Lying Under Duress

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I've been thinking through the ethics of deceit with respect to April Fools jokes and other kinds of false statements that may or may not be considered lying. The Jill Carroll case has raised an important further sort of case that I hadn't been thinking about. What about when someone says something they don't believe to be true under duress? For background on the details of her case and her deliberate statements (under threat) of things she didn't agree with, see the Moderate Voice's excellent roundup. There seem to me to be at least three issues that may have a moral bearing on how we should evaluate such false statements, and I think the end result is much more messy than we would generally like moral issues to be.

1. This was under duress. If someone unloads a cash register to a thug holding a gun, we don't blame the person for giving away the store's cash. Why should we do so if someone lies under duress?

The one hesitation I have about this is that I don't think Christians should reject Christ under duress. Some things are too important to say false things about even under coercion. But if that's right, then duress isn't always an excuse. I suppose it depends on how serious the false statement is. I think people could reasonably disagree on where the threshold will be set between somethings being too serious and something's being not serious enough to merit participation.

2. People would have understood that she didn't mean it as reflecting her own views.

I accept this line of thought with respect to actors who say things that they don't really believe when they're pretending to be someone else, because there is a real social convention to treat actors' words that way. In this case, it's not so clear. Clearly some people are recognizing that she didn't mean what she said, but just look at enough right-wing blogs, and you'll find some people who didn't understand that her saying this under duress means she probably doesn't believe it. They're treating this as her chance to get out liberal propaganda under the guise of plausible deniability, and some have even suggested that she had this plan with them all along to undermine the efforts of the coalition in Iraq. So it isn't clear that people will just understand that this is under duress and doesn't represent her views. Of course, maybe these people are the ones at fault for not giving her the benefit of the doubt, but maybe it's widespread enough to undermine reason 2 to some degree.

This issue reminds me of the claims of some recent biblical scholars that some books attributed to certain authors were not written by those authors but by someone taking their names as pseudonyms. They then defend the authority and integrity of scripture by saying the original audience would have understood that Ephesians wasn't written by Paul or that II Peter wasn't written by Peter. These are evangelicals with a high view of scripture who say these things, and I wonder about it for two reasons. One is that I'm not at all sure it could have been obvious even to people in that time that this is what was going on, because it really seems to present itself as the work of Paul or Peter, with no indications in the text itself that it isn't. The same is true of Jill Carroll's material. But the more difficult problem is that these texts were intended for more than just the original audience. Ephesians and Peter's letters seem to have been intended as circular letters, and that means the author or original distributors knew full well that there would be audiences not in the loop. Once I've said all this, I have to worry about some of the same issues with Carroll's coerced propaganda statements.

3. We're not in this situation, and we have no right to say anything confidently about what someone else should do in a situation we haven't tested our convictions in.

Moral deference is a strong consideration with these extreme cases that most of us have never been in. If I don't know what it is to be in a situation that could be incredibly difficult, then I don't know what I would do, and I need to extend some grace to those who would do things that might otherwise be considered wrong. That doesn't mean it's not wrong, but I should hesitate to affirm both that it is wrong and that I wouldn't do it. If I'm going to worry about its possibly being wrong, then I should admit that I might also do the wrong thing in that situation.

Some people have expressed views that amount to calling her a wimp, but I think someone can think someone in such circumstances has a very high moral standard to meet that takes extreme courage to follow. Those who don't aren't wimps. They're just not as courageous as we would ideally want them to be, and thus they did something that, technically speaking, is wrong. But this is consistent with thinking most of us are likely that and would do the wrong thing. It's consistent with thinking that it doesn't take a wimp to do the easier thing here. It just takes a normal person, someone who isn't of the very highest moral caliber. So if it's wrong to participate in this kind of propaganda (and remember that I'm just offering moral considerations here and not trying to take any view), then it's wrong in a way that doesn't justify calling someone a wimp for failing to meet such a very high standard. Most of us might fail in this sort of case, and not being of the highest courage isn't the same as being a wimp. A wimp would fold under much less pressure, and we don't have any reason to think Jill Carroll would do that. So I think the moral deference argument serves as some defense against the wimp charge, even if you think what she did was wrong.


Jeremy, I'm glad you had this post on the morality of acting under duress. It really got me thinking. Let me make two points:

1. First, I wonder about the accuracy of saying that "Christians shouldn't reject Christ under duress." No doubt Christians are to be willing to lay down their very lives for the sake of the gospel. In such times, I believe that it is a special gift of divine grace that enables the individual to act with such courage.
I think that Christians ought to be willing to take such a stand when the choices are between their self preservation and the denial of Christ.

