From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  The guilt of lying, like that of many other offences, has been needlessly founded upon its ill effects. These effects constitute a good reason for adhering to truth, but they are not the greatest nor the best. “Putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour.”1 “Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.”2 “The law is made for unholy and profane, for murderers,—for liars.”3 It may afford the reader some instruction to observe with what crimes lying is associated in Scripture,—with perjury, and murder, and parricide. Not that it is necessary to suppose that the measure of guilt of these crimes is equal, but that the guilt of all is great: With respect to lying, there is no trace in these passages that its guilt is conditional upon its effects, or that it is not always, and for whatever purpose, prohibited by the Divine will.

  A lie is, uttering what is not true when the speaker professes to utter truth, or when he knows it is expected by the hearer. I do not perceive that any looser definition is allowable, because every looser definition would permit deceit.

  Milton’s definition, considering the general tenor of his character, was very lax. He says, “Falsehood is incurred when any one from a dishonest motive, either perverts the truth or utters what is false to one to whom it is his duty to speak the truth.”4 To whom is it not our duty to speak the truth? What constitutes duty but the will of God? and where is it found that it is his will that we should sometimes lie? But another condition is proposed: in order to constitute a lie, the motive to it must be dishonest. Is not all deceit dishonesty; and can any one utter a lie without deceit? A man who travels in the Arctic regions comes home and writes a narrative, professedly faithful, of his adventures, and decorates it with marvellous incidents which never happened, and stories of wonders which he never saw. You tell this man he has been passing lies upon the public. Oh no, he says, I had not “a dishonest motive.” I only meant to make readers wonder. Milton’s mode of substantiating his doctrine is worthy of remark. He makes many references for authority to the Hebrew Scriptures but not one to the Christian. The reason is plain, though perhaps he was not aware of it, that the purer moral system which the Christian lawgiver introduced, did not countenance the doctrine. Another argument is so feeble that it may well be concluded no valid argument can be found. If it had been discoverable would not Milton have found it? He says, “It is universally admitted that feints and stratagems in war, when unaccompanied by perjury or breach of faith, do not fall under the description of falsehood. It is scarcely possible to execute any of the artifices of war without openly uttering the greatest untruths with the indisputable intention of deceiving.”5 And so, because the “greatest untruths” are uttered in conducting one of the most flagitious departments of the most unchristian system in the world, we are told in a system of Christian doctrine, that untruths are lawful!

  Paley’s philosophy is yet more lax: he says that we may tell a falsehood to a person who “has no right to know the truth.”6 What constitutes a right to know the truth it were not easy to determine. But if a man has no right to know the truth—withhold it; but do not utter a lie. A man has no right to know how much property I possess. If however he impertinently chooses to ask, what am I to do? Refuse to tell him, says Christian morality. What am I to do? Tell him it is ten times as great as it is, says the morality of Paley.

  To say that when a man is tempted to employ a falsehood, he is to consider the degree of “inconveniency which results from the want of confidence in such cases,”7 and to employ the falsehood or not as this degree shall prescribe, is surely to trifle with morality. What is the hope that a man will decide aright, who sets about such a calculation at such a time? Another kind of falsehood which it is said is lawful, is that “to a robber, to conceal your property.” A man gets into my house, and desires to know where he shall find my plate. I tell him it is in a chest in such a room, knowing that it is in a closet in another. By such a falsehood I might save my property or possibly my life: but if the prospect of doing this be a sufficient reason for violating the moral law, there is no action which we may not lawfully commit. May a person, in order so to save his property or life, commit parricide? Every reader says, No. But where is the ground of the distinction? If you may lie for the sake of such advantages, why may you not kill? What makes murder unlawful but that which makes lying unlawful too? No man surely will say that we must make distinctions in the atrocity of such actions, and that, though it is not lawful for the sake of advantage to commit an act of a certain intensity of guilt, yet it is lawful to commit one of a certain gradation less. Such doctrine would be purely gratuitous and unfounded: it would be equivalent to saying that we are at liberty to disobey the Divine laws when we think fit. The case is very simple: if I may tell a falsehood to a robber in order to save my property, I may commit parricide for the same purpose; for lying and parricide are placed together and jointly condemned8 in the revelation from God.

