Must We Always Tell the Truth?

Must We Always Tell the Truth

James Henley Thornwell
Discourses on Truth (1855)

Discourse IV.
Sincerity.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true—think on these things.”
(Philippians 4:8)

Speculative Truth and Practical Truth.

Truth may be considered in two leading aspects, either as having reference to the correspondence of our convictions with the reality of things, which may be called speculative truth, or truth of opinion; or as having reference to the correspondence of our expressions with the reality of our convictions, which, in contradistinction from the former, may be called practical truth, or truth of life and conduct. The one protects our minds from imposition and error, the other protects our lips from treachery and falsehood. The one keeps us from being deceived, the other from deceiving. The love of truth, as a general habit, equally includes them both; it makes us cautious, discriminating and attentive to evidence, in the process by which our opinions are formed, and exact, prudent and scrupulous in the testimony by which we communicate our judgments to others. The love of truth, as a general habit, and as applying to our speculative inquiries, has already been sufficiently considered. It remains now to discuss the second great branch of the subject, practical truth, or truth of life and conduct.

Three Types of Practical Truth.

This seems to me to include three things.

1. Sincerity.

First, sincerity which obtains whenever the signs, whatever they may be, by which we intentionally communicate ideas, exactly represent the state of our own convictions. The standard of this species of truth is a man’s own thoughts. As the design of speech is not directly and immediately to express the nature and properties of things, but our own conceptions in regard to them, he that utters what he thinks, is not wanting in veracity, however his thoughts may fail to correspond to the realities themselves.

Distinguished casuists have, accordingly, defined veracity to be a moral virtue, inclining men to represent phenomena according to their own apprehensions. [1] The matter of it they make twofold, immediate and remote; [2] the immediate consisting in the correspondence of the statement with the conviction of the speaker, the remote in the correspondence of the conviction to the thing itself. The concurrence of the two is a safeguard against all deception from testimony. It is then perfect and complete. With this double distinction of the matter of veracity, it is easily conceivable that a man may veraciously utter what is false, and falsely utter what is true. If he affirms that to be true which he believes to be false, or affirms that to be false which he believes to be true, though in each case his belief may be erroneous, and things be exactly as he represents them, he is guilty of deceit—he has spoken against his mind—the proximate or immediate matter of veracity is wanting. This proximate matter is what modern writers have denominated moral, and the remote what they have denominated, physical or logical truth. It is evident that in the former the essence of sincerity consists, and upon the latter the value of testimony, as an independent source of knowledge, depends.

If there be an agreement,” says South, [3] who, in his definition of a lie, has followed Augustine,

“if there be an agreement between our words and our thoughts, we do not speak falsely, though it sometimes so falls out, that our words agree not with the things themselves; upon which account, though in so speaking, we offend indeed against truth; yet we offend not properly by falsehood, which is a speaking against our thoughts; but by rashness, which is affirming or denying, before we have sufficiently informed ourselves of the real and true estate of those things whereof we affirm or deny.”

It is certainly incumbent upon men to guard against imposture and error, and where their judgments have been hastily formed, without due attention to the evidence within their reach, or under the influence of prejudice and passion, their mistakes are not without guilt. They sin against the truth in the absence of that spirit of indifference, impartiality and candid inquiry in which the love of it consists, though they are not chargeable with insincerity or deceit in their communications to others. The difference betwixt a mistake and a lie is, that in the one case the speaker himself is deceived, in the other he proposes to deceive others. A mistake always, a lie never, has the proximate matter of veracity.

2. Faithfulness.

The second branch of practical truth requires that our actions correspond with our professions. This is called faithfulness and consists in fulfilling the engagements and meeting the expectations which we have knowingly and voluntarily excited. This subject is generally discussed under the head of veracity; but faithfulness is evidently a mixed virtue, combining the elements of justice and of truth. A promise or a contract creates a right in another party—and the obligation to fulfill it arises accordingly, not simply from the general obligation of veracity, but from the specific obligation, which corresponds to my neighbour’s right. Hence, breach of promise is something more than a lie, it is a fraud—it cheats a man of his own.

3. Consistency.

The third thing involved in practical truth, is consistency or harmony of character. Truth is one, and the life of the good man must be a reflection of its unity. Fluctuations and fickleness of opinion or of conduct, are certain indications of gross dishonesty of heart, or of gross imbecility of understanding. When a man often shifts his principles, it is not truth, but imagined interest that he stands on; and he who is under the frequent necessity, as the phrase goes, of “defining his position” has no position that is worth defining, and is fit for no position of any moment.

These three, sincerity, faithfulness, and consistency, comprise the whole duty of practical veracity. The opposite of the first is deceit, in its protean shapes of lying, hypocrisy and flattery; the opposite of the second is fraud, and the opposite of the third is inconstancy or fickleness.

What Makes Veracity an Obligation?

