The defense of lying as nascent Nietzscheanizm

Hypothesis: To defend that it is sometimes moral to lie commits us to the Nietzschean death of God.

Sloppy argument with most of the relevant ideas:

The death of God, so far as it has a theoretical and not merely factual basis, rests on the idea that the will to truth is simply another manifestation of will to power since it can claim no objective basis.

The will to truth is seen to have no objective basis when we see that life demands that it is sometimes better to deceive or be deceived.

But to defend that it is sometimes moral to lie is to claim that it is sometimes better to deceive or be deceived.

Put another way: as soon as we claim that truth is a contingent good, it loses its power to be a governing ideal. When we ask “is truth good?” we have to look to something other than the truth to answer the question, e.g. the “right to know truth” or the wild and not entirely logical character of life.

I don’t intend this argument as a condemnation of right to lie arguments – if you defend such arguments, it can be taken as a way to lend support or find some sympathy with Nietzsche. That said, it does seem to increase the cost of defending the right to deceive.

Nietzsche is, for me at least, at his most sympathetic when he tries to articulate just this sense where life is simply too complicated for ideals or absolute values. But once we start down this path, we lose any value transcending absolute flux: God, moral absolutes, scientific law, etc, all of which are attempts to carve some transcendent order out of the supposed wild flux of life. And no, openness to falsifiability in science does not get past this.



  1. dpmonahan said,

    June 6, 2014 at 8:30 am

    You are under no obligation to tell the truth to someone to whom it is not owed. The governing virtue is justice.

    • June 6, 2014 at 10:03 am

      Perhaps, but it would be a justice that can no longer appeal to truth as an absolute value or as good in itself.

      To anticipate another objection, I don’t think it will work to divide what is good in itself from what is good in a circumstance. Circumstances can allow for non exercise of some good, but not the privation of it. Sex, for example is a good in itself but not a good for priests; but this simply means the priest does not engage in it, not that he acts contrary to it.

      • dpmonahan said,

        June 7, 2014 at 9:51 am

        There is no questioning the absolute value of truth, which all men are obliged to live by, but that is not the same as the human social virtue of “truthfulness” which concerns the sharing of information. Not everyone has a right to all the information they may seek. It is unreasonable hair-splitting to expect people to come up with clever equivocations when asked pointed questions by others who may use the information for evil ends, or who simply can’t mind their own business.
        Lying to someone who does not deserve to hear a particular truth is not a violation of the virtue of truthfulness. In other words, it is not a “lie”, strictly speaking.
        To use a cliched example, in WW2 priests would write up false baptismal certificates for hunted Jews. Convent schools would hide Jewish children, claiming they were Christians. There is nothing wrong with this: they are not even telling lie for the sake of a greater good, because the Nazis are not owed the truth (so there is no “lie” involved); revealing the Jews would in fact be an injustice.
        It has been a while since I’ve studied philosophy, but maybe you need to fine tune your notion of the analogous nature of truth: truth as adequation, truth as transcendental, truthfulness as a virtue. I suspect you are equivocating somewhere.

      • June 7, 2014 at 11:20 am

        To repeat something just for emphasis: I’m not trying to solve the problem of the morality of lying, which has been dealt with far better elsewhere, like here. I’m only trying to show that it commits us to Nietzscheanism, and the position you are defending here is a case in point, notwithstanding that it was practiced by Christians. Your basic claim is that “a lie” is defined with reference to the community of speakers in which it occurs, but this will redefine truth in relation to this community too. Truth will no longer mean a conformity between thought and speech, but will have to be mediated by social relations that are, of themselves, by definition beyond truth. This is exactly the sort of theory that Nietzsche spent his life arguing for, see “Truth and lies in a non-moral sense”. This is an earlier work, to be sure, but he never abandoned the basic idea that truth did not have an inherent value but one that was determined by something else: the community, the Will to Power, etc. You are defending the idea that truth is contingent on right to truth, or justice, but I fail to see any relevant difference between such a right and the Will to Power: both establish what will count as true in a moral sense apart from the simple presence or absence of conformity between thought and speech. Again, this might be justice, but it is Nietzsche’s idea of justice. This might, for all I know, make you more sympathetic to Nietzsche, but the whole point is more to show us what is at stake in the debate about lying, not to decide the issue either way.

