Lying and Moral Intuitions

Peter Kreeft recently wrote a post titled "Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that". There are three elements to his thesis, two bare affirmations–Live Action did right; we should all know that–and an affirmation of how any sound person would know they did right.

His position and argument can be summed up in the following sentence:

By an intuitive judgment that is based on moral experience and on a comparison with other ways of defending person's lives (eg., spying, physical harming someone else to keep them from killing people), it is evident to most people, and to all normal human beings that what Live Action did is right, and if you think otherwise, you're morally stupid, and care about principles or moral uprightness more than about people.

I'm not going to take a position on the legitimacy of what Live Action did, but I take a definite position on this manner of arguing: it is unsound, guilty of several classic fallacies, and uncharitable, arguing by ridiculing one's opponents.

1. Appeal to the people–because most people think its so, it must be so–or simply begging the question. Peter Kreeft premises: Most of my students immediately and firm conviction is that Dutchmen "were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide". He then affirms that these students "know, without any ifs or ands or buts," that such Dutch deception is good, not evil, and that anyone who is more certain of a universal philosophical principle, from which he would conclude that such deception was wrong, "is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian."

When we discuss Kant and the issue of lying, most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. … They know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil. If anyone is more certain of his philosophical principles than he is that this deception is good, I say he is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian.

Here Kreeft is either (1) begging the point at issue, using his students merely as a illustration of that which he takes as a fact anyway, namely that whatever deception was realistically necessary to save lives (whether one uses the term "lying" or not) was good, or (2) arguing from the fact that the intuition of most persons is in favor of lying in such situations.

2. Begging the question and ridiculing your opponent: "Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It’s a good thing to do. If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles."

3. Argument by ridiculing your opponent: "If lying is always wrong, then it is wrong to lie to a nuclear terrorist (the “ticking time bomb” scenario) to elicit from him where he hid the nuclear bomb that in one hour will kill millions if it is not found and defused. The most reasonable response to the “no lying” legalist here is “You gotta be kidding”—or something less kind than that."

4. Argument from analogy, which, however, reduces to the previous fallacies, either appeal to the people or a begging of the question). The genuine morality of what Live Action did is the same as that of spying in order to save lives. But spying in order to save lives is morally right. Therefore what Live Action did is morally right.

The closest analogy I can think of to Live Action’s expose of Planned Parenthood is spying. If Live Action is wrong, then so is all spying, including spying out the Nazis’ atomic bomb projects and saving the world from a nuclear holocaust.

This is a logically valid argument. Kreeft does not argue for the premise that spying is morally licit, but this premise is probably not disputed by those whom he is opposing. The more questionable premise is his supposition that the morality of spying is the same as that of lying. He does not give any argument for this, thus it is either simply assumed (begging the question) or assumed on the basis of majority opinion.


Peter Kreeft does give a certain argument in favor of the use of the argument from majority opinion in moral matters: because they deal with concrete realities, "moral experience, instinctive moral judgments about concrete situations by our innate moral common sense" has priority over "clear definitions of general moral principles and valid logical reasoning from them"

Several questions pose themselves in regard to this: (1) what do we do when faced with a moral situation, such as that of lying to save someone's life, where the instinctive moral judgment says it is morally right, and the instinctive moral judgment of others says that it is morally wrong? If we say that the instinct of the majority is right, it seems we would have to say that the use of artificial contraception is morally right, a conclusion Kreeft would not accept. In the Aristotelian and Thomistic account, it is not just anyone's instinctive judgment which is decisive, but the judgment of the virtuous man? Is Kreeft so sure of his virtue that he can say that one who denies that his instincts are correct are "morally stupid" and is "not functioning as a human being"?

(2) What do we do when faced with a moral situation where, when the situation is presented in one way, we have one instinctive moral judgment, and, if the situation is presented in another way, we have a different instinctive moral judgment?

I hope to return to the question of instinctive judgments and moral reasoning in a later post.

See also: A Response to Peter Kreeft, On Lying, posted on the New Theological Movement Blog, and Augustine vs the Priscillianists by Mark Shea, two other responses worth reading.

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