After following the wide discussion about the morality of lying all over the Catholic blogosphere last week, I continue to be amazed by the similarities between this conversation and the various conversations about the morality of torture.
One dissimilar element is that the lying debate has been comparatively civil. I guess it makes sense that people will be more likely to come to verbal blows about torture than lying.
Otherwise, though, there have been plenty of similarities, and one of the most glaring is that although it would seem that those who believe there ought to be exceptions from the general prohibition against lying would have the burden of proving that position, the argument has tended to spin about in the other direction; that is, those who think that what Mark Shea has tagged "Lying for Jesus" is morally correct are tending to insist that the side that believes that all lying is immoral must prove that they are right.
To this end, the proponents of the idea that some sort of lying must either be "not-lying" and therefore morally acceptable or else that sometimes lying is a morally good option have created a hypothetical involving World War II, Christians hiding Jews, and Nazis at the door. The hypothetical goes like this: You answer your door to Nazis demanding to know if Jews are being hidden inside. Do you stick to moral purity, refuse to lie, and give the Jews away either by telling the Nazis where they are or by your guilty silence? Or do you lie heroically and save the day?
All objections to this hypothetical are dismissed. When, for instance, I pointed out that as a redhead with a redhead's tendency to blush scarlet under duress I am, for the most part, a terrible liar, and would endanger my hypothetical Jewish friends in such a scenario more by lying than by keeping my pie-hole shut, and when others offered similar objections, we were scolded by the person raising the hypothetical for not taking the hypothetical seriously.
Now, my criticism of this particular tactic should not be taken as a criticism of all those who are discussing this issue rationally and calmly, even those who hold the position that either lying may sometimes be moral or the definition of lying needs to be amended to allow a sort of "not-lying" which looks exactly like lying but is permitted in some circumstances. The reason I criticize it is because it is a tactic that has cropped up in the torture debate, the abortion debate, the debate over the morality of the use of nuclear weapons, and now the debate over the morality of lying.
In the torture debate, the hypothetical was the Ticking Time Bomb--would debaters really refuse to sully their consciences with a little light torture to save the world, or a city, or at least somebody? In the abortion debate, questioners ask: would pro-lifers really let a mother die rather than abort an embryo the size of a grain of rice? In the nuclear weapons debate, the question is: would you really have condemned all those American soldiers to die by forcing them to invade Japan rather than authorize the use of a couple of atomic weapons? And now: would you really condemn your Jewish neighbors to death rather than tell a little fib to the Nazi at the door?
And if you object that the TTB scenario isn't real, that pro-lifers care about the mother's life as well as the child's, that regardless of the what-ifs it was morally wrong to use nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that no Nazi worth his salt was going to take the word of a nervous homeowner that no, seriously, there weren't any Jewish people within the house, your objections are brushed aside as irrelevant, with that one little word: really?
As in: Did God really say you couldn't eat any of the fruit in this Garden? Oh, just the one tree? Really? He said you'd die if you ate it? He didn't mention that you'd become like gods, knowing good and evil? Really?
We should never base our moral conduct on what we might hypothetically do in a dire, life-or death situation, because the sad truth is that most of us, perhaps all of us, would be tempted to commit sins in such situations, and might actually go on to commit those sins. But that many of us would sin is not somehow proof that the action contemplated is actually morally good; on the contrary, it is a reminder of the ubiquity of sin since the Tempter's first employment of that ironic "really?" in the Garden when he tricked our first parents into disobeying the law of God.