At First Things ethicist Robert George takes issue with the practice of lying, even in a good cause. Pro-lifers, he says, whatever their religious commitments, should:
reject lying even in the greatest of good causes. What we fight for is just and true, and truth — in its unparalleled splendor and luminosity — is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. It is the truth about the precious life of the child in the womb, and about the consequences of abortion for women and men, and the effects of abortion on families, on the medical profession, and on society more broadly, that will ultimately enable us to build a culture of life.George holds that even though the other side lies about the nature of what happens in an abortion pro-lifers should not do as they do:
[I]n working to protect the victims of abortion, it is frustrating to hold ourselves to standards that so many on the other side freely disregard.”He goes on to say that:
[T]here are no moral shortcuts to victory in this struggle. A culture of life can only be built on a foundation of truth. Lying may produce short-term victories, but it will, in the end, frustrate our long-term objective. Respect for life—like respect for every other great human good and every other high moral principle—depends on love of truth. Our efforts in the cause of life and every other worthy goal will, in the end, prove to be self-defeating if they undermine love of truth.This is difficult for me to say because I sympathize with Professor George's insistence on the value of truth, but I don't think matters are as simple as he implies. I wonder, for instance, what he would say about the lies that must be told by undercover police or intelligence agents trying to pull off a sting of a gang of thieves or infiltrate a drug cartel or infiltrate a terror cell. I wonder, too, what he would say about the military putting out disinformation in order to deceive the enemy the better to defeat them in battle, or a government threatening the use of nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack even if they knew they would not, in fact, retaliate with nukes.
Truth is certainly among the greatest goods, one that is too much under-valued in modern society, but it is not the greatest good. It is not an idol. There are circumstances in which telling the truth would be a great wrong - for instance, if telling the truth would lead directly to the murders of innocents. Likewise, lying, though otherwise almost always wrong, would be a great good if it led to the saving of the lives of innocents.
Imagine, for example, that Col. Qaddafi is about to commit wholesale slaughter of the families of the rebels who rose up against him. Suppose further that our intelligence agents report that he will likely not do this if he thinks the American president would use force to stop him. Would it be wrong for the president to declare that the United States will invade Libya with the tacit purpose of killing Qaddafi if he begins his genocide, even if the president knows in his heart that he will do no such thing? Is political bluffing wrong?
Professor George would apparently say that it would be wrong for those hiding Jews from the nazis in the early 1940s or slaves from their owners in the underground railroad of the 1850s to lie to those who question them about their knowledge of such operations. If the nazis came to a home where Jews were being hidden and asked the homeowner if he knows where there are any Jews, does Professor George say that the homeowner should tell the truth and reveal their presence in his attic? Or should he lie to save their lives? What do you think?