A right to truth aporia

Let a person lose a right to truth whenever the truth would foreseeably and materially contribute to his doing an evil. And so the (sigh) Nazis at the door (groan) lose their truth rights for the same reason that an insane man loses his gun rights.

But why is it shameful to lie one’s way out of martyrdom? It’s worse than this: in lying your way out of martyrdom the one you are lying to by definition lacks a truth right, so your public profession of faith would be a case of giving someone something they have no right to. So now we’re committed to a morality that turns martyrdom into a sort of theft or despoiling of goods. We’ve probably made a wrong turn somewhere.

So maybe we add an epicycle and describe truth rights as being lost whenever truth would foreseeably and materially contribute to doing an evil to someone other than yourself. Even of we get past the stink of the ad-hocery, this still leaves us with something of a Monty Python martyr trial: three believers get tried together and, while each person confesses they are guilty the other two loudly protest “No he isn’t! We’ve never seen him before!”  After all, we can’t just say that the others should keep quiet: that would be the moral equivalent of doing nothing when the suicidal man had a gun.

So the flip side of right-to-truth claims is that they involve a limitation on professing fidelity. Religious faith would be a paradigm case, and other sorts of fidelity would be limited a fortiori. Right to truth claims seem to have some difficulties accounting for our need not just to know truth but to be faithful to it.

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11 Comments

  1. January 25, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    In the case of martyrdom, the truth that is being denied has a right to defense, and the truth’s right of defense is greater than the martyr’s right of self-defense. Ultimately, for martyrdom to count, some fundamental truth of divine or natural law must be at stake, not mere historical or scientific fact. It’s crazy to kill people for affirming the Cubs won the World Series last year, but it’s also crazy to affirm that fact at the cost of one’s life.

    In the case of the Gestapo-at-the-door, the scenario is not one of denying or affirming a truth that requires defense at the cost of one’s life. The fact of the availability/presence of the Gestapo’s would-be victim is not that sort of truth.

    This gets trickier in the standard Gestapo example: is “Jew” a racial or a religious category? Or a mix? The Book of Maccabees shows Jews facing martyrdom rather than betraying the Covenant. What does it mean to deny or hide, for the sake of one’s earthly life, belonging to the people of the Covenant? I don’t mean merely hiding, but “passing” for a non-Jew.

    • January 26, 2017 at 10:12 am

      In the case of martyrdom, the truth that is being denied has a right to defense, and the truth’s right of defense is greater than the martyr’s right of self-defense.

      1.) Maybe so, but this doesn’t address the aporia of what to do with the person who putatively loses his right to truth. How can a just action (defending the faith) require what a right-to-truth theory has to regard as an injustice, namely giving truth to someone with no right to it? If it comes to this, we should just drop the quasi-natural law defense of “truth rights” and declare ourselves consequentialists.

      2.) The distinction you are trying to make is puzzling and difficult to apply. I don’t see why the lie has to be only a defense of the one lying – why isn’t it a defense of the truth, that now gets to live to proclaim itself another day? If a man can defend his life wth a lie, why can’t he defend his faith with it? What you’re saying is that it is okay to use a certain tactic in defense of something lower and less significant that can’t be used in defense of something higher and more significant, and this seems completely backwards. If I can, say, use deadly force in defense against the threat of something low and insignificant, a fortiori I can use it in defense of something higher and more significant.

      In the case of the Gestapo-at-the-door, the scenario is not one of denying or affirming a truth that requires defense at the cost of one’s life.

      I’ve explicitly addressed this in the third para. of the OP.

      • January 26, 2017 at 6:52 pm

        “1.) Maybe so, but this doesn’t address the aporia of what to do with the person who putatively loses his right to truth. How can a just action (defending the faith) require what a right-to-truth theory has to regard as an injustice, namely giving truth to someone with no right to it? If it comes to this, we should just drop the quasi-natural law defense of “truth rights” and declare ourselves consequentialists.”

        Maybe it doesn’t address the aporia, but it shows that your account of the scenario leaves out relevant factors. Martyrdom first and foremost isn’t about telling the truth to other people who have a right to it. It’s about giving witness to someone who is falsely accused (God, as author of the true religion) in the face of lies. One could say that 1.) there is such a thing as a right to truth, and 2.) the martyr’s persecutor has no right to it, but 3.) there is another factor that overrides that question, namely the right of God to have His revealed truth defended.

        I mean, from the sounds of it, “right to truth” doesn’t sound all that persuasive, but neither does your aporia. On my explanation, you could chalk it up to double effect; it’s not your intention to put the persecutor into jeopardy of reacting sinfully to a profession of Faith, but that’s not in your hands. Just as an army, in order to lure the enemy into an ambush, needs to expose itself and risk the loss of some of its own soldiers. Losing those soldiers is prima facie unjust, but the “prima facies” isn’t everything.

        “What you’re saying is that it is okay to use a certain tactic in defense of something lower and less significant that can’t be used in defense of something higher and more significant, and this seems completely backwards.”

