A few Years ago I responded to individual in a forum who accepted a great deal of what Kant said about lying.1 The result was a stew of nonsense. When someone brought up the hiding the Jews in the basement / attic situation the person hemmed and hawed outrageously. The following is the main tenor of a discussion I had with the individual over lying. I have chosen to exclude a tangential discussion where the person engaged in an ad hominem attack on me and my family. The individual in question made a totally un-evidenced comment about lying always ending badly and responded with a personal attack when I pointed out the comment was absurd.
My comments have been added too and expanded. The original discussion can be found here.2 All of my quotes are taken from there and are indented.
Nazis make good exemplars of evil, but I have to wonder how often this sort of situation really arises (or arose).
Be that as it may be, your first example (to save one's ass) is not a justification. It may be an excuse, but that is about it, as it appeals to selfish[-]interest.
As far as saving the Jew goes, yes, I will lie out my[-]teeth. Most people will. I still wonder, however, at what cost. One wrong in trade for what certainly seems a worse wrong, but can we be sure?
A similar situation, but one that makes the quandary a little clearer, is that of paying ransom to rescue a kidnapped child. One saves the child but enriches the kidnapper and encourages others to do the same.
In the lying to save someone from the Nazis, depending on the details, one could well end up doing vastly more harm. How does one know?
Self-preservation is a basic human drive. I'm not going to get upset over someone lying to avoid death, torture or imprisonment. The person(s) threatening someone with this type of dire punishment are the ones who bear the moral onus. Of course what I'm referring to here is people unjustly threatened and not people guilty of an actual criminal offence although even in that case although it would be nice if they owned up to it lying would not surprise me in the slightest. Sorry I don't see the need for human beings to be honest in situations where they may be killed, tortured or imprisoned if they are honest.
To give an example. Someone accused of having protestant beliefs during the reign of Mary I, who denies under oath having those beliefs even though he has them. Of course he could courageously own up and get if he is lucky imprisoned in a vile prison or if unlucky he could be burnt alive. Lying to save ones skin under the circumstances is entirely understandable. It is the persecutors not the liars here who have truly entered a moral quagmire.3
As for your comment of hiding a Jew and lying about it. Aside from the fact that hiding a Jew was a criminal act, severely punished by at best imprisonment and at worst by death it entailed by its very nature deception i.e., lying. After all hiding a person(s) meant getting food for them, getting everyone to agree not to mention anything about this person etc. As for your comment about how can we be sure? Are you serious? We have a lie designed to save someone has against lying to a bunch of thugs looking for victims to brutalize. There is no comparison or equality whatsoever of a moral issue. We can be absolutely sure that lying is less bad. After all what is a lie compared to gassing an innocent person, or if they are "lucky" subjecting them to what amounts to bestial brutality. We know what happened to those Jews who were hidden who got caught; if they weren’t murdered right away they were sent to bestial camps or gassed. Compared to this lying to the Nazi is a trivial moral issue. Of course those Nazis and others who searched for Jews were accessories to murder and if the victim survived they were accessories to deeply inhuman degrading torture and abuse. Their moral dilemma is obviously many orders of magnitude greater. So sorry in this case we can be very sure.4
I note you characterize saving oneself by lying as a selfish interest. Please explain how avoiding death or torture is bad? That is of course the implication of your use of terms that it is selfless to tell the truth and be killed or allow another to be killed by telling the truth.
As for the kidnap example. You do realize that telling the truth and enabling the Nazi to capture the Jews hiding encourages the Nazi to continue looking for Jews. So the comparison doesn’t quite work. Also kidnapping is both illegal and immoral and saving innocents from death and brutal treatment is both moral and ethical unlike kidnapping. I note that you are quite ignorant of World War II history. We can indeed be quite sure about what would happen. Why because we know what happened to Jews who were hiding when they were caught, they were killed or sent to a bestial camp if they were "lucky".5
As for potentially doing more harm. Well one could argue that potentially doing anything could do more harm than good. I'm rather leery of doing this sort of cost benefit analysis in the situation of hiding an innocent person from patently unjust treatment including wrongful death. Frankly I doubt the people involved try anything like that. They see an innocent person in need and do what is required to save them.
