The Ethics of Truth I

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Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent (1896). Oliver Levi Warner

Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent (1896). Oliver Levi Warner

Before discussing the ethics of ‘truth’ we need to agree on the meaning of ‘ethics’. This is critical because many of us (most?) treat the words ‘ethics’ and “moral values” as synonymous[1]. However, they are very different concepts that philosophers, largely secular, have made unduly complex. In this introduction, I want to clarify the difference between ‘ethics’ and ‘values’ before we launch into the study (below).

Simply put, ethics are the rules by which we express the values we hold. For example, suppose our culture establishes the value that human life is more precious than other forms of life. To express this value, we might institute laws, traditions, or both that restrict the behaviors that are inconsistent with this value. For example, we may prohibit the taking of all human life, but permit the killing of plants and non-human animals for food. Rules that define the limits of a value (like the value of life) are called ‘ethics’. Simple!

Both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament speak to us in terms of ethics and values. To illustrate this, let’s examine Exodus 20:2-6

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;  3 Do not have any other gods before me.4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Verse 2 is a statement establishing God’s identity and His value to Israel (because God freed them from bondage). In verse 6 God tells us how much he values our love for Him. In verse 2 we learn that we are obligated to God and in verse 6 we learn that He wants us to love Him more than anything else. Verses 2 and 6 are value statements. By contrast, verse 5 is a purely ethical statement — it is a rule that expresses a consequence if we behave in a way inconsistent to how we are to value, i.e., love, God.
The Ethics of Truth
St. Augustine believed that telling a lie would cost one his eternal life, no matter what the motive. He reasoned that lying, even when doing so could save another’s life, was both unjustifiable and foolish. Indeed, much of traditional Christian theology (esp Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and both the Roman and Eastern Catholic Churches) was greatly influenced by Augustine. These traditions, beholding to St. Augustine, developed a doctrine specifying that lying is always and everywhere immoral. For example, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the nineteenth century’s best-known convert to Catholicism, and a renowned theologian, argued against lying in terms even more forceful that Augustine. According to Cardinal Newman,
“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremist agony…than that one soul…should tell one willful untruth, though it harmed no one.
Similarly, Immanuel Kant believed that telling the truth was a universal, moral absolute that allowed for no exceptions. Kant argued that if a would-be murderer inquires whether “our friend who is pursued by him has taken refuge in our home,” we are forbidden to lie and mislead him. Here Kant is speaking directly to the “Jews in the closet” scenario during the reign of the Nazis in Germany.
If you agree with the beliefs of St. Augustine, Cardinal Newman, and Kant, that lying is always and everywhere immoral how would you explain the following biblical texts:
  • Genesis 38:14-19 – Tamar deceives her father-in-law into being her redeemer (to fulfill the Levirate marriage obligation). 
  • Exodus 1:15-21 – God rewards two midwives for lying to Pharoah. 
  • 1 Samuel 12:12-13, 20:1, 26:6-7 – Abraham lies to save his own skin telling  Pharaoh and Abimelech respectively that Sarai is his sister. 

Now, go and study

  1. [1]Ethics are rules governing behavior. Values are what we like and dislike
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