But it seems to me that the matter changes entirely when the choices are between the life of another (innocent) individual and denying Christ.
A Christian who, when coerced into choosing between denying Christ, or the life and saftey of another innocent person, chooses the former instead of the latter, cannot be held to be in a moral wrong, or charged with any spiritual or moral ineptitude or weakness. For in such a situation, his act was not one of self-preservation (since his life is not the one under immediate threat), but for the sake of the preservation of another of God's image bearers.

2. My second point addresses the case of Jill Caroll in particualr. If someone is coerced into such an act, there doesn't seem to me to be any ground for charging them with moral wrong, lapse, failing, weakness, or whatever. Jill Caroll's acts were not courageous, but neither can they be taken as evidence of Jill's character lacking courage. For in this situation, she did not act freely, but was coerced into acting against her will (assuming she did not mean what she said). If she did not act freely, then I do not see how she can be genuinely charged with a moral wrong or weakness or lapse or whatever we might call it.

Kant would argue that she did have a choice between accepting death or lying. It's not lack of freedom but coercion. Coerced people are genuinely free but perhaps not fully consenting in all the morally relevant ways.

Ahhh. Point well taken. I retract my #2 then. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is something to be said for witholding moral blame for someone who is coerced into an act under the gravest of threats.

As I said, moral deference requires us at least not to say anything very strongly against that consideration. I'm going to remain somewhat skeptical, however, about asserting that there's nothing morally wrong with it. I think I've argued fairly clearly that that's consistent with thinking we wouldn't blame her. I don't think there's a clear answer here, and I don't think the answer to whether it's wrong is necessarily going to tell us what attitude we should take toward her doing it, since moral deference might require not saying anything negative as an evaluation of her even if what she did was wrong.

If we take a hierarchial approach, pitting "life" (saving it), against "truth" (telling it), what is the criteria for saying one is above or below the other? If we polarize them, can we ever speak of a "true life"? Is there some other absolute value that does this or are we saying mere personal opinion is the sole decider of ethics in any given situation?

On what basis?

This just reminds me of the distinction many ethicists make these days between thin and thick accounts of things. An example of a "thin" account would be the statement "lying is always wrong", or even "lying is always wrong except in the case of x".

"Thicker" accounts presume that when dealing with the ethics of human behavior there are a lot of things which need to be be considered. In this case some of the considerations might be:

what sort of person is lying?
what consequences might they expect in this case for either lying or being honest?
who are they lying to?
what sort or extent of duress is invlolved?(could frustration or work stress be considered duress?)
what is the relationship or history between the liar and the lied to?
what sort of social situation or place did the lying occur in?

I'm sure you could come up with more. I think one of the wonderful things about some of the revival of virtue approaches to ethics is the recognition that ethics is not some special realm of analysis, but is part of how we live on a regular basis and (ethics) must take account of the full picture of people's lives rather than isolating individual actions. Not that individual actions can't be significant, of course.

I find "always" telling the truth to be a much thicker personal experience than lying. I am an accomplished liar by a life-time of habit. It once was my first and natural response to a stressful situation.

In terms of character virtues, I feel much thinner ethiclly when I've spent the day in self-justification for telling a lie, so thin in fact, that life can quickly become meaningless.

Biblical ethics, to my knowledge, nowhere supports the lie as a means of living, rather the call of Christ is the call to live an authentic life of truth in a world of deceit. He died for that very teaching.


I think you misunderstand the terms I was using. "Thick" and "thin" in this context are special terms relating to how simple or complex a method of describing something is.

You are correct in your statements about living lies and living truth, but we cannot know how to be truthful outside of specific, embodied circumstances. Simply telling someone "always tell the truth" does not help a person who hasn't learned to recognize what truth is. And since self-deception is part of what it means to be a human being, we all need help in learning what truth is and how to speak it.

Jan, you're misapplying the terms 'thick' and 'thin'. As Paul is using them, they just refer to how much detail is crowded into the statements about right and wrong in an ethical theory. A thinner theory has some simpler (and I would say simplistic and oversimplified) absolute statements. The problem with such theories, as Kant discovered, is that you don't know what to say when these absolute principles conflict, such as the obligation not to lie and the obligation to save a life.

Thicker accounts are a lot more complex. There might be more specific rules to avoid these cases of conflict. They may have a hierarchy of principles, some more important than others. They may be more about character than rules. They're basically more likely to acknowledge that in the messiness of real life things can't be as simplified as some moral philosophers have wanted them to be. A few moral principles don't capture what it is to be an excellent person, and sometimes moral dilemmas will arise where an absolutist would have to say any choice is immoral, but someone with a thicker theory has a fuller account of how different moral principles interact, and sometimes in a situation where someone's life is at stake at the hands of very evil people you simply need to lie, and it would be immoral not to.

I recommend that you read the post I linked to before about lying. I argue that several biblical passages not only support lying under certain very specific sorts of circumstances but that the narrator even commends people for lying, e.g. Rahab lying to the authorities of Jericho to protect the spies, the Hebrew midwives lying to Pharaoh about why they weren't killing the Hebrew babies.