Before proceeding to a more detailed discussion of these subjects, it may be well to adjust a preliminary question in reference to the grounds of the obligation of veracity.

Not due to Contract.

Paley resolves them into contract. [4] “A lie,” says he, “is a breach of promise: for whoever seriously addresses his discourse to another, tacitly promises to speak the truth, because he knows that the truth is expected.” To say nothing of the fact that a promise presupposes the veracity of the promiser as the measure of its engagement, that it is nothing and can be nothing except on the supposition that the promiser really conveys the purpose of his mind, the theory labours under another difficulty. It is not enough to constitute a promise that expectations are entertained—they must be knowingly and voluntarily excited by ourselves. It is nothing worth, therefore, to affirm that because truth is expected when we seriously address our discourse to another, therefore we have tacitly promised to speak it, unless it can be shown that this expectation has been intentionally produced by our agency. We are not bound by any other expectations of men, but those which we have authorized. It is idle, therefore, to pretend to a contract in the case.

If Dr. Paley had pushed his inquiries a little further, he might have accounted for this expectation, which certainly exists, independently of a promise, upon principles firmer and surer than any he has admitted in the structure of his philosophy. He might have seen in it the language of our nature proclaiming the will of our nature’s God.

It is surprising to what an extent this superficial theory of contract has found advocates among divines and moralists. [5] “Upon the principles of natural reason,” says South, in a passage of which the extract from Paley may be regarded as an abridgment,

“the unlawfulness of lying is grounded upon this, that a lie is properly a sort or species of injustice, and a violation of the right of that person to whom the false speech is directed; for all speaking, or signification of one’s mind, implies, in the nature of it, an act or address of one man to another; it being evident that no man, though he does speak false, can be said to lie to himself.

“Now, to show what this right is, we must know that in the beginnings and first establishments of speech, there was an implicit compact amongst men, founded upon common use and consent, that such and such words or voices, actions or gestures, should be means or signs, whereby they would express or convey their thoughts one to another; and that men should be obliged to use them for that purpose; forasmuch as without such an obligation, those signs could not be effectual for such an end. From which compact, there arising an obligation upon every one so to convey his meaning, there accrues also a right to every one, by the same signs to judge of the sense or meaning of the person so obliged to express himself; and consequently if these signs are applied and used by him, so as not to signify his meaning, the right of the person, to whom he was obliged so to have done, is hereby violated, and the man, by being deceived and kept ignorant of his neighbour’s meaning, where he ought to have known it, is so far deprived of the benefit of any intercourse or converse with him.” [6]

If men once existed in a state of solitary independence, as destitute of language as of society, it is impossible to conceive how they could have established a mutual understanding and concerted the signs which were subsequently to be employed as the vehicles of thought. There must have been some mode of communication, or the convention in question becomes utterly impracticable. Whatever that mode might be, the obligation of veracity applied to it, in order that it might be effectual, and an arrangement which presupposes, cannot be the source of a duty. Men were either bound to represent their thoughts honestly to each other, when they came together to frame an artificial language, or they were not. If they were previously bound, the obligation cannot spring from any agreement entered into at the time—if they were not, there is no security that the terms of the agreement express the intentions of the parties, and no evidence, accordingly, that any real promise was made. Such are the inconsistencies incident to all explanations of the origin of society and language, which overlook the historical facts of the Bible.

Man was evidently created a social being and with the gift of speech. He was as much adapted, when he came from the hands of God, to intercourse with his fellows by the possession of language, as by the possession of those instincts, passions and affections, which make the home, the family, and the State, indispensable to his progress and development. He was born in society and for society; it is not a condition which he has voluntarily selected from a calculation of its conveniences and comforts; it is the condition in which God has placed him, and from which he cannot be divorced. Language is arbitrary in the sense that there is, except to a very limited extent, no natural analogy between sounds and the thoughts they represent; it is not arbitrary in the sense that it is purely the product of the human will; it is not an invention, but a faculty, and, like all other faculties, capable of improvement or abuse.

Not Due to a Need of Mutual Understanding.

The account which Dr. Whewell gives in his Elements of Morality, [7] of the obligation of veracity, though it is free from the paralogisms of Paley and South, and the theory of contract, is not unencumbered with difficulties of its own. Among the springs of action he enumerates the need of a mutual understanding among men—speaks of this as a need rather than a desire, it being “rather a necessity of man’s condition than an object of his conscious desire.” “We see this necessity,” he continues,

“even in animals, especially in those which are gregarious. In their associated condition, they derive help and advantage from one another; and many of them, especially those that live, travel, or hunt in companies, are seen to reckon upon each others’ actions with great precision and confidence. In societies of men, this mutual aid and reliance are no less necessary than among beavers or bees. But in man, this aid and reliance are not the work of mere instinct. There must be a mutual understanding by which men learn to anticipate and to depend upon the actions of each other. This mutual understanding presupposes that man has the power of determining his future actions, and that he has the power of making other men aware of his determination. It presupposes purpose as its matter, and language as its instrument.”

