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Natural Law and Bearing False Witness | J. Budziszewski |
From What We Can't Not Know: A Guide | Ignatius Insight
Editor's Note: The
following excerpt is from Chapter 2, "What It Is That We Can't Not Know", of J.
Budziszewski's book, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide. The chapter examines the
Decalogue (Deut. 5) and looks at each of the Commandments in turn.
8 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. (5:20)
The Eighth Commandment is often misunderstood. Bearing false witness isn't lying
per se, but lying to get someone in trouble—especially in a judicial
context, where one is offering evidence. A presupposition of the Eighth
Commandment, then, is that some sort of provision has been made for public
justice. No people in the world lives without some such customs. The chieftain
of the smallest tribe is expected to hear disputes and judge justly. Like
marriage and family, the office of judge would seem to be a spontaneous and
natural human institution. The fundamental act of government is not
legislation, but judgment.
Whether lying per se is wrong—whether it is always wrong to say, with the
intent to deceive, what is contrary to what I understand to be the
truth—is another question.  Natural law thinkers have always conceded
that this is a genuinely difficult problem, the solution to which is plainly
not among the things we can't not know. I must not lie to achieve injustice;
that much is plain. But may I lie to prevent it? Because of the difficulty of
this issue we need to spend more time on the Eighth Commandment than on the
The classical illustration of the quandary is whether I may tell a would-be
murderer who is looking for a man that I am hiding, "I have no information
as to his whereabouts." Some natural law thinkers have said that I may
never lie, period; to the would-be murderer at the door, I should reply,
"You have no right to ask such a question, and I will not answer it."
Let's call that Opinion One. Of course such an answer exposes me to danger, but
that cannot be helped; justice is never safe. The greater difficulty is that it
exposes the hiding man to danger, and I have promised him my protection. Is
that right? Other natural law thinkers have said that it is not right; they
argue that I may lie only when the questioner has no right to the truth that he
demands—as in the case of the would-be murderer, because he desires it
solely for the purpose of committing injustice. Let's call that Opinion Two.
Still other natural law thinkers have said that although I should never lie, I may equivocate. For example, the sentence
"I have no information" is an equivocation if I say it with the
meaning "I have no information for you." Let's call that Opinion Three.
Opinion Three may seem rather sticky, but it does have a certain plausibility.
After all, the meaning of words depends on shared understandings. It might be
argued that when the receptionist tells callers, "The boss is not
in", she is not lying because everyone knows that not every caller has the right to know the
whereabouts of the boss, and because, in our culture, one of the possible
meanings of the receptionist's statement is "The boss is not in to take
calls." She does not intend to
deceive, and no one is actually deceived.
Now in the case of the receptionist the shared understanding arises from
convention—she and the caller follow the same telephoning customs. What
about the case of the murderer at my door? If there is a shared understanding
in that case, it would have to arise from the natural law—because the
murderer knows the basic moral rules as well as I do. One of the things that he
and I both know is that nobody has a moral right to an answer to a question
which he has no moral right to ask, and another of the things that he and I
both know is that we normally take this fact into account in interpreting the
responses which people do give to
In other words, the murderer at the door knows as well as anyone else that the
response to an illicit question is normally equivocal. This would seem to make
his question pointless. Yet he asks it anyway—as though he had forgotten
that it were illicit. Perhaps in a sense he has forgotten. For most people, murder is difficult,
precisely because they know that it is wrong. Consequently, a man planning
murder may try not to think about the evil of his intended act. So what? If he
is trying not to think about the evil of the act, then he is probably trying
not to think about the evil of his question either. The upshot is that the more
guilty his conscience, the more naive his expectations; an equivocal answer may
catch him by surprise. There is certainly a deception—but perhaps he
One striking fact is that the advocates of Opinion Two and Opinion Three seem
to be approving and disapproving exactly the same statements. They differ only
about whether to call them lies. The former say, "You may lie just when the other party has no right to the truth
he demands"; the latter say, "You may never lie, but you
may equivocate just when the other party has
no right to the truth he demands." To put the matter another way, the
latter do not consider every lie in the literal sense as a lie in the moral
Of course there is a risk in allowing people to get out of corners by
equivocating. They may concoct private definitions like "it is" for
"it isn't", "I promise" for "I don't promise",
and "I'm not married" for "I'm married"—just to have
an excuse for treating statements which are not at all equivocal as though they
were. In American politics the paramount example of private definition comes
from former president Bill Clinton, who justified a perjury in an impeachment
deposition with the explanation "It all depends on what 'is' is."
Another problem is that even if we agree with the advocates of Opinion Three
that equivocations do not share in the intrinsic badness of lies, they
certainly tend to share in at least one bad result of lies: when people are on
the receiving end of an equivocation, they may feel tricked, so that the trust
and confidence necessary to hearty social life are diminished.
To eliminate the first risk and ameliorate the second, the advocates of Opinion
Three insist on certain restrictions: (1) private definitions are illicit; no
equivocation which relies on them can ever be justified; (2) even the honest
sort of equivocation should be avoided unless the risk of evil is grave; and
(3) anyone who has a right to the truth has a right to receive it straight; in
this case equivocation is flatly forbidden. Moreover, (4) when a justified equivocation
fails to hold off a threatened evil, even then an outright lie is wrong. It is
better to suffer wrong than to do it. Some will call these cautions and
distinctions "splitting hairs". Why not say, "When telling the
truth would produce injustice, go ahead and lie"? Perhaps because our
uneasiness about lying runs deeper than the bad consequences that lying usually
produces; we sense that lying is somehow wrong in itself, that words are ordained for truth. This is why we
are so uncomfortable when people try to finesse the problem of the murderer at
the door by saying that "the end justifies the means". It is too much
like saying wrong is not wrong, or what must not be done may be done. A wiser
counsel is that we must not do evil that good may result. The disagreement
between the advocates of Opinion One and advocates of Opinions Two and Three
concerns how best to honor this counsel.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Interviews:
The Scandal of Natural Law | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Why the Bewilderment? Benedict XVI on Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A.
What We Can't Not
Know: A Guide
by J. Budziszewski
Related Products: What We Can't Not
Know - Electronic Book Download
Revised and Expanded Edition
In this new revised edition of his groundbreaking work, Professor J. Budziszewski questions the modern assumption that moral truths are unknowable. With clear
and logical arguments he rehabilitates the natural law tradition and restores confidence in a moral code based upon human nature.
What We Can't Not Know explains the rational foundation of what we all really know to be right and wrong and shows how that foundation has been kicked
out from under western society. Having gone through stages of atheism and nihilism in his own search for truth, Budziszewski understands the philosophical and personal
roots of moral relativism. With wisdom born of both experience and rigorous intellectual inquiry, he offers a firm foothold to those who are attempting either to
understand or to defend the reasonableness of traditional morality.
While natural law bridges the chasms that can be caused by religious and philosophical differences, Budziszewski believes that natural law theory has entered a
new phase, in which theology will again have pride of place. While religious belief might appear to hamper the search for common ground, Budziszewski
demonstrates that it is not an obstacle, but a pathway to apprehending universal norms of behavior.
"In What We Can't Not Know, J. Budziszewski shows that even the most sophisticated skeptics unwittingly reveal their moral knowledge in attempts to justify killing,
lying, stealing, committing adultery, and other sins. In the very process of attacking Judaeo-Christian moral principles, they confirm them." -- Robert P. George,
Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University
J. Budziszewski, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale
University, is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is
the author of several books, including The Revenge of Conscience, How to Stay Christian in College, and
The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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