Lying and Christian Ethics (Tollefsen), Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Griffiths): Review by Kelby Carlson


Everybody lies.

So says Dr. House. But he is not the only one to point out this obvious, uncomfortable fact.

In recent years, philosophical literature has given increased attention to the lie. In particular, Christians have given renewed attention to the question of lying. Paul Griffiths and Christopher O. Tollefsen—advocates of two very different moral theories based in concepts of natural law– have given extended attention to the question of lying. Both of them begin their treatments by pointing out the sheer ubiquity of the practice. Thus Griffiths: “lies bind the fabric of every human life;” Tollefsen: “the beginning of the book of Genesis suggests the temptation to lie is as old as the history of human wrongdoing.” We lie about things both trivial and monumental: whether one has completed a college assignment, whether an outfit becomes the wearer, or whether one is engaging in an affair on the side. Apart from the most pathological among us, lies generally give the ones who tell them a certain amount of discomfort. And yet it is difficult if not impossible to conceive of life without them. One could, in theory, go one’s whole life without committing adultery, murder or a serious dishonor against a family member. But never telling a lie, under any circumstances, no matter how dire, is something almost no one seems able to imagine.

Griffiths and Tollefsen both break that trend. Each of them argues, in their own separate way, that to lie is always and everywhere wrong. They approach the question from different angles, because of their varied philosophical commitments. They start, however, with the same definition of the lie: to knowingly assert something which one believes to be false. I want to contrast their approaches in this limited space, and indicate where I think both of them fall short; though each take different routes, their shortcomings are in fact quite similar.

Griffiths begins his treatment of lying by stating that what he is putting forward is not, strictly speaking, an argument. It is, rather, an exposition of Augustine’s thought on the lie in particular, contrasted with that of various other figures (Plato, Aristotle, Jerome, Aquinas, and Kant among others.) Griffiths wants to show the rightness of Augustine’s thought on the lie not so much through rigorously articulated scholasticism, but through illustration. Tollefsen, by contrast, is much more strictly analytical. His case moves quickly from the definition of the lie, to the cases for and against lying, to defenses against various objections (in particular whether one can justifiably lie to someone who has no right to the truth, and whether there are permissible forms of deception besides that of the lie.)

Tollefsen’s argument is rooted in his conception of practical reason, which is the core of what is commonly called the new natural law theory. This theory posits a series of irreducible, basic goods that are constitutive of human flourishing, with each new natural law theorist putting  forward a slightly different list. These goods are not derivable from facts about the natures of things; rather, they are starting points for practical reason. According to Tollefsen, to deliberately assert what one believes to be false (the classic Augustinian definition of the lie, which Tollefsen accepts) is wrong in every circumstance. It is so because the act of lying violates the basic goods of personal integrity, sociality, truth and religion.

Griffiths, by contrast, roots his natural law argument in the natures of God, humanity and human speech. For Griffiths, the prohibition against lying ultimately rests in the nature of God as Triune: God himself embodies truth through forever speaking through his Word, the Son, who simply is the truth. The order of being reflects the nature of God; and the order of human speech reflects man’s creation in the image not simply of God considered in the abstract, but of the ever-speaking Trinity. To deliberately assert what one knows to be false is, therefore, to pervert the gift of speech; to treat speech not as gift, but as tool independent of God; and to take part in distorting the natural order of being. Griffiths’ argument, then, resembles much more a traditional perverted faculty argument than does Tollefsen’s, as his natural law theory is a more traditional one. Much of Griffiths’ thought comes in his interactions with other thinkers on the lie; he does an admirable job at showing the coherence of a traditional, Christian platonist metaphysics and its relevance for the wrongness of lying.

Each of the expositions of the absolute view against lying has its strengths. Tollefsen’s primary asset is in his rigor and exceptionally clear definitions, as well as his extensive response to objections. He also does a great deal to expound the principles upon which his case rests: especially that of the principle of double effect and the inadequacy of consequentialism for ethics. His carefully thought through responses to objections, and his willingness both to address the hardest questions and to do so even where his conclusions are not necessarily appealing is admirable.

Griffiths, on the other hand, shows his strength in two primary areas. The first is the sheer quality of his writing. If anyone is up to the task of describing a world in which lying as a practice is entirely absent, Griffiths is probably that writer. The second strength of his treatment is his interactions with Augustine’s broader thoughts on metaphysics and the nature of speech, and his interactions with later positions on the lie, both opposing and agreeing with Augustine.

And yet, I find both treatments ultimately unsatisfying for two primary reasons. First, neither of them give adequate attention to the nature of truth itself; though Tollefsen has a section on it, it is fairly short and nonspecific. Second, neither does a particularly impressive job distinguishing the culpability of deception from the culpability of lies, such that deception as a practice appears morally dissimilar to deliberate assertion of falsehood. One could approach this though the principle of double effect, whereby the right intent to protect another is prioritized over an incidental effect of deception. This, however, would seem to open up the possibility of the rightness of lying in certain cases—if one can engage in an action that one knows will likely kill another based on double-effect logic, one might just as well say one can engage not only in deception but in active lying. Tollefsen tries to get around this by, for example, arguing that the non-assertoric nature of certain forms of deception would not violate any of the basic goods and would thus be permissible. But it is hard to imagine in most cases that someone intending to deceive by silence, equivocation, or physical action only intends to get another to believe what one oneself does not. (For example, is it really true that faking a steal in baseball is designed only to fool the outfielders, and not to lead them to believe the runner thinks he has a chance of a steal?) This lack of consistency in distinguishing lies from deception, and the weakness of the arguments for the non-assertive nature of much deception, makes both accounts less convincing that they might have otherwise been.

Though I was not ultimately persuaded by either Tollefsen or Griffiths, each of their accounts gave me significant pause. It is also notable that the Reformed tradition has, by and large, taken their side. And the ultimate nature of God as truth may be the final answer to this question—if God cannot lie, we must be very cautious in assuming we can.


Kelby Carlson is a third year law student at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. He has worked in the fields of educational, tax, and governmental law. His scholarly interests include natural law jurisprudence, Christian thought on disability, and the theological foundations of religious freedom.