It is clear that Dr. Whewell had principally in view promises and contracts, those purposes of our own in regard to the future, which have given rise to expectations in others, in conformity with which they have adjusted their plans and regulated their conduct. Mutual understanding is a necessity only where deceit is an injury. There are cases of falsehood, in which it would be hard to prove that any shock is given to society, provided it were understood that the prevarication, in these cases, was not inconsistent with the strictest integrity, where confidence was really important.

Upon Dr. Whewell’s principles, the law of veracity is not universal, embracing every instance and form in which one man communicates ideas to another; it extends only to those contingencies in which we have entered into virtual engagements. He could convict jesting and foolish talking of guilt only on the ground, that they imperceptibly disturb our love of truth and undermine the security of our faithfulness, and gradually introduce us into fraud and treachery. They are not wrong, upon his hypothesis, essentially and inherently, but only indirectly and contingently.

In the next place, it is not explained how this need of mutual understanding operates as a spring of action. It is denied to be a conscious desire—it is denied to be an instinct—by which, I suppose, he means a blind craving of our nature. What then is it? If it expresses simply a necessity of our condition as social, we are either conscious of this necessity, or we are not. If we are not conscious of it, it can have no possible influence upon us. It will be to us as though it existed not. If we are conscious of it, then it must produce desire, and that desire must lead to expedients to gratify it. Speaking the truth, as the means of satisfying this craving of our nature, would consequently be the suggestion of reason. This, I think, is what the learned author meant, although some expressions he has used are hardly reconcilable with it.

If so, the obligation of veracity is a deduction of the understanding from the circumstances in which we are placed. The end to be gained is first distinctly suggested by a sense of need, and veracity is enforced as the only conceivable expedient by which it can be accomplished. Hence the law of truth is not a primary and fundamental datum of consciousness, but a secondary and subordinate principle, which requires some knowledge of our social relations in order to its development. The statement of these difficulties is a sufficient refutation of the hypothesis.

The True Ground for the Obligation of Veracity.

The real ground upon which the obligation of this, as ultimately the obligation of every other duty, must be made to rest, is the will of God, as expressed in the constitution of the human mind. Truth is natural. There are two principles, or laws, impressed upon every man, by which he is adapted to social intercourse, and which operate independently of any consciousness on his part, of their subserviency to the interests of society, and which manifest themselves in the form of dispositions—one prompting him to speak the truth himself, and the other to believe that others speak it.

No man ever tells a lie without a certain degree of violence to his nature. Motives must intervene, of fear, or hope, or vanity, or shame—temptations, as in the case of all other vices, must take place, in order that the contradiction to our nature and the whole current of our thoughts or feelings, involved in a falsehood, may obtain. It is not the spontaneous native offspring of the soul—it is the creature of passion and of lust.

It is in consequence of this constitution of the mind, with reference to truth and social intercourse, that the expectation of which Dr. Paley speaks, as always existing when we seriously address our discourse to another, springs up in the breast. This expectation is only the manifestation of our natural tendency to speak the truth and to credit the statements of others. When we look at ourselves, we see that God has impressed upon our souls the law of truth. We see that he has fitted us to trust, at the same time, in others; and though both dispositions are indulged long antecedently to any knowledge of the important bearing of such elements of our being upon the interests of society, yet the subsequent development of these relations strengthens our attachment to truth and enlarges our views of the wisdom of God.

The author of our nature has made provision for a mutual understanding among men, and not left them, under the influence of a blind craving, to make provision for themselves. Our social affections might just as reasonably be ascribed to a vague desire of society, prompting to the invention of expedients for its indulgence, as our disposition to speak the truth, to a vague craving for the interchange of thought. To those, therefore, who would ask, Why am I bound to speak the truth? I would briefly answer, because it is the law of my nature; it is a fundamental datum of conscience; a command of God impressed upon the moral structure of the soul. It can be resolved into no higher principle—it is simple, elementary, ultimate.

In this view of the case, it deserves further to be remarked, that the obligation is universal, and not restricted to promises or contracts. It is not only natural to fulfill the expectations we knowingly and voluntarily excite, but it is equally natural, that in the use of signs to communicate ideas, we should fairly and honestly represent the thoughts of our own minds. In every case, nature prompts us to speak and expect the truth, and it is not until experience has taught us that our confidence is often abused that we learn to limit our credulity, and even then, “notwithstanding the lessons of caution communicated to us by experience, there is scarcely a man to be found,” as Dr. Reid has properly remarked,

“who is not more credulous than he ought to be, and who does not, upon many occasions give credit to tales which not only turn out to be perfectly false, but which a very moderate degree of reflection and attention might have taught him could not well be true. The natural disposition is always to believe. It is acquired wisdom and experience alone that teach incredulity, and they very seldom teach it enough.”

Duties Required by Sincerity.

