Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bernard Williams on Professor George's Hypothetical

In thinking about the very good questions that Professor George raises below, I was reminded of some of Bernard Williams's arguments in his critique of utilitarianism (the "against" of his classic work with J.J.C. Smart).  Readers are doubtless familiar with Williams's points, but briefly to refresh the memory, one of Williams's examples deals with Jim, who is given the choice by a strongman of either shooting one person, or else shooting no one, in which case Pedro will kill twenty people. 

Here is Williams:

"[W]hat occurs if Jim refrains from action is not solely twenty Indians dead, but Pedro's killing twenty Indians . . . . On the utilitarian view, the undesirable projects of other people as much determine, in this negative way, one's decisions as the desriable ones do positively: if those people were not there, or had different projects, the causal nexus would be different, and it is the actual state of the causal nexus which determines the decision . . . . The decision so determined is, for utilitarianism, the right decision.  But what if it conflicts with some project of mine?  This, the utilitarian will say, has already been dealt with: the satisfaction to you of fulfilling your project, and any satisfactions to others of your so doing, have already been through the calculating device and have been found inadequate.  Now in the case of many sorts of projects, that is a perfectly reasonable sort of answer.  But in the case of projects of the sort I have called 'commitments,' those with which one is more deeply and extensively involved and identified, this cannot just by itself be an adequate answer, and there may be no adequate answer at all . . . . It is absurd to demand of [the "committed" person], when the sums come in from the utility network which the projects of others have in part determined, that he should just step aside from his own project . . . . It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone's projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his actions and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified.  It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity." 


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These very compelling hypotheticals bring to mind an actual example of exceptional heroism. There was a German soldier by the name of Schmidt who was serving in Serbia during the world war. He was assigned to a death squad which was sent out to execute an entire village of Serbian resisters. When he saw the victims lined up before his squad, he laid down him rifle and joined the Serbians too. So heroism may be a moral imperative.

The tough part about these hypotheticals, as soldier Schmidt makes clear, is that we cannot simply apply a "greater force" defense. Schmidt could have argued to himself that while he personally was against killing Serbian villagers, some greater force had put them and him in this bind, and it was the greater force that bore the responsibility. More simply stated, one cannot use taking orders as a defense for ones' direct actions.

The case of tactical lying -- the question of whether it is necessarily a sin -- involves that same question, in as much as the defense would be that they lies told to PP were made necessary by the secrecy with which PP cloaks its crimes. So practical necessity is the "greater force." In this instance I find that proposition very compelling, and urge one to consider that to reveal the truth is to tell the truth. Truth is a good in itself, and telling the truth is therefore a good in itself. Put in somewhat more familiar terms, the actions of LiveAction consisted in effect of "bearing truthful witness," which in this circumstance consisted of truthful witness against PP.

Against, as it were, the denial of a blanket "greater force" defense, there is the defense of minimizing injury. We are at least permitted, if not enjoined, to minimize harms. In Professor George's hypothetical about the rape of the Gypsy girl, I don't think anyone would condemn the protagonist regardless of what he decided. To sacrifice his life for the honor of the girl is noble, even though to sacrifice her to save the vulnerable people in his basement is to my mind a legitimate example of minimizing harm too. We should all be very grateful for the fact that while we are required to ponder these troubling cases, there is Another who takes responsibility for deciding them.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Feb 22, 2011 9:02:55 AM

"The untruth becomes a lie when it is directed to a wrongful purpose, as in deceiving for the sake of fraud and for the hurting of the victim." Arkes

The notion of “justification” set out by Arkes and others seems slippery. What is a "wrongful purpose"?

Take the example of a witness to a serious crime, who knows that the suspect is innocent but also knows that certain facts that he possesses would not look to good to the investigators or a jury and would result in the likely long term imprisonment of an innocent man.

Should this witness lie to the investigators or the court? The justified purpose, of course, would be preventing the suspect/defendant, who the witness knows to be innocent, from being wrongfully prosecuted or convicted. Does it matter whether other means (although probably less efficacious) existed for the witness to protect the innocent person? Does the severity of the likely sentence for the innocent person matter (i.e., one shouldn't lie to prevent a wrongful civil fine)? Or how about whether the witness is under oath? Under Arkes' formulation, is the taking of innocent life or the exigency of the knock on the door critical? If not, what are the limits?

It's possible that I am not grasping what Arkes is saying, or that his argument is more complex than presented. But as written, the possibilities for justified untruths seem expansive. To me, any formulation of this sort must start with the intrinsic good of the truth, apart from concepts of purpose, and proceed from that point. The notion of purpose seems too much like consequentialism to this non-philospher.