Furthermore, and this isn't in the above-linked post, God actually instructs Samuel to lie to the elders of Bethlehem about why he is there in I Samuel 16. He's going to anoint David. That's quite clearly his purpose for being there. Samuel knows that if Saul finds out why he's going there, he would kill anyone Samuel anoints out of jealousy. God doesn't respond that Samuel needs to trust him and tell the truth, allowing God to take care of the consequences. He tells him to tell the elders that he's there to perform a sacrifice. In other words, God tells him to lie to them.

Now I think the burden of proof is clearly on whoever seeks to lie to figure out why in this case it's the right thing to do when the default is that lying is bad. I also think that someone with a history of lying needing to overcome that should be even more careful about this in the same way that someone with a history of alcohol abuse shouldn't say that since alcohol isn't inherently wrong that it's always going to be ok to have a drink.

But it's not an absolute command in scripture anymore than the prohibition on anger or jealousy is. Those are often evil emotions, but they aren't always wrong. Paul says to be angry and yet not sin, which means anger is sometimes ok. Jealousy is assumed to be good in God's case because God is the rightful husband of his people, and he wants their best. When they rebel, he is jealous for their affection. That means any husband, for instance, who has the same things true with respect to his wife should also be jealous, or else something has gone wrong in his internal motivations. In a fallen world it can be right to respond in these ways. I think the same is true about lying. It's generally prohibited, but it can be motivated by righteousness in certain situations, and in some (but not all) of those it will be the right choice.

Jeremy, one of the reasons I enjoy this topic is that I have never really devoted much thought to it before. I am "shooting from the hip" as we might say, and I know I am on slippery ground.

You said:
If we take a hierarchial approach, pitting "life" (saving it), against "truth" (telling it), what is the criteria for saying one is above or below the other? If we polarize them, can we ever speak of a "true life"? Is there some other absolute value that does this or are we saying mere personal opinion is the sole decider of ethics in any given situation? On what basis?

Take the following situation: Suppose a band of genocidal thugs burst into my house inquiring the location of a certain civilian that they want to kill. Now this individual (as far as i'm aware) is not guilty of any wrong but is simply targeted because of his race or ethnic group, say. Unbeknownst to the thugs, I have actually given the man sanctuary in my cellar but on this occasion, I tell them that I do not of know his location (or mislead them by saying that he is at such-and-such a place). Suppose then, the gang leaves my house believing that I have told them the truth.

In this situation, I have actually lied to them. I have done so because I became convinced then that I should place a greater value on preserving the life of an innocent man, than on speaking the truth.

Now it seems to me that in this circumstance, my placing greater value on preserving the life of the innocent than speaking the truthact is a morally praiseworthy act. But I cannot tell you why.

One suggestion as to why it's ok is because someone attempting to do evil deserves to be frustrated and lied to. It's in fact for their best if they're frustrated from being bad. That doesn't help as much with the case of Samuel lying to the elders of Bethlehem or David lying to the high priest about why he's showing up unannounced (when he was fleeing from Saul), but it helps with your case. What might be said for these other cases is that lying might be ok when it's deceiving someone so they can't be held responsible for knowing about something and not stopping it, since Saul would almost certainly have killed the Bethlehem elders for allowing an anointing of the next king. (In David's case, Saul killed all the priests anyway, but that just shows how degraded his pursuit of David and jealousy for his own divinely rejected kingship was.)

Another question related to the sort of example Xavier brings up is how do we or should we define lying?

Since words commonly have more than one discernable meaning we could formulate something like this:
Lying (1) Any willful and knowledgable and deliberate statement of untruth
Lying (2) Any example of Lying (1) which is morally condemnable

In this scheme the Hebrew midwives, Rahab, and Jesus in John 7 could fit into cat. 1 but not 2. Moral wisdom would need to be applied to discern cat. 2 cases.

Paul and Jeremy,

I take your points about the terminology of thick and thin. My exposure to the terms comes through hermeneutics rather than ethics, which I may well misunderstand in either case :) I'll give it some more thought, though they still bear the flavour of emphemism in my mind, as catagories for trite vs. profound. Jargon in any field is not amoral in its creation or use; it is used to obscure, as coded language for the insider, as much as to reveal. Often the simple metaphors are the most loaded simply because they appear to explain when in fact they raise the level of abstraction to intentionally dilute meaning. (which enters into any discussion of what is "expressed" truth). By the way, that is not to imply I thought you were using them as such; just a little digression on my part.

As to Rahab and the Midwives, a narrative report is not necessarily divine approval, regardless of the consequences. Narrative criticism has shown there is more than one "narrative voice" to be heard in a story.

