up with a clever ambiguity) I'm going to say "No." The Nazi has no more right to the truth than HAL. But then the Nazi is a person and HAL isn't. So is it the case that any untruth told to any person is by necessity a lie, albeit my culpability for telling it might be mitigated by circumstances?

    In the HAL scenario, btw, it might be impossible for Dr. Chandra to lie to HAL, but he has deceived the person who told him to lie.

  17. @William Luse:

    My point about the Monothelites was not that Christ's Divine and human wills could somehow be "at war." Rather, what I was trying to say is that Christ's changing His (human) mind on something contingent in no way contradicts the immutability of His Divine Will. I hope I'm not being unclear.

    As regards telling the truth to those who don't deserve it, I'm not sure whether inquiry as to who has a "right" to our truthfulness is a useful way of looking at the matter. It certainly wasn't Aquinas', for one.

    And anyway, doesn't such judgement ("Who really deserves to be told the truth?") lie outside our competence? "Judge not, lest ye be judged," after all.

  18. Anonymous at 3:35:

    What is it that makes it so that you cannot accept that lying to the Nazi would be in any way immoral? What's the underlying reasoning here?


    Maybe it's just emotional, but I cannot except that I would be doing anything wrong by lying to the Nazi. It just seems twisted to me. And where does it end? I mean, when the screen asks me "Have you read the terms of service?" and I check "yes" even though I haven't, am I sinning? COME ON.

    As someone else said, there is something being forgotten. And that is, does the person have the right to knowing the truth? This is mentioned in the Catechism, as well.

  19. @Anon @10:41:

    I mean, when the screen asks me "Have you read the terms of service?" and I check "yes" even though I haven't, am I sinning?

    No, because, as Dr. Feser mentioned, communication and lying are intrinsically interpersonal activities, and the computer is not a person. Moreover, as Ed also notes, in certain circumstances a given reply (such as “I like your new dress!”), while technically not true, is commonly understood to mean something different. Pressing the "I agree" button seems a perfectly good example of this type of occurrence.

    As someone else said, there is something being forgotten. And that is, does the person have the right to knowing the truth? This is mentioned in the Catechism, as well.

    Could you please provide the relevant paragraph numbers?

  20. @Anon

    I do apologize for my poor conveyance of my thoughts. I have therefore taken it upon myself to properly lubricate my lucubration.

    I did not intend to state that Jesus is/was without a human nature, only that his divine nature cannot be co-opted.

  21. Hi Bill,

    Whether the other person has a right to the truth is irrelevant. The point is that one deliberately perverts the natural end of the communicative faculty.

    Compare the case of sexual intercourse with a spouse who, because of adultery, has lost the right to the marital act. Could one justify contraception, withdrawal, etc. in this case on the grounds that since the other person has lost the right to any sex at all, he or she has a fortiori lost the right to a sexual act completed in the normal way? Of course not, because an act completed other than in the normal way is from a natural law point of view per se disordered, completely apart from whether the spouse has a right to sex. Same with deliberately speaking contrary to one's mind. It too is per se contrary to nature, and the other person's not having a right to the truth doesn't change that.

    That is Aquinas's position, and the manualists not only follow him, but also tend explicitly to reject the alternative construal of lying that you suggest. There are several good reasons for doing so apart from what has already been said. For example, suppose someone has a right to know a certain truth, and we refuse to say anything to him at all, false or otherwise. We've violated his rights, but have we lied to him? Obviously not. Clearly, then, there is more to lying than just a refusal to respect someone's right to know the truth, and what that further element is is surely the element Aquinas emphasizes.

    Consider further that defining a lie in terms of what the listener has a right to would justify us in telling all sorts of falsehoods to people who have for any reason no right to know certain truths. For example, since there are surely at least some things (e.g. certain military secrets) the public does not have a right to know about, it would justify the government not only in not revealing these secrets, but also in telling outright falsehoods instead. It would justify parents in telling all sorts of falsehoods to their children about matters they are not yet ready to learn about . It would entail that, since we have no rights at all against God, God might tell us nothing but falsehoods. Etc. But none of this is acceptable (certainly not from a Thomistic POV!) Therefore, the idea that something is a "lie" only if the listener has a right to the truth is also unacceptable.

  22. Anonymous,

    The passages from the Catechism that you cite do NOT say that it is OK to tell falsehoods to those who have no right to the truth. On the contrary, it mentions, as alternatives to telling such people the truth, "being silent about what ought not be known" and "making use of a discreet language." The reason it does not also add "telling falsehoods" -- which it surely would have if this were something the passage were meant to justify -- is that such a teaching would conflict with what Catholic theology has consistently said.

  23. Feser said:
    "Whether the other person has a right to the truth is irrelevant."

    CCC 2488-2489

    2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

    2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect and privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not to be know or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.

