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What counts as a lie?


Does saying “Fine, thanks” when asked how you’re doing count as a lie if the truth is that you have a headache? How about putting on your best poker face during a card game? And why should anyone care about Jesuitical hair-splitting over when a mental reservation is justifiable? One more post on the subject of lying before we all let it lie for a while.

Comments (42)

This comment should really have gone with your earlier post on lying, which I've only read now, but I'll post it here. It's off-subtopic but on topic, so to speak.

I think I understand the sketch of the natural law argument against lying. I understand that the immortality of the soul is also supposed to be known through natural reason, so death and suffering in this world are seen from a certain perspective. But frankly, to me as a non-Catholic it seems monstrous that one should not lie to save a life (or a thousand lives or all life on earth). I know that's a strong opinion, but I don't mean it as an insult.

Are there any religions other than Christianity that share the doctrine that it's always wrong to lie even to save a life? To the extent that other religions and moral traditions do differ from Catholicism, or from Christianity in general, our moral intuition against the Catholic natural-law position is actually a lot stronger than you've acknowledged. I wonder if you still remember how obviously false a statement like "the natural end of speech is the communication of what one truly thinks" appears to someone outside of Aristotelian philosophy?

Of course the teleology might be true no matter how obviously false it appears to us, and the morality might be true no matter how monstrous it appears intuitively. My point is just that your morality is contrary to common sense, even to common-sense outside of our decadent modern world. My guess is that it goes against most if not all other moral traditions in history.

Again, I know this is strong, but I don't mean to be insulting.

Lying in science is also frowned on, so even secular religions see it. It depends on how you regard truth.

The Chicken


I have been reading these recent posts on lying and Church dogma. If you look at the New Catholic Catechism, you see the primacy of one’s will to do what he feels right is all that is needed.

If you are Catholic and; following your conscience, do not adhere to its infallible natural law, you will be excommunicated, which means no salvation - see the end of clause 846 below.

However, if you become a Jew or Muslim and follow your heart, you will be saved, as in 847.

If you are Protestant, there seems to be no place for you in salvation. But since this new infallible teaching overturns all previous infallible teachings of Catholic exclusivity to salvation, maybe you'll get included with the next edition of the catechism.

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?[335] Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body: Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.[336]

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.[337]

Aaron, I hate to have to tell you this, but excommunication doesn't erase a Catholic's membership in the Church. It is, also, a juridic act pertaining to this life, it is not a sentence of damnation. The Catholic Church does not maintain that those who have been excommunicated are, ipso facto, damned.

I looked up what Buddhism says about lying, and this was my first site:

Let us now look specifically at the contents of good conduct in Buddhism. The way of practice of good conduct includes three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path, and these three parts are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. Speech is an extremely important part of our life. We often tend to underestimate the power of speech. We often tend to exercise very little control over our faculty of speech. This should not be so....All the rules of good conduct involve respect that is founded upon the understanding of equality and reciprocity. In this context, right speech involves respect for truth and respect for the welfare of others. If one speaks with these criteria in mind, one will be cultivating right speech and through this one will achieve greater harmony within society. Traditionally we speak of four aspects of right speech. Right speech means to avoid lying, to avoid back biting or slander, to avoid harsh speech, and to avoid idle talk. Some of you may recall the Buddha’s instruction to Rahula regarding the importance of avoiding lying....to illustrate the point that lying is intimately associated with one’s practice of wholesome actions, with one’s good conduct, with one’s character. Once we are confident that we can act in one way and speak in another, then we will not be afraid to act badly, because we will be confident that we can cover up our bad actions by lying. Lying therefore opens the door to all kinds of unwholesome actions.


Tony, the post about excommunication you replied to was addressed to me, it wasn't from me.

Re Buddhism, obviously most if not all moral traditions forbid lying as a matter of abstract principle. The quote about Buddhism is just an instance of this. What I'd be interested in is a tradition within Buddhism which says that one ought not lie to prevent a murder (or lots of murders). Note that this would not be the same as saying that such a lie would create negative karma. Saying that X creates bad karma or puts one in a state of sin is not the same as saying that one ought not do X.