Having now explained the ground of the obligation of veracity, I proceed to consider the duties which are involved in the general law of sincerity.

This law is, that the signs, whatever they may be, by which we intentionally communicate ideas, should correspond as exactly as possible with the thoughts they are employed to represent.

1. Truth is not Restricted to Speech.

1. The first thing here to be noted is, that truth is not to be restricted to speech. Language is not the only vehicle of thought. A greater prominence is given to it than to any other sign, because it is the most common and important instrument of social communication. But the same rule of sincerity which is to regulate the use of it, applies to all the media by which we consciously produce impressions upon the minds of others.

Augustine defines a lie to be the false signification of a word for the purpose of deceit, and intimates that by the term “word” he means any and every significant sign, whether spoken or written, whether natural or artificial—gestures, actions, looks, or ejaculations. It may be also added, that the absence of any signs, or the omission to use them, may have the effect of suggesting thoughts, and when we neglect them from this consideration, we are responsible for the effect produced. A lie, then, is compendiously “any false signification, knowingly and voluntarily used,” no matter what may be the instruments employed for the purpose.

He who responds to the question of a traveler concerning the road by pointing in a wrong direction, who nods to a proposal which he does not mean to accept, who omits in a narrative a circumstance without which an erroneous judgment cannot but be formed in the case, or so arranges his facts as to lead naturally and justly to inferences that are false; he who in these, or in any other ways, consciously misleads his neighbour, is as really wanting in sincerity and as truly guilty of a lie as if he had deceived by words. Appearances kept up for the purpose of deceiving, such as a splendid equipage by one whose income is inadequate to the expense; hurry and bustle in a physician without patients; a multitude of papers by a lawyer without briefs; and all similar tricks for effect, belong to this species of dissembling. South thinks that though the principle is the same in each case, the term lie is distinctly applied to deception by words, and simulation or hypocrisy to deception by gestures, actions, or behaviour. I apprehend, however, that hypocrisy, according to general usage, denotes only a particular species of this deception. It refers to the personation of a character that does not belong to us. We are hypocrites only as we pretend to be that which we are not.

2. Parables, Fiction, and Figurative Language.

2. The application of the law, in the case of parables, fictions, tales, and figurative language, such as hyperbole and irony, is not to the details and subordinate statements, but to the moral, which, as a whole, they are intended to illustrate. Dr. Paley has strangely enumerated these under the head of falsehoods which are not lies, attaching them to the same class with the disingenuous assertions of an advocate in pleading a cause, or with a servant’s denial of his master. But in these cases there is evidently, in no proper sense, any falsehood at all.

The fable, parable, or tale, taken as a whole, may be and is regarded as a species of proposition, in which the lesson to be inculcated is all that is strictly affirmed. The rest is drapery, mere conceptions of the imagination, intended to illustrate and place in commanding lights, the ultimate truth to be taught. They are not proposed as facts, but rather as the signs and representatives of what might be facts. They are, in other words, only the language in which the proposition is enounced.

When a man honestly believes the moral of his tale, whatever may be its ingredients and subordinate circumstances, he is not wanting in sincerity. The pictures of his fancy are not the things which he affirms. If, however, he should invent a story to enforce a proposition which he believes to be false, he would then violate the obligation of veracity. It is only where the end aimed at is contradictory to a man’s own convictions that these contrivances of the imagination possess either the form or matter of falsehood. Of course, if a man should assert the details of a fable, parable, or fiction, as facts without believing them himself, he would be justly subject to the imputation of lying, as he would be equally subject, if he believed them, to the imputation of insanity.

3. Simulation of Instruction and Trial.

3. There is a form of simulation which is resorted to for the purpose of exciting curiosity, stimulating attention, conveying instruction, or exploring and bringing to light what otherwise might not be known. It is a species of interrogatory by action. It has the same effect on the mind as the asking of a question.

When our Saviour made as though he would have gone further [Luke 24:28-29], he effectually questioned his disciples as to the condition of their hearts in relation to the duties of hospitality. The angels, in pretending that it was their purpose to abide in the street all night, made the same experiment on Lot [Gen. 19:2-3]. This species of simulation involves no falsehood—its design is not to deceive, but to catechize or instruct. The whole action is to be regarded as a sign by which a question is proposed, or the mind excited to such a degree of curiosity and attention, that lessons of truth can be successfully imparted. The command to Abraham to sacrifice his son [Gen. 22] involved a series of practical interrogatories, to which no other form of proposing them could have elicited such satisfactory responses.

The principle holds here, which obtains in reference to fictions and fables. The action is only the dress of the thought, and where the purpose in view is honourable and just, no exceptions can be taken, on the score of veracity, to the drapery in which it is adorned. But when it has no ulterior object, when it is not in fact a sign, it is then to be reckoned as deceit. It is to be judged of simply as it is in itself. Just as the details of a fiction, if represented absolutely and as facts, are to be regarded as departures from veracity.