  24. So are you saying that if I lie to the Nazi, I should feel bad about it because I committed something that is immoral? I mean, this is kind of frightening. :(

  25. @Patrick:

    I am totally sorry if I came off as saying you denied that Christ had a human nature! I absolutely did not mean to call you heretic, because a.) that's a tremendously uncharitable assumption to make and b.) you don't seem like the heretical sort, anyway. ;)

  26. BTW, to add to my second to last comment, I would emphasize that to tell children that Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, etc. are real, is wrong. It is wrong because these are lies, and lying is intrinsically wrong. But it is also particularly dangerous insofar as it can only undermine a child's general confidence in a parent when the child finally comes to learn that the stories in question are false, especially if the parent has taken pains to keep the illusion going even after a child first expresses some doubts: "What else are they lying about? What about all this religion stuff?"

    Of course, parents who do this mean well. But I don't think they've thought it through very carefully. (Some manualists make a point of criticizing this practice, but unfortunately it still seems fairly widespread even among very conservative Catholic families.)

  27. @Anon @12:09:

    Ed, if you had read him in context, was simply saying that someone's "right to the truth" does not matter when it comes to the morality of lying. He was definitely not claiming that someone's "right to truth" is absolutely morally irrelevant.


    You write that an adulterer, by virtue of his adultery, foregoes his right to the marital act. Although that makes sense, I'm not sure I follow all the logic behind it. Could you explain in more detail why this is the case?

  28. Catechism-quoting Anonymous,

    By now you've no doubt read my second comment. As I pointed out already, there is nothing in any of that that allows telling falsehoods. As the surrounding context makes obvious, what is in question here is, instead, the need to keep silent about things that should be kept private (e.g. other people's secrets and sins).

    If you don't like it, don't blame me. Blame the Catechism and the Church, since all I'm saying is what the Church has always said.

  29. @Ed:

    (Same Anon from 12:27, but just saw your last comment.) Thank you! I've always been enraged at the practice of lying to children about Father Christmas & Co., and I can say from experience that it really does undermine one's trust in their parents.

  30. Anonymous at 10:41:

    I mean, when the screen asks me "Have you read the terms of service?" and I check "yes" even though I haven't, am I sinning? COME ON.

    In colloquial terms we often reserve the word 'sin' for big, very noticeable wrongdoings; but it's seems pretty glib, at least at first glance, to say that indicating you've read a contract that you haven't is just automatically classified as "not immoral in any way", although the other Anonymous is right that it won't necessarily be a straightforward instance of lying, depending on whether you genuinely understand it to mean, "Have you read these terms of service in detail?" or "Have you read terms of service like these so that you know what you are committing yourself to?" (i.e., what you understand the actual intent of such checkboxes to be is relevant to whether you are lying, as it is in responding to any question). (I don't think the interpersonal question is relevant here, because when you check the box you are making a contract with the people providing the service, not with the computer.) Even if it's not lying, of course, it still could be imprudent sloppiness.

    In other words, it's one thing to say, "It's not immoral in any way that's not easily forgivable given the situation," or "It's not immoral in any way that's not something even a very virtuous person might occasionally lapse into," or "It's not immoral in any way that's not completely understandable under the circumstances," -- and another entirely to say, "It's not immoral in any way at all." And I don't see how one gets the absolute claim here.

  31. Hi Ed,

    First, about lying to dogs: if my dog associates the word "walkies!", said in a certain sing-song tone, with going for a walk, and I say "walkies!" in that sing-song tone, thereby getting my dog all excited, but I did it just to amuse myself at seeing the dog get all excited, am I lying to the dog? I'm a bit unsure of what to say here. I'm certainly misleading the dog, and maybe doing something more. What do you think?

    Second, you wrote this very interesting passage:

    "Still, an actual lie – deliberately speaking or otherwise communicating in a way that is unambiguously contrary to what one really thinks – is always at least mildly immoral. Classical natural law theory does not say we must never use a natural capacity other than for its natural end, or even, necessarily, that we must use it at all. But it does say that we cannot use it while at the same time frustrating its natural end. And that is what lying involves insofar as it entails using speech in its communicative capacity while deliberately frustrating the natural end of communication."

    I don't know if you talk about this in Aquinas (I don't remember if you mentioned it in TLS), but how does a Thomist talk about degrees of immorality (e.g., lying is mildly immoral)? Is it based on the harm done? If so, how does a Thomist define harm? Is harm defined in terms of the degree to which your act renders you and/or others incapable of using its natural capacities for the ends for which they were designed?

    Also, I certainly have the intuition that lying even to the Nazi should make me feel a little guilty. I think lying is, in any circumstance, something for which you should feel a little guilty. But I also feel that way about not telling someone the whole truth when they ask for it, or saying something you know will be taken the wrong way, but doing nothing to correct it. With regard to these latter two actions, is my moral sense just wrong here? Should I not feel guilty for, say, misleading the person who's trying to bully me into giving him something (to take an example less extreme than Nazi at the door)?

  32. Hi Bobcat,

    Good questions.

    1. The dog case is interesting, but I would not call it lying, because the dog is still not responding to speech qua speech (i.e. it is not grasping concepts or the like) but rather responding to conditioning. Insofar as the dog gets frustrated when you don't actually take the walk, I suppose someone might argue that it is cruel (though I wouldn't go that far) but that's a different moral question from that of lying.

