Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Tell me lies

In Jean-Paul Sartre's short story "The Wall," three men are captured during the Spanish Civil War, and all three are sentenced to die if they won't reveal the whereabouts of the rebellion's ringleader, Ramón Gris.

The main character, Pablo Ibbieta, and the other two men sit in their jail cell, discussing what they should do.  All three are terrified of dying (of course), but is it morally and ethically required for them to give up their lives for the cause they believe in?  When is a cause worth a human life?  Three human lives?  What if it cost hundreds of lives?

Pablo's two companions are each offered one more chance to rat out Ramón, and each refuses.  Pablo hears the noises as they're dragged out