Even if capricious simulations were not, as they are, lies, they are so much like them, that he who accustoms himself to indulge in this species of conduct, must insensibly lose his impressions of the sacredness of truth, and forfeit that delicate sensibility to its claims, upon which sincerity depends. It is dangerous to sport even on the verge of guilt. The least that can be said, with any show of reason, is, that unmeaning pretenses are analogous to foolish talking and jesting, which are not convenient. It is especially important, in the education of children, that we allow ourselves in no conduct, which may insensibly affect them with light thoughts of the evil of hypocrisy. The child who sees his parents frequently feigning, without reason, or merely for amusement, will be a dull scholar in depravity, if he should not speedily conclude that he also may feign, when his interests or malice require it.

4. Partial or Evasive Information.

4. The law of sincerity is not violated in those cases of silence, or of partial and evasive information (which, however, must always be correct, as far as it goes), in which the design is not deception, but concealment. There are things which men have a right to keep secret, and if a prurient curiosity prompts others officiously to pry into them, there is nothing criminal or dishonest in refusing to minister to such a spirit. Our silence, or evasive answers, may have the effect of misleading—that is not our fault, as it was not our design. Our purpose was simply to leave the inquirer, as nearly as possible, in the state of ignorance in which we found him—it was not to misinform, but not to inform at all. “Every man,” says Dr. John Dick,

“has not a right to hear the truth when he chooses to demand it. We are not bound to answer every question which may be proposed to us. In such cases we may be silent, or we may give as much information as we please and suppress the rest. If the person afterwards discover that the information was partial, he has no title to complain, because he had not a right even to what he obtained; and we are not guilty of a falsehood, unless we made him believe, by something which we said, that the information was complete. We are at liberty to put off with an evasive answer, the man who attempts to draw from us what we ought to conceal.” [8]

This principle is certainly recognized in the Scriptures. When Jeremiah was interrogated of the Princes in relation to the interview which he had with the King, he concealed the principal design of it, which was to recommend submission to the Chaldeans, and disclosed only the petition, that the King would not remand him to Jonathan’s house [Jer. 38:24-27]. Samuel was instructed by the Lord to act upon the same principle, in order to avoid the danger to which he was exposed from the resentment of Saul, if the real purpose of his mission to Bethlehem, when he went to anoint David, were known. “And Samuel said, how can I go? If Saul hear it, he will kill me. And the Lord said. Take an heifer with thee, and say I am come to sacrifice to the Lord.” [1 Sam. 16:2].

The principle, of course, can only be applied to those cases where we have a right to conceal. But all partial and evasive answers, when we are bound to speak the whole truth, or when they are given for the purpose of deception, are inconsistent with veracity. Then a man does not hide but lie.

Falsehood for the Purpose of Concealing the Truth?

It may be asked whether a direct falsehood is not lawful when it is uttered only for the purpose of concealment. Sir Walter Scott, it is well known, defended his denial to the Prince of Wales, of his being the author of the Waverly Novels, on the ground that it was a matter which he was anxious to keep secret, and that he could not do it in any other way, but by the course which he had pursued. In all such cases, however, the immediate end is deception—concealment is only a remote one. We intend to deceive in order to conceal.

We do not cover but misrepresent our mind, which can never be lawful, however important the ends it is intended to accomplish. And when these ends are incapable of being answered in any other way, we should take it as a clear intimation from Providence, that we are required to abandon them. In the case just mentioned, Scott might have been silent, might have changed the subject, might have protested against the question; and although such evasions might have been considered equivalent to a confession, yet a disclaimer on his part that he meant them in that light, would have still left the matter in some degree of uncertainty. Guilt, in such cases, is not confined to the party who prevaricates or lies. He who asks impertinent questions is chargeable with the sin of putting a stumbling block in his brother’s way. He is a tempter to evil.

Transgressions Opposed to Sincerity.

Having made these general explanations, which seemed to be necessary in order to an adequate comprehension of the subject, I proceed to indicate some of the modes in which the law of sincerity is evaded, after which I shall discuss the question, whether, under any circumstances, it can be dispensed with. This being, perhaps, the most satisfactory method of elucidating the nature and extent of its application—more definite, certainly, than vague statements of what it requires, which, at best, are little more than repetitions of the definition.

1. Hypocrisy.

1. The light in which Aristotle treats of truth, in his Nichomachean Ethics, is that of simplicity of conduct, and the extremes of which he regards it as the medium, are vain boasting and self-disparagement. “There are men,” says he,

“who arrogate to themselves good qualities of which they are entirely destitute, and who amplify the good qualities of which they are possessed far beyond their real measure and natural worth. The ironical dissembler (I should prefer to translate the word self-disparager) on the other hand, either conceals his advantages, or, if he cannot conceal, endeavours to depreciate their value, whereas the man of frankness and plain dealing shows his character in its natural size; truth appears in all his words and actions, which represent him exactly as he is, without addition and without diminution.”

