Is There Such a Thing as a Good Lie, and is Truth Merely a Tactic Anyway?

Mouth of Truth, Rome, Italy, by Serghei Topor, CC0 Public Domain

The Mouth of Truth, Rome, Italy, by Serghei Topor

‘A lie that serves a vital purpose, after all, is a lie that should be told. Whether we tell falsehoods or nothing but the truth, we all of us have the same objective: liars are always on the alert for the chance to profit by convincing others of their lies, just as those who tell the truth do so with the aim of ending up more trusted by everyone else, and thereby acquiring profit in their own manner. Different though our means may be, yet we have identical ends.’ (Histories, p 224)

In this passage from Herodotus’ Histories, Darius, a member of the royal guard and son of a Persian governor in Egypt, is justifying his plan to use trickery to enter the royal palace. He and six other Persians are planning the overthrow of Smerdis, a Magian who had taken the throne by deception after the death of Cambyses, son of Cyrus, king of Persia. Evidently, Darius takes the trouble to justify his plan of lying to the guards to gain entry because he knows his compatriots believe lying is wrong.

Darius is saying two very different things here. First, he suggests that there are some lies that are not only morally justified, but morally imperative. We’ve all heard the famous test case for when lying might be the right thing to do. Say you’re hiding a Jewish family from the Nazis under your floorboards, and they come up to your door and ask point blank if there are any Jews in your home. Other than remaining silent, which will likely be taken as a ‘yes’ and result in the Nazis storming the house and capturing the family, the only other options are to say ‘no’ and even to tell more elaborate lies which will convince the Nazis to move on. So even those who are generally committed to truth might allow that there are circumstances in which lying might not only be not wrong, but right, and furthermore, the only right thing to do, so long as it’s the only way to save the Jewish family from suffering and death. Darius is claiming that sort of thing here, but in his case, the vital purpose is to restore the Persian throne to its people, which had been stolen through deception in the first place and to whom it justly belongs. If he stopped here, I think many of us might agree he makes a fair point, even if we disagree with his assessment that there’s such a thing as a noble lie.

But he seems to doubt that his audience will accept will accept that this occasion justifies lying, so he goes on to say something far more radical. Darius claims that in fact, truth and lies are just two different ways of getting what you want anyway, and if that’s the case, the only reason you should choose truth over lies, or vice versa, is that it’s more effective. In this view, truth and lies are simply two means to an end, so the justification for their use is purely a matter of tactics. All we need to do, then, is figure out whether the end, the goal, is a worthy one, and what we say and in order to accomplish that end should be judged accordingly. Truth and lies are just as good, or just as bad, depending on the circumstances.

So what do you think? What do you think Darius gets right, if anything, and where do you think he goes wrong, if he does at all? Are truth and lies simply judged according to the intention of the speaker? According to how well they track available evidence? Are there different kinds of truth and lies, for example, ‘contingent’ versus ‘ultimate’ truth, and does that make a difference in Darius’ case, the case of saving the Jewish family, and other cases?

By the way, as Herodotus’ translator Tom Holland points out in his note to this passage, ‘Here Darius is made to speak like  a Greek rhetorician rather than a future Persian Great King, for whom any form of lying was officially anathema’.


Sources and inspiration:

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Tom Holland, New York: Viking, 2013

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Photobook: What’s Past is Prologue

What's Past is Prologue statue, National Archives in Washington DC, 2015 Amy Cools

Future, 1935, by sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken, at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C.. The inscription is from William Shakespeare’s line ‘What’s past is prologue’ from The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I, spoken by Antonio as he and Sebastian plot the murder of Alonso, King of Naples

I took this photograph while in Washington D.C. in April 2015 following the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson; to read more about Jefferson and our nation’s capital, click here.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Photobook: St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle

St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh Castle, 2014 by Amy Cools

St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. Built in the 1000’s, it’s the oldest building in Edinburgh. Despite having been used for gunpowder storage for a time, it escaped the destruction that the rest of the castle suffered many times over. It stands at the central highest point in the castle grounds so it’s well protected, and since Queen Margaret had been sainted, even enemies were loathe to destroy this sacred building, dedicated to the memory of the beloved queen famed for her piety and charitable work.

Decorated medieval arch in St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh Castle, 2014 Amy Cools.JPG

Decorated medieval arch in St Margaret’s Chapel. Three of the walls and this archway are original to this ancient building, and the walls, interior of the nave, doorway, and stained glass windows adhere to its Romanesque style.

