In his 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson famously issued the maxim that one should “Tell the truth, or at least not lie.” Here’s what he says:
If you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will inevitably. You will hide, but there will be no place left to hide. And then you will find yourself doing terrible things.
Peterson is focusing on one aspect of a much broader theme of the political and social right-wing tradition, namely the belief that liberty comes through self-discipline and ultimately self-governance, and the corollary of this theme: slavery and weakness come by licence. Remaining ‘in the truth,’ and therefore refusing to “live by lies,” as the Solzhenitsynian phrase goes, is an essential part of that self-discipline by which we are freed.
There was an amusing meme that circulated some years ago, at the top of which was the following: “Worried your son is moving towards the Right? Here are signs to look out for.” After which were these ‘signs’:
Has he stopped smoking, taking recreational drugs, and joined a gym?
Has he begun to criticise TV shows and Hollywood films, complaining that there is too much sex and violence on the television?
Has he started to take an interest in religion, reading the Bible, and making excuses to go out and attend worship services?
Has he started studying philosophy and history, reading classical texts, and admiring European art?
And at the bottom of the list were the words: “Parents—these are Warning Signs!”
I remember this meme well, not only because it was funny but because it was true (and that is why it was funny). Large swathes of the youth have been captured by what is being popularly referred to as the ‘new Right,’ and they are quickly becoming the kind of ‘deplorables’—to quote presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s memorable phrase—who take their health seriously, make critical moral judgements about the surrounding phoney culture, adopt a religious worldview, and start to reclaim their cultural inheritance—into which their ‘education’ failed to induct them.
In essence, these young people have quite spontaneously picked up on a theme that has always been at the heart of our Western culture until the rascals of the Enlightenment reframed ‘freedom’ as appetitive licence, thereby fettering us in the cage of our own weak wills and bad habits. They have seen that true freedom comes by self-discipline. These young people have taken stock and decided that their cage is a poor sovereignty, and if the choice is between being a degenerate or a ‘deplorable,’ the latter they shall gladly be.
There is a Russell Kirk quote, known to many conservatives, that encapsulates this notion of freedom and self-discipline in a single pithy allocution:
The conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.
And this brings me back to lying. To opt always to tell the truth—not my truth, but the truth—or at least not to lie, is to adopt a form of interior discipline that is far from easy to master, but does produce a life that is in fact much simpler since you never have to cover your tracks.
What lying is, however, is not obvious. This vagueness was made all the more evident by a recent exchange between the Catholic commentator, Matt Fradd, and philosophy professor, Peter Kreeft, in which they discussed the ethics of lying. Fradd argued that lying was always and in all cases wrong and forbidden. Kreeft argued that in some cases it was not wrong or forbidden. As Kreeft put it: “You deceive—you deliberately deceive—another person, either to protect that person or to harm that person, and so I don’t think that lying to another person to protect him is a bad thing.” Fradd immediately disagreed.
Now, there is already a problem with Kreeft’s conflation of lying and deception. It is possible to deliberately deceive someone without saying a falsehood. For example, imagine that a teenager tells his parents that he is going to bed, and then after an hour or two in bed he sneaks out of his bedroom window to attend a party. In the morning, his father asks him, “Did you leave the house last night?” To which he replies, “Are you seriously asking whether I left the house without telling you?!”
In this example, it’s not clear that the teenager has lied. After all, he really did go to bed just as he said he would, for a time. He has not lied in the sense of advancing an untrue proposition with the aim of getting his father to assent to its content. He has, however, asked a question, the answer to which might entail false content to which his father may assent. Thus, his father would be deceived, but his son did not lie in the sense of advancing a false proposition. The son has only asked a question with the intention of deceiving. If his father were to say, on discovering the truth, “You told me you didn’t go out,” his son could correctly say, “I said nothing of the sort; I merely asked if you thought I would do such a thing.” So, the question is: has the son lied?
Let’s suspend that question for a moment and return to the discussion on Fradd’s show. In order to present how a false proposition might be a ‘good’ or ‘virtuous’ lie, Kreeft brings up the somewhat clichéd case of the Dutchman hiding Jews in the attic from Nazis who want to kill them. “Your moral obligation is to lie to the Nazis,” Kreeft says, “because you promised to the Jews to hide them.”
