Lying as a Devotion

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Lying as a Devotion

I sympathize greatly with Mr. Marshall Smith, who wrote a reply to my article published in Number 44 of Justice. That a lie is everlastingly unjust, false, cowardly and, therefore, inexpedient, is a hard doctrine, from which it is not strange that many conscientious men should try to find a logical way of escape. But there is no escape from the laws of the universe.

That part of my argument which Mr. Marshall Smith attacks is substantially as follows:

" Only that which is morally right is expedient; to deviate from that is to assume infinite wisdom, and, as might be expected, brings its own punishment in kind in that it deprives the liar of credibility, and sets all men whom he would deceive, simply to guess at his estimate of the probabilities of ' greater or less aggression' following his untruth." To this Mr. Marshall Smith replies : "We must not forget, as ' B. H.' has forgotten, that we have to do with a world of the relative and not of the absolute. Absolute ethics undoubtedly condemns a lie absolutely, but absolute ethics presupposes a perfect society and has nothing to do with a necessary choice of evils.

"The moral condemnation of any act is that the act is an aggression and therefore, by reason of its aggression, denies to some one happiness or that which is necessary to happiness. By this standard must the moral quality of any mutual act be judged, and accordingly by this standard must we judge the moral quality of a lie. As belonging to the realm of mutual conduct, a lie is immoral, not because it is untrue, but because it is an aggression and so limits happiness."

If we are to figure out, for every choice between right and wrong, which least infringes liberty, we may as well admit that the end justifies the means—we may as well steal to relieve the undeservedly poor, if we think that promotes the freest individuality; at least, we may rob the oppressor. Such "relative ethics" would justify Socrates did he abjure his opinions, would sanction a thousand forms of treachery and swindling as being " the relatively greater good."

It is a temptation to make our philosophy of life agree with our unenlightened or short-sighted, self-regarding desire, as Barnum did when he said that people liked to be humbugged if they got the worth of their money afterward ; but it really does not finally pay at all. That which is rotten or sham will break down at the first strain, although it may be shown to be no "aggression" or " denial of happiness."

I myself, being known at least to hold such opinions, have more than once been requested to tell invalids just what their real condition is.

I have more than once been consulted by those in great trouble, because, being known at any rate to desire to state only facts, they think that from me, perhaps, they will get the pure and wholesome truth, and not the sugary decoctions of lies by which cowards and prostitutes subsist.

This is a serious matter, so serious that I am almost sorry to have brought it up ; I have no time for the discussion ; my whole spare time and energy being taken up with the single tax, which I regard as the nearest, most important and practicable reform; but I will say this, in closing the discussion from my side : I have observed that justice brings more happiness than injustice, that what is right is less aggression than what is wrong— always so, I think. I do not, therefore,believe that liberty, expediency, or the "greatest happiness," originated or determine right or wrong, or that they are the essential principles, each of the other. What does make right and wrong, it may be that another Messiah will one day tell us ; it may be that we shall never know—nevertheless, my brother, I, for myself, am so "incompletely adjusted" that I do not intend, in advance, either to believe or to tell lies, even to save your soul or my own, let alone your purse or your neck.

"Choose ye this day whom ye will serve."

Bolton Hall.

  • Bolton Hall, “Lying as a Devotion,” The Conservator 5, no. 2 (April 1894): 21.