      • June 7, 2014 at 11:19 am

        There are a number of problems with this response. The virtue of truthfulness is not usually seen as concerned merely with the sharing of information, for instance, but as concerned with acting truthfully. Second, it is far more appropriate to call ‘unreasonable hair-splitting’ an approach that requires people to make constant assessments of a person’s right to truth, which is known to be extremely difficult to assess even in the morally simpler situation of merely trying to decide whether to withhold information.

        But the argument focusing on right-to-truth in any case contributes to James’s point. Prior to Grotius and other Protestant jurists in the seventeenth century, nobody conceived of the moral landscape of deception as depending vitally on the right to truth. By focusing on the right to truth (and this is quite explicit in Grotius) it makes the matter one of power-relations, not (as is the case with the older Catholic view) one of purity of action. But this is precisely the nascent Nietzscheanism point James is making.

      • June 7, 2014 at 11:25 am

        I saw this right after I posted. Was hoping you would respond. I got the idea of the post after reading your analysis of the positions of Hobbes and Descartes, since I had just read Nietzschean arguments that defended the will to truth with the same sort of examples.

      • June 7, 2014 at 11:26 am

        (it looks like James’s and my comments happened to cross at the same time. My comment was to dpmonahan, and can be considered superseded by James’s. I’m glad to see that our comments make the same point, though.)

  2. June 6, 2014 at 11:13 am

    1) I’m curious, does this apply to withholding truth, i.e. keeping silent?

    2) Possibly related to #1: How might this affect the common Nazis-at-the-door-Jews-in-the-closet-dilemma? Most people have a gut-instinct that the right thing to do is to lie (or somehow keep silent) to the Nazis in order to save the Jews. We might sharpen this to say that we have an intuition that what is right and true, in this instance, is to conceal the truth in some way. Is there not, then, some sense in which not all lies violate the truth? Or maybe, is there a hierarchy of truth, then, in which lower truths (factual data such as “there are Jews in my closet”) sometimes must be sacrificed for a higher truth (i.e. the moral imperative to protect the innocent from harm)?

    • June 6, 2014 at 1:04 pm

      1.) No.

      2.) People actually in those scenarios don’t feel moral when they lie, even if they don’t see what else they could have done. I suspect that one could do an experiment to show that, even under such conditions, we still experience lying as wrong. So the principle at least seems in keeping with experience.

      Not all deception is lying, nor is all concealment wrong. The lie, however, is not just truth not being present, but an active and intentional privation of it in ones own speech.

      But all thsi ground has been covered beter by others. Here I’m just interested in the relation between the convincingness of the defense of lying and Nietzschianism.

  3. BM said,

    June 8, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Any argument that predicates of God that He can “neither deceive nor be deceived” seems destined for the chopping block if this line of thought were followed. Interesting implications.

  4. Maureen said,

    June 9, 2014 at 12:20 am

    Moral reservation is an act of the mind; intellect; logical reasoning that exercises will towards a higher end.
    The truth being the absolute good; conscience; It makes one contemplate the material and immaterial causes and intentions.
    Rickaby, S.J. had alot of material covering natural law and rational appetency towards the end of sensations/instincts which sort of distinguish and reduce the reasoning. Lying is a superficial word these days, especially in that some of the Jesuit material was corrupted to force truth in a way that disrespects conscience and natural intentions towards the natural seeking of good.

  5. June 17, 2014 at 11:36 am

    No idea what the truth of the matter is, but some objection-inclined thoughts.