I note that you admit that you would lie but you seem to think it is still wrong and we can’t know for sure and other crap.
Let’s put this bluntly. Do you think the "right" thing to do would be to tell the Nazi were the Jews are hiding? The result in World War II would be inevitably death or unimaginable suffering. Tell me again how that would be the "right" thing to do.
I could also point out that killing in self-defense or to save another person's life is allowed by law. If that is the case I see no problem in lying to save someone from wrongful punishment.
Later this gentlemen replied with:
In short, you think we have the right to choose when we will follow a moral path and when not to, and you use extreme examples to justify this.
It amazes me, for a "critical thinker," that you don't see the fallacies in your thinking.
Off a bit on a tangent, it occurs to me that Westerners are too influenced by Christian dogma about sin. They have been taught that all sin is equally abhorrent to a perfect divinity, and even though they dismiss that as hogwash, they still think that way.
Many Asians have an understanding of the concept of karma, and that different "amounts" of good or bad karma (don't take my use of this word mystically -- translate it as "merit" if you must) accompany different acts. Therefore it is perfectly possible to have situations where the bad karma of an act is outweighed by the good karma, even though they come from different aspects of the act.
In short, lying is bad; no lie is good. However, murder tends to be worse. Even gossip is worse, when nothing is repeated except truth.
The extreme examples are nothing more than to indicate that there are situations in which to lie is the right thing to do. And that the position that lying is always wrong is extreme.
It amazes me that you don't recognize the basic inhumanity of your position, but then your last two paragraphs indicate you agree with my position, a bit of a logical fallacy there I think. Oh and please stop mind reading. Your fantasies are amusing along with your fear of human choice.
The fact is humans are free to make moral choices and do so every day. I note by the nature of your argument that by the moral path you seem to mean telling the truth. The moral path of making the morally right decision may involve telling a lie, something you seem to deny.
I note that the last comment would indicate a basic agreement with my position. Yeah lying is bad but participating in murder is worst. Agreed!
Later this person made the following argument.
Where you perceive my "inhumanity" comes from your Christian-influenced thinking -- that something that is wrong is "sin," infinitely wrong. Right and wrong are, to me, quantitative properties, measured by their karma, not inherent properties. Things can be "a little wrong" or "a lot wrong," just as cities can be nearby or far away. With right and wrong the numbers may be more difficult to assign, and the comparisons consequently more subtle, but there are no absolutes (unless you believe in an omnipotent God that by his nature creates these absolutes, and I don't).
As I see it, where we disagree is that you say there are situations where lying is good: I think that lies, by their very nature, are always wrong.
So you think that lying to a Nazi searching for hidden Jews is "always wrong"? The moral corruption of that comment is hilarious if your being literal. Or do you mean that although it is wrong to lie it would be even more wrong to tell the truth? In other words the lesser of two evils is to lie. Because telling the truth is in my opinion indisputably the "wrong" thing to do under the circumstances.
I note that for someone who claims there are no absolutes you make this rather absolute argument:
As I see it, where disagree is that you say there are situations where lying is good: I think that lies, by their very nature, are always wrong.
Talk about contradicting yourself! In one paragraph you say there are no absolutes and then in the very next paragraph you make an absolute comment!! You say that lying is always wrong!! Right after saying there are no absolutes.
I will point out that I agree that there are no absolutes and since there are no absolutes lying under some circumstances is indeed the right thing to do.
I note that you continued to ignore the moral dilemma of those searching for the hidden Jews.
1. My previous posting were I discussed Kant and lying to save another person is at Here.
2. Is Lying Justified?, Randi Forums Here see pages 6 + 7.
3. A good overview of the persecution of "heretics" by the regime of Mary Tudor is Duffy, Eamon, Fires of Faith, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2009.
4. A good overall view of the Holocaust including sections on helpers, rescuers etc., see Gilbert, Martin, The Holocaust, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 1987.