A Case Study in Moral Ambiguity

When is it morally right and acceptable to lie? When the person being deceived is a child lacking the resources to detect the deceit, does that make it better? Is it better if the lie makes other people (including the liar) feel good about themselves?

Do those questions make you stop and think? If so, maybe you should also be thinking about this:

Where in the Bible does God endorse or approve of a lie? Chapter and verse, please. Try Rev.21:8 or Ex.20:16.

Truth is a moral absolute. I never met anybody who wants to be lied to. We may from time to time prefer to lie for our own personal benefit, but there's a conflict of interest in that calculation. Most people like to believe good attributes are true of themselves, but they want it to be true, not lies. Truth is a moral absolute.

But half of the American population are MBTI Feelers. Their highest value is affirmation (they call it "relationship" but they mean only and exclusively affirming relationships, not any other kind). The other half of the population value truth over affirmation. They went through the American edu-factories which are controlled by Feelers, brainwashing them into believing that affirmation is more important than truth, but deep inside they still know better. Those who recover from this educational disaster, who still insist that truth is important, they can be scientists and technologists and super-star athletes and power brokers in general, all of whom excel in their chosen professions only by careful attention to what is true, even -- or rather especially -- when it is disaffirming.

My focus today is on the Feelers, the ones who truly believe that there are times when a lie is morally good, that is, when the lie is affirming to somebody. It's OK (in their opinion) to lie to children if it makes them happy. They usually won't say so if you ask them directly, but they even prefer you to flatter them with lies instead of telling them uncomfortable truth. They know truth is a moral absolute, so they cannot readily admit to wanting to be lied to, but they do. Except of course when the lie would harm them, but maybe even then.


The problem is, because truth is a moral absolute, ALL lies are harmful.

Many parents lie to their children about the existence of certain mythical entities who are said to do good things to children, like giving them gifts on Christmas or leaving money for them in exchange for a tooth, stuff like that. The lie seems to make the child happy -- until they discover that it was a lie. Then they become very unhappy and distrustful of all adult authority, perhaps even rebellious. That is a bad thing, not only for the affected child, but for society in general. The lie causes harm.

Consider the following affirmation I might give somebody: "You are a good driver." It makes them feel good, but if they like to follow very close behind the car in front of them, that would be a lie. There's no way you can avoid a collision if the driver in front needs to slow down unexpectedly, and at least one state law I know of (rightly) blames the close follower for the collision. The damage is avoidable by leaving more space, and good drivers do that. Encouraging bad drivers to improve their habits may be disaffirming, but it increases safety for everybody on the road, not just the driver being told. Feeler values prefer the flattery, but they know the truth is better. The lie causes harm.

Everybody wants to be significant, to know that they are not just a zero. The lie of Darwinism teaches them that they are an accident of chemistry, a zero, so the kids in high school commit suicide at ever increasing rates. The lie causes harm. But in a country of more than 300 million people, most of us are pretty much insignificant anyway. Only one person can be President, perhaps ten out of that 300 million in their lifetime. Larger numbers can be movie stars and rock stars and super-star athletes, so people run away to Hollywood or New York to try to achieve such significance. They want to be noticed. It's hard to see how much talent and effort is required to become an actress or a singer, but there's an objective metric for sport skills: did your team win? We reward winners, and the score is public record. The season trophy is proof of their significance. The players on the other team are somehow deemed less significant. Those who didn't make the team even less.

The American school system is run by Feelers, so their highest value is affirmation. They pass kids who didn't learn their lessons, because repeating the grade would be disaffirming. Much more disaffirming is unemployment after they graduate because they can't read or do simple sums, but the failed students are gone and the teachers don't see the harm they caused by their lies. In grade school sporting events, everybody gets a ribbon, so nobody feels disaffirmed. Until they get to high school and can't make the team. High school sporting events are very competitive. Coaches get fired if their team doesn't win. Players of winning teams get scholarships to college. The lying ribbon of grade school might encourage a child to try out for the high school team, but it might also convince them that they don't need to put any effort into it. The lie causes harm.