    1) I think it would be almost as easy to argue that “To defend that it is sometimes moral to kill commits us to the Nietzschean death of God,” although I could be wrong. And the way we will justify killing is as a means to a certain end that certain circumstances justify.

    2) “The will to truth is seen to have no objective basis when we see that life demands that it is sometimes better to deceive or be deceived.” I guess that would be the point of contention – does this necessarily follow?

    Sometimes life demands it is better to kill or be killed. But this doesn’t mean that the will to life has no objective basis, does it?

    3) You say “When we ask ‘is truth good?’ we have to look to something other than the truth to answer the question.”

    a) We do this in a variety of situations that have nothing to do with lying. We have to figure out what to say and what not to say in virtue of what we call “age-appropriate material” – more to the point, when teaching, the order in which ideas are presented or not presented matters a great deal. To paraphrase St. Thomas, the truth itself (as well as the communicating of it to others) dictates that pearls should not be put before swine and some things must remain hidden and some questions ought not be answered, etc. The question is not whether the truth is good or not in itself but whether it is good for another in this particular circumstance.

    We evaluate something like right-to-truth many times daily in the sense that we routinely and rightly withhold what we know – obviously striving to do this for the sake of what is true and good rather than for our own ends, one hopes.

    b) Mostly, though, the scenario above seems to separate the true and the good in an odd sort of way. If anything, what the proponent of the right-to-truth says is that he is trying to stop someone from misusing the truth for the sake of evil as opposed to good. Truth can be used for the sake of good or evil acts. The right to truth in this argument is dictated by what truth truly is and therefore how it ought to be used (for good). That hardly seems Nietzschean.

    The army asks the scientist for the formula (true) with which they can blow up the world (evil). Scientist gives them a fake (false) for the sake of preventing their misuse of the truth in question. The truth in all these scenarios is always some particular “actionable” information sought for the sake of evil to be done.

    One sets up what is good or the prevention of evil above telling of a particular practical/actionable truth. The objector will say that they are merely ensuring that what is true is not mutilated in the service of evil.

    3) Off point, but a little and it doesn’t prove truth either way but it sure doesn’t seem that people experience deceiving their kids about Santa Claus or telling their wife the dress looks good as a moral wrong very often. People argue both ways in the serious circumstances, but in those situations everyone already knows what is at stake and their bring their intellectual baggage to it.

    Correct my ignorance, but the Church hasn’t really seemed to care very much about warning its flock about spying, undercover work, etc., over the years. Have warnings ever been issued in relation to such circumstances by any pastor to their flock? My understanding is that the new natural law folks are most responsible for the recent changes in the catechism inclined against the right-to-truth possibility and the entire modern lying-is-always-wrong drive.

    • June 17, 2014 at 2:03 pm

      I can’t address all of these, and, again, the point of the post was not to deal with the debate about lying as such but to see it as Nietzschean. If I had to address the lying debate as such I would take a fuller account of it, like Brandon’s disputed question linked to above. For my own part, my broad objections to right to lie are these:

      1.) If its moral to deceive, then it is possible that I, while thinking about what was morally best for me in some situation, should want to be deceived. But such a desire is totally repugnant to me, even though I have no problem imagining situations where a lie might lead to better results than truth would. All such situations involve me being evil or at least imperfect, but then a consideration of my moral good would make me want to stop being evil.

      2.) A circumstance cannot allow for the privation (as opposed to mere non-exercise) of an act that is good in its species. So if we base a right to lie on circumstantial considerations, we are committed either to saying that truth is not good in itself or that lying is good in itself. But I can’t accept either. The second claim strikes me as obviously wrong and, w/r/t the first, Truth is just as much a good in itself as wine or a woman, if not more so.