For those balking at the wrongness of lying I'd be interested to know what one absolutely can't do (if anything) to save a life.

Dr. Feser,
You make some good points, but I would look at it from a different angle than “who has a right to know the truth”. With our slightly advanced theory of mind, it seems we do try to discern when someone is lying defensively or offensively. When someone is lying for defensive reasons, it seems to me that if we condemn it all it isn’t something that will bother us too much. On the other hand, if they are communicating falsehoods outside of the context of a game in which everyone implicitly agrees that lying is okay, and they are lying for selfish reasons that can harm the listener, we react as if a predator was threatening us, because that is what our animal cunning/intelligence is instinctively oriented to detect. The most difficult cases are when you have a mix of offense and defense, like self-deception. Although I think self-deception may have originated defensively, it clearly can be used for offensive purpose. For what it's worth, Machiavelli would approve of self-deception used offensively, since he believed a strong falsehood is better than a weak truth (reminiscent of Plato’s noble lie). Of course, this is one of the main sources of conflict between the liberal and conservative viewpoints.

I'd be interested to know what one absolutely can't do (if anything) to save a life.

If you can murder a murdered, murder a fetus to save mother, drop a bomb to end a war. So there really is nothing you can't do (but lie).

What one can't do to say a life: ruin an immortal soul, for one thing, either your or someone else's. In a general sense, one may not do evil that good may come from it.

The Chicken

If you are Protestant, there seems to be no place for you in salvation. But since this new infallible teaching overturns all previous infallible teachings of Catholic exclusivity to salvation, maybe you'll get included with the next edition of the catechism.

Dear Quester. Even such Modernistic Catechisms as The Illuminati-Inspired Catechism of Pope St Pius X teaches:

29 Q: But if a man through no fault of his own is outside the Church, can he be saved?

A: If he is outside the Church through no fault of his, that is, if he is in good faith, and if he has received Baptism, or at least has the implicit desire of Baptism; and if, moreover, he sincerely seeks the truth and does God's will as best he can such a man is indeed separated from the body of the Church, but is united to the soul of the Church and consequently is on the way of salvation

Are there any religions other than Christianity that share the doctrine that it's always wrong to lie even to save a life? To the extent that other religions and moral traditions do differ from Catholicism, or from Christianity in general, our moral intuition against the Catholic natural-law position is actually a lot stronger than you've acknowledged. I wonder if you still remember how obviously false a statement like "the natural end of speech is the communication of what one truly thinks" appears to someone outside of Aristotelian philosophy?

It's not clear to me that Christianity in general (as opposed to a particular tradition within Catholicism specifically) teaches that. Sure, the 10 Commandments say "Though shalt not lie", but they also say "Though shalt not kill", and we know for a fact that there are exceptions to that. If killing can be justified in some situations, then surely lying could be (at least going on the Scriptures alone).

I'm also scratching my head over this distinction between lying and deceptiveness. If "the natural end of speech is the communication of what one truly thinks" then does that mean that lying in writing is okay? Or is the natural end of the hand also the communication of what one truly thinks, and not just the mouth? And in that case, why isn't the natural end of the whole body to communicate what one really thinks, even when communicating with body language rather than formal language, thus rendering all dishonesty contrary to natural law?

I have to be honest. These reasons for why dishonesty is not always lying remind me a lot of the sort of BS technicalities I used to pull on my parents when I was a kid, earning me the title of "lawyer" and a few paddlings.


"What I'd be interested in is a tradition within Buddhism which says that one ought not lie to prevent a murder (or lots of murders). "

There happens to be a well known story in the Zen tradition that covers that. Under 'skillful means' the story is about a father who wakes up to find his house is on fire. He tells his kids outside there's a wonderful bounty of toys and gifts. As a result the kids run outside and are saved from the fire. Don't ask why these kids wouldn't be motivated by the truth to get out of the burning house or how the father has the time to tell such a well constructed lie. So yes a Buddhist would probably say if the Nazis are asking if Anne Frank is in your attic you should probably lie.