There are forms in which these vices are as common as they are disgusting. Some endeavour to exaggerate their importance by pretending to an intimacy with the great to which they are not entitled, and others to depreciate the excellencies for which they are distinguished, only to elicit flattery and praise. In both cases, it is the hypocrisy of vanity; and in both cases the actor is guilty of a lie.

The most serious form of hypocrisy, however, is that in which a man pretends to a character to which he is really a stranger. No vice is more severely condemned in the New Testament than this. “But woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” [Mat. 23:13]. This terrible malediction, from lips that were not given to the language of denunciation, is repeated no less than seven times in the progress of a single discourse, and the most striking imagery, such as whited sepulchres, beautiful without, but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness, is employed to depict the hatefulness of the sin. The only honest way of maintaining the appearance of virtue is to possess the reality. Every other method is a cheat.

2. Flattery.

2. The law of sincerity is as inconsistent with adulation and flattery as it is with hypocrisy. The hypocrite and flatterer belong to the same genus; one lies about himself, the other about his neighbour, but both are equally liars. Affability, or courtesy, an inseparable element of refined and elegant manners, is as remote, as Aristotle long ago pointed out, from flattery, on the one hand, as from moroseness, on the other. Persons of station and influence are apt to be surrounded with a crowd of sycophants who vie with each other in concealing their defects, exaggerating their virtues and lauding their vices.

To become an encomiast of sin, seems to be the last point of degradation to which a rational being can be sunk, and yet it is the point to which all flattery tends, and which many a flatterer has reached. This vice is sometimes contracted from malice, from the wicked design of exposing the weak and credulous to ridicule, by possessing them with the belief that they are distinguished for qualities which do not belong to them; sometimes from selfishness, from the base desire of rendering the vanity of another subservient to our purposes and schemes—sometimes from weakness, from a sickly delicacy of temper, which shrinks from giving pain, or from incurring the resentment to which honest truth might give rise. There are degrees of malignity in the vice according to the motives and ends which prompt to it. But in every form it is a departure from truth, as well as a departure from that charity which meditates no wrong to another. “A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet.” [Prov. 29:5].

3. Perfidy.

3. There is another form of falsehood which, in its effects, is analogous to flattery, and, in its nature, is a species of hypocrisy. It consists in pretensions to a friendship which is not felt. The world thinks so little of this kind of lying that, except in flagrant and aggravated cases, it hardly takes the trouble to censure it when exposed. It has caused friendship to come to be esteemed as little more than a name.

This vice is peculiarly hateful, as it gains a confidence which is too often prostituted to the ruin of the unsuspecting and credulous. It was in the mask of friendship that the devil entered the garden and insinuated the lie which brought “death into the world with all our woe“—in the mask of friendship Judas kissed his Master to betray Him; and in the mask of friendship Satan now comes to us as an angel of light to seduce us from our allegiance to God. There is no point of practical morality which needs more to be inculcated, than the sacred duty of abstaining from every species of conduct or expression, that would induce men to believe that we think more highly of them than we do.

The customs of society are such that, without perpetual vigilance, we are liable to deceive our neighbours upon this point. The civilities of life should never be so exaggerated as to create the impression of extraordinary regard, where extraordinary regard does not exist. The affectation of unusual sweetness of expression or blandness of manner, honeyed words, soft and insinuating tones—a lingering pressure of the hand—apparent reluctance to quit one’s society, all these and similar expedients are arrant lies, if the victim of the tricks is, after all, nothing more than a stranger; and yet, by such tricks, the confidence of thousands is flattered out of them by knaves and cheats, to their utter ruin. The vice is well called perfidy, and those who are guilty of it are emphatically children of the devil. “Instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. Oh my soul! come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united.” [Gen. 49:5-6].

4. Equivocation.

4. It is hardly necessary to add, after what has been said of the nature of sincerity, that equivocation is inconsistent with its claims. It consists either man abuse of the ambiguity of language, or in partial statements of the truth, for the purpose of producing an erroneous impression of the whole. The promise of Temures to the Garrison of Sebastia, that if it would surrender, not a drop of blood should be shed, was grammatically susceptible of the meaning in which he kept it, though the garrison understood it as conveying a pledge of exemption from punishment. He was just as truly guilty of a falsehood in burying them alive, though he shed no blood, as if he had promised, in so many words, to spare their lives.

Words were not meant to conceal, but to convey thoughts; and if a man takes advantage of their ambiguity to make a grammatical truth subservient to deceit, he fails to represent his own thoughts. He speaks against his mind. The idea which he excites in another, is not the idea which exists in himself

The other mode of equivocation, by partial statements, is liable to the same objection. It does not reproduce our own convictions in another. Our minds are not read, touching the matter in question, by our neighbour.

