Should you ever lie to a thief? (updated)
The return of the cache of stolen war medals including the medals of Charles Upham to Waiouru Army Museum has opened a debate on the method by which they were recovered, particularly on the question of whether is appropriate to lie to thief to gain the return of that which they stole.
Put simply, do you owe a thief your honesty?
The detective in charge of the recovery Detective Sergeant Bensemann thinks you do -- at least, that's what he says. Now that the medals have been returned by the thieves, he and his team are "honour bound" he says to stand by their promise to the thieves to pay up for their return as they agreed.
This is certainly a fairly common view of the "honourable" thing to do -- that one should never lie and should always keep your word, no matter what. I disagree. There is no moral necessity to keep your word to a criminal -- and no honour to be had in doing so.
The virtue of honesty is defined and described by philosopher Leonard Peikoff as
the refusal to fake reality, ie., to pretend that facts are other than as they are... The virtue of honesty requires that one face the truth on every issue one deals with: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Considering the whole truth in this context must include the fact that, first, one is dealing with criminals, ie., those who live by dishonesty -- who make their living by appropriating the values of others; and, second, that moral principles are neither "divine commandments" nor "categorical imperatives" -- they are guides to action applying within a certain framework of conditions; "like all scientific generalizations, therefore, moral principles are absolutes within their conditions. They are absolutes--contextually."
In other words, there is nothing within the virtue of honesty that compels you tell the truth to someone who would do you over. You have no obligation to tell the truth to a Gestapo officer seeking the location of your wife, or to a kidnapper to whom you're promising a safe escape in return for the release of his hostages, or to a criminal who has returned a collection of war medals in return for reward money and some degree of immunity from prosecution. In fact, if there is any obligation it is in the reverse direction of that one usually considers; as Peikoff explains, "lying to protect one's values from criminals is not wrong":
If and when a man's honesty becomes a weapon that kidnappers or other wielders of force can use to harm him [or his loved ones], then the normal context is reversed; his virtue would then become a means serving the ends of evil. In such a case, the victim [or his agents] has not only the right but the obligation to lie and to do it proudly.
I would like to think that this is the sense of honour understood by men such as Charles Upham VC -- and I'm quietly confident that Detective Sergeant Bensemann feels the same.
UPDATE 1: The intelligent reader will have noticed that the view of honesty espoused here is based on the Objectivist ethics, a "philosophy for living on earth." As Greg Salmieri and Alan Gotthelf point out,
Rather than deriving its virtues from a vaguely defined human function, Objectivism takes “Man’s Life” – i.e. that which is required for the survival of a rational animal across its lifespan – as the standard of value. This accounts for the nobility ascribed to production by the Objectivist ethics – it is “the application of reason to the problem of survival."
Unlike the ethics of religionists, Objectivism derives its moral principles not from stone tablets or burning bushes or caliphate commandments -- not on what's needed to live in heaven or paradise in some supernatural realm -- but from from the needs of man's survival and flourishing right here on this earth.
The contrast with religious morality could not be greater: for the Objectivist, moral principles are guides to action intended to enhance and sustain one's life. For the religionist however, moral principles are divine commandments that act like a ball and chain -- a dogmatic straitjacket commanding one's obedience, even if when talking to a Gestapo officer it could lead to your own death or that of a loved one. For the Objectivist, the answer to a Gestapo chief is outside the bounds of morality altogether: morality ends when the Gestapo chief's gun begins. But for the religionist, telling the truth is an absolute necessity even if it entails the sacrifice of your life and that of your loved ones.
It's no accident then that martyrdom and self-sacrifice are considered virtues by religionists the word over, whereas with Objectivists what's valued is flourishing. No surprise either to find that Lucyna the Catholic disagrees with me, (as does, incidentally, most of the Muslim world).
UPDATE 2: Matt Flannagan agrees with my conclusion, but disagrees with both my reasoning and my assertion that the religionist is obliged to follow divine commandments without question. On behalf of her own religious beliefs, Lucyna disagrees with us both. It's hard to keep up with a religionist!