If lying is always wrong, do you want to be right?

Hadley Arkes writes an interesting article today on the rightness or wrongness of lying, in When Speaking Falsely is Right. An excerpt:

… The point is: Not every taking of property is a theft. Not ever killing is a murder. A “murder” is an “unjustified killing.” An innocent person, set upon unjustly, could not be unjustified if lethal force offered the only means of rescuing himself from that unwarranted assault. Plainly, we could not put on the same plane the killing done by a Hitler and the killing done by those who would resist being killed unjustly by a Hitler.

In the same way, not every act of speaking falsely is a “lie.” As many people have recognized, nothing wrong has taken place when children decline to tell their father of the surprise they are planning for his birthday. A “lie” is an unjustified act of speaking falsely, as a murder is an unjustified act of killing. The untruth becomes a lie when it is directed to a wrongful purpose, as in deceiving for the sake of fraud and for the hurting of the victim. …

I’ve always noted that the 9th Commandment states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” not “Don’t lie.”  On the other hand, Satan is known as the “father of lies”—but is he the father of all lies (or untruths)? How much evil would come from always telling the truth—such as the example used of hiding Jews from the Nazis?

It’s an interesting question. Is there a time when lying is the right thing to do?

5 thoughts on “If lying is always wrong, do you want to be right?”

  1. “Who is my neighbor?” Didn’t Jesus deal with this question already?

    “The focus of the commandment is to not wrong your neighbor, not necessarily misrepresenting something to help your neighbor.” Seriously, Alden?

    1. What does “bear false witness against your neighbor” mean to you? It seems pretty clear.

      That’s not to say that other lying isn’t wrong… just that the commandment seems directed in a different way.

  2. The commandment says, “…bear false witness against your neighbor.” That’s different than the scenario in the Geico commercial where Abe Lincoln’s wife asks him, “does this dress make me look fat?” It seems that removing the last 3 words changes the meaning considerably. The focus of the commandment is to not wrong your neighbor, not necessarily misrepresenting something to help your neighbor.

    I need to add Bonheoffer’s Ethics to my reading list…

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