      The clearest objection to my major premise in (2), which you’ve already made, is to draw an analogy between a right to lie and a right to kill. I would have to take these analogies on a case by case basis since, it seems to me, there is more than one thing that could be called a right to kill, and there will not always be a relevant analogy to lying. In fact, sometimes the analogy will prove that lying must be wrong! For example, if we take St. Thomas’s justification of killing in self defense, in trying to make it track onto a defense of some lies we would have to make the lie non-intentional, since STA only defends self-defense killing if it is non-intentional. But there is no such thing as a non intentional lie (falsehoods given intentionally are not lies but just mistakes). Again, if our right to kill analogue were capital punishment, then those with the right to lie would be public officials as opposed to private ones, since if this were not the case we would be seeing the right to lie as analogous to being a vigilante. But in general I’d disagree with any such analogy, though a complete account of this would take me pretty far afield.

  6. June 17, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Also…a bit tangentially, what do you and Brandon and others make of uncomfortable passages like those below in St. Thomas in relation to this issue?

    It seems that one could easily drop a few of the examples from the OT plausibly showing deception/lying as a good act in context, or a not-bad or condemnable thing in context, into these objections and replies, no?

    One might write them off as bizarre exceptions that don’t matter, I suppose. “OK, Matt, IF GOD says to do what seems like lying, people can.” I get that. But there is more worth thinking about here.

    In all these cases, it turns out that what we would normally perceive as wrong according to the application of a seemingly universal principle turns out not to be wrong in the particular because it wasn’t what we thought it was. Heh. At least, one has to admit that such examples along with the shocking amount of Aristotle that St. Thomas holds true ought to caution us against being too free and easy with “always wrong” as an ethical formula, no? The trick is getting the more determinate definitions right when context and circumstance must enter into the definition. But for all intents and purposes in these examples below, HOW WOULD WE KNOW? Clearly our ability to apply the principles or definitions or perceive where they apply is not infallible, to say the least.

    Objection 2. Further, the slaying of the innocent, adultery, and theft are against the natural law. But we find these things changed by God: as when God commanded Abraham to slay his innocent son (Gn. 22:2); and when he ordered the Jews to borrow and purloin the vessels of the Egyptians (Ex. 12:35); and when He commanded Osee to take to himself “a wife of fornications” (Osee 1:2). Therefore the natural law can be changed.

    Reply to Objection 2. All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Kgs. 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever. In like manner adultery is intercourse with another’s wife; who is allotted to him by the law emanating from God. Consequently intercourse with any woman, by the command of God, is neither adultery nor fornication. The same applies to theft, which is the taking of another’s property. For whatever is taken by the command of God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft consists. Nor is it only in human things, that whatever is commanded by God is right; but also in natural things, whatever is done by God, is, in some way, natural, as stated in the I, 105, 6, ad 1.

    Objection 2. Further, no mortal sin is the matter of a Divine precept. But the Lord commanded (Hosea 1:2): “Go take thee a wife of fornications, and have of her children of fornications.” Therefore fornication is not a mortal sin.

    Reply to Objection 2. Fornication is said to be a sin, because it is contrary to right reason. Now man’s reason is right, in so far as it is ruled by the Divine Will, the first and supreme rule. Wherefore that which a man does by God’s will and in obedience to His command, is not contrary to right reason, though it may seem contrary to the general order of reason: even so, that which is done miraculously by the Divine power is not contrary to nature, though it be contrary to the usual course of nature. Therefore just as Abraham did not sin in being willing to slay his innocent son, because he obeyed God, although considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason in general, so, too, Osee sinned not in committing fornication by God’s command. Nor should such a copulation be strictly called fornication, though it be so called in reference to the general course of things. Hence Augustine says (Confess. iii, 8): “When God commands a thing to be done against the customs or agreement of any people, though it were never done by them heretofore, it is to be done”; and afterwards he adds: “For as among the powers of human society, the greater authority is obeyed in preference to the lesser, so must God in preference to all.”

    • June 17, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      But then what account would STA give of a lie that could track on these sorts of justifications? All life and property are God’s, and who is married to whom is a matter he decides, but whether there is a conformity between thought and speech is not something like this.

