where trouble was needed

June 28, 2011

Telling the truth

Filed under: Afterthoughts — Aravinda @ 1:26 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Is honesty the best policy? Practically speaking, I would say yes. No doubt. Whenever I have strayed, I have learned the hard way, that whatever I thought I was helping or saving by suppressing some unpleasant truth, was in fact worse and not better as a result.

Ethically, there are hypothetical cases where greater virtues trump truth. What to do if the Gestapo is at the door and asks “Are there Jews in the house?” is a question people like to hypothetically ask Kant, who apparently found in favour of truth always. This he called the categorical imperative (in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals) which stated simply, always do the right thing, the thing that would be right if everyone (always) did that.  Would it be all right if everyone lied? If not, then you must not lie either, not even just this once.   One can also apply it to mundane laws like stopping at red lights.  Would it be all right if everyone used their own discretion on stopping at red lights?  If not, then you must not either.   (Though an ambulance is exempt.)

What I remember in college is that someone said that if there are in fact Jews in the house but you, in an attempt to save their lives, say they are not in the house, the Nazis could go search outside or in the next house. Meanwhile the family whom you were sheltering, knowing the Nazis were at the door, might have gone outside to escape … and you, having sent the Nazis away would in fact have led them directly to their victims. So you would be responsible for their death.

Now this last part strikes me as irrelevant, because I don’t think the issue was whether I as the homeowner was to blame or not, but whether the Jewish family would survive or not. The very fact that the oppressive regime exists is something for which I may be partly to blame whether someone is killed on my watch or not. Some people dwell on this aspect and compare the scenario in which I let the Nazis in and they directly capture the Jews. Apparently then only the Nazis are to blame. I have simply told the truth. Whereas if I lie I am guilty of lying AND of sending the Jews into the jaws of death.

Maybe I don’t care about guilt and hence this explanation has never touched me. All the commenters who solemnly defend lying to the Gestapo in the interests of the higher cause, namely saving a life, likewise leave me unmoved. There may be cases when one ethical principle “trumps” another, but I find this philosophically inelegant. The idea of making this a duel between the two answers, yes and no, between truth and lie, between truth and life – makes me look for something else that is wrong with this picture.

First of all, who am I, this innocent-bystander homeowner? It seems I am neither oppressor nor oppressed. What has been my role so far, before the Gestapo came to the door?  Was I just giving the Jewish family a place to crash, and going about my business as usual for the rest of the time? Does the categorical imperative arise during any of this?

When the Gestapo knock, the conflict is between answering and not answering. I haven’t read Kant, and dont know who has discussed this example, but is refusing to answer not an option? If we are strictly speaking of ethics, should we answer a question that the person had no right to ask? Is that not the thing we would want everyone to do?

Reminds me of the Mother’s Day proclamation of Julia Ward Howe. She proclaims, “We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,”

We could as well say, we will not answer questions of irrelevant (or illegitimate) agencies. Fighting words … for the cause of peace 🙂

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