Fradd insists that the term itself, namely ‘lying,’ must be defined if the conversation is to proceed with any clarity: “Lying is speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” There is a problem with the definition here, however, since—as noted—the son in the aforementioned example has spoken no falsehood. He has asked a question with the intention of deceiving, but he has said nothing false. Thus, it is possible to have the intention of deceiving, and bring about that end, without speaking a falsehood. And according to Fradd’s definition, the son has not lied. But would Fradd say that such a case is not a case of lying?
Kreeft, seemingly intuiting that the whole premise on which the discussion is unfolding, that lying and deceiving are synonymous—a premise he himself fixed at the discussion’s opening—asks, “Is a head-fake in basketball a sin?” Fradd answers: “I don’t know about that, but I do feel strongly that I should never speak a falsehood with the intent of deceiving.” Kreeft interjects: “I think you have to add ‘to the other person’s harm or to someone’s harm’.”
Fradd gives a number of examples to test where Kreeft stands, asking him if one were asked to fornicate, or self-abuse, or blaspheme, in order to save a number of people from being killed, would these acts be permissible in Kreeft’s opinion. Kreeft says no: “You don’t do any intrinsic evil.”
“You just don’t think lying is an intrinsic evil,” Fradd says. “That’s right,” replies Kreeft. Fradd then drags the conversation further into the realm of abstractions: “What if the end of the act of speech is to communicate what is?” Kreeft retorts: “That’s not the only end.” Fradd explicitly links his line of argument to sexual ethics and the use of contraception, saying that whilst procreation is not the only end of sex, it is an end, and one ought not to thwart that end in the sexual act. So too, Fradd argues, given that an end of speech is conveying what is, speech should not be uttered that thwarts that end.
So, an analogy of the classic teleological argument in sexual ethics is applied to speech in relation to lying. This analogy, though, is clearly unhelpful. There are many cases in which a person may speak so as not to convey ‘what is’ in any intelligible sense, but it is difficult to see how by so doing the person has acted immorally—for example, someone who speaks gobbledygook to amuse a child or a jazz vocalist who ‘scat-sings.’ The fact that language is telic, that is, that it has some end, is a trivial point unless we consider how it may achieve that end, the many aspects under which we can grasp ‘what is,’ and more importantly the moral relations that exist between any given number of language-using agents—something that cannot be known in the abstract.
Very soon, Fradd and Kreeft had nothing further to say to each other on the matter and moved on. It seems to me that the impasse at which Fradd and Kreeft arrived is down to the overly abstract and rationalistic approach they both took to the topic at hand. This is in fact a recurring characteristic of people formed in Thomism. I should remark here that I was entirely formed in Thomism, and my first book, The World as God’s Icon, is an analysis of Thomistic metaphysics and its application to aesthetics. The problem is not Thomism, or rather the problem is not St. Thomas Aquinas. The problem is that in a post-Enlightenment world in which we are all necessarily rationalists—it’s in the air we breathe, so to speak—we read rationalism into St. Thomas precisely because all the assumptions we bring to his texts and all the philosophical prejudices we harbour (unacknowledged and unexamined as they are, which is what makes them prejudices) are rationalistic.
I awoke from my own rationalistic slumber by a three-part sequence. First, I became a student of Sir Roger Scruton at the University of Buckingham. He would say things like, “There are no primary texts in philosophy beyond your experience, on which all such texts are merely commentary,” or “Don’t ask what a political constitution is, but rather ask what this or that people’s constitution is and how it works.” These Scrutonian apophthegms recalled his students time and again to the primacy of the concrete over the abstract. Second, I read Edmund Burke, who constantly dismisses the conceptual when it has departed from the actual, in which he argues it should always be anchored. Third, I begot children, who are incapable of theoretical musings and force one repeatedly to prioritise the actual and the real, often in the form of a soiled nappy or lunch on the floor.