        No, I’m not saying that. You make it sound like I’m saying, “Lying is this tactic, which you can do for unimportant things, but not important things.” No, I’m saying, “The truth of the Cubs winning the World Series is an unimportant truth, not as important as your life. If someone forces you to lie about under pain of death, your life is more important than that truth. Throw that truth under the bus. Nothing all that important is at stake there, though you should seek other means to end the tyranny of the person making it a life and death issue. If, on the other hand, someone persecutes over a truth that is more important than your life, then you must die to defend it.” So, on my account, it still makes sense to allow lies regarding unimportant truths, and to forbid them regarding important truths. Because the lie is seen here not as a positive tactic that can be used to defend life or truth, but as a damage one is willing to inflict upon truth in the pursuit of some other goal. Some truths are insignificant enough to allow lying; some are too significant. Some don’t allow a single instance of denial, even in the interest of later affirmation. It might not be a great theory, and it might succumb to any number of objections — just not the one you offered.

      • January 26, 2017 at 7:36 pm

        Maybe [my argument] doesn’t address the aporia, but it shows that your account of the scenario leaves out relevant factors.

        If someone believes (a) truth rights exist and can be lost and (b) confessions of martyrs to persecutors are good then (a) and (b) are all the relevant factors one needs to set up an aporia, which was the only point of the OP.

  2. Paul said,

    January 26, 2017 at 4:32 am

    To me, this discussion is most useful for illustrating the problems with moral reasoning done in terms of “rights.”

    • January 26, 2017 at 10:18 am

      Rights talk is fine as an element of discussing justice (STA’s account of justice starts with an account of rights) but rights have a tendency to degrade into a discussions of the exchange of totems and how little we have to give to others. But the heart of justice is dealing well with other persons, and so it can’t be made into something impersonal. Discussions of solidarity, communion, compassion and mutual aid aren’t sideshows to discussions of “rights” but form its heart. The Left is usually better at remembering this, even if we need not agree with the details of the plan they are set on to realize it.

      • Paul said,

        January 27, 2017 at 4:59 am

        Fair enough, but the way in which Aquinas uses the word jus is not the way we use the word “right” in the phrase “I have a right to this.” The “we” I am referring to is the community of speakers of American English. We generally use this “right” that we “have” to mean “the authority to enforce a claim on someone else, or to demand that a claim be enforced on our behalf.” The impersonality that you allude to, I would say, is baked into this meaning. Whereas “right” in adjectival use, rather than nominal, does not suffer so much from this problem: “What you have done to me is not right.”

        So I prefer to avoid it, as the equivocation tends to confuse discussions, as above, where people “lose truth rights” and “the truth” is reified and possesses a “right to defense.” Yes, I am quoting your interlocutor, rather than you. That’s an illustration of the reason for my preference.

  3. John Biddle said,

    January 28, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    I’m no expert in right-to-truth moralities, but is your grounds for it–“Let a person lose a right to truth whenever the truth would forseeably and materially to his doing an evil”–the only game in town? It seems like there could be conceptions of the right to truth in which everyone always has a right to the truths of the Christian faith, but not everyone always has a right to the truth of whether or not your friend is at your house right now. The aporia wouldn’t be relevant to that kind of right-to-truth morality.

    But on a more fundamental level, grounding a right to lie in the lack of a right to the truth on the part of someone else is missing something. Thomist ethicists would agree that many people do not have a “right to the truth” in the sense that you are under no obligation to tell them anything at all. A person’s lack of a right to the truth would seem to be at best a necessary but not sufficient condition to make lying to them morally acceptable. If the only two choices are “this person has a right to the know the truth about this” and “it’s OK to lie to this person”, something is wrong.

    • January 28, 2017 at 5:50 pm

      It seems like there could be conceptions of the right to truth in which everyone always has a right to the truths of the Christian faith, but not everyone always has a right to the truth of whether or not your friend is at your house right now.

      Since this is not a principle but a desired outcome for some principle to ensure, do you have any suggestions for that principle, other than just saying there must be one? Since every discussion of truth rights I’ve ever been a part of has been predicated on the right to lie when someone was morally certain that truth would be materially used to perform an evil, that’s how I defined it. Does your experience with the debate lead you to believe that it should be defined some other way?

      • John Biddle said,

        January 28, 2017 at 8:43 pm

        A sketch of such a principle might be that a person has a right to the truth when that truth is necessary (or maybe just helpful) for him to fulfill some moral obligation of his, and this right to the truth obtains even if he plans to misuse the truth. That wouldn’t be an entire right-to-truth theory, just one principle that grants someone a right to the truth.

        More generally, one could say that a person has a right to the truths needed for that person’s flourishing, but not necessarily to truths that are irrelevant to it.

        I haven’t seen any definition of the right to truth other than the one that you use in this post, but to be honest I haven’t read much on right-to-truth moral theories at all.

  4. February 19, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    Is professing the faith publicly a sign of fidelity to God or the essence of fidelity?

    If sign, then one is surely permitted not to make it. If essence, then lying makes you Judas which seems like a heavy price of avoiding martyrdom.


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