Bruce Gerencser takes-up the problem of lying today, using as an example a congregant who refused to tell a large or small lie.
One time, after a blow-up over his truth-telling, I asked him, “Suppose you lived in Germany in World War II and harbored Jews in your home. One day, the Nazis come to your door and ask if you are harboring any Jews. Knowing that answering YES would lead to their deaths, what would you say? Would you lie to protect them?” Astoundingly, he told me that he would either tell the truth (yes) or say nothing at all. In his mind, always telling the truth was paramount even if it meant the death of others. I knew, then, that I had no hope of getting him to see that there might be circumstances where telling a lie was acceptable; that sometimes a lie serves the greater good.
The particular question that Gerencser posed is a variation of a question that has a history.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant figured-out that the traditional Christian narrative is preposterous nonsense, but thought that Christian ethics are pretty good, and so he attempted to reconstruct Christianity’s ethical teachings without the ridiculous storyline. Toward that end, and after a lot of almost unreadable rigamarole, he invented something he called the “categorical imperative” in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, a rule that one should always “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”
Suppose, came the challenge to Kant, that a madman comes to your door, demanding to know the whereabouts of one of your friends, whom he intends to kill? Kant answered … tell the truth, arguing that you can’t know what will happen next, perhaps your friend deserves to die, et cetera, et cetera.
Most of us would agree that one ought to lie to the Nazi soldiers and to the madman, but most of us would also agree that one should not lie to American soldiers seeking the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or Adolf Hitler. Why — precisely, please? Or, to put it a bit differently, where is the line between a case where you ought to lie, and the case where you ought to tell the truth?
And note this: A loyal German probably would have answered differently than you in 1945, just as a devout Muslim might have answered differently than you in 2011 — by applying the same rule.
Gerencser concludes his story this way:
I knew, then, that I had no hope of getting him to see that there might be circumstances where telling a lie was acceptable; that sometimes a lie serves the greater good.
I agree that “sometimes a lie serves the greater good,” but I’ll be damned if I can formulate a general, not-mushy or –wishy-washy guideline to that formula’s actual meaning.
Which points, I think, toward a more general rule that can be stated with definiteness: Whether they come from your Auntie Grizelda, or The Invisible Wizard Who Lives In The Sky, moral rules do not and cannot relieve you of moral responsibility. They can provide guidance to what humanity’s best thinkers have concluded through the ages on certain moral questions, but the choice to obey or disobey, and the consequences, are on you and cannot be shirked by pointing toward an old book.