    • June 17, 2014 at 5:45 pm

      At least, one has to admit that such examples along with the shocking amount of Aristotle that St. Thomas holds true ought to caution us against being too free and easy with “always wrong” as an ethical formula, no?

      But surely it implies the reverse, that such examples do not cause any problems for the ‘always wrong’ formula at all. Precisely the point Aquinas is making is that such examples do not in fact conflict with the ‘always wrong’ principles — ex hypothesi, there are circumstances that, if known, establish that the example is a different kind of thing altogether than it might seem at first glance. The principle that X is always wrong is just as it was; the only thing that ever comes into question is whether this particular case is really X or only merely apparently X if you aren’t taking into account certain key features of the case. This is no different from saying, “Murder is always, always wrong; but given the particular circumstances in this case, was this really murder, or does it only look like it if you ignore such-and-such key circumstance that makes it self-defense rather than murder?” But this does not in any way put the principle “Murder is always wrong” in question — indeed, logically speaking it can’t.

      Or to put it another way, prudence is not the enemy of principle; the fact that deciding rightly in such cases requires the virtue of prudence, so as to know which principles are relevant to these particular cases and how, does not limit the principles themselves in any way; it’s just another way of stating the fact that moral judgment requires more than principles.

      • June 17, 2014 at 8:30 pm

        Brandon – sure – but the point is that there is far more involved in these cases than we can usually make out. We would be very sure that it would be wrong to slay our child according to natural reason, for instance. What these passages make clear is that by faith we know that even in instances that seem very clear we cannot see far enough to apply rightly the principle that X is always wrong, for the circumstances can make the act not-X.

        And I am indeed saying that moral judgment requires more than principles, of course. The objector here is going to say that the circumstances change the nature of the act. That is always the question. What these passages reveal (obviously, for those without the Faith they are usually taken as a dodge) is how far the rabbit hole of circumstance goes, because these are all things that are explicitly seen to be always wrong by natural reason working properly at its best (e.g., Aristotle says adultery is always wrong).

        James – all speech and thought is God’s, I suppose.

        “although considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason in general”

      • June 18, 2014 at 1:52 am

        But this is not true, either. If we were literally incapable of making it out, then it doesn’t arise as a moral matter at all — that is true practically by definition. But you are in any case making the common mistake of thinking that moral matters are approached entirely from the outside by abstract observation, when in fact this is not even the primary field of moral judgment but a secondary and derivative one. The most relevant circumstances for our own acts are always those that directly affect our intention or disposition to act; and by definition those are the circumstances we ourselves are generally in the best position to know. These can be communicated by language or other sign, and they can be reasonably suspected by sympathetic understanding or long experience. Indeed, the very passages from Aquinas that you point to depend on this very communicability — that they can be identified at all shows that we can in principle take them into account.

        And it is worth noting that you are arbitrarily pulling your punches here. If your argument were correct, the only possible position would be moral skepticism — it would apply not only to “X is always wrong” but “X is usually wrong”, “X is wrong under such-and-such conditions”, and so forth, because in applying them we would always have the possibility of the particular case really being not-X. The argument is exactly parallel to arguments that we can never apply general theoretical principles to the real world because some intervening circumstances like a blip in the brain, an unusual sensory illusion, or divine omnipotence working a miracle makes it different from what it seems to be; there’s no intrinsic reason to make it suddenly narrower in the moral case. And it has the same weaknesses and problems.

        Nor is it a matter particularly of the faith that moral judgment requires more than principles; while Aquinas makes use of examples from Scripture, the general principles he is using to give his account of them are derived from the same source as his account of the role of circumstances in moral reasoning — Cicero. And Cicero himself is merely developing an aspect commonly recognized by Aristotelians, Stoics, and Platonists alike:that in addition to moral principles, moral judgment requires the moral virtue of prudence.

  7. June 18, 2014 at 11:54 am

    I’m not sure what you are responding to – you seem to drive by what I’m trying to say en route to disagreement.