Abrahams lie, the same on two occasions regarding the identity of his wife, was not condoned by God, yet he was also supported by God's faithfulness to the covenant they had. In this case, I don't see that God was approving the lie, which Abraham told to save his own life, anymore than I would say God supported polygamy because he "winked" at it in David and Solomon.

Jeremy, regarding Samuel, it seems your misunderstanding God's provision of a another reason for Samuel's actions as a lie. Is withholding truth, not telling all one knows or plans, a lie. If that were the case, then God would be the greatest liar of us all. As Jesus said to his disciples, he had many things to tell them but they could not bear it then.

My deeper disagreement with some lines of reasoning has to do with my own theology of the cross (the hiddenness of God in suffering that he might be revealed: Luther), where the saving of life is at the other end of the pole in relation to revealed truth. In Biblical narratives more truth is often told in death or near death than in the saving of life, the cross being the supreme example. Of course, this also presupposes the resurrection, wherein life comes back with a capital L.

One other thing to consider is Romans 3.13, where the apostle makes a scathing comment on humanity at large: "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips." In the context of Romans, this would be hard to construe as permission. The whole movement is in the other direction.

Withholding truth is morally equivalent to lying when the intent is to deceive. God's not telling us everything isn't to deceive. It's because telling us more information that we can't handle would itself be deceptive. It would lead us to misinterpret it. But withholding truth out of an intent to deceive is indeed morally equivalent to a lie. Both involve deliberate deception. People who go way out of their way to avoid lying by stating things that are technically true but very deceptive are doing the same thing as someone who is saying something false. Both are intents to deceive, and intents to deceive are generally wrong. What's wrong about them is in the very motivation.

Consider the Athanasius case from my previous post. He was fleeing those who wanted to kill him. Someone asked him where Athanasius was, and he said "Not far." He was lying. He knew they wanted to know where he was, he answered the question in a deceptive way, and they went away with the clear impression that he wanted them to have, which was that he was not Athanasius. That's morally equivalent to his telling them that he is not Athanasius, because he knew full well that what he was communicating was false even if his words were literally true.

Consider also another case from my previous post (which I hope you have read by now, because that's where my real arguments were). When I leave my house at night, I might leave a light on. I might even leave a TV on. I'm not doing so because I want to pay the utility company more money. I'm doing so because I want to tell a lie to any potential thieves. I'm telling them that I'm home. I'm not using any words to do so, but deliberate deception requires no words. It just requires doing something that conveys an impression that you know will communicate something false.

In both this case and the Athanasius case, we have what most people would call morally justified lies. The reason they're morally justified is because it would be wrong to assist someone in doing evil. If the information you would convey to them would assist them in evil, then you ought not to provide it, and there are indeed many cases when simply not answering a question would provide information that you don't want to provide, which means you have to lie to avoid giving the information.

So even is Samuel is just being misleading by engaging in an omission, he's lying, and he's doing so in a morally justified way. But all this is really irrelevant to Samuel's case, because he told the elders something that was untrue, which is exactly God had commanded him to do. It wasn't an omission. It was an act of saying something false with intent to deceive, and it was commanded by God.

This means that there is no absolute command against lying (and there isn't one in scripture anyway, despite some claims to the contrary). Lying is generally wrong. Most motivations for lying are wrong. It's extremely rare when lying would be the right thing to do, and those who are in such situations really have the burden of proof to establish that in their case lying would be ok. Lying is generally condemned, because it usually results from a character trait that is opposite to God. But that doesn't mean it's always wrong. Such a conclusion requires an absolutism that you don't find in the scriptures about this issue.

I'll try one more time to draw the parallel with some other things that are generally bad but necessary sometimes in a fallen world. One of them is violence. It's clear in scripture that violence is somethimes condoned. Israel was commanded to attack certain enemies so that they would be delivered from their persecutors. Capital punishment is the penalty for certain crimes. But that doesn't mean violence is in any way good in itself. It's not. It's just that it's a necessary act in a fallen world. It's unfortunate that it's sometimes necessary, because it's in itself bad, but that doesn't mean it's morally wrong. Someone who is acting out of proper motivations and character traits will know when to use violence in a fallen world, even if that same person will hope never to have to use it. What I don't understand is why the same couldn't be true of other actions that are deeply bad in themselves but necessary in a fallen world? In particular, that seems to me to be exactly what's going on in scripture with respect to lying.

So pointing out that the scriptures present lying as generally speaking very bad does not contradict anything I'm saying. That argument just misunderstands my position. I agree fully with all that. I just don't see how that means lying is always wrong any more than the badness of violence in itself means that violence is always wrong. It doesn't mean lying or violence is good just because it's morally obligatory in certain (hopefully) rare instances. It doesn't mean there has to be divine permission in every case just because there is in some. So most of the cases you're pointing to are irrelevant to my point, because they support what I'm saying just as much as they support what you're saying. Both of our views account for that fact. It's the other cases that don't involve condemnation that I'm talking about.

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