Is it ever ok to lie? Bonhoeffer on Truth-telling and Deception

images-1Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie? On one end of the spectrum we find the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argues that it is never, under any circumstance, permissible to lie. To lie, according to Kant, would be to act in a way that is less than rational (hence, less than human) and to treat others as a means instead of an end. On the other end of the spectrum, the situational ethicist, the relativist, and the ethical egoist, may argue that lying is morally permissible at anytime and in any situation, given the desired outcome.

Add God into the mix, and it would seem that we ought to side with Kant on this, albeit for different reasons. In the gospel of John we learn that Jesus is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and that lies come from the pit of hell: Satan himself is described as the Father of lies (John 8:44).

The Christian then, it would seem, should not lie.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagrees.

Bonhoeffer thinks God’s standard of truth entails more than merely “not lying.” Rather, to be true to God in the deepest way means being obedient to God, not merely conforming to “rules”—a kind of blind legalism. He believes there are situations where it is not only morally permissible to lie, but obedience to God requires it. And so he lied, involving himself in deception after deception as he conspired against Hitler and the Nazi’s in WWII.  (For an excellent book on the life of Bonhoeffer, see here; for an exploration of the implications of Bonhoeffer’s theological convictions for our culture, see here).

Many agree that Bonhoeffer was right to lie, given the circumstances. Our intuition is that it is morally permissible to lie in order to save an innocent life. But, how do we make sense of this ethically? Does this mean all moral judgments are relative?

I don’t think so. Rather, we need to realize that there is a hierarchy of values that is relevant to moral decision-making. Truth telling is a high value, a value that entails we ought not to lie. Unless a higher value trumps it. And in Bonhoeffer’s case, there was a higher value: saving innocent lives. Thus, lying was morally permissible for Bonhoeffer. And in following God’s call, it was a mark of his obedience to a God who cares for the well-being of all.










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