Posted by: Mark | Feb 22, 2011 11:26:44 AM

I don't the ins and outs of consequentialism, but I do recall that Jesus pointed out that any man who looks at a woman with lust in his heart had committed adultery in his mind. That sounds like what is being denoted consequentialism.

Lying can not be defined except in the broader context of the truth. We are not strictly speaking forbidden to lie. We are commanded to tell the truth: to give truthful witness. Since telling the truth is an intention, to lie is to defy that intention. The hypothetical relating to the witness is not too hard, I think. The witness can of course evade somewhat, but perhaps more importantly there is the cross examination. The witness needs to prep the attorney for the defense on how to frame his answer to the prosecution.

The other hard issue with tactical lying, as Professor George's hypothetical makes clear, is the morality of acting to minimize harm, when it is not possible to prevent all harms. St. Thomas More, writing in the Utopia, raised an issue of that kind. He said of the Utopians -- the good kind of Utopians, not to be confused with the Marxist kind -- that when they went to war, they sent secret agents into the enemy country to subvert their government and even to assasinate their leaders (Esther again). The saint approved. The justification was that doing so might head off outright war, and save lives. Returning to Esther, she might well have pointed out to David Nichols that one dead Assyrian general was a lot less blood than thousands of Assyrian foot soldiers.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Feb 22, 2011 2:35:21 PM

Forgive me if I have overlooked anyone's comments, but I have not seen any arguments (except one of my own) to the effect that in almost all the hypothetical situations people have come up with in the matter of lying, the person who must decide what to say is under duress. As I said somewhere else, if a fugitive is hiding in my home, the authorities come to my door and ask if I have seen him, and he is standing out of sight with a gun aimed at my head, I am not obliged to say, "He's right here." (Am I?) The Catechism says: "1735 Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors." I have seen what to me are very misguided arguments that a woman who is threatened with death if she does not cooperate with her rapist is consenting to illicit sex if she does not put up a fight. Surely that is wrong. Surely Maria Goretti was not canonized for merely doing her Christian duty. A woman would also not be giving consent if she cooperated because the rapist said, "If you resist, I will kill your children." Similarly, the person hiding Jews from the Nazis is endangering not only the Jews, but himself if he acknowledges he is hiding them. When your make a choice between action X and action Y, if action X means probable death, you are not making a free choice. In the case of lying, the act itself may be intrinsically evil, but in many of the hypotheticals "imputability and responsibility for the action" would be, in my opinion, nullified. (Of course, there very well may be some situations in which one would be obliged to choose death.)

I do not think, however, either LiveAction or the physicians in Wisconsin handing out doctors' notes to demonstrators could claim to be acting under duress.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 22, 2011 2:54:40 PM

"Returning to Esther, she might well have pointed out to David Nichols that one dead Assyrian general was a lot less blood than thousands of Assyrian foot soldiers."

Fictional characters cannot make arguments.

In the introduction to Esther in the NAB, it says: "The book is a free composition—not a historical document, despite the Achaemenian coloring of the narrative. Its time of composition may well have been at the end of the Persian Empire, toward the close of the fourth century B.C. The author shows skill in developing his story and in using the art of contrast for instruction and edification. The solution to the difficulties of the book is to be found in its literary presentation rather than in a forced attempt to square detailed data of the narrative with facts. The evident literary motif of the reversal of fortune of the prosperous wicked and the oppressed virtuous through eventual punishment of the former and triumph of the latter, finds parallels in the story of Joseph (Gn 37; 39-45) and of Judith (8-16). The book is vindictive, but it should be remembered that the precept of love of enemies had not yet been taught by the word and example of Christ."

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 22, 2011 3:05:01 PM


I agree with you, re duress. But it doesn't seem that Arkes' formulation has anything to do with duress. He says only that the untruth becomes a lie when it is directed to a wrongful purpose. That seems to be a very flexible limiting principle.


Posted by: Mark | Feb 22, 2011 4:19:00 PM


I agree about Arkes, and I think he is in the same category as a number of others who argue against Robert George's position. In the battle for the hearts and minds of Catholics, I think those who are arguing that a willful untruth intended to deceive is always wrong are winning the minds, but the ones asking if one really has to refrain from lying to the Nazis are winning the hearts. Perhaps pointing out that people acting under duress can do something objectively evil without being fully culpable, or culpable at all, can answer the question of whether those who used deception to save lives should be told they shouldn't have done it.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 22, 2011 5:00:46 PM