  Then we are told that we may “tell a falsehood to a madman for his own advantage,” and this because it is beneficial. Dr. Carter may furnish an answer: he speaks of the Female Lunatic Asylum, Salpetriere, in Paris, and says, “The great object to which the views of the officers of La Salpetriere an, directed is to gain the confidence of the patients; and this object is generally attained by gentleness, by appearing to take an interest in their affairs, by a decision of character equally remote from the extremes of indulgence and severity, and by the most scrupulous observance of good faith. Upon this latter particular stress seems to be laid by Mr. Pinel, who remarks ‘that insane persons, like children, lose all confidence and all respect if you fail in your word towards them; and they immediately set their ingenuity to work to deceive and circumvent you.’”9—What then becomes of the doctrine of “telling falsehoods to madmen for their own advantage?” It is pleasant thus to find the evidence of experience enforcing the dictates of principle, and that what morality declares to be right facts declare to be expedient.

  Persons frequently employ falsehoods to a sick man who cannot recover, lest it should discompose his mind. This is called kindness, although an earnest preparation for death may be at stake upon their speaking the truth. There is a peculiar inconsistency sometimes exhibited on such occasions: the persons who will not discompose a sick man for the sake of his interests in futurity, will discompose him without scruple if he has not made his will. Is a bequest of more consequence to the survivor than a hope full of immortality to the dying man?

  It is curious to remark how zealously persons reprobate “pious frauds;” that is, lies for the religious benefit of the deceived party. Surely if any reason for employing falsehood be a good one, it is the prospect of effecting religious benefit. How is it then that we so freely condemn these falsehoods, while we contend for others which are used for less important purposes?

  Still, not every expression that is at variance with facts is a lie, because there are some expressions in which the speaker does not pretend, and the hearer does not expect, literal truth. Of this class are hyperboles and jests, fables and tales of professed fiction: of this class too are parables, such as are employed in the New Testament: In such cases affirmative language is used in the same terms as if the allegations were true; yet as it is known that it does not profess to narrate facts, no lie is uttered. It is the same with some kinds of irony: “Cry aloud,” said Elijah to the priests of the idol, “for he is a god, peradventure he sleepeth.” And yet because a given untruth is not a lie, it does not therefore follow that it is innocent: for it is very possible to employ such expressions without any sufficient justification. A man who thinks he can best inculcate virtue through a fable, may write one: he who desires to discountenance an absurdity may employ irony. Yet every one should use as little of such language as he can, because it is frequently dangerous language. The man who familiarizes himself to a departure from literal truth is in danger of departing from it without reason and without excuse. Some of these departures are like lies; so much like them that both speaker and hearer may reasonably question whether they are lies or not. The lapse from untruths which can deceive no one, to those which are intended to deceive; proceeds by almost imperceptible gradations on the scale of evil: and it is not the part of wisdom to approach the verge of guilt. Nor is it to be forgotten, that language professedly fictitious is not always understood to be such by those who hear it. This applies especially to the case of children,—that is, of mankind during that period of life in which they are acquiring some of their first notions of morality. The boy who hears his father using hyperboles and irony with a grave countenance probably thinks he has his father’s example for telling lies among his schoolfellows.

