Monday, July 18, 2005

When is lying justified?: Moving beyond the Nazi example

So, I'm having this fascinating chat with Sr. Gillam at Issues in Mormon Doctrine. [Sorry, I'm not savy enough to figure out backtracks, etc]. See

Anyway, Sr. Gillam is upset re: the Iraqi liberation/invasion. Ok, I buy that. He isn't alone, nor universally agreed with. On to the good stuff.

The main point of debate seems to be:

"Bush lied, people died"

To which I reply:

"Bush (might have) lied, but people live in freedom now"

Hold on. This post is to explore the nature of justifying dishonesty; not the current state of safety in Iraq. This post IS NOT about debating current safety. It is about justification. Ok? Thanks.

So, y'all probably familiar with the Nazi justification for lying; i.e. if there were Nazi's at your door, would you lie to them about harboring Jews in your basement? If you lie, they live. If you tell the truth, they die.

Let's move beyond that. Let's talk about genocide & liberty; in the context of the Plan of Salvation.

If the Rwandan Genocide could have been prevented by Pres. Clinton lying to the country and inventing an excuse that it threatened our national security in order to for action to have been taken to prevent the Genocide; would it have been justified?

Feel free to insert your own example. Mine is Iraq. Frankly, the capacity of Iraqi's to exercise their God given freedom, have a real probationary mortal estate, rather than one cheapened by the threat of death for opposing Saddam or his corrupt cronies, is worth having lied about WMDs. While I don't think Bush lied, I don't really care. If he did, if it would lead to the liberation of millions to have a better probationary mortal experience...sounds good to me.

So, what say ye? Do you support preventing Genocide and increasing liberty via dishonesty? Or not? Why? Please be civil; no insults.


Blogger jeff g said...

"Sr. Giliam?" Is that Senor? I sure hope it's not sister since my name is Jeff.

Anyways, on to your post.

My point is this: If Bush did lie (I don't like people dragging in other examples to distract from the issue and example at hand) it must have been due to his not having too much confidence in his real motive. Either that or he didn't have confidence in other people accepting his real motive. Either way, the truth would have been better.

If the human race has learned anything it has been that getting to the truth of the matter, though it may cause some of our more charished beliefs to go by the board, is what leads to progress in the long run.

I am not a big fan of "ends justify the means" and I consider it to be contrary to the gospel principle of "do what is right let the consequence follow." This is more deontological than utilitarian in nature.

I should be clear, I'm not entirely convinced that it was Bush himself that was actually lying. Since when does Bush wait to see what anybody, even the American people, think on a matter before acting? Maybe it was used as a motivation device. Or perhaps it was intended to help him gain a reelection. Either of these motives would surely not have justified his lying, am I right?

It's funny how connected this issue is to the reason why we "really" went into Iraq: to defend liberty which Mormons like to equate with agency. The thing with agency is that neither the devil nor God can take it away from us in any kind of attributal sense. Instead, the devil can bind us by doing a number of things which are the only ways of really taking ones free agency away: coercion and misinforming. Thus Satan is the father of lies who misinforms us into his captivity.

It is lying which takes AWAY our agency, not gives it. Take this war for instance. We were lied to to get into it. Thus, we really didn't have much of a say in the matter. We couldn't express our true feelings on the matter, because we were never properly informed on the matter.

Lying will stunt learning, growth and progress. It will limit the agency of individuals and nations. Whether lying is ever justified is a question I am not really trying to answer. Lying as a way of justifying this war, however, was clearly wrong.

4:39 PM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Hey, folks:

A conversation between two of my favorite bloggers. How could I resist commenting?

I think the issue of when lying might be justified is complex. I feel confident, however, that lying to win an election is always wrong. If candidates make false representations and false offers in an electoral context, that degrades the quality of democratic representation by making electoral offers meaningless.

I think nearly any lie is justified to avert an immediate, personal evil. But moving into an institutional context necessarily changes the calculus. Because a candidate or (even more) an elected official in a democratic context is supposed to represent the population--which is the sovereign--deliberate acts of misrepresentation about issues of policy are a direct violation of the politician's primary duty.

So, in the abstract, without raising issues related to Iraq, I probably stand somewhere between Jeffrey's general position against lying and Lyle's more-permissive stance. Lying is probably sometimes right, but lying by politicians about policy issues, while almost certainly common, seems to be quite wrong.

5:24 PM  
Blogger jeff g said...

I think that you are stating something of worth. I'm personally a big fan of 24 where lying and the like are part and parcel of doing what certainly seems to be right sometimes. Without changing my views regarding Iraq, I do think that lying is justified when and only when the corresponding decrease in over all agency is justified. This isn't a very informative sentence, but it does say something about the Iraqi conflict and my position in general.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes Jeff, it is Senor. Both I and RT have a penchant for spanish; I tend to mix fairly frequently inglish and espanish. :)

I suspect that you can run rings around my theories of agency...which I really enjoy. I'll have to brush up on your perma post on agency. I esp. like your take that lying decreases agency; even if I'm not convinced.

re: other examples. On your blog, you don't have to address it. Nor here; but I find it distracting when folks are asked a question and then try to avoid answering it.

I'd like both of you to face up to the Rwandan and Srebnica examples and explain why/why you wouldn't "lie" and/or "mislead" and/or "exaggerate" in order to get the U.S./U.N./Coalition of willing to prevent the atrocities that took place. Granted, this is a post hoc analysis, but I think it has value and doesn't distract at all. This isn't about Bush. It is about what to do when the stakes are astronomically high in terms of agency and human life.


