Friday, June 8, 2012

The Nazis at the door

Mark Shea has been virtually alone in pointing out the fairly obvious about Live Action's videos that:

  1. Lying is intrinsically sinful
  2. You can't use evil for good ends
Mark has done a fine job of laying out the argument against this (and you should go read the above link as well as his previous postings).  For me I will look at the most common objection:  the Nazis at your door looking for Jews to murder.

To summarize:
Imagine you are in WWII Germany or occupied territory hiding Jews in your house.  The SS shows up at your door and demands to know if there are any Jews in the house.  If lying is intrinsically evil, then you must tell the truth, which condemns the Jews you are hiding to die.  Clearly, lying is not intrinsically evil.
There are two problems with this, and we will handle them in reverse order of importance.  The first is that the it is a false dichotomy to say that if one is not allowed to lie then one must speak the truth.  There are in fact several options.  Such as shutting up.  Or mental reservation, the withholding of some truth that utilizes the other person's mistaken impression.  This is an extensive topic in and of itself.  But suffice it to say that there is MUCH more to the discussion than a binary decision.

To me though this pales in comparison to a bigger problem with this thought experiment.  The scenario is just plain ridiculous.  Let's stop and think for a moment.  Does anyone really believe that the lie will actually work?  The SS guard would have to be of the Stan Laurel variety in order for this to even plausibly work.
Stan:  Oh, uh, hi.  Mr...
Oliver: Hardy.  Oliver Hardy.
Stan:  Ah, yes.  Do you have any Jews living here?
Oliver: Nope.
Stan:  Oh....well, thanks for your time.
I mean, really?  This is supposed to be a plausible thought experiment to demonstrate that lying cannot possibly intrinsically immoral?  

The requirement for thought experiments such as these is that they cannot deviate from reality to the point where the scenario is simply ridiculous.  The thought experiment is designed to help to illustrate a point.  This does not mean that the example cannot be extreme, but it does require the scenario to make sense.

In other words, before deploying a thought experiment to prove a point, be sure that the experiment has some real thought behind it.  

No comments: