Saturday, March 24, 2012

Double effect and telling falsehoods

The situation

Here’s a situation: I’ve hidden some Jews in my house, and now the Nazis come to my door, asking if I have any Jews hidden in the house. Is it possible (i.e. without sin) to give them the reply: “There are no Jews in my house”?
That kind of question crops up regularly on the blogs, and in articles. Some of the more common answers given are:
  1. no, because you can’t ever lie;
  2. of course you can lie, because it would save lives;
  3. it would be a sin to lie in such circumstances, but only a venial one.
    And then (distressingly) people who give one of those answers will pointedly complain about the moral character of people who choose a different answer, rather than try to fully explain why one answer is (or is not) better than another.
    So, what does Catholic teaching say about this? Is it possible to give that answer to the Nazis? Well, Catholic teaching has not yet given a precise answer. But broadly speaking, there are two threads that can be discerned in teachings over the centuries. One thread gives a very firm answer that lying is never permitted. But a second thread keeps bringing up various different kinds of circumstances in which a truthful statement is not always required.Can these two apparently incompatible threads be resolved?
    I think they can — at least they can in the circumstances outlined at the beginning of this post.


    Step 1: Define what a lie is.
    We need this step because otherwise the question is incapable of analysis. The definition I will use is given in the Catechism: A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. Merely speaking a falsehood aloud is not sufficient to establish that a lie has been told — the intention of the speaker has to be examined.
    In the given situation, we can quickly determine that the speaker’s statement (“There are no Jews in my house”) is a falsehood. But that is not sufficient to decide it is a lie.
    Step 2: Specify when a lie is morally wrong.
    A lie is always morally wrong, in all circumstances.
    Step 3: Examine the speaker’s intentions.
    [A lot of confusion can arise at this point if it is not recognized that intentions come in sequences (I put the key in the lock, so that I can open the lock, so that I can open the door, so that I can … : etc., etc.). I’ve discussed this elsewhere on this blog. One cannot pick one of these inter-linked intentions as somehow “the” intention. If someone sets under way a sequence of linked intentions, then each and every intention along the way must be good for the whole sequence to be good.]
    Going back to the situation described at the top of the posting, I will now specify some more of the circumstances, so as to help focus on my overall point. In particular, let’s say that the only answer that the Nazis will accept to the question: “Are there any Jews hidden in this house?”, is either “Yes” or “No”, and that any other answer as will be taken to mean “Yes”. (This will avoid the complicated issues of equivocation or ambiguity, which are unrelated to the point I am aiming at.)
    So, the Nazis have come to my house, where I have hidden some Jews, and the Nazis are asking: “Are there any Jews hidden in this house?”. What shall I reply? My goal is for the Nazis to go away without searching the house. This is a perfectly good intention. I will accordingly measure any possible reply I may make by what the Nazis will do after that reply.
    If I say, “Yes”, then the Nazis will search the house. That is absolutely not what I want to happen, because it cooperates in the death of those innocent Jews. So I will not say that.
    If I say nothing, or something like, “Heil Hitler!”, then the Nazis will search the house (since anything other than “Yes” or “No” is taken to mean “Yes”). That also fails to achieve my goal.
    If I say “No”, then the Nazis will go away. That achieves my goal, so those words are what I will say.

The central point

    Many people will claim that the fully correct description of what happens when I say “No” is this:
    Description One: I said “There are no Jews in my house”, and these words caused the Nazis to be deceived, and therefore they went away.
    Now if that is a fully correct causal description, then it would be true that the Nazis are caused to go away by a intentional deception — such that, if they had not been deceived then they would not have gone away. So, I would reach my intended goal of having the Nazis go away only by the intermediate intention of telling them a falsehood in order to deceive them. And that intentional deception — a lie — would be morally wrong.
    But is it really the case that the Nazis only go away only because they are deceived?
    Trust is an issue in relying on what someone says. And trust comes in varying amounts: we tend to have positive trust in what some people say (e.g.  family members or friends), negative trust in others (e.g. a detective interviewing an habitual criminal), or an absence of trust one way or another (e.g. a total stranger). When there is an absence of trust, it is not possible to be deceived.
    Suppose then, that the Nazis have an absence of trust in me, such that when I say “There are no Jews in my house”, they neither believe nor disbelieve what I say. Hence, they are not deceived by what I say. Those words will not give them either any motivation to search the house, or any motivation not to search the house. Those words leave the situation unaltered.
    (If this last point is not clear, think of it this way: before asking me the question, “Are there any Jews hidden in this house?”, the Nazis surely understand that some people will be telling the truth when they reply “There are no Jews in my house”, and some people will be lying. With an absence of trust, when the Nazis hear “There are no Jews in my house”, they will still have no idea if the speaker is telling the truth or not, and so they have gained no information one way or another about the presence of Jews in the house. That answer doesn’t sway their decision about what to do next one way or another, because of the absence of trust.)

Hence, Description One is not fully correct, since the Nazis can go away even when they are not deceived. I.e. deception is not necessary for them to go away. (Note: while it could happen that the Nazis are deceived, Description One is not fully correct because it contains the claim that the Nazis only go away because they are deceived, and we have seen that that is not always true.)

Hence we come up with a different description:

Description Two: I said “There are no Jews in my house”, and in the absence of trust those words gave the Nazis no additional motive to either search or not search my house.

This different description contains no deception, and hence no lie. Hence it can be moral to speak in that way.

At this point, we have Description One which is in error, and Description Two which, while it is not in error, does not fully explain what is going on the occasions when the Nazis are deceived. We need a fuller description.

Double effect

In the situation I described, there are two possible outcomes for the Nazis. If the Nazis have an absence of trust in me, then they will not be deceived. If the Nazis do have some trust in me, then they will be deceived. In either case, they have been given no cause to search the house.

The good that I am trying to bring about is a reply to the Nazis that will give them no cause to search the house. The harm that might result is that (if they have some trust in me) the Nazis may be deceived. But that harmful effect is not caused by the good effect.

This is a case of double effect.


In those cases where there is some good reason for hiding information, then (depending on the exact circumstances) it may be possible to choose utter a falsehood, provided the falsehood is not relied on as the cause of deception. (With the added proviso that the falsehood must not be wrong for some independent reason: for example, if the falsehood were a blasphemy.)

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