But a Buddhist might also get more subtle about the matter. They might say the Nazi demanding to know about Anne Frank isn't really demanding to know about her but is going through the motions of demanding. His soul is suffering from the sins he has done as a Nazi and is all but begging not to dig himself in any deeper. Hence you're not really telling him a lie since he isn't really asking for the truth, he is asking for a way out of feeling the need to sin again. You can, if you like, criticize this as just special pleading but I think it has some usefulness.

Consider a slightly different situation. Say a man tells you if he drinks two beers to not let him have any more since he has a very serious drinking problem and gets violent when he is drunk. You see him have two beers and then cut him off. He demands you ignore his previous statement and let him have more. Are you infringing on his free will or complying with his free will?

Or getting back to lies, you're sick and want a placeabo. Can your doctor give you one? well he can't if he says its a placeabo since placeabos work by your mind going through the motions of belief in it. But are you asking to know what medicine works or are you asking for relief from your illness? If its the latter aren't you, in a sense, asking for a 'lie' and the doctor is truthfully giving you one????

Next up: What about Obi Wan Kenobi's line that Luke Skywalker's father was murdered by Darth Vadar??????

Next up: What about Obi Wan Kenobi's line that Luke Skywalker's father was murdered by Darth Vadar??????

It wasn't entirely a lie, Vader did destroy Anakin's ability to be a father to Luke, directly by believing Palpatine's lies about Padme and indirectly by betraying his Jedi code.

Or is the natural end of the hand also the communication of what one truly thinks

Ed can correct me with the exact quote from Aquinas, but I think the natural end of the hand is to avoid movements of self-fondling and thus save the entire soul from hell.

Aaron said:

To the extent that other religions and moral traditions do differ from Catholicism, or from Christianity in general, our moral intuition against the Catholic natural-law position is actually a lot stronger than you've acknowledged. I wonder if you still remember how obviously false a statement like "the natural end of speech is the communication of what one truly thinks" appears to someone outside of Aristotelian philosophy?

I gave an off-the-cuff "solution" to the murderer at the door problem in Ed's last post, and I was told I was wrong. And, of course, this is a thorny problem in any case, and simple objections are not satisfying even if they are a gloss of the underlying truth. I don't think my position, and maybe Aaron's, was a mere intuitive reaction to the problem. It is based on a different objective morality than the A-T position.

I will note that in the same way Rothbardian anarchism does not provide the correct moral law for the relationship between parents and children (even though I recognize its validity in many areas, I agree that it has this problem), so does NL have problems and dilemmas it cannot adequately address. The murderer at the door is one such problem, though it is hardly the most significant.

I had to go read Aquinas on the murderer at the door, and found this, in Summa Q110, Article 3, reply to Objection 4:

Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

So the natural law gives us some wiggle room. The situation is not as dire as I had thought. And in fact, I'd bet you that when you are presented with the murderer at the door, ain't no one going to complain if you're not a smooth speaker and you tell a lie because you aren't prepared to do anything else. The point of the NL is that it is an uncompromising internally consistent benchmark. We humans need that. Teach it to your kids and you'll nurture a high level of virtue. If the murderer at the door ever appears, I suspect they'll go ahead and lie if they have to, and that is ok, because the point of the NL is not to box people into impossible dilemmas.

And, further, look at this excerpt, from Ed in his post:

But a “broad mental reservation” is not a lie. It involves restricting one’s meaning in such a way that the average language user could figure out one’s true meaning, given the conventions of usage and the circumstances, even if he is not likely to do so. Natural law writers typically give as everyday examples a confessor, doctor, lawyer, or secretary answering “No” or “I don’t know” when asked about matters he or she is professionally obliged to keep secret. This is legitimate, because given the context – namely the professional relationship a confessor has to a penitent, a doctor to a patient, a lawyer to a client, or a secretary to an employer – such answers can be understood by any reasonable person to mean “No, I have nothing I can tell you given my obligations to the person you are asking me about.”

I see nothing at all different in this rationalization than in my original statement to the murderer at the door: "There is no one here" (that you can kill), given the context of the situation. I do have an obligation to that person in that context.

Note that I am not saying the natural law position is wrong - I am saying it is a tiny bit more broad than its defenders here will accept.