Equivocation may exist in action as well as in words. We have an example in the case of Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5]. They sold their lands—brought a part of the price and laid it down at the Apostles’ feet. They wished to produce the impression that they were as liberal and magnanimous as Barnabas and the other believers, who had sold their possessions, and devoted the whole to the service of the Church. The language accordingly of their conduct was—that this is the whole price of the land. They uttered no falsehood in words—they simply acted a cheat; and the light in which God regards such equivocation, is manifested in the supernatural judgment which overtook them.

5. Mental Reservation.

5. Mental reservations, when what is suppressed is not obvious from the circumstances, and it is necessary to prevent deception, are downright lies. What is kept to one’s self is not signified. It is the signs which one uses, not those which he suppresses, which convey his thoughts to another, and if those which he uses are not in correspondence with his convictions, he signifies falsely, and therefore lies. That form of reservation in which the suppressed circumstances are things to be taken for granted as known—provided they are understood at the time to be known, is no real reservation at all. It is only where what is suppressed is essential to the truth, and is suppressed for the purpose of deceit, that the reservation comes under the censure of the moralist. And such frauds cannot be too strongly rebuked. They are destructive of all confidence, of all intercourse by signs.

Is It Ever Lawful To Lie?

Dr. Paley says that there are two cases in which falsehoods are not criminal. The first is “where no one is deceived,” the second, “where the person to whom you speak has no right to know the truth, or more properly, where little or no inconvenience results from the want of confidence in such cases.

These exceptions are perfectly consistent with the theory of moral obligation which confounds virtue with expediency and duty with advantage. In that, every thing depends upon the effect; and where no appreciable injury results, or evident utility obtains, it is right and proper to prevaricate with any principles or to dispense with any laws. But if there be such a thing as inherent and essential rectitude, if the distinctions betwixt right and wrong be permanent and unchanging, and if truth be one of the elements of immutable morality, the answer of Paley must be condemned by every unsophisticated heart.

1. Falsehood whereby no one is deceived.

1. In the first class of cases which he exempts from the operation of the law of sincerity, he has fallen into the unaccountable mistake that the essence of a lie depends upon the effect actually produced. He confounds the falsehood with the deception which it occasions. The utmost that can be said, with any show of reason, is that the intention to deceive is necessary to guilt, but the intention of the speaker and the effect consequent upon it, are very different things. The abandoned liar, whose character is known to the community, has reached a point of degradation at which no one thinks of relying upon his word, and yet it would be strange philosophy to say that because he had become incapable of deceiving, he had, therefore, become incapable of lying, except by telling the truth.

Augustine’s definition, which is the one commonly adopted, introduces the purpose of deceit as all that is necessary to render a false signification a lie. Even this, as it seems to me, is going beyond what the truth of the case admits. The law of sincerity requires that a man who addresses his discourse to another, should introduce him, as nearly as possible, into the condition of his own mind. He should represent, by whatever signs he employs, the precise state of his own feelings and convictions. The essence of a lie, consequently, must consist in a misrepresentation of one’s self, or in speaking against one’s mind.

Speech was invented,” says Thomas Aquinas, “for the purpose of expressing the conceptions of the heart; whenever, therefore, any one utters what is not in his heart, he utters what is not lawful.” The intention accordingly, which determines the species of the lie, and which gives it its essential or formal criminality, is not the intention to deceive another, though that is criminal and is generally the effect of falsehood, but the intention to misrepresent ourselves. ”Where these three things concur,” says Aquinas,

“that an enunciation should be false, voluntarily made, and intended to deceive, there is found material falsehood, the thing asserted not being true—formal falsehood, there being a will to utter what is not true—and effective falsehood, there being a desire to impress it upon others.” [9]

It must be borne in mind, however, that the essence of lying consists in formal falsehood, or a voluntary enunciation of what is not true; it derives its name from the circumstance that it consists in speaking against one’s mind. If any one, consequently, utters a falsehood, believing it to be true, he himself is not guilty of lying, though the thing itself be materially false, as he had no intention of falsehood. What is beside the intention of the speaker cannot enter into the specific difference of the act. In like manner, if a man should utter a truth, believing it to be a lie, he would be chargeable with the moral guilt of falsehood, that being the purpose of his will, which determines its character, though accidentally it happens to be true. This pertains to the species of falsehood. But the purpose to mislead another by deception, does not pertain to the species but to the perfection of lying. It is falsehood’s having its perfect work.

In natural things, whatever has what pertains to the constitution of a species, is referred to that species, though some of the usual effects may be wanting. A heavy body may be suspended in the air, and the law of gravity counteracted, yet because the descent which gravity is fitted to produce, does not take place, it would be absurd to deny that the body in question is possessed of weight.

