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Church, as well as most others at the same period, appears to have believed, that a falsehood might be lawfully told, in order to promote the cause of Christianity. This scheme, universally extended, is no other than the fundamental and detestable maxim of Illuminism ; that the End sanctions the Means; a maxim, on which St. Paul has pronounced a terrible sentence of condemnation; while common sense and common honesty subjoin their united Amen.
Dr. Paley, who strongly reprobates the doctrine of Origen, has, in my opinion, fallen into an error, as really, though not so extensively, mischievous. He declares those falsehoods, where the person, to whom you speak, has no right to know the truth; or more properly, where little or no Inconveniency results from the want of confidence; in such cases, not to be lies; that is, not to be criminal falsehoods. The instances, by which he illustrates the doctrine, are those of mad-men, and robbers : persons, who, in the cases supposed, have no right to know the truth ; and to de ceive whom, he remarks, in these cases, will either very little, or not at all, injure the confidence of mankind.
This is one, among various other unhappy specimens of the unhappy influence of the Rule, prescribed by Dr. Paley, for directing the moral conduct of men; viz. that the rectitude of our moral actions is to be measured by their Expediency, or Utility. That Utility is the Foundation of Virtue has, it is believed, been sufficiently shown in a former discourse. That it cannot be the Criterion of virtue has also, if I mistake not, been proved to be equally certain. Indeed, nothing is more evident, than that the moral actions of beings, who cannot possibly know what their Consequences will be, cannot be safely directed by those consequences. In the present case, however, Dr. Paley's own doctrine will refute his position. His declaration is, that “ falsehoods are not lies, where the person, to whom you speak, has no right to know the truth; or more properly, where little or no Inconveniency results from the want of confidence in such cases : as where you tell a falsehood to a mad-man, for his own advantage; to a robber, to conceal your property ; to an assassin, to defeal, or to divert, him from his purpose.” 6 In each of these cases,” the Author says, “ the particular good consequence will overbalance
the general evil consequence ;" and thence he concludes the falsehood to be lawful.
Two cases are here stated, in which a wilful falsehood is pronounced to be lawful. One is that, in which the person, in question, has no right to know the truth. The other, when little or no inconvenience will result from the falsehood.
On the first of these I observe, that the person, who is to utter the falsehood, or the truth, in the case supposed, is always to determine whether the person, to whom he speaks, has a right to know the truth, or not. This determination, also, is ever to be made under the influence of such passions, and biasses, as may then happen to operate. It is impossible, that the decision should fail, at least in most cases, of being a prejudiced, and therefore an unsound, one. The person, who is entangled with a mad-man, or assailed by a robber, or an assassin, must, at the time, be a very imperfect moralist; and in a very improper situation to decide justly concerning a question of this nicety and importance. What is true in this case, is equally true of an infinity of others. Passion and prejudice would operate boundlessly on this subject, in the ordinary course of háman affairs; and, wherever they operated, would control. Øn this very
, principle it has been decided by the Romish Church, that it is lawful to lie to Huguenots; because Huguenots are such enemies to God, as to have no right to know the truth: a doctrine, which has probably done more towards corrupting that Church, than any, perhaps than all, the enormous errors, by which it has been disgraced. The consequence, as may be easily seen in the history of this very fact, would soon be, that few or none of those, with whom we had intercourse after this doctrine had become general, would, in our view, have a right to know the truth.
That there are persons, who, in certain cases, have not a right to know the truth from us, I readily grant. But it will be difficult to show, that we have a right to utter falsehood to them, any more than to others. We may lawfully be silent in many cases ; we may lawfully conceal the truth; but we can, in no case, be justified in uttering a wilful falsehood.
With regard to the other rule of Dr. Paley, that voluntary falsehoods cease lo be lies, when very little inconvenience will result from the want of confidence which follows them; I observe, that it is even more unhappy than the other. The degree of inconuenience, which in this case will result to others, will always be estimated by comparing it with the convenience, which the falsehood will promise to ourselves. The convenience, which will overcome the natural repugnance of conscience to wilful falsehood, must, for the time, be felt to be considerable. In a comparison with a considerable convenience of our own; an inconvenience, experienced either wholly, or at least chiefly, by others, will naturally be regarded as inconsiderable. In almost all instances, therefore, to use the words of Dr. Paley,“ little or no inconvenience will result from the falschood," in the view of him who is to utter it, and who makes this comparison. Of course, in almost all instances, the falsehood will be uttered.