    2. Re: degrees of immorality, that will be determined by all sorts of things. Consequences sometimes play a role. (Like other non-consequentialists, natural law theorists don't say consequences don't matter at all, only that they are not the only thing that matters and that they must be considered only against the background of certain absolute duties.) One's intentions are also relevant, as are circumstances. This is very general, though, and the there's no better way to see how it gets worked out in detail than to read through the sorts of manuals Scholastics used to write, wherein all sorts of issues and cases are addressed, and various principles are formulated, justified, and applied.

    3. Yes, sometimes even just keeping silent should make us feel guilty if the person in question needs to know or (in some cases) would really want to know the facts in question. But it depends. I think we should feel a bit guilty about (say) failing to tell a friend about some job opportunity that we know he might want to follow up on, when we could have done so with little effort. On the other hand, avoiding desperate salesmen and the like is not something we need feel guilty about, although out of natural compassion we sometimes do anyway.

  33. Not to nitpick, but is it technically correct to say that HAL is wholly material, given that he is a composite of form and matter, the form being immaterial? (This I suppose would have to assume that HAL is a substance, which I notice you denied, but I don't think that was your reason for saying HAL is wholly material.) So if HAL is a form-matter composite, and if the form is immaterial, and if you want to say that HAL can't exhibit rationality on account of his relation to matter, then wouldn't it be better to say that HAL cannot exhibit rationality because none of the formal powers HAL possesses can act without a corporeal organ and that that is how the power by which acts of rationality occur must operate? But then, to claim that HAL has no such power that acts without a corporeal organ is to claim that HAL cannot think and so is not a person and so cannot be lied to. But aside from denying that HAL is a substance, how can we know that HAL has no such power? We infer powers from acts after all, and HAL's acts appear to have the character of rationality.

  34. Re: HAL as a substance, consider the standard A-T tree/bed example. The tree is a substance, the bed is not, and the difference is illustrated by the fact that if you planted a bed made out of fresh wood, what would grow from it (if anything) would be tree-like rather than bed-like. The form of a tree is a substantial form, something there in nature, while the form of a bed is not, but has to be imposed on natural things, from outside as it were.

    Similarly, the basic natural components out of which HAL is made are true substances -- they would correspond to the fresh wood out of which the bed is made -- but HAL is not -- he (or rather it) would correspond to the bed.

    Keep in mind that "material" is used in different ways in A-T. It could mean "matter as contrasted with form" -- in which case, naturally, everything has a non-material aspect (i.e. its form). Or it could mean "totally dependent on matter for its operations" -- in which case some things are purely material in the sense of having no operations that do not require some material substrate. It is in that sense that beds, trees, and HAL are all purely material while human beings are not.

    But, you ask, why not assume that HAL does have rationality, and is thus like us partly immaterial, given that we infer the natures of things from their behavior and that HAL seems to exhibit rational behavior? The answer is that the "things" whose natures we are inferring in this case are the components ouf of which HAL is made rather than HAL as a whole, since HAL is (unlike us) an artifact. Only if HAL were a natural substance could we say that his apparently rational behavior was a sign of genuinely rational. Since we know independently that he is not a natural substance, we know that HAL's "rationality" is only apparent rather than real, just as the "skin," "hair" or "eyes" of the wax statue of a human being are apparent rather than real.

  35. It's difficult for me to accept that lying to the Nazi would be in any way immoral, or that I would be accountable to God for it. Is this really so hard to understand? Eh, maybe I'm need of some pastoral help in getting over this issue, not a philosopher! =)

  36. HAL simulates consciousness but does not in reality possess it. HAL is a (very complicated) computer. Any communication with a computer is basically sending some sequence of ON-OFF switches into it to get it to perform the desired action. If a certain input will cause the pre-programmed functions of the computer to result in the death of human beings who should not be put to death, then one would be morally obligated to provide the inputs that would result in the computer's continuing to perform its human-life-sustaining functions.

  37. Anonymous at 7:06:

    Yes, I get that you have difficulty accepting it. That's not really the question I've been trying to ask. What makes it difficult to accept? Why is it that you so firmly need the absolute claim ("in any way immoral") rather than the large variety of weaker claims that are available? How do you reconcile the absoluteness of the claim with the fact that truth is a great good and honesty a virtue? Where do you think Ed's argument in the post goes off track? I'm assuming that you're not just showing up to say, "Hey, I'm completely irrational: I can't accept it and what's the reason for this? There isn't any." If it's difficult to accept, there must be something about it that makes it difficult to accept.

    Of course, it's possible you don't know (that seemed suggested previously), in which case I suppose I'm puzzled as to why you think it's important for everyone to know that some anonymous person has some vague feeling that it's wrong in some largely undefined way (I say 'largely' because it may have something to do with slippery slopes, although whether that was supposed to be more than a supporting argument), which is pretty much what it amounts to at this point. Surely you had more in mind than that?

  38. I admit I have not followed this post/discussion as closely as others, so I may have missed it being brought into the combox. I think an intriguing way to re-approach the question is to ask, "Is it wrong for HAL to lie to us?" Is HAL obliged to his programmers and directives above the truth?