It is essential for the modern person—and tragically we are all modern people—to strive to overcome his rationalism by various therapeutic exercises. Among these therapies, there are embodied activities, and I have always recommended horse-riding, hunting, and hiking. Whatever gets you outdoors is highly medicinal for our modern mental maladies. Exposure to beauty I consider the foremost remedy. But intellectual therapies, by which to strain from the mind its rationalistic pollutions, are of grave importance too. Recently, I have been devoting much time to a study of the later Wittgenstein, whose philosophy was self-consciously therapeutic, and who I believe can help us when it comes to the issue of lying.
Were Wittgenstein listening to the conversation between Fradd and Kreeft, he likely would have said, “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use.” Now, this Wittgensteinian maxim has led some into absurd anti-essentialist positions that render the world meaningless if pursued to their final extrapolation. Wittgenstein’s point, though, needn’t be understood like that. Rather, we can simply say that language is relational, it takes place in interpersonal exchanges, and cannot really be rendered intelligible outside the context in which those interpersonal exchanges take place. Put another way, language is concrete.
Take the question, “Would you like a cup of tea?” There is nothing about this sentence that logically entails that the asker intends to make a cup of tea for the one who is being asked. (A clinical psychologist working in a psychiatric care facility who asks a sectioned psychopath, “Would you like to kill the other patients here?” is not inviting him to do so.) In the case of the cup of tea question, it may have been inspired by a merely disinterested interest on the part of the asker in the sort of hunger- or thirst-urgings of the person before him. Nonetheless, in most contexts, if this question about tea is asked, and one answers in the affirmative, one may reasonably expect to receive a cup of tea or at least be shown where the drink can be made. If the asker were simply to say in response to an affirmative answer, “That’s interesting,” and then sit down to read the newspaper, the one asked would likely feel that his companion is—in the Wittgensteinian idiom—‘playing a different language-game’ to him.
So, let’s take this preoccupation with the contextual and the concrete to the proverbial Dutchman with the Nazi soldiers banging on his front door. The Nazi officer asks, “Do you have any Jews here?” Now, if the Dutchman were to understand this question as a mere disinterested enquiry into the ethnic identity of the guests he hosts at his home, as if the officer were just carrying out a benign statistical survey for a governmental department, then the Dutchman would have misunderstood the context of the exchange and the meaning of the question, ultimately because he would have misunderstood the use of the language being deployed. The Dutchman and the Nazi soldiers would have simply been ‘playing different language-games.’
What the Nazi officer is actually asking is “Do you have any Jews here whom we may forcibly take away in order to murder them?” The truthful answer to that question is, “No, I do not.” That this answer is deceptive makes it no less the truthful answer. As I have said, the conflation of lying and deception is deeply unhelpful (and thus it was unfortunate that such a conflation marked the very premise on which Fradd and Kreeft conducted their conversation, which consequently did not go very far).
Lying, I submit, is always and in every case morally wrong. But what is lying? Lying is language uttered with the intention of causing one’s converser to assent to falsehoods in the place of truths to which he is entitled by a claim of right. When lying emerges in exchanges between persons, it is contextual and conditioned by the relationships and circumstances in which that language is uttered (and what is and what is not a lie cannot be grasped outside that concrete complexus), and is known largely by the pangs of conscience that are the proper response to an act of lying. Thus, the son in the first example who says to his father, “Are you seriously asking whether I left the house without telling you?!” is by that question lying to his father. On the other hand, the Dutchman who tells the Nazi soldiers that he has no Jews in his house, despite having Jews in his attic, is by that proposition telling the truth.
So, let us return to Peterson’s rule that prohibits lying. This commitment to the truth to which Peterson calls his followers constitutes a noble endeavour. All those who wish to take it seriously and undergo the interior work of emancipation from base impulses in order to live in the truth—to face and overcome the “perennial problem of the inner order of the soul,” as Kirk puts it—should understand that such moral transformation must be accompanied by therapeutic exercises (especially Wittgensteinian ones) aimed at removing the epistemic spell of rationalism. If we don’t undergo such a therapy, we’ll never get very far in our pursuit of the truth, and we will always remain alienated from those pre-rationalistic authors—Aquinas among them—who are such important teachers for leading us to become the ‘deplorables’ we hope to be.