The inherent inequality of competition bothered one coach in one high school in upstate New York. He wanted to affirm everybody, but he still needed his team to win. One student had Down Syndrome. He was a nice kid, but he lacked the motor skills and cognitive horsepower to play on a winning team. The coach put him on the roster anyway, and gave him a numbered jersey. He just didn't get to play. They called him a "manager" which was a nice name for ball boy. Maybe he noticed, maybe not. Somebody needed to do that job, and this kid did it well. But it wasn't like carrying the ball to a touchdown, and everybody knew it. So the coach put him in the game, and worked out a play where he could make a touchdown. Except it was make-believe, not a real touchdown in a real game. The actual game was officially over, and his team had already won 48-27. The coach persuaded the referees and the other team to play along with it. They cleared out a wide pathway for the kid to run in, and pretended to try to tackle him without actually getting close. The crowd in the stands were in on it, and they roared encouragement to him as he ran. But it was a fake.

Would he approve of being lied to? For a couple months I didn't think he knew, that nobody ever told him that his "touchdown" was absolutely worthless, it had no effect on the final score nor his team's standing in the playoffs, it was nothing more than a videogame writ large. He has Down's and probably lacks the horsepower to figure it out on his own. That makes it OK to lie to him, right? Is that how you answered the three questions I opened with?

Jesus said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Down Syndrome is pretty far down (no pun) on the list of leastness, are you willing to lie to Jesus? That's what it looked like the coach did on October 18. Do you still approve?

All lies are harmful. What harm might come to Josiah O'Brien as a consequence of being lied to? If he ever discovers that he's been lied to, it could greatly reduce his trust in the people who should be taking care of him. His father is the pastor of a church in town. When the preacher is in on a lie, what does that tell you about his honesty as a preacher, that maybe you shouldn't trust what he tells you in his sermon? That may be a good idea, but most people don't have the theological horsepower to figure out on their own whether they are being lied to on Sunday morning. That puts them in the same vulnerable position as Josiah O'Brien. Do you like being lied to? It's one thing to know this is only pretend, that your "touchdown" has no effect on anything at all, and it's quite something else to be told you are significant, that this is for real, don't mess it up. A month after I first posted this essay, Josiah's father told me that nobody ever lied to Josiah, that he always understood it was make-believe, but that fact was never reported in any of the stories about the event. The writers encouraged us to believe it was a deception, because they thought it was a "good" lie. We all thought Josiah was told he contributed to his team's win, when in fact it had no effect at all. If I'm going to be told I'm doing something useful, I want it at least to be for something that is actually useful. Josiah did useful things for his team; the fake touchdown just wasn't one of them. I do useful things, and a lot more things that are probably completely worthless. I need to know the difference. Josiah needs to know the difference too. As I said, it turns out he did know the difference. Otherwise he might become overly proud of his non-accomplishments. Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and he doesn't need that temptation. All lies are harmful, and Josiah could have been harmed by this, if it had been a lie. So also would the other people in his father's church -- because everybody in town knew about the story. Did they believe it was a deception? I don't know.

Another person close to Josiah read the first version of this essay and took exception to the basic principle. She wrote and told me,

I can think of countless times where I've played hide-and-seek with a small child and said "I can't find you!" even though they hid in the most obvious places. Did they grow up resenting me for it? Absolutely not.
Is she God, that she can know in every case whether the child suffered harm? Absolutely not. She has not lived long enough to see what harm she caused. Some children recover from the damage, the way a broken arm heals, and perhaps some did not, the way I still have a scar from a high school locker room accident. Maybe the child only learned from her that it's OK to lie, and will grow up to become a pathological liar (or a politician).

Jesus summed up the whole of his teaching in Two Great Commandments. The second one is better known as the Golden Rule, and it was repeated by the Apostle Paul. It is the essence of loving your neighbor. How does that apply here? Do you like being lied to, being told you are doing something important when it is utterly worthless? Then don't lie to a child in that way. Do you like it when people in authority lie to you, like telling you that this new law will make healthcare affordable, when in fact it doubles or triples your premiums? Then don't lie to a child when you are the person in authority.

I appreciate that Josiah's father told me the rest of the story. I have a much higher opinion of him and the coach today than I did a month ago.


In another place, I offered the opinion that Relationshipism, the religion of mutual affirmation that substitutes in most American churches for what the Bible teaches, gives wrong moral advice in places where the Golden Rule gets it right. Josiah's "touchdown" had not yet happened when I wrote that, but this could certainly be a case of it. Relationshipists do things to make people feel good. It is their religion. The coach and Rev.O'Brien would have been acting as Relationshipists if they had lied to Josiah, thinking it would make him feel good. It might actually have had that effect -- at least on game night. They did the right thing and Josiah still had fun, but other people prefer to lie to the child. One of them even said so.