  39. My default avatar is indeed HAL outside of Blogger. So raise a toast to 6 1334 5k1llz h0m683!

  40. Thanks so much Dr. Feser for this post. I've had no end of resistance from otherwise good Catholics who turn into consequentialists over lying. I recall a moment in Family Guy where Peter remarks, "Everthing I say is a lie...except for that..and that...and that...and that...

    It illustrates the problem nicely. Namely, the moment you allow lying into your system, it folds in on itself.

  41. @codgitator: Actually, HAL cannot lie. It can only return "responses" within its programmed range of available responses.
    In probably the crucial point of Tom Clancy's breakout novel, The Hunt for Red October, the sonar operator on the USS Dallas does not "believe" the response of the sonic analysis program that the odd intermittent hum he's detected is a seismic anomoly. That's because he knows that the program was modified from a program designed to assist earthquake researchers, so any sound pattern not specifically programmed for will be interpreted as an unknown seismic event. I think it might be helpful to consider that if you ever find yourself caught in what you suspect might be a Turing experiment.

  42. It's immoral to lie even in the "Nazi at the door" scenario but it seems to me it would at worst be a venial sin.

    A mortal sin requires a serious act, done after sufficient reflection & with full consent of the will. The first condition "lying to a Nazi murderer to save a Jew" is not a serious offense. It is the moral equivalent to pickpocketing someone with the explicit intention of stealing a mere penny. Or plucking a one grape from a bunch in the Supermarket & eating it.
    Granted committing venial sin is not something you should take lightly but I would lie to the Nazi & say my Rosary in penance afterwords. It's not hard.

  43. Ben, I agree that lying to the Nazi might be very much less grievous than other types of lying. I would be cautious about concluding that it would, therefore, be a venial sin. But let's grant for the moment that it is venial. I don't think your attitude of just going ahead and lying and saying a rosary afterwards works. In order for a good work to atone for a sin, you must first have contrition for your sin. In order to have real contrition, you must be sorry that you acted that way and regret that action. Being sorry that you acted that way includes a will that says something like "gee, if I had it to do over again, I would want do it differently, because I regret the lie." But in your scenario, you have no regret whatsoever. So no atonement takes place either.

    Anonymous, it is not surprising that you do not feel that there is something immoral about lying to the Nazis. Fortunately for us humans, though, good morals in not based on our feelings, because our feelings are unreliable. There are times when I feel uncomfortable about telling people NO, but I know for certain that good morals requires that I do it anyway. Furthermore, our sensibilities of sound social behavior is clouded by the defects of our culture. In those areas where our culture is, itself, deformed, our own sensibilities are highly suspect, and we should be willing to listen to other generations to hear a different perspective on what is moral.

    Most earlier generations respected strict truth-telling, even to the point of grave personal harm, to be highly noble. Recall Regulus, Roman general of African invasion forces in the First Punic War, was captured and allowed to go to Rome to sue for peace. He recommended that the senate not take the Carthaginian offer, and then returned to Carthage on his own promise to return. He was then tortured and killed by the Carthaginians, as he expected. I know that my own sensibilities were formed during the cold war, in which I thought that it was perfectly natural to tell lies to the Russians. Only when I studied more about earlier times was I able to reflect on the moral disorder that meant.

  44. So, let's say I'm considering converting to Catholicism. I understand part of the greatness of the Church is in its unwavering defense of tradition and moral dogma. But guys...really? This answer seems so against common sense, as well as emotion. I understand the Nazi case is an extreme one, but why would God implant such a strong pang of conscience to "do the right thing" and lie to the Nazis? Surely our passions and instincts would tell us to give the refugees up, save that not also clearly immoral? Didn't Augustine say that "an unjust law is no law"?

    If a good Catholic must swallow this aspect of Natural Law regarding lying, then so be it, I suppose, but these comments seem to point to an error made along the way. But I ain't no expert.

  45. The funny thing is that in the nineteenth century you find people regularly appealing to common sense and sentiment as reasons why you should obviously never, ever lie regardless of the circumstances. The reaction some people are having is not as graven into their hearts as they think it is. As Tony notes, this is one of the areas of moral life in which our first gut reactions are very influenced by how we are socialized.

    I'm not sure what conversion to Catholicism has to do with anything; the argument is essentially that lying to someone is essentially disordered as a matter of reason. It just so happens that Catholics are one group emphasizing the importance of order according to reason in moral life. (And it is notable that virtually every philosophical position that does take order according to reason as important, however much it may diverge from natural law theory, nonetheless takes a very strong stance against lying.)

    And what is it with all the people who think the only alternative to lying to Nazis and murderers is to tell them everything, or, indeed, anything at all? Does no one see any problem with even appearing to condone their behavior?

  46. Tony,

    Well lying to a Nazi is self-evidently the same as stealing a penny from Donald Trump. Both are objectively wrong but not on the level of lying to the Pope or stealing the last penny from a despratly poor person. So my intellect tells me it is a venial sin which is why I owe God a Rosary if I do it. If I wasn't sorry I would not do the Rosary.

    But naturally I realize that I am too close to the dark side when I do so & naturally if I can get away with not telling the Nazis what they need to know without directly lying I will do that first.