Interior of St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh. 2014 by Amy Cools

Interior of St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh. You’ll notice my photos are mostly close-ups: for my entire visit to the Chapel, visitors were flocking to this beautiful and ancient little gem of a place with its romantic history. It was all I could do to find unobstructed views to photograph.

Decorated medieval arch in St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh Castle

Stained glass window (not original) in St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.

For more about St Margaret’s Chapel, please see:

StMargaret’ St Margaret’s Chapel Guild website

St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wilson, Daniel (1886). “Notice of St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle“. Sir Daniel Wilson discovered the chapel in 1845.

I took these photographs while on a journey to Edinburgh in 2014 following the life and ideas of David Hume; for more about Edinburgh and Hume, click here.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

But My Brain Made Me Do It!

I’m on the home stretch of preparations for the GRE, studying hard in hopes that I only have to take it once. How I long to get in good writing time again and finish my beloved Douglass travel account series! Soon, soon. Until then, here’s a piece I published almost exactly two years ago today, which I just re-edited for clarity and flow, and re-illustrated with a beautiful drawing of a cross-section of brain and spinal column evocative of a flower.

Ordinary Philosophy

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsThere’s a common idea which leads many people (myself included) to instinctively excuse our own or others’ less-than-desirable behavior because we were under the sway, so to speak, of one or another mental state at the time. This is illustrated especially clearly in our justice system, where people are routinely given more lenient sentences, given the influence of strong emotion or of compromised mental health at the time the crime was committed. “The Twinkie Defense” is a(n) (in)famous example of the exculpatory power we give such mental states, where Dan White claimed that his responsibility for the murder of two people was mitigated by his depression, which in turn was manifested in and worsened by his addiction to junk food. We routinely consider ourselves and others less responsible for our wrong actions if we’ve suffered abuse suffered as children, or because we were drunk or high at the time, or we…

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New Podcast Episode: Compassion, Emptiness, and the Heart Sutra, by Ryan V. Stewart

d1185-guanyin252c2bthe2bchinese2bexpression2bof2bavalokiteshvara252c2bnorthern2bsung2bdynasty252c2bchina252c2bc-2b1025252c2bwood252c2bhonolulu2bacademy2bof2barts252c2bpublic2b1Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

One of the chief concerns of philosophy, since time immemorial, has been to properly address the question, “How do I live?” Namely, “How do I live well?” Naturally—for as long as our species has had the wherewithal to question its purpose and condition, the problem of ethics has found itself at the frontiers of human thought. Many moral philosophies have since rushed into that wide gulf between knowledge and truth, systems of understanding and action which attempt to conquer our ethical indecisiveness and color in a void where so much uncertainty exists.

Many traditions prescribe the ideal, virtuous, or noble life. From the ancient, academic, or political—e.g. Epicureanism, utilitarianism, humanism, or libertarianism—to the more mystical or overtly religious—e.g. Jainism, Christianity, or Taoism—many are concerned with how one acts (or can act), or at least how one views oneself in relation to others and to the world at large…. Read the original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Texas Picked an Ominous Date to Arm Its Public Colleges, by Rosa A. Eberly

Charles Whitman's rifles and sawed-off shotgun used in University of Texas massacre of 8-1-1966, image free use under CCA 3.0As you may know, dear reader, I’ve long expressed deep concerns over my country’s obsession with guns, over the widespread conviction that guns are the solution to many problems that the proliferation of guns, in fact, manifestly worsens. We’re so awash in guns, culturally and historically, that we take them for granted and forget that there are other possible ways to live. Even the fact that high rates of gun ownership rarely correlate now or throughout history with relatively low rates of gun deaths, be it by state or country, doesn’t seem to matter. Our culturally-induced intuition that bad guys with guns will behave themselves out of fear of good guys with guns seems to render the preponderance of available evidence irrelevant, time after time after bloody time. There’s a particularly telling illustration of this going on right now, as Rosa Eberly writes in her recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education:

‘In what appears to be an audacious act of public forgetting, a controversial Texas campus-carry law allowing concealed guns in university buildings is scheduled to take effect on Monday, August 1, the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas tower shootings.

The first mass murder on a U.S. college campus, the tower shootings left 14 people dead, plus the gunman, and more than 30 wounded. As in other more recent examples of mass gun violence, the shooter first used deadly force in a domestic setting — he killed his wife and mother before ascending the tower with an arsenal…’

I dearly hope the students that don’t suffer the possible worst consequences of this very dangerous social experiment. But the evidence of history gives us very good reasons to worry that they will.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!