Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Morals Blog: Truth telling in Hard Cases

What About Hard Cases?

The other enrichment of “truth” in the Bible is that in God it is acting accordance with the highest conceivable morality. So for us humans “telling the truth” requires trying to imitate this characteristic of God also. However, unlike God we are not infinitely powerful. So for us to act in accordance with the highest conceivable morality may involve compromises.

We live in an imperfect world, we are and are among imperfect people. We can find ourselves by chance, or be manoeuvred by people, into situations where we simply do not possess the power to achieve a perfect outcome.
Take an innocent engineering example: I learned in my university engineering days that the perfect propeller for a warship would have the best in these three things: speed; efficiency, and quietness. In this world it is simply not possible to maximise all three simultaneously. They are mutually incompatible. One can of course develop overall better propellers – the first steam turbine ship “Turbinia” experienced a 3 knot increase in speed when a large portion of her primitive screw broke off during trials! But it is still true that none of the three desirable traits can be maximised without sacrificing one or more of the others.

It should not surprise us that in this world we can sometimes face a situation where we can only chose between “the lesser of two evils”

PS when people confront one with the horns of a dilemma of any kind, the best move is often to refuse both the alternatives they put up. Go straight between the horns! Even so, this may still involve choosing “the lesser of (several) evils”.

Bonhoeffer, in his treatise on telling the truth which he wrote while the Gestapo were trying to get him to divulge the names of his co-conspirators against Hitler gave this example: A young girl is confronted by her teacher in front of the class with; “Is it not true your father is a drunkard”. She has been taught the importance of truth telling. She also knows that to tell it now would betray family loyalty. Bonhoeffer writes that when she lies: “No” the problem is just that she lacked the experience to satisfy these competing moral requirements. I think he is only partly right.

Experience can certainly help. I illustrate this from observation.

I was once talking with another clergyman. He explained how he was a late entrant into holy orders and had been an officer in a British tank regiment before ordination. I had been reading some “How it Works” type books with my sons and one of the chapters dealt with army tanks and mentioned reactive armour. Stupidly I blurted out “Oh, so does this new reactive armour really work?” Momentarily his face froze. Then he calmly said: “It may do” and moved on to another topic. Bonhoeffer would have been proud!

However I believe there are situations where not all the proverbial wisdom of Solomon would provide a way out.

In these cases I believe that a well trained moral conscience will pick the best course of action. I said in an early post that the human brain is incredibly adept at analysing complex social situations. This capability extends to moral judgements if we have been well socialised in moral choices.

Aristotle in Book II of his “Ethics” makes the important point that we study ethics not to intellectually describe morals, but to become people who act ethically!

Aristotle goes on to say that (he was writing in Greek) the word “ethics” comes from the word “habit”. The whole point of ethics is of oneself developing habitual norms of acting ethically!
If we have trained ourselves to tell the truth, particularly when we are tempted not to, we will not readily lie. If we have simultaneously trained ourselves to act justly, to love our neighbour as ourselves, and in our daily lives to imitate to complete moral character of God, we will not readily do other evils. Being human we will battle and occasionally fall to temptation. But we will grow stronger and more exercised in acting morally..

Such a trained conscience, I believe will provide us with the moral course of action in the split second which may be all the time we have.

So the person who by persistent action has trained their conscience, when merely insulted or wounded in their pride, will curb their temper and turn the other cheek. But should an armed assailant threaten the lives of her children she will be instantly prepared to kill the assailant, or die herself in the attempt.

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