  47. The thing is Tony a mortal sin requires all three conditions. Clearly condition one tells me it's not a grave matter to lie to a Nazi anymore than stealing a penny from Donald Trump is a grave matter.

    (Of course I can't think of any reason to steal even a penny from Trump but up against the wall I could lie my arse off to a Nazi).

  48. Ed Feser writes: “Therefore, HAL, being (like any other machine) entirely material, could not be rational; and being an artifact and thus not a true substance, could not possibly be a person.

    I fail to understand this logic. Suppose one would take Ed Feser’s body and make an exact copy of it, atom by atom. From all we know from science that copy would behave exactly as the original Ed Feser does. Would one nevertheless be justified in saying that the copy, being a physical artifact, is not a person and is not rational?

  49. Brandon: Conversion has nothing to do with it really, except as I am mulling over it, I'd like to understand what exactly it says about things like these.

    I really don't think you can say that this particular scenario is a "socialized" one. It was devastating to Kant, I believe, and it would be devastating as well to Natural Law if indeed that is what it is saying. I can live with the whole idea of it being a venial sin in that case, but man, it just seems so clear that it is the moral thing to do in that situation...

  50. It was devastating to Kant, I believe, and it would be devastating as well to Natural Law if indeed that is what it is saying.

    Not in the nineteenth century; Kant's view on the point wasn't generally considered strange at the time. The notion that this is somehow a devastating response -- I find that it's pretty much never made clear why it's supposed to be devastating, since people prefer to be vague and handwaving about it -- is something that has arisen relatively recently. So it is very clearly a socialized response. And as I noted before, Corrie ten Boom, who grew up in a Dutch Calvinist society, and who, unlike pretty much anyone who uses the Nazi-at-the-door scenario today, actually faced this very situation, and so actually knew what she was talking about, always held that it would have been better if she could have avoided lying when she did. (Her sister Betsy, although often in similar circumstances, never lied, and got away with it.)

    There are problems with Kant's ethics; this is not one of them, or, at least, we should be very suspicious of the fact that belief that it is a problem with it is so very localized historically and geographically. Particularly since the point is never that lying is always and everywhere an utterly heinous sin, but the very weak position that any time you lie, your actions have some real moral defect. Historically speaking, that is far from being the strongest position people have taken on this sort of subject; and that it is so common to reject this very weak principle is perhaps a sign of just how much we lower our standards whenever they start looking difficult.

    Part of the problem is that you are thinking of "the moral thing to do". It's simply a mistake, especially when we are dealing with abstract cases to do, to think about morality as something found in the one wholly right thing, period. In fact, there is a wide spectrum of things one could do, some of which are fully moral, some of which are moral but defectively so, and some of which are outright immoral. The danger in thinking of 'the moral thing to do' is that one doesn't do justice to the middle group: one either ignores it completely, or pretends that it is completely moral. And this is a serious problem, because it is where most decent people are most of the time.

    I suspect most people who give the lying solution to the problem would, in practice, turn out to be neither so decent as they think nor so clever as to be able actually to pull it off, but that's true of every area of moral life when we're talking about it abstract terms. Lying to protect lives is exactly the sort of thing lots of decent people would do; the danger lies not in being this sort of decent person (which is moving in the right direction, at least) but in pretending there's nothing in it that falls short, because that's as much as to say that honesty and concern for truth should be sold down the river whenever they get too inconvenient.

  51. Hi everyone,

    There is no unanimity of Catholic teaching on the question of whether it is ever right to tell a lie. Please have a look at this article from the Catholic Encyclopedia on lying:


    A few excerpts:

    "There is some difference of opinion among the Fathers of the Christian Church. Origen quotes Plato and approves of his doctrine on this point (Stromata, VI). He says that a man who is under the necessity of lying should diligently consider the matter so as not to exceed. He should gulp the lie as a sick man does his medicine. He should be guided by the example of Judith, Esther, and Jacob. If he exceed, he will be judged the enemy of Him who said, 'I am the Truth.' St. John Chrysostom held that it is lawful to deceive others for their benefit, and Cassian taught that we may sometimes lie as we take medicine, driven to it by sheer necessity."

    "St. Augustine held that the naked truth must be told whatever the consequences may be. He directs that in difficult cases silence should be observed if possible. If silence would be equivalent to giving a sick man unwelcome news that would kill him, it is better, he says, that the body of the sick man should perish rather than the soul of the liar. Besides this one, he puts another case which became classical in the schools. If a man is hid in your house, and his life is sought by murderers, and they come and ask you whether he is in the house, you may say that you know where he is, but will not tell: you may not deny that he is there. The Scholastics, while accepting the teaching of St. Augustine on the absolute and intrinsic malice of a lie, modified his teaching on the point which we are discussing. It is interesting to read what St. Raymund of Pennafort wrote on the subject in his Summa, published before the middle of the thirteenth century. He says that most doctors agree with St. Augustine, but others say that one should tell a lie in such cases. Then he gives his own opinion, speaking with hesitation and under correction. The owner of the house where the man lies concealed, on being asked whether he is there, should as far as possible say nothing."