9:14 PM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

I'm not entirely sure that I can fully understand the hypothetical. Are we assuming, for the purpose of argument, that the President of the USA was a fully virtuous man who was seeking the best strategy for saving lives in, say Rwanda? (Let's stick to one hypothetical at a time.)

It seems likely to me that the best strategy in such a situation might well have been to just tell the truth, vigorously and publicly. The main obstacles to action in Rwanda were ignorance and indifference. A presidential press conference that talked about children being hacked to pieces by machetes simply because of the group they were born into would probably have gone a long way toward dissipating both problems. Unfortunately, and to our country's immense shame, nobody did that.

Now, for the sake of argument, let's change the hypothetical and stipulate that telling the truth wouldn't be enough to get Congressional support for action in Rwanda. (Popular support, of course, is not directly relevant to decisions about war. Congress has some constant institutional leverage on these issues, whereas the population can only vote during election seasons.) In this case, would our virtuous president be justified in lying to Congress? I'd much rather see the administration try horse-trading and negotiation to try to get an intervention approved--but we could change the hypothetical to rule that out, as well. So, if we leave behind a simple, dichotomous choice between lying and saving an immense number of lives or not lying and letting them die, then I'd say the president should lie.

Now let's add a third choice: starting to lie a year or more before the military intervention is actually begun, framing a Congressional election campaign around the lie, and accusing those who call you on your lie of being unpatriotic partisan extremists. Does this third choice sound defensible? This obviously directly produces Jeff's consequences involving eroding agency, as well as my concerns about destroying democratic representation by providing the electorate with a false choice. Furthermore, it distances the lie from the supposed moral objective of the lie, making it look a lot more like Watergate and a lot less like 24.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RT: I disagree with your casting of the Rwandan incident. The consensus among scholars seems pretty clear:

The U.S. (&the West in general) didn't act because African lives were at stake. So, while I like your three counter hypotheticals, I don't think they match the situation.

My question doesn't require a virtuous leaders either. It only requires _the will_ to take action, regardless of, and because of, the consequences of inaction; because at the end of the day, Pres. Clinton didn't have _the will_ to act in Rwanda and so 100s of thousands died. Similarly with Bush I, who lacked the will to continue in and finish the job.

This isn't a partisan's a question about the value of life and agency.


6:39 AM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...


I think it might be somewhat unhelpful to get side-tracked into the question of distinguishing the will to do virtuous deeds from virtue itself. Let me just say, though, how Nietzche of you!

Your change of my hypotheticals raises interesting issues. Should the president have produced intervention in Rwanda by lying and telling people that Rwandans weren't African?

I think an honest effort at persuasion by the US president could probably have made Rwanda seem important. Of course, I think the same thing about what happened in Darfur. It's all a bit of a thought experiment, though, because nobody in the White House tried a serious persuasion campaign in either case. Imagine if Clinton had gone around giving speeches including the word "machetes" and the phrase "mutilation and murder of small children" at the same rate that GW Bush gave speeches including the phrase "weapons of mass destruction." Don't you think that might have made a difference in public opinion?

In other words, while the low profile of Africa may have given Western leaders the opportunity not to act, their decision not to raise the profile of deaths in Africa also plays into the causal picture. Hence, I think a vigorous campaign of truth-telling might have been in order.

It also might help if we could arrange for every leader of a genocide movement to make an assasination attempt against the father of whoever happens to be the sitting US president. Trying to kill daddy would probably have the effect of focusing the president's mind, don't you think?

8:44 AM  
Blogger jeff g said...

Hey! RM from Guatemala North here!

Okay if we are not really talking about Bush here then I guess I'll drop it. What's sad is that I didn't even know about the Rwanda incident until the movie came out. (I'm still a bit of a young buck mind you.) Needless to say, I'm not too brushed up on the details of what exactly happened.

I do agree with RT's comments though. If the true reason really is good enough for action then proclaim it as passionately as possible. And if people still don't care enough, let them know that you do and you are going to act on the principles you have published whether they agree or not. (Sorry about falling back again on Bush, but I think he could have avoided a lot of criticism if he would have done this.)

Now as to whether lying is ever justified I would probably have to answer yes. However there are big qualifications to my answer. What are the REAL motives? Doing what's right, or looking popular? Policy or politics? Unfortunately in this context the reasons and motivation are rarely if ever clean cut, so its probably usually best to error on the side of truth if there is any doubt.

There are also two kinds of lies which should be separated: temporary ones such as telling kids about Santa and permanent ones that usually amount to "cover ups." With temporary lies the intention is always there that the truth will come out, it's simply in everybody's best interest that it not be told at the moment. I'm sure this is justifed fairly often. The permanent lie, however, is rarely, if ever, justified. There must be some record of the truth given to somebody somewhere.

9:13 AM  
Blogger jeff g said...

BTW, most of the posts in my Agency notebook won't help too much. Perhaps the best source would be my Agency, a Call to Repentance which can be found at the bottom of the notebook:

9:14 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

The blog was referenced in the comments. It sounds like the reference came from the owner. That blog (this on as well) is old and apparently abandoned. I would like to have the blog name. Can I someone contact the owner and have it transfered to me? Thanks!

8:48 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

Follow-up to my last comment: The process to make me the owner of is very simple, but the owner and I would have to go through it together. Thank you to anyone who sees this comment and is able to help!

8:57 AM  

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