Monday, 18 February 2008

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!


  1. Completely agree. Well said.


  2. Trading justice for valuables--where's the "honour" in that?

  3. Honour among thieves.

    Honour bound? Certainly not. However there is the small matter of setting a precedent. If in future, you ever want to use the "Excuse me, but could you bring back our stuff? We'll pay you for it" angle, then you are going to need to at least appear to be a "man of your word". If you want to go down the route of offering unconditional rewards to whoever returns the item/items in question - knowing that the thieves themselves may seek the reward, then you necessarily must keep your word if you would seek to use such a tactic again; and people often do.

    Perhaps they could instead have offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators (and consequently - possibly the recovery of the medals).

  4. The debate on paying the thief (and implicitly the police keeping their word) started as soon as the reward was posted.

    I think lance is correct when talks about precedent. If a criminal knows that the police will lie then it all starts to go downhill. The police would have also in effect been lying to the NZ public and that opens up a huge can of worms.

    Given that no personal injury or loss of personal property was involved, a no questions reward was pragmatic. Of course, if you start talking about rewards for act of serious harm (a la your Gestpo analogy) then it should be policy not to offer such rewards.

  5. And by bestowing thousands of dollars of "ransom" money to such criminals is criminal in the way that you are the one who is rewarding crime. You are not the messenger you are the enabler, the instrument which is the process of rewarding criminals and their criminal actions.

    Yes Peter, I also thoroughly agree with you. "There is no HONOUR in doing so." Well said.

  6. Peter, you made NewsTalkZB with this blog: Leighton read much of it out on air this morning, (full crediting of source, of course).

    Mark Hubbard

  7. Of course, you don't know that the police actually paid up. It's not as if the thieves are going to be able to complain.

  8. I'd rather never see them again than pay the thieves to bring them back. You don't have to see the medals to appreciate the bravery of the hero. Criminals should never be rewarded for the crimes that made them criminals.

  9. I would wager that the movement of that money will be watched VERY closely

  10. "...from the needs of man's survival and flourishing right here on this earth."

    Is that "man" the singular or "man" the plural? Singular of course...

    "the application of reason to the problem of survival."

    Who's survival?
    It's the survival of the singular objective rational creature isn't it?

    So addressing the proverbial Gestapo officer again, what if the lie that saves your own skin leads to the demise of ANOTHER person. This is a more realistic situation.

    i.e. if PC gets to answer first and lies convincingly to save himself would LGM then be thrilled if that lie implicated him and led to his own demise?

    In other words, in a game of prisoners dilemma you don't want to be paired with an objectivist even if you are one yourself!
    Your only hope to survive is to beat the other "rational creature" to the lie.

  11. anonymouse

    You display your faultiness yet again. What you are attempting to do is use a particular emergency situation to justify your own system of ethics. It's an irrational approach. A simple change of context in your model quickly demonstrates your error. Try it and see.

    PC tells a lie. LGM in turn tells a lie. Your gestapo supervisior hears this and is led to understand that you are a traitor to the great socialist cause. Your career as gestapo officer is over. You are beaten and thrown in a cell. Tommorrow you will be hung on a meathook. The lies led to your demise. That is a good thing. So, in the end, the rational people saw to the demise of the irrational.

    Your type of idiocy is reminiscent of the attempt by Singer to justify his collectivist ethics (wherein no person should posses more than that necessary for immediate survival so long as any other person exists who is in need). He starts by describing a certain emergency situation, seeks an answer to the problems of that particular situation and then uses that as a justification for his entire ethical system. The error is considering an emergency situation as somehow fundamental to life. It isn't. An emergency is a special case which can't be properly utilised to derive or justify a system of ethics.

    Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with how a man should act and why that is. It presupposes an understanding of Nature of Man, Epistemology, etc. You are clearly ignorant.


  12. Interesting item on the return of the medal on Campbell last night. John interviewed lawyer Chris Comeskey who claimed that he knew where the medals were only days after the robbery.

    John commented that Comeskey must be in contact with some very shady characters.

    TV3 News reports that Mr Comeskey said he began making inquiries "of people in Paremoremo, people in Mt Eden" immediately after the Waiouru breakin.

    Comeskey states he could not reveal who the two male perpetrators were - and never would.

    He doubted whether police would ever find them or discover the "ingenious" hidey-hole they used to secrete the medals for 10 weeks.