People who do such things are not always thinking about the subsequent harmful consequences of their lie. Unless you are God Incarnate, it's pretty hard to think through all possible consequences. That's why God gave us the Ten Commandments, some of which provide guidance consistent with the Golden Rule. There is no commandment to "be nice," but there is one that tells you not to lie. So the broad teaching of Scripture, which Rev.O'Brien is paid to know but the coach and the referees and the other players might not know because it's not their specialty, the Bible tells us not to lie. The Bible gives us instruction that the coach and the others could have -- but in this case did not -- violate, had they been acting consistent with Relationshipism, and not with Biblical truth.

Even if the coach knew nothing at all about the Bible -- which I doubt, because Josiah was said to be very vocal about it -- even if he's a complete and unregenerate atheist, he still knows the Golden Rule as a moral imperative on all people (including atheists). The Golden Rule gives good advice here: Do you want to be lied to? Then don't lie. Refusing to praise a child who has done well for his age and abilities is also a lie. It is not necessary to be mean to people (which is also forbidden by the Golden Rule), and the coach, to his credit, was able to honor Josiah O'Brien without lying to him. I applaud his integrity.

The dominos of deceit hit other dominos, and they too fall down. If you Google "Josiah O'Brien touchdown" you get seven or more media reports and some videos of the event. One of those write-ups, a very positive endorsement of the presumed deception, is in a magazine that promises to present their news and opinion "from a biblical perspective." I asked the editor, "why we as Christians should be encouraging and celebrating deception..." He did not deny that the child was lied to (he probably didn't know, because his sports writer had not done his job in telling the truth), but he was either unable or unwilling to find Biblical support for it; he preferred to think of the event as "a nice gesture, no big deal, fun for everyone. Folks can distinguish between things like this [little lies?] and the big deceptions coming out of Washington and elsewhere."

In other words, in his opinion, there are good lies and bad lies. I asked him how he and those "folks" are able to "distinguish between" the supposedly good (small?) lies that only deceive one child who lacks the cognitive resources to detect the deception, and "the big deceptions coming out of Washington" which decieve millions of people who lack the cognitive resources to detect the deception -- recall, it was one of those deceivers in Washington who characterized people as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." How is that perception different from a child with Down Syndrome, other than the number of people the liar is attempting to deceive? Or maybe whether the editor and his readers consider themselves as included in the class of people targeted for deception? He did not answer my question. He also was unable to tell me how his "biblical perspective" is different from moral relativism. He knows what moral relativism is and obviously disapproves -- apparently except when his magazine is the one promoting it. The lies cause harm. He and (some of) his readers now believe that some lies are "biblical" and good, "a nice gesture, no big deal, fun for everyone," whereas the Bible says no such thing. I think he knows it, which makes his claim of "a biblical perspective" also a lie, perhaps "a nice gesture, no big deal, fun for everyone" kind of lie? Where does it stop?

The editor may or may not be a Feeler -- it's hard to get a PhD without some attention to what is true -- but he certainly has drunk the Relationshipist kool-aid, and he edits the magazine by Relationshipist values, so that we do not know what in that magazine can be trusted. Relationshipism is like that: once you start to allow and encourage little lies, how can you know that anything coming from such a person is true, and not just another "little lie"? You cannot, as I point out in my "BS Detector". Jesus said that "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much." Relationshipism does that to people. Sir Walter Scott got it right:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive! -- Sir Walter Scott

Tom Pittman
2013 December 19, revised 2014 February 5


A Case Study in Moral Ambiguity (you are here)
The Counterfeit Religion of Relationships
The arguments (For and) Against Relationshipism
Relationships, concluding that people mean "affirmation" by that word
Why Relationshipism is so popular among conservative Christians
Relationshipism, defining the term (2008 October 31 blog post)
God of Truth, a draft of what might eventually become a book
Men Are from Mars, a list of specific Thinker/Feeler differences
The bottom of my home page, a challenge to do something about it
Thinker/Feeler Distinction (October 27 blog post)