Eli, I don't quite think that your example of mental reservation meets the criteria of "broad mental reservation". The distinguishing characteristic of the "broad" qualifier is this: the sense that is true in your own mind could be perceived in the words you use, without additional (reserved) words being added, by an observer/hearer who knows the language and cultural conventions of the times. I will admit that some of the situations where mental reservation is claimed are indeed borderline or doubtful, but in order for it to be doubtful, it must be problematic whether an observer could apply to your words the meaning that you have in your mind. In the examples Ed gives (lawyer or doctor), the inquirer knows that the person is a doctor, and can be presumed to understand the cultural convention that doctors and lawyers are adjudged to be free to withhold information, so unless the inquirer prefaces his remarks by saying "even in the face of your usual professional obligation for discretion" or something of the sort, everyone is allowed to assume that the doctor or lawyer is answering in the context of the cultural convention. When a person at trial pleads "not guilty", he is legally understood to be pleading, in effect, "I am not guilty insofar as the law is concerned, because I don't think that the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt" or something of that nature. The judge, attorneys and so on ALL understand that, and the jury receives instructions to comprehend it as well.

In your example, "There is no one here" does not seem to have a pre-existing cultural convention which we would assume everyone is aware of that enables you to ascribe to the hearer an understanding of a modified context that might apply to your words. I cannot see, then, how some observer might walk away saying: well, what could be meant is "there is no one there to the extent that if there were some that person would be murdered." There is no convention for that.

Language is built on convention, and conventions are imprecise at times, and they change with time. The first time someone started using "cool" instead of "really good", doubtless he was misunderstood. But now the convention allows for it. So if you use the word now, it is itself capable of more than one meaning. Therefore, using it in a situation where the person hearing may leap to meaning A, when what is in your mind is meaning B, is not the same kind of human act as using a word that holds only one meaning, and that meaning contrary to what is in your mind.

So if a confessor is asked "Did Bob come to see you yesterday" he can answer "I don't know" even if the confessor had a face-to-face confession with Bob. This is because of convention: the person asking the question has the reasonable knowledge that a confessor is not supposed to answer the question.

But, then, if a murderer comes to the door and asks "Is Bob there so I might kill him?" it is immoral to say "No."? Is there not a convention that we don't turn over folks to murderers?

I like the idea of language having conventions and a lie needing to be interpreted within those conventions. I'm just not following how a failure to hand Bob over to death through a lie violates conventions when a doctor being asked about Bob's health can say Bob is fine even when Bob is deathly ill.

That being said, I do not feel fully confident in speaking about whether saying "there is no one here" could be a broad reservation because you are thinking "here - you know, RIGHT HERE. Right on this spot where I am standing, and you are standing, 3 ft. away." I can see a person arguing the matter this way: when I tell a child across the room "come here", he knows darn well that if he answers "I AM here" then he is going to get punished for smart-mouthing off, because he is taking "here" in a sense I don't mean it - he is taking it in a wider sense that includes the whole room instead of just the part right next to me. So, if one time I use the word "here" to mean right next to me, and another time I use the phrase "within the room", and another time I use it for "within the house", and some other times I mean in the same neighborhood, then the word "here" is ambiguous in itself, and therefore I can allow the murderer to deceive himself by thinking that I mean the "here" meaning in the house when I mean "here" meaning right here within a few feet. Tough luck that he doesn't reflect on all the meanings "here" has in our culture.

The problem is, the murderer has clearly already staked out a meaning for "here" that is broader. Convention ought to say that I have to clarify the change in context if I want to use "here" in a narrower sense, in a sense different from that already given in the exchange.

Sorry for a second post in a row but I see now that Tony's post above mine addresses a bit of my question.

I guess the answer is that it's possible these conventions are ambiguous and maybe not universally understood. So if the person at the door did happen to come from a subculture in which for whatever reason there did exist a convention to protect folks in your basement from murderers then he may not be telling a lie even though the murderer would be unaware of the convention?

Ah, the beauty of language!