    He said he was sure the men felt guilt and remorse over what they've done. (Yeah $300,000 worth of remorse)

    "They're not bad guys. In fact they were quite likeable.".....

    There is no honour amongst some lawyers either.

  13. 1. what's nutty Peter Singer got to do with it?
    2. Isn’t the whole Gestapo scene, PC’s description, the Singerian ‘emergency situation’ you criticise?
    3. so to be "truthful" or to have "integrity" is now cursed as socialist? Honestly!?
    4. So brian is comfortable knowing that lgm would “lie” to implicate him and save lgm’s skin? How gracious of him.
    5. With such porous loyalty, could there ever be an “objectivist” underground resistance??

    It doesn't have to be a clichéd "getapo chief" waterboarding at "under the clock". That situation is contrived hyperbole.
    This issue applies to any mundane situation where lying leads to an advantage for the liar.

    The argument for lying given here does not take into account any disadvantage that other participants in the system might experience. Other system participants can be fellow objectivists (lgm, Nathaniel, brian, Allan, hugh jorgan, etc).
    I guess it does consider others becasue there is no dimension of loyalty.
    Given the circling-of-the-wagons comments on many other issues I think objectivists are more loyal to each other than LGM given them credit for!!

    i.e. if lying is virtuous, “L” could happily lie to selfish advantage to frame someone “B”. The situation of “B” is not part of the calculation, only the survival of “L”.
    It’s only the shining dedication of “L” and scrambling self-preservation of the gametes and fatty skull filler that matters!
    Which, amusingly, is the most basic of animal impulses!

  14. Maybe it boils down to how you balance the other person’s love of liberty against your own liberty.

    If you’re not particularly empathetic to other’s love of liberty then your behaviour will reflect that weighting, even if that means deliberately disadvantaging another rather than yourself.

  15. PC

    Oddly enough I agree with your conclusion and yet disagree with nearly everything else you write. I have posted my partial defence partial critique on my blog.


  16. anononyzzzzz

    You are out of your depth.

    PC's comment indicates that it can be moral to lie to a criminal. He takes the position that it is not wrong to do so and that there is no obligation to tell the truth to such a one. There is no loss of honour or virtue in misleading a crook. That's it. That's his position.

    He does not say that one NECESSARILY MUST lie to a criminal. He says it is not unethical to so do.

    He does not say that one NECESSARILY MUST lie for self-advancement or advantage. That's your approach. You are being willfully dishonest when you smear him with that sentiment.

    Your pathetic contribution is an attempt to build a contrived situation wherein a lie from a victim of crime is used as a jusification by a criminal to harm or kill another innocent person. From this you attempt to validate your opposition to all Objectivists/Libertarians etc. What a simple fool you are.

    Understand, it is the criminal who causes the harm, i.e. the gestapo man, not the person being interrogated and totured. The prisoner is a victim. Should the gestapo man proceed on to hurt another person, it is the gestapo man that is committing that crime as well. He chooses to do it, not the victim. He is responsible, not his victims.

    It is not the case that a lie offerred by one victim to the gestapo officer CAUSES the gestapo officer to execute another prisoner (much as you lust for this to be the case). The gestapo man is the one responsible for his own decisions and actions. He is not an automaton.

    You generated that emergency situation story. You can't justify your position on that basis. In order to address issues such as loyalty or survival, it is necessary to consider a great deal more than a specific emergency that you designed to achieve an answer that you want. What you are attempting is the same idiocy as Peter Singer attempts. You are both nutty.

    What I did was to add some details to your emergency situation to demonstrate that your conclusions are unsound. It is the specific nature of an emergency that one deals with. One brings one's eithics to that situation. One does not use the emergency to generate ethics, let alone justify them. An emergency is a special and specific case; a subset. You can't go on from there to make the sweeping conclusions that you attempt.

    In the situation I outlined, the lies of prisoners misled your gestapo commander, your superior. He decided you were a traitor and chooses to deal with you in what he decides is an appropriate fashion. Soon you get to dangle from the meathook. That's a good thing, but, good though it is, PC and I are not responsible for your painful demise. Nor does it alter the point that it is not unethical to lie to a criminal. Nor does it have anything to do with "loyalty" or otherwise. Still, we were loyal to each other as ethical men. We contrived to use your evil against you. How about that?

    What has been demonstrated to you here is that your argument fails. It is not rational. Your effort to smear PC's approach with your own shortcomings fails again.



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