    I’m certainly not making the “common mistake” and I’m certainly not denying “the most relevant circumstances”! Your entire first paragraph is obviously what drives those of good will who are uncomfortable with calling certain forms of deception lying/evil. You are responding there to my response, which was crafted using your own language above: “The principle that X is always wrong is just as it was; the only thing that ever comes into question is whether this particular case is really X or only merely apparently X if you aren’t taking into account certain key features of the case.” I didn’t accuse you of such mistakes because you put it that way! Heh. Maybe I was unclear.

    What these incidents St. Thomas is talking about reveal is that even in cases in which it would be abundantly obvious to natural reason that the act was itself evil – slaying your child at the command of a higher being, for instance – there are still aspects beyond which one cannot see. In other words, for Abraham, this was a test of faith. He did not see in any proximate sense why or how the act or command was good – far from it. He did, however, have to have faith that he was speaking with God and that God was Good and therefore, even though he couldn’t see the connection between the command or act and justice by light of natural reason, he could and should proceed.

    Even if one disagrees with this interpretation of events, the fact remains that for the observer, there would be little way of determining what Abraham should do without faith that he was actually speaking to God Almighty and therefore one should suspend the judgment that natural reason would normally make in regard to the command or act.

    And yes, we can indeed mistake particular cases only to discover they are not-X. That’s the drama of the moral life – that’s often what every story about difficult choices and decisions are about. In Abraham’s case, in order to determine the rightness of the command: is this God speaking to me or not? That’s what courts try to determine in regard to acts in the face of the law: what sort of act was this? But none of this ought not make us skeptics, of course. The fact that the circumstances aren’t clear and that even at our best our vision of their depth and breadth is limited doesn’t mean that we ought to become skeptics. We know enough to know how to strive towards the good. We have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

    But the apparent exceptions reveal the frequent thinness of our understanding, and the way in which “always wrong” is tricky. Even in the seemingly clearest of cases, our all too human vision of circumstances can cause us to confuse or fail to see the nature of the act.

    Completely agreed with your last paragraph, but it misses the import of these passages: in such cases, “though it may seem contrary to the general order of reason” they are not – and we know this because: God is God, and He was truly the one speaking on those occasions. And those are extremes – outliers. Certainly closer to the mean, the same thing might happen in more difficult or unclear kinds of acts – when dealing with acts that are seemingly far less clearly wrong, we may botch or not see something about the circumstances that would render it right or wrong. In any event, unless we want to turn to a Muslim authoritarian God, the best interpretation of St. Thomas’s response, I think, is that our ignorance is what prevents us from seeing how these cases are not contradictory to our normal understanding of morality, prudence, and natural reason. God is not here arbitrarily changing the rules, etc. It is just that even the clearest of moral precepts can be misapplied due to our cloudy and very imperfect vision. Abraham may be acting according to reason when he obeys God, but we have no indication that he sees how God’s command was in accord with natural reason. And thus he is reconciling the act based on authority and faith, not by seeing how in this particular instance it is fine and dandy to slay an innocent human being to prove your love to God.

    • June 18, 2014 at 3:28 pm

      Your claim was, “What these passages make clear is that by faith we know that even in instances that seem very clear we cannot see far enough to apply rightly the principle that X is always wrong, for the circumstances can make the act not-X.” This is what I was pointing out as false and as not following from the fact that there is a distinction between principles in themselves and their applications.

      I’m not really sure I follow the rest of your argument, or how it fits with your prior claims, so I’ll just leave it at that clarification.

  8. June 20, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Not sure where to go from here. If you think a) it is clear that X (slaughtering your own innocent child) is always wrong and you think b) that it is also clear to observers and to Abraham himself that what God commanded in regard to Isaac was NOT X – and you think this was clear to Abraham and was and is clear to observers by reason and not by faith – I don’t really know what to say in response.

    St. Thomas doesn’t seem to think that is the case.

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