But when a man has once accustomed himself to utter falsehood so long, as to render the practice familiar, all that apprehensiveness of guilt, that ready susceptibility of alarm at the ap. pearance of criminality, which constitutes the chief safety of Man in the moment of temptation, will be extinguished. The mind will be no longer agitated at the thought of sin, nor awake to the sense of danger. In this situation, the convenience of uttering falsehood to ourselves will always be great ; and the inconveniency, which will result to others, will be always small. He, who has uttered the first falsehood under the influence of ten degrees of temptation, will as readily utter the second, under the influence of eight; the third, of six; the fourth, of four; the fifth, of two; and the sixth without any temptation at all. The obliquity of bis judgment, will now prevent him from discerning, that others suffer any inconvenience from his conduct. In this manner, any man living may easily become, in a short time, a confirmed liar.
Thus the adoption of either of these rules, and still more of both of them, will prove a complete destruction of that confidence, without which society cannot exist. I need not say, that this evil would more than counterbalance all the good, which a licentious imagination has ever supposed, or can suppose, to be capable of resulting from all possible falsehoods, in a degree, which no numbers can estimate, and no finite mind conceive.
Utility itself, therefore, absolutely forbids the adoption of these rules.
But this view of the subject is imperfect, and so far erroneous. The old distinction of crimes into what are styled by jurists mala in se, and mala prohibita, is entirely just, as well as incalculably important. The mala in se, are those, which are absolutely forbidden by God; because they are universally noxious to the Intelligent creation, and universally dishonourable to the Creator. He, who sees from the brginning to the end, and discerns all the possible consequences of all moral conduct, has thus pronounced them to be universally malignant in their influence on Intelligent beings. Mala Prohibita, are such evils, as are forbidden in certain circumstances, which render them evils; or for the accomplishment of certain useful purposes, which could not otherwise be so well accomplished. These, in the ordinary state of things, would be matters of indifference; and, unless
prohibited, would either not be, or not be known to be, evils. 3
Such, for example, was the eating of unclean meats; the assumption of the priest's office by those, who were not descendants of Aaron ; and many others, found in the Jewish Law.
Lying is a pre-eminent evil, of the former class. Accordingly, it is absolutely forbidden by God. The proof, that it is such an evil, furnished in the Discourse on the Nature and Importance of Truth and Veracity, (the first delivered on the Text,) is, if I mistake not, complete. Truth, and the Utterance of it, were there shown to be the foundation of all society, and the basis of all virtue and happiness. If this he admitted ; Lying is plainly a radical evil; threatening the very existence of the Divine Glory, and the whole interest of the Intelligent Universe. In the Scriptures, it is unconditionally forbidden, deeply censured, and terribly threatened. Whosoever loveth, and maketh a lie, God has said, shall in no wise enter into the heavenly City; but shall have his part in the lake, which burneth with fire and brimstone. Lying, then, is, in this respect, infinitely mischievous ; as peculiarly provoking the anger of God, and being eminently the means of eternal woe. It is to be remembered, that the Scriptures no where relax on this subject; furnish no indulgence to the practice; contain not a single hint, that Lying can ever
be lawful; and are absolutely silent concerning that want of right to know the truth, and that smallness of inconvenience resulting from falsehood, which will make a falsehood, wilfully uttered, cease to be a lie.
The case is often put, that a lie may save one's own life, or the lives of others. The objection, involved in this case, is answered in many forms by the Scriptures. St. Paul declares, that the condemnation of those, who only reported, that he and his companions taught the doctrine of doing evil, that good might come, was just. What would he have said of those, who themselves taught this doctrine. But Lying, to save life, is doing evil, that good may come. Let no man think this a hard case. Christ bas repeatedly told us, that he, who will save his life by violating his duty, shall lose it ; and that he, who shall lose his life for his sake, that is, by doing his duty, shall find it in the heavens. With this declaration in view, no man, it is presumed, will think himself required to utter a lie for the sake of saving his life. Had the Apostles, and the Martyrs, thought proper to lie, they might not only have saved their lives, but avoided, also, all the horrors, and sufferings, of malignant persecution.
It has been alleged, and supposed to afford some degree of countenance to this sin, that it was committed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and some other saints of ancient times. Without attempting to determine how far the faults of these good men may have becn diminished by their imperfectly critical acquaintance with the proper nature of moral conduct, I shall answer the allegation by this question only. Will your sin be lessened, or fail of being punished, because the same sin was committed by a patriarch?
2. Lying produces incomprehensible mischief to the Public concerns of Nations.
All good government, as I have heretofore observed, is founded in confidence; and all oppressive government, in force, or fraud. Governments, constitutionally free, resort invariably to fraud, whenever they wish to oppress. Even Despotism itself is compelled, universally, to the same resort; and is afraid, and unwilling, to rely on mere physical strength for the accomplishment of its tyrannical designs. It has recourse, therefore, to an