How about a more realistic question. What about a doctor giving a placeabo to a patient he suspects has convinced himself that he is ill? What about a patient who would like to have something that makes them feel better, even if it is a placeabo? Assume for the sake of the argument that the patient is not so filled with blind respect for medical authority that they will just 'buy' into any old pills the doctor gives them. The placeabo must be accompanied by a plausible sounding story that is, nonetheless, a lie.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who was reminded of the quotation posted recently where Murray Rothbard affirmed a parent's right to starve his children to death. Both Rothbard and Feser derive some truly horrifying moral conclusion by natural reason alone. Their reaction is apparently the same. Rather than rejecting it as absurd (and perhaps looking for the errors in the thought which led to it), or accepting it reservedly, as problematic, they accept it wholeheartedly - after all, it was derived by Reason - and seek to mold their, and our, moral intuitions to that monstrous absurdity.

There is one important difference, though. Mr. Feser is simply teaching a centuries-long normative tradition which claims divine authority as well. (As I've said, my guess is that all other such traditions throughout history contradict his tradition on this question.) Rothbard's conclusion, if it was part of any tradition at all, was certainly from a very recent and shallow tradition. So, there's that. But if Mr. Feser wants to appeal to that authority - and in my admittedly uneducated opinion that's the only way to support his argument - then he shouldn't sell his moral philosophy as a product of natural reason alone. The natural reason support being so weak, truth in advertising demands that it be sold as a combination of natural reason and religious authority.

To answer one comment, yes of course my objection to Mr. Feser's moral code is based on a lot more than intuition. My objection is to the underlying metaphysics, as well as to the excessive faith in reason. But I don't want to make an argument like that in blog comments. In any case, I'm sure Mr. Feser could make a much better argument against his philosophy than I could. That's why I'm focusing on intuition and moral traditions.

Let's see:

1. It is wrong, but only very mildly so, to tell a lie to a murderer.

2. People have an absolute right to allow their children to starve to death.

Yeah, both equally horrifying.

But if Mr. Feser wants to appeal to that authority...

As I keep saying, the view follows from the secular conclusions of natural law theory given its essentialist metaphysics and theory of the good. It is true that the Catholic Church endorses that approach, and I have noted that as relevant to some of the discussion here, given that many W4 readers are Catholics. But the position itself does not stand or fall with Catholic teaching or any other authority.

The natural reason support being so weak,

Uh huh. Except no one here ever seems to address it. All I keep hearing is "But gee, that sounds so counterintuitive" etc.

I understand, of course, that many people don't buy NL theory in the first place. Fine. But as I've said before, I'm not defending the general theory here -- that would have to be done at length, and I've done it at length elsewhere -- but rather just noting one of its applications.

Aaron, let me get this straight. First you complain that my position isn't sufficiently grounded in reason. Now you acknowledge that your own case here is based on intuition and tradition.

Well, if that's all you're asking for in an argument, I can easily oblige you. Here goes: I have a very strong intution that natural law theory is true. Lots of other people do too. Also, that theory is very well supported by millennia of tradition. Q.E.D.

Wow, that was easy!


Hypothetical: If there had been no Aquinas or one who thinks as he does, and the church relied on a solid basis of scripture, tradition, and other profound theological/philosophical reasoning, would you still have converted to it from atheism, as I recall you have indicated to be your case?

Let's see:

1. It is wrong, but only very mildly so, to tell a lie to a murderer.

2. People have an absolute right to allow their children to starve to death.

Yeah, both equally horrifying.

As I hinted earlier, that is a bad faith argument. The murderer at the door is hardly the most significant problem for NL. The most significant problem is the idea that the natural end of the government is to promote the welfare of the people. This is where Rothbard shines and NL/Catholic Social Teaching promote a myth that is significantly destructive.

It's fine by me -- and it ought to be fine by any philosopher -- that neither system can adequately account for all problems. To quote Leo Strauss:

Take any opinion about right, however fantastic or "primitive", that you please; you can be certain prior to having investigated it that it points beyond itself, that the people who cherish the opinion in question contradict that very opinion somehow and thus are forced to go beyond it in the direction of the one true view of justice...

