OPINION: The Morality of Lying

By Deve Fassam

Is it always immoral to lie? Many people today would say yes. But those in the ancient world have said no. For example, if you were living in Nazi Germany and hiding Jews in your bedroom, then the SS came and knocked on your door and asked if you were hiding Jews, would you lie? Let’s leave World War 2 and make it more personal. If hitmen were sent to kill your dad and he hid in a place you are in the know of, would you divulge his hideout to the hitmen because you don’t want to sin by lying or not?

The intuitive answer would be yes, but to tell the truth would be aiding in an atrocity. Whilst to lie would be helping to save innocent lives. Because we have been raised in a culture that is dominated by the ethics of Immanuel Kant, where we’ve been taught that it is always wrong to do something like lie, regardless of the circumstances.

But in the ancient world, circumstances played an important role in knowing what the proper and virtuous actions to take were. So take the biblical account of Rahab lying to protect the spies that were sent to spy on Jericho as an example:

Joshua 2:4-5 NIV
But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. [5] At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.”

Or in Jeremiah 38 where the king told Jeremiah to lie to save his life and the prophet obliged. Both acts would have been considered virtuous because they lied to prevent harm from being done. This is similar to lying to Nazi soldiers to protect the lives of Jews. Or lying to hitmen to save your dad.

This all boils down to the type of ethics you hold to. If you subscribe to deontological ethics, you will believe there are universal laws that apply regardless of the circumstances, so you can never lie in all situations. But if you hold to virtue ethics or consequentialism, you take circumstances into effect. You realise that there are times lying might be the most virtuous thing to do, for instance, if it is going to help or protect innocent lives.

What Christ and Paul teach in the New Testament is also a form of virtue ethics, where we are commanded to love one another, do whatever is honourable, virtuous, just, helpful, commendable, etc(John 13:34, Galatians 5:14, Phil. 4:8-9). In other words, we are constantly commanded by Jesus and Paul to use our reason and our understanding of the virtues to deduce what actions to take, regardless of what circumstances we are in. If we truly understood the fruit of the Spirit, then we would understand that against such things there is no law.

I’m not, however, saying a kid committing a wrong and then lying to save himself from a good old spanking is in this category though. I get that the reason some of us hold to deontological(one-size-fits-all) ethics is because of situations like this.

In conclusion, lying is moral, depending on the situation.

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