How’s that for a title to a post? Is it ever morally justifiable to lie? This is the question Gilbert Meilaender addresses in the 2d chp of his book The Way That Leads There. Augustine, his sparring partner, says “Never!” And here are Augustine’s five reasons.
1. Because lying breaks the bond between humans created by the assumption that we tell the truth.
2. Because lying infects the human character and one lie might lead to others.
What about the compensatory lie — lying because of a good/better cause?
3. Because lying in one case makes us subject to others who might lie in a bigger situation.
4. Because each of us is responsible for our acts but not the results that follow from our acts.
5. Because lying breaks down the witness of martyrs.
Augustine, Meilaender notes, taught that there is forgiveness for the one who simply couldn’t resist the compensatory lie. But, over time, the Christian ought to develop to no lying.
Meilaender, drawing on others, disagrees. He provides three reasons or exceptions where lying is justifiable.
1. A child is asked to reveal in public if his/her father is a drunk; the child says “No” in order to protect his/her family. The blame lies upon the teacher who demanded the information from the child.
2. We are asked if we want to look at the pictures of a dear woman’s grandchildren; we lie and say “Sure, I’d love to.” This decision is made on the basis of knowing that the verbal lie expresses a deeper commitment to share this grandma’s love and life.
3. We are asked by a loved one on their death bed if our child is doing well — when we know if we say “No” it might destroy the loved one’s health. We say, “She’s doing well.” Here we tell a lie in order to respect the life of one we love. There is a time to tell the truth; there is a time to let the situation to ripen.
Augustine knows that “desire” and “duty” to do what God calls us come into conflict. For Augustine, the desire and duty to praise God and to enjoy the Beauty of God from whom no word of deceit can come leads him to beat his sometime desire to lie. Instead, he will always tell the truth, regardless of what that means.
Augustine tells the truth — always — because of hope, because he believes we will answer before God and desire even in this life to do nothing that might besmirch the beauty of God’s utter truthfulness.
The antonym for mendacity (lying) is adoration, not simply truth-telling.