However much the comprehensive visions which animate the various societies may differ, they are all visions of the same -- of the whole. Therefore, they do not merely differ from, but contradict, one another. This very fact forces man to realize that each of those visions, taken by itself, is merely an opinion about the whole or an inadequate articulation of the fundamental awareness of the whole and thus points beyond itself toward an adequate articulation.

There is no guaranty that the question for adequate articulation will ever lead beyond an understanding of the fundamental alternatives...


I think Monty Python could do a great sketch on this problem. The homeowner, opening his door to the murderer and realizing the situation, runs to get a checklist:

"Let's see, before we get started, I need to ask some questions: In your culture, is it immoral for you to murder people in my home? OK, yes, very good, now, please define how you will be using the word 'here'. Very good. Now, if I am a doctor, would it be ok for me to quickly sign up any hypothetical murder victims that are 'here' as my patients? Right... moving on..."

What's so horrifying isn't the statement, all by itself, that it's mildly wrong to lie to save a life. What's so horrifying is the statement that it's mildly wrong to lie to save a life and therefore one ought not do it. If anything, the "mildly wrong" makes it all the more horrifying. I don't think you've stated it in exactly these words (I was looking for an "ought"), but I did infer this from your saying that lying is always against God's will. Presumably one ought not act against God's will. (If not, then these posts have all been one big exercise in question-begging.) I've got no problem with saying that lying to a murderer creates bad karma or puts one in a state of sin but that one ought to do it anyway. So yeah, I think your natural-law norm is about as horrifying as Murray Rothbard's natural-rights norm.

You're right that I'm not trying to refute Thomist natural law - anything I could think of has probably been said centuries ago - so it wasn't fair of me to say your argument was weak. But you're wrong about what I am claiming. I'm not claiming that my morality is right in this case because it agrees with intuition and with all moral traditions except one. Obviously intuition and tradition don't prove anything, because different intuitions and traditions contradict each other. I'm saying that the appeal to intuition and to traditions (plural!) against your case is a lot stronger than you acknowledge.

Question: I get the idea that the concept of a 'right to the truth' has been a minority in Catholic theological tradition, but how about evaluating whether the person asking really wants the truth?

Consider the following:

A. Sitting with a group around a campfire, a person says "tell me a scary story".
B. A person walks into a bookstore and heads to the fiction aisle.
C. A person calls a phone sex hotline, he talks to a woman who sounds like she is in her 20's. He asks questions centered around that premise and she responds affirmatively, even though she is really in her early 50's.
D. A person seeks a treatment from a doctor, even if that treatment is a placebo.
E. On your mother's deathbed, she asks that you keep all your brothers and sisters from fighting with each other and from making self destructive choices. Knowing that your siblings are prone to numerous feuds and some have very self destructive behaviors, you doubt this wish could ever come to pass. Yet you tell her "don't worry, it will be all right".

What all these cases share is a degree of a person saying "lie to me". Leaving aside whether these people have a right to the truth, they are all engaging in behavior which indicates that not only are they not that much interested in the truth, they are in fact seeking out untruths.

While I'm sure many would object to C, I think we agree most of these cases the person who is giving 'lie' shouldn't really be considered guilty of telling a lie. Or maybe you can say that they are asking for a more metaphysical truth as in "give me an example of an untrue story that would scare me if I pretended it was true". In this case the story teller is, in fact, being truthful just as much as if a logic professor asked a student to give an example of an untrue statement and the student responded with "If A implies B, B implies C then A does NOT imply C".

In examples A and B the person is rather explicit about seeking an untruth. In A he basically asks for an untruth, in B he walks to a product that is more or less labeled 'untruth' so there's no real debate about deception. In C, though, the woman at the other end is 'reading between the lines'. She assumes the customer is seeking a fantasy and doesn't really want the truth. This assumption may be incorrect but if she is mistaken it certainly is an honest mistake. Likewise the doctor seeing the patient guesses that he is not being hired to provide a lesson in pharmacologically active substances but is instead being hired to resolve the illness....even if that includes a bit of 'role playing' about the wonderful new pill made out of sugar.
So is it ok to lie when you are NOT being asked for the truth? When you're either explicitly or implicitly asked for an untruth? This leads up to the case of the murderer at the door....

