Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Morals Blog: Truth & Lies

Liars & Truth tellers – Part 2

At least by kindergarten we have gained a working knowledge of truth and lies. We have heard, if not been a player in conversations along the lines of: “You took my toy.” “Did not.” “Did too, I saw you!” “Liar!”.

We quickly develop a keen sense of wrong (at least when we are the wronged party) at both false accusation and untruthful responses to true accusation. I suspect this is more than “mere” socialisation and that it is something necessary, perhaps basic to humans living together in groups.

We do in fact have a good grasp of common lying and truth telling. We should not allow the sort of moral philosopher who delights in posing extreme hypothetical cases to unnerve our confidence. As with the Commandment “You shall not murder” we may find that the rule requires 'absolute' obedience in situations where it applies, but that it does not apply in every conceivable situation. So we will start with the common situations which we already understand.

In this discussion I will use “true” and “false” in the mathematical sense so that for instance the statement “1 + 1 = 1” is false and “1 + 1 = 2” is true. Yes I do know that there are philosophies that wish to define these terms in various different ways but at this stage I just want to talk about the common-or-garden variety truth and falsehood.

So for instance, when our third grade teacher noted the absence of our homework book and said: “You haven't handed in your homework”. We knew that was a true statement. When she asked why we hadn't, things got interesting. We knew the true reason, whatever it may have been. Perhaps it was that we chose to play games until bed-time instead of doing dull old homework. We also knew that saying this would earn us a detention. So we faced a temptation to tell a lie. Perhaps to reply: “I did do my homework but the dog ate it” We knew it was a lie.

At that age we were not very practised liars so we may have given ourselves away by blushing. If we repeatedly found that lying allowed us to escape unpleasant consequences or to gain material advantage over truth tellers we may have become habitual liars. In time we certainly became much more practised and convincing at telling lies. We may have become so habitually untruthful that we ceased to even think of them as 'lies', but way back there was still a time when we did know that we were lying.

In third grade we may not have realised that our teacher had already heard all the lies that little boys and girls think are so clever and inventive. With age and practice we became much better at it. We may eventually even have come to convince ourselves with our inventions. But there was a time when we knew we were concocting a lie.

We all from time to time find ourselves in situations where we are tempted to lie. Maybe “we have done those things which we aught not to have done” or “we have left undone those things which we aught to have done” as the old Prayer Book confession put it. When we are questioned about our acts of commission or omission, we instantly realise that the truth is not what we really want to say.

We have probably all met people who in such a circumstance still tell the truth. Sometimes humbly, sometimes prudently. Someone famous once said: “When in a difficult situation always tell the truth: it will astound you friends and confound your enemies.” Either way, we know what a truthful person is.

We have undoubtedly met habitual liars, so we know what they look like.

Ordinary people tend to fall in the middle. They agree that lying is bad and truth telling is good – especially for other people. They probably tell the truth themselves whenever they may conveniently do so. But at least occasionally either as a barely though out response or as a calculated evasion, they tell a lie.

So having established common ground, how can we explore this topic further? In this series of blogs I have been trying to establish a groundwork of morals based on the moral character of God. At the beginning I argued that if there is no God then there is actually no grounds on which to discuss morals.

I know we do in fact discuss morals and that humans throughout history have so. But then I also know that there is a God.

My point is that if there were no God then there could be no basis for discussing morals. All there could be is some variation this theme: the ubermensch make whatever rules they feel like and the slaves are taught to obey them.

Alternatively, if God exists, then God's moral character, so far as it may be known, provides the ultimate and only valid standard for judging right and wrong.

So for this topic I am not going to look at the social utility of truth telling against the social or even personal harm of lying, real though these aspects may be. Instead, now that we have reviewed what we commonly understand by both telling the truth and lying, I want to look at what we know of God's moral character in relation to them.

As they used to say on the radio: “tune in same station same time next week for the next exciting episode!”

No comments:

Post a Comment