(608) 524-5856 [email protected]

Answered by: James Henley Thornwell

Dr. Paley says that there are two cases in which falsehoods are not criminal. The first is “where no one is deceived,” the second, “where the person to whom you speak has no right to know the truth, or more properly, where little or no inconvenience results from the want of confidence in such cases.

These exceptions are perfectly consistent with the theory of moral obligation which confounds virtue with expediency and duty with advantage. In that, every thing depends upon the effect; and where no appreciable injury results, or evident utility obtains, it is right and proper to prevaricate with any principles or to dispense with any laws. But if there be such a thing as inherent and essential rectitude, if the distinctions betwixt right and wrong be permanent and unchanging, and if truth be one of the elements of immutable morality, the answer of Paley must be condemned by every unsophisticated heart.

1. Falsehood whereby no one is deceived

In the first class of cases which he exempts from the operation of the law of sincerity, he has fallen into the unaccountable mistake that the essence of a lie depends upon the effect actually produced. He confounds the falsehood with the deception which it occasions. The utmost that can be said, with any show of reason, is that the intention to deceive is necessary to guilt, but the intention of the speaker and the effect consequent upon it, are very different things. The abandoned liar, whose character is known to the community, has reached a point of degradation at which no one thinks of relying upon his word, and yet it would be strange philosophy to say that because he had become incapable of deceiving, he had, therefore, become incapable of lying, except by telling the truth.

Augustine’s definition, which is the one commonly adopted, introduces the purpose of deceit as all that is necessary to render a false signification a lie. Even this, as it seems to me, is going beyond what the truth of the case admits. The law of sincerity requires that a man who addresses his discourse to another, should introduce him, as nearly as possible, into the condition of his own mind. He should represent, by whatever signs he employs, the precise state of his own feelings and convictions. The essence of a lie, consequently, must consist in a misrepresentation of one’s self, or in speaking against one’s mind.

Speech was invented,” says Thomas Aquinas, “for the purpose of expressing the conceptions of the heart; whenever, therefore, any one utters what is not in his heart, he utters what is not lawful.” The intention accordingly, which determines the species of the lie, and which gives it its essential or formal criminality, is not the intention to deceive another, though that is criminal and is generally the effect of falsehood, but the intention to misrepresent ourselves. ”Where these three things concur,” says Aquinas,

that an enunciation should be false, voluntarily made, and intended to deceive, there is found material falsehood, the thing asserted not being true—formal falsehood, there being a will to utter what is not true—and effective falsehood, there being a desire to impress it upon others.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II–II, Q. 110, Art. 1.

It must be borne in mind, however, that the essence of lying consists in formal falsehood, or a voluntary enunciation of what is not true; it derives its name from the circumstance that it consists in speaking against one’s mind. If any one, consequently, utters a falsehood, believing it to be true, he himself is not guilty of lying, though the thing itself be materially false, as he had no intention of falsehood. What is beside the intention of the speaker cannot enter into the specific difference of the act. In like manner, if a man should utter a truth, believing it to be a lie, he would be chargeable with the moral guilt of falsehood, that being the purpose of his will, which determines its character, though accidentally it happens to be true. This pertains to the species of falsehood. But the purpose to mislead another by deception, does not pertain to the species but to the perfection of lying. It is falsehood’s having its perfect work.

In natural things, whatever has what pertains to the constitution of a species, is referred to that species, though some of the usual effects may be wanting. A heavy body may be suspended in the air, and the law of gravity counteracted, yet because the descent which gravity is fitted to produce, does not take place, it would be absurd to deny that the body in question is possessed of weight.

Hence, to determine the question, whether a man has lied or not, it is not necessary to inquire whether he has actually deceived another, but whether he has signified in contradiction to the thoughts, feelings or convictions of his mind. It is a matter of no consequence whether his falsehood has been believed or not. The moral character of his act does not depend upon his neighbour’s acuteness or simplicity, but upon the purpose of his own heart. The intention to deceive is, of course, to be presumed, where a man voluntarily and consciously misrepresents himself. If the signs which he employs are fitted to produce a given impression, and he knows that they are so fitted, if the impression in question is one that would always be produced where the signs are honestly employed, he is to be held guilty of designing to make it. But whatever might be the secret purpose of his soul, he is a liar before God, if he knowingly and willingly utters, or in any other way signifies what is false. This is the essence of the sin. Other circumstances may aggravate its malignity, but this determines its specific difference.

2. Lying to those who have no right to the truth

Dr. Paley is equally unfortunate in the principle upon which he exempts his second class of cases from the law of sincerity. The right of another to know the truth, is not the ground of my obligation, when I speak at all, to speak nothing but the truth. It is the ground in many cases, of my obligation to speak—that may be freely confessed—but, if independently of this ground, I choose, upon any other considerations, to open my lips, the law of sincerity must apply to my discourse. The absence of the right in question, on the part of my neighbour, can operate no farther than to justify me in being silent—it exempts me from all obligation to signify at all. But it, by no means, imparts to me a right to signify falsely. The two questions, whether I am bound to speak at all in a given case, and what I shall speak, are entirely distinct. The consideration of my neighbour’s right may be important in determining the first, it is of no importance to the other, except as it may affect the extent of my communications. It is preposterous and absurd to confound the absence of a right to know the truth with the existence of a right to be cheated with a lie. The ground of obligation to signify nothing but truth, when one signifies at all, is that it is truth—it is the law under which alone I am at liberty to use signs in social intercourse.

It might be questioned, whether even upon considerations of expediency, the principle of Dr. Paley ought not to be condemned. To say that a right to lie is the correlative of the absence of a right to know the truth, would seem to be equivalent to a very general dispensation with the law of sincerity. Each man must, in ordinary cases, determine for himself, whether the right attaches to his neighbour or not, and as his veracity is suspended upon his opinions in relation to this point, no one could ever be sure that he was not deceived. How is a man to know that his neighbour deems him entitled to the truth? From his neighbour’s declaration? But that declaration has no value unless it is previously known that the right in question is conceded. It may be one of those things, about which, in his judgment, another has no right to know the truth. Hence Paley’s law would obviously be the destruction of all confidence.

How much nobler and safer is the doctrine of the Scriptures, and of the unsophisticated language of man’s moral constitution, that truth is obligatory on its own account, and that he who undertakes to signify to another, no matter in what form, and no matter what may be the right in the case to know the truth, is bound to signify according to the convictions of his own mind. He is not always bound to speak, but whenever he does speak he is solemnly bound to speak nothing but the truth. The universal application of this principle would be the diffusion of universal confidence. It would banish deceit and suspicion from the world, and restrict the use of signs to their legitimate offices.