The Buddhist answer might be that the murderer isn't really seeking the truth. His soul is in torment because of his sins and offering a way to avoid yet another sin is an act of mercy towards him. The murderer might share something with case E in that he is not seeking the truth but seeking relief from compulsions that have tormented him (his desire to kill whoever is hiding in your home, likewise your mom seeks relief from trying to hold the family together as the burden of death approaches).

Of course you can say no the murderer really wants to murder, he is fully committed to the sin and has decided to accept whatever karma or consequences it will visit on his soul. In that case it may be wrong to lie to him. But how do you really know since you can't get inside the murderer's head? In that case wouldn't it be best to give the benefit of the doubt towards the less destructive consequence? Assume that the murderer doesn't really want the truth? After all the murderer can always murder another day but if he doesn't really want to murder once he does it can't be taken back.


I share your insights of the ultimacy of conscience over rational law in service to the immediate pressing need for good outcome.

Responding to your 1st comment

Is Lying ever justified? Why Islam always encourages telling the truth?

Is Lying ever justified?There are no absolute justifications in Islam and the Prophet has asked us to tell the truth even under the harshest circumstances of oppression. However, one may choose not to tell the truth in the following situations:

a). He is under oppression and there is danger of losing his life if he told the truth. Shaikh Saadi narrates a story, "A cruel king ordered an innocent man from village present in his court to be killed because of his lack of manners. Hearing this, the villager started to curse the king in his native language. The king asked the prime minister, who understood that villager's language, to tell him what that villager was saying. The wise minister, instead of telling the truth, told the king this villager is sorry for his conduct, praising his greatness and asking for his mercy. The king was affected and he spared the life of that innocent villager." Shaikh Saadi calls this a "lie with wisdom."

b). To promote mutual relationship between spouse, i.e., if wife asks you, "Am I beautiful?" or "Do you love me?" there is nothing wrong with saying "Yes," even if this is not the case. While these types of lying are tolerated, it is crucial not to step over the bounds of what is and is not acceptable. For instance, if a wife asks her husband if he is having an affair and the husband lies and says that he isn't (when he is) to make her 'happy' is not a permissible lie. This scenario is not what the above hadith permits. This is a deceptive lie which the husband is engaging in to serve his own agenda.

c). this also applies during war. If a prisoner is captured by the enemy and perhaps asked how many soldiers are with his army, he can lie about the number in order to protect his own fighters.

d). While making peace between two quarreling parties, instead of igniting them against each other, i.e., "He said such and such bad thing about you," just say, "He says such and such good thing about you." Tradition: He is not a liar who tries to bring peace between two people by trying to tell the truth.

e). to make unbelievers realize the truth as described in Surah al-Anbiya (21:62-65) When Prophet Abraham (pbuh) broke all the idols except the biggest one, the unbelievers entered the temple. Prophet Abraham (pbuh) hid and put his ax in the hand of the chief idol. They asked, "Who broke our gods?" Prophet Abraham (pbuh) said, "Ask the chief idol, he has the ax." They said, "Don't you know he can't speak or do anything?" Prophet Abraham (pbuh) said, "That's what I have been telling you, so worship Allah (SWT), rather than these stones that cannot harm or profit you."

I am having trouble seeing any benefit of continuing the discussion at this point. We seem to be going round and round. Thanks for all the ideas, guys.

I am having trouble seeing any benefit of continuing the discussion at this point. We seem to be going round and round. Thanks for all the ideas, guys.

Fine, Tony, but why did my simple John Michael Talbot response to you on the related thread go unanswered? Could you address this before declaring a shutout?


[Tony said]“So, somehow you want to abandon natural law in favor of conscience in spite of that being just exactly what conscience speaks out.”

No. I want a more personalistic understanding of how Divinity directs men’s conscience than what the essentialist friar has provided the Catholic Church. Looking over it’s new catechism (following a comment in another thread), in the 800-850 range of statements, I am detecting a very personalist take on things (ala Benedict 16), and a decidedly strong emphasis on individually formed conscience. Take a look.