  Among the indefensible untruths which often are not lies, are those which factitious politeness enjoins. Such are compliments and complimentary subscriptions, and many other untruths of expression and of action which pass currently in the world. These are no doubt often estimated at their value: the receiver knows that they are base coin, though they shine like the good. Now, although it is not to be pretended that such expressions so estimated are lies, yet I will venture to affirm that the reader cannot set up for them any tolerable defence; and if he cannot show that they are right he may be quite sure that they are wrong, A defence has however been attempted: “How much is happiness increased by the general adoption of a system of concerted and limited deceit! He from whose doctrine it flows that we are to be in no cue hypocrites; would, in mere manners, reduce us to a degree of barbarism beyond that of the rudest savage.”—We do not enter into such questions as whether a man may smile when his friend calls upon him, though he would rather just then that he had staid away. Whatever the reader may think of these questions, the “system of deceit” which passes in the world cannot be justified by the decision. There is no fear that “a degree of barbarism beyond that of the rudest savage” would ensue, if this system were amended. The first teachers of Christianity, who will not be charged with being in “any case hypocrites,” both recommended and practised gentleness and courtesy.10 And as to the increase of happiness which is assumed to result from this system of deceit, the fact is of a very questionable kind. No society I believe sufficiently discourage it; but that society which discourages it probably as much as any. Other certainly enjoys its full average of happiness.—But the apology proceeds, and more seriously errs: “The employment of falsehood for the production of good cannot be more unworthy of the Divine Being than that acknowledged employment of rapine and murder for the same purpose.”11 Is it then not perceived that to employ the wickedness of man is a very different thing from holding its agents innocent? Some of those whose wickedness has been thus employed have been punished for that wickedness. Even to show that the Deity has employed falsehood for the production of good would in no degree establish the doctrine that falsehood—is right.

  The childish and senseless practice of requiring servants to “deny” their masters, has had many apologists,—I suppose because many perceive that it is wrong. It is not always true that such a servant does not in strictness lie: for, how well soever the folly may be understood by that gay world, some who knock at their doors have no other idea than that they may depend upon the servant’s word. Of this the servant is sometimes conscious, and to these persons, therefore, be who denies his master lies. An uninitiated servant suffers a shock to his moral principles when he is first required to tell these falsehoods. It diminishes his previous abhorrence of lying, and otherwise deteriorates his moral character. Even if, no such ill consequences resulted from this foolish custom, there is this objection to it, which is short but sufficient,—nothing can be said in its defence.

  Among the prodigious multiplicity of falsehoods which are practiced in legal processes, the system of pleading not guilty is one that appears perfectly useless. By the rule, that all who refused to plead were presumed to be guilty, prisoners were in some sort compelled to utter this falsehood before they could have the privilege of a trial. The law is lately relaxed; so that a prisoner, if he chooses, may refuse to plead at all. Still, only a part of the evil is removed, for even now, to keep silent may be construed into a tacit acknowledgment of guilt, so that the temptation to falsehood is still exhibited. There is no other use in the custom of pleading guilty or not guilty, but that, if a man desires to acknowledge his guilt, he may have the opportunity; and this he may have without any custom of the sort.—It cannot be doubted that the multitude of falsehoods which obtain in legal documents during the progress of a suit at law, have a powerful tendency to propagate habits of mendacity. A man sells goods to the value of twenty pounds to another, and is obliged to enforce payment by law. The lawyer draws up, for the creditor, a Declaration in Assumpsit, stating that the debtor owes him forty pounds for goods sold, forty pounds for work done, forty pounds for money lent, forty pounds for money expended on his account, forty pounds for money received by the debtor for the creditor, and so on,—and that two or three hundred pounds being thus due to the creditor, he has a just demand of twenty pounds upon the debtor! These falsehoods are not one half of what an every day Declaration in Assumpsit contains. If a person refuses to give up a hundred head of cattle which a farmer has placed in his custody, the farmer declares that he “casually lost” them, and that the other party” casually found” them: and then, instead of saying he casually lost a hundred head of cattle, he declares that it was a thousand bulls, a thousand cows, a thousand oxen, and a thousand heifers!12—I do not think that the habits of mendacity which such falsehoods are likely to encourage are the worst consequences of this unhappy system, but they are seriously bad. No man who considers the influence of habit upon the mind can doubt that an ingenuous abhorrence of lying is likely to be diminished by familiarity with these extravagant falsehoods.

1 Eph. iv.25.
2 Lev. xix. 11.
3 1 Tim. i. 9, 10.
4 Christian Doctrine, p. 658.
5 Chris. Doct. p.659.
6 Mor. And Pol. Phil. b.3, p. l, c.15.
7 Ibid.
8 1 Tim. i.9,10.
9 Account of the Principal Hospitals in France, &c.
10 i Peter ii, 1. Tit. iii. 2. 1 Peter iii. 8.
11 Edin. Rev. vol i. Art. Belsham’s Philosopby of the Mind.
12 See the Form, 2 Chitty on Pleading, p. 370.

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