    "From the middle of the eighteenth century onwards a few discordant voices have been heard from time to time. Some of these, as Van der Velden and a few French and Belgian writers, while admitting in general a lie is intrinsically wrong, yet argued that there are exceptions to the rule. As it is lawful to kill another in self-defense, so in self-defense it is lawful to tell a lie. Others wished to change the received definition of a lie."

  52. Vincent,

    You are quoting rather selectively from the CE and conveying a very misleading impression. The very same article also points out that St. Augustine's no-exceptions view:

    "has generally been followed in the Western Church, and it has been defended as the common opinion by the Schoolmen and by modern divines."

    It says also that:

    "In places almost innumerable Holy Scripture seems to condemn lying as absolutely and unreservedly as it condemns murder and fornication. Innocent III gives expression in one of his decretals to this interpretation, when he says that Holy Scripture forbids us to lie even to save a man's life."

    and that the article's description of the view of Aquinas and others about lying:

    "reproduces the common and universally accepted teaching of the Catholic schools throughout the Middle Ages until recent times" and that "Most of these writers who attack the common opinion show that they have very imperfectly grasped its true meaning. At any rate they have made little or no impression on the common teaching of the Catholic schools."

    In other words, while the view I have been describing and defending is not the infallible teaching of the Church (and I never claimed it was) neither is it merely one position among other equally defensible ones. Whatever might have been true many centuries ago, it is now and has been for many centuries the standard view.

  53. It is worth adding that the CE article on "Mental reservation" also affirms that:

    "According to the common Catholic teaching it is never allowable to tell a lie, not even to save human life. A lie is something intrinsically evil, and as evil may not be done that good may come of it, we are never allowed to tell a lie."

    To cite an official teaching document, you also find the teaching that "lies of every sort are prohibited" by the Eight Commandment in the Roman Catechism (i.e. the Catechism of the Council of Trent, issued by Pius V).

    So, again, it is very misleading just to say flatly that "there is no unanimity of Catholic teaching" on this issue. Like many other issues that later got settled, there was some diversity of opinion on this matter in the early Church. But for many centuries now the position I have been describing has been the standard one.

  54. Yes, Dr Feser, but everything is different now that we've been freed by V2. :p

  55. Perhaps the truth lies in a different direction: That the good, being part of the nature of God, is intrinsically free and creative and thus not amenable to nailing down by some absolute formula. For example, I know of no ethical theory, including Natural Law theory, which justifies Mary Magdelene wasting the precious stuff to wash Jesus’ feet. The only formula about ethics which is never wrong would be a tautological formula, such as “the moral deed is one love moves one into choosing”.

    Perhaps it’s a weakness of faith that we even search for such ethical formulas, for following Christ is not a matter of applying a formula or following a set of beliefs or reading a map, but a matter of experiencing the living and actual presence of the risen God.

  56. This Nazi question is an excellent subject of debate. I've been considering it for some time and am a bit conflicted, though not I think in the traditional way.

    1. I have no problem whatsoever with the idea that one may be required to die rather than sin in some cases; why should lying be an exception?

    2. I am a "hardcore" Thomist, and have been for years. Naturally, then, I totally agree that there are moral absolutes and that our morality must be guided by reason and not emotion, which is sometimes very flawed.

    But after considering the issue, I still feel as though something is missing in the consideration. It is difficult to distinguish between the urging of conscience and that of emotion at times, to be sure, but I understand what others are saying here. It seems to me at least initially that lying to a Nazi would not be wrong in those circumstances.

    Here is an approach that may have not been considered, however:

    1. Under certain conditions (games, warfare, etc.) deception is a part of the standard rules, and therefore allowable.

    2. One could very well consider the Nazi state to be illegitimate. Or, even if not, one could certainly agree that the Nazis and the Jews were in a state of war, at least in some sense, and that the Jews were on the right side of the conflict.

    3. In protecting Jews, one is an ally of them/on their side of the war, and the Nazis, in turn, are operating as agents on the other side of the war. As such, and since deception is allowable in warfare, one could lie to the Nazi as an act deception in warfare.

    I'm not saying that this is certainly correct, mind you; I'm only presenting it as a possible solution to the conundrum. Deception in games and warfare is generally agreed upon to be allowable. So what do you think, Mr. Feser et al?

    - d_senti

  57. In essence Dr. Feser it's like the torture issue. Torture is intrinsically immoral but then does waterboarding really constitute torture? What's the definition of torture?

    Lying is intrinsically immoral but is it really a lie to mislead someone who has no right to the truth?

  58. A major problem is deciding just what the word "lie" means (and how it translates into other languages; not only do cultural expectations change across time and space, but so do exact shades of meaning). Quotations like, "Holy Scripture seems to condemn lying as absolutely and unreservedly as it condemns murder" are rather unhelpful in this regard. Do they mean that lying is absolutely wrong, as is murder, because of the very definition of the word? All murder is wrong, though not all killing is. And yet even the people who want to lie to Nazis would, it seems clear, call it "lying".