As for your words on Talbot [Would You Crucify Him], you may not have followed his metaphor (and/or I may not have it right). It centers on the stoning of the adulteress: in the first half, we see Mother (or Bridal) Church teaching us to be compassionate and that we are not to be hypocritical about sin; in the second half, Mother Church is being viewed with the same teaching in mind for her.

IMO, Aaron's points have not been dealt with fairly.

FWIW, The complete commentary I reference above commenting to Tony is at the tail end of this thread's combox here.


JT, I did understand the John Talbot song metaphors, they are pretty clear. The fact that my comment about it did not register to you is one of the reasons I don't see much point in continuing. There are many ways of being holy, or godly if you prefer, one suited to each and every temperament and each and every heart. But not a single one of them includes giving in to an inclination in a direction contrary to Divine Law. If that's putting legalism over conscience, then I will settle for legalism, it is good enough for me, and I don't need the other kind thanks. I'll just stumble along in the ruts of Divine Law and leave others to reach beyond me.


That is clear to me, and I might totally concur if we were agreeing on Divine Law (which I take to be bigger than Ed's NLT). Two questions come to me on the nature of DL:

1) In the New Catechism, it is very clear that the Church means to be very inclusive of other religions as ;ong as each person has a good conscience, even non-believers. The various Religions hold different dogmas w/r to something like lying.
2) Even for Catholics, you only confess those things that your conscience is bothered as having been wrong.

I see ultimacy of personal conscience in this. The various systems of laws this group or that group follows are useful in forming the conscience.

JT, let me ask you a question that concerns this ültimacy of conscience". Suppose for a moment, hypothetically, that Ed is right about what God really wants us to do about lying. And suppose that a good-hearted animist from the deeps of Africa, whose conscience is in error about lying but through no fault of his own, and he lives out a good life according to his conscience (including lying when he thinks it is right to do so). Now, when he dies, according to the Catechism, God will not cast him into hell for following his conscience. To that extent, I think you and I agree. My question is, does this person's soul go straight to heaven?

According to Catholic teaching (including the inclusive Catechism) the answer is no, because although his actions of lying are not accounted as grave sin, they and the habit of soul in which they rest are still defects that detract from the purity of soul needed to endure the intensity of God's holiness. These defects must be purified away, like gold purified in the fire. Thus, when this good animist has been purified and reaches heaven to be in union with God, he has left behind the defect of lying, both the sheer ignorance that mis-formed his conscience, and any remaining attachments to lesser goods that this mis-formation planted in his soul.

I see the ultimacy of God's holy perfection in this.


Always a pleasure to continue a conversation. What you say sounds reasonable. I have to say I do not think a lot about the nature of the afterlife, because as I have said, I have become somewhat of an agnostic - perhaps along Kant's unknowable trancendent noumena (which is identical with Buddhist's take on reality).

But back to your purgatory question. I do wonder if my recall of catechism was right, and that if some act one did, considered to be a sin in the catechism, is nevertheless not bothering the conscience of the penitent who therefore does not confess it. Would it be absolved with the others he did confess, or would he end up with the animist in purgatory? I am guessing the latter.

Even if he did confess it, that alone does not remove the need for purgatorial penance. The small penance the priest gives is sufficient for forgiveness of the sin. But beyond that, the sinner needs to also purge themselves of attachment to sin. That takes either additional sacrifice (willingly accepted), or an act of pure love of God. Typically, we all need some additional purging after death, except those unusual souls whose love of God is so perfect that little is left to purify - and invariably these perfect souls have become so partly in the course of accepting suffering with great good will.

Would it be absolved with the others he did confess,

If you make a good confession insofar as your conscience makes possible, all the sins are forgiven. But later purging will be all the more necessary, given that you will not have made any conscious effort to correct your imperfections implied in those actions that you had forgotten or never knew were evil.

I kinda recall now that you say it that that's how it goes.

I was looking at another philosophical body of thought that somewhat supports my thinking of the primacy of conscience over a rational theory like NLT. I could share snippets that somewhat develop the case, if you are interested. The philosopher is Robert Pirsig.

Another time please. Thanks.

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