Hence, to determine the question, whether a man has lied or not, it is not necessary to inquire whether he has actually deceived another, but whether he has signified in contradiction to the thoughts, feelings or convictions of his mind. It is a matter of no consequence whether his falsehood has been believed or not. The moral character of his act does not depend upon his neighbour’s acuteness or simplicity, but upon the purpose of his own heart. The intention to deceive is, of course, to be presumed, where a man voluntarily and consciously misrepresents himself. If the signs which he employs are fitted to produce a given impression, and he knows that they are so fitted, if the impression in question is one that would always be produced where the signs are honestly employed, he is to be held guilty of designing to make it. But whatever might be the secret purpose of his soul, he is a liar before God, if he knowingly and willingly utters, or in any other way signifies what is false. This is the essence of the sin. Other circumstances may aggravate its malignity, but this determines its specific difference.

2. Lying to those who have no right to the truth.

2. Dr. Paley is equally unfortunate in the principle upon which he exempts his second class of cases from the law of sincerity. The right of another to know the truth, is not the ground of my obligation, when I speak at all, to speak nothing but the truth. It is the ground in many cases, of my obligation to speak—that may be freely confessed—but, if independently of this ground, I choose, upon any other considerations, to open my lips, the law of sincerity must apply to my discourse. The absence of the right in question, on the part of my neighbour, can operate no farther than to justify me in being silent—it exempts me from all obligation to signify at all. But it, by no means, imparts to me a right to signify falsely. The two questions, whether I am bound to speak at all in a given case, and what I shall speak, are entirely distinct. The consideration of my neighbour’s right may be important in determining the first, it is of no importance to the other, except as it may affect the extent of my communications. It is preposterous and absurd to confound the absence of a right to know the truth with the existence of a right to be cheated with a lie. The ground of obligation to signify nothing but truth, when one signifies at all, is that it is truth—it is the law under which alone I am at liberty to use signs in social intercourse.

It might be questioned, whether even upon considerations of expediency, the principle of Dr. Paley ought not to be condemned. To say that a right to lie is the correlative of the absence of a right to know the truth, would seem to be equivalent to a very general dispensation with the law of sincerity. Each man must, in ordinary cases, determine for himself, whether the right attaches to his neighbour or not, and as his veracity is suspended upon his opinions in relation to this point, no one could ever be sure that he was not deceived. How is a man to know that his neighbour deems him entitled to the truth? From his neighbour’s declaration? But that declaration has no value unless it is previously known that the right in question is conceded. It may be one of those things, about which, in his judgment, another has no right to know the truth. Hence Paley’s law would obviously be the destruction of all confidence.

How much nobler and safer is the doctrine of the Scriptures, and of the unsophisticated language of man’s moral constitution, that truth is obligatory on its own account, and that he who undertakes to signify to another, no matter in what form, and no matter what may be the right in the case to know the truth, is bound to signify according to the convictions of his own mind. He is not always bound to speak, but whenever he does speak he is solemnly bound to speak nothing but the truth. The universal application of this principle would be the diffusion of universal confidence. It would banish deceit and suspicion from the world, and restrict the use of signs to their legitimate offices.



[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II–II, Q. 110, Art. 1. Dens. Theol., Mor. and Dog., vol. iv. p. 306. De Veritate.

[2] The distinction of Aquinas is into matter and form. The matter of a proposition being its truth or falsehood abstractly considered; the form, its truth or falsehood according to the belief of the speaker.

A proposition may, obviously, be contemplated in two lights, either abstractly as a naked affirmation or denial, and then the matter of it is the thing, whatever it may be, which is asserted or denied; or relatively, according to the purpose and intention of the speaker, and then the matter of it is the apprehension of his own mind; it affirms or denies, not what is, except per accidens, but what he believes. When the question is in reference to the truth of the thing, the matter, in the first aspect, is the point of inquiry; when the question is in reference to the sincerity of the speaker, the matter, in the second, is all that is important. This is, indeed, the sole matter of veracity, but not the sole matter of the proposition. Hence, the distinction into proximate and remote is a convenient one, if it be borne in mind that the proximate is the essence of veracity, as it respects the speaker; the remote, of the proposition abstractly considered as true or false. The most common distinction, however, is into matter and form; the matter having reference to the proposition itself, the form to the belief of the speaker.

[3] Robert South, Sermon on Falsehood, Prov. 12:32.

[4] William Paley, Moral and Political Philosophy, Book 3, ch. 6.

[5] [PJB: Later, in 1873, Charles Hodge evidently followed William Paley’s Utilitarian ethic, expressly citing Paley’s definition of a lie and giving examples from Scripture of alleged falsehoods, stating that they “received either directly or by implication the divine sanction.” (Systematic Theology, vol. 3, pp. 441, 443-444, & 447).]

[6] Robert South (1634-1716), Sermons Preached Upon Several Occasions (1866: New York), p. 234-5. Sermon XII, Of the Base Sins of Falsehood and Lying.

[7] William Whewell (1794-1866), Elements of Morality, book 3, ch. 16, § 386.

[8] John Dick, Lectures on Theology, vol. 2, p. 551. Lecture CV.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II–II, Q. 110, Art. 1.

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