    Josh is correct in pointing out that if that really is the law, then that's the law, no matter how uncomfortable or how odd or how "unappealing" it may be. Sometimes truth is stranger than [telling] fictions, and gut instinct is simply not a reliable guide to right and wrong. On the other hand, some people seem far too quick to dismiss the Nazi-liars' instincts; guts are not wholly reliable, but if one has trained oneself, if one has tried to develop virtue, then one's instincts ought to be at least partially reliable (that's what they're there for, after all). Anyway, simply accusing people of having succumbed to modern relativism is not sufficient to answer the charges: an argument that "lying to Nazis just feels right" is no argument, but it is a serious point that it seems to follow that lying is worse than murder, or that actually it's OK to lie as long as you use a really sarcastic tone.

    In general, killing someone is wrong, by simple application of natural law; but it can be moral to kill someone in self-defence or in a proper state execution. Natural law does not insist that you can safely wound someone in self-defence, but killing your attacker is merely a venial sin, or something like that. The killing can, under the right circumstances, be morally acceptable (though of course if you can merely wound the aggressor, say, that would obviously be better). The parallel case would surely be that lying can, under extreme enough circumstances, be acceptable (though remaining silent, etc. might be better, if possible). If that's not the case, then killing a man must be more "natural" than telling a lie, which is an exceedingly unobvious claim to make.

    Again, you could argue that according to a strict definition of the English word, uttering truthful words sarcastically is not "lying", but it unarguably is intentional deception and surely wrong. (Unless it's to Nazis, of course!) According to Prof. Feser's definition — "communicating in a way that is unambiguously contrary to what one really thinks" — the "sarcastic pseudo-lie" is, in fact, a real lie. The question, though, isn't how or when you can cheat natural law; the question is whether the natural end of communication really is to "unambiguously convey what one really thinks". In fact, joking or acting were already excused on the grounds that they do not "purport to express our actual thoughts". But what about a joke that depends on being taken seriously (at least at first, until reaching the punchline, perhaps)? Are they immoral? What about planning a surprise party, or buying a surprise gift? Such things involve deliberately deception, so if we really want to be strict, those are all immoral too. (It makes "natural" law seem rather unnatural, but I'm prepared to forsake a fair bit of common sense for a position that's truly consistent.)


  59. [Continued... I thought this went through hours ago, but it seems to have disappeared...]

    However, I'm more receptive to the importance of whether one's audience has the authority to demand the truth from you. Of course it's not the only factor, but it cannot be irrelevant. That's because I do not consider the "natural" function of speech to be conveying one's actual thoughts. That is one of its natural functions. Joking, acting, and scat singing are others. (If lying to Nazis were wrong, scatting would have to be!) But there's more: communication often serves the purpose of mundane signalling, as a mere un-human mechanism to carry out some action. (Un-human not as in "inhuman" or bad, but as in "if we could get a machine to do this for us, we would".) Reciting a telephone number to an operator is in itself no more (or less) "telling the truth" than the equivalent action of turning a dial. And that brings us nicely back to the original topic of this thread.

    As pointed out, "talking" to HAL is really just a way of providing input, of "steering" a machine. A very advanced machine may lend a more human appearance to its interactions than pushing buttons on a phone, but it would no more count as lying than would turning the "hot" tap to get cold water if you knew that the taps had been mislabelled. (The defective HAL is simply a very elaborate instance of "mislabelling", so to speak.) In the case of clicking a button on the computer to indicate agreement, the computer is acting as a medium of communication with the providers of the software, so it does count as communicating with a person. (Though it still might not count as lying: for example, you may have certain legal consumer rights that cannot be forfeited, even if you say/click that you do. This is an example where the authority of your audience is clearly relevant.) Note that communicating with HAL could in some sense be considered an extension of communicating with its programmers, so there is some possibility of "lying" to HAL if you take that to mean you are (ultimately) lying to HAL's creators. (But in the case of a malfunctioning HAL, you still are simply manipulating a tool in whatever way is necessary to make it operate how the designers meant it to operate, so this particular example is still not lying.)

    Anyway, the case of the Nazi is more like "talking" to a machine — or a dog — than a relational, human, interpersonal activity. The soldier is merely carrying out a function, not swapping poetry with you; if he could complete his task without any communication — say, by seeing footprints on the floor — then he would. (And in turn, if Hitler had robots, he could have substituted them for human soldiers.) It's not quite as simple as saying the Nazi doesn't have the authority to demand a truthful answer to his question, but in this case the speech is not about promoting or revealing truth; it is merely functional speech, a means to an end, and in this case natural law surely requires the most just application possible. The natural end of speech in this case is justice, and "lying" to the Nazi is what would promote justice (which means that ultimately it has truth as its end as well).

    (And yes, "such judgement (Who really deserves to be told the truth?) lies outside our competence" just as everything lies outside our competence... if perfection is required. But as in any other practical situation, we can but do our best. Most of the time it isn't that hard. Also by the way, I think the point of Regulus's story is more about honour and duty than lying. It's certainly a different case from Nazis.)

  60. Ed, I have a different sort of objection. Seems to me that telling the truth to the Nazi at the door is logically inconsistent: presumably you're hiding the Jews precisely because it's unjust to persecute and kill them. It's not logically possible that justice can require me to both save them from murderers and deliver them unto murderers. This is what has always bugged me about Kant, but I don't see why classical natural law thinking commits us to this illogical result. You invoke the natural function of our communicative faculties, but I'd back it up one step and invoke the natural function of our rational faculties. If we are correct in perceiving a duty to hide the Jews, then we're in error in perceiving a duty to give them up.

  61. Hi Aeon,

    Of course there is no duty to give them up; in fact, I would say there is a duty not to give them up. Keep in mind that to say "You must not lie" does not entail "You must say what you know." In this case, you shouldn't say what you know, and you shouldn't lie either. So, either you should say nothing at all, or you should distract the Nazi's attention, or you should run, or whatever.

    Also, the claim isn't that you owe the Nazi the truth. You do not owe him that, so it is not a matter of committing an injustice against him. It is not a matter of injustice at all. It is rather a matter of acting contrary to the good of the communicative faculty, which is bad per se, even when the other person doesn't have a right to the truth.

  62. I see where you're going, but isn't this a double-effect situation? I agree that in most circumstances I should keep silent or misdirect etc., but when they come to the door and ask straight out "Are you hiding Jews in the attic?" I have to say either yes or no. Telling the lie is justified by saving the life. Your own explanation earlier seems to allow for lies about how that dress looks - if that sort of deception is permissible, it seems a fortiori that lying to the Nazi is also.
    A further, separate, question: why are we understanding the natural function of our communicative abilities solely in terms of "speaking the truth," as opposed to more broadly "serving our ends in social settings"? On the latter read, lying to homicidal maniacs becomes perfectly understandable.

  63. Aeon J. Skoble: I see where you're going, but isn't this a double-effect situation?

    If lying were (sometimes) moral, then you could perhaps use Double Effect to justify the possible bad effect (the Nazi coming to believe a falsehood) because of the greater, desired effect of saving innocent lives. But since the claim here is that lying is intrinsically immoral, Double Effect doesn't even get off the ground (you can never commit an evil that good may come of it).

    Your own explanation earlier seems to allow for lies about how that dress looks - if that sort of deception is permissible, it seems a fortiori that lying to the Nazi is also.

    I don't think Prof. Feser would allow that as an exception if somebody specifically asked. (People who ask, "Do I look good?" may be superficial and vain enough to get upset if you answer "No", but they nevertheless want an honest answer — because they honestly want it to be the case that they do look good!) I took his example there to be equivalent to the social convention of "How are you?"/"Fine, thanks.", in which nobody is really deceived because everybody interprets "Fine, thanks" to mean "Either I really am fine, or I'm not fine but it's none of your business."

    Of course, I don't see why we can't argue similarly for the Nazis: "No Jews here" could be interpreted to mean, "There really are no Jews here and I am honestly stating my mind." Or it could mean, "There are Jews here but I am trying to deceive you" (=a lie, which is [allegedly] wrong). But there are other possible meanings! For example, "No decent human being would go around hunting down Jews and if you had an ounce of moral courage in your body you wouldn't be asking" — which of course is true, and therefore entirely permissible to state.

    why are we understanding the natural function of our communicative abilities solely in terms of "speaking the truth," as opposed to more broadly "serving our ends in social settings"?

    That is more or less how I see it. Whatever terms are used to describe it, everyone accepts joking, acting, etc. as legitimate uses of our communicative abilities, so I don't see why escaping the clutches of a maniac does not qualify too (whether you call it an exception or an alternative end, or whatever.)

  64. "There are no Jews in my house [since my house is now theirs, and won't really be mine again till you leave and they are gone]."

  65. There are no Jews in my house [since my house is now theirs, and won't really be mine again till you leave and they are gone].

    A lie is something one says with the purpose to deceive the other person. To suggest Clintonian linguistic tricks like the above is in my judgment shameful, and bespeaks badly of those who defend the Natural Law theory of ethics.

  66. Mental reservation will not work when a crafty Nazi recognizes the crucifix on the wall, and asks, "Are you hiding any Jews in your house. Any other answer than 'no' will result in us searching every square inch of this house and upon finding anyone who looks remotely non-Aryan, an immediate execution of everyone in the household. NOW SPEAK!"

    The idea that cunning crafty language is legitimate but an outright answer is not seems to be absurd. Where do you draw the line between legitimate mental reservation and Clinton-ian non-sense which EVERYONE recognizes as a total absurdity, but I'm sure he thought was being very clever at the time.

    You are doing the same exact thing in both cases, the only difference is that in some humorous way, the one statement MAY have a possible interpretation that actually contains truth, while the other does not.

    If you are forced to choose between two evils, I would argue that yes, it is always a sin to lie, but it may not be YOUR sin. What I mean is, why cannot we posit that the Nazis bear the sin for forcing innocents to lie to them in order to save more innocent lives?

  67. Hmm...what about giving false information on a website? Can you lie to the YouTube server? Or what about creating a digital persona with fictitious information?

  68. Hal doesn't know what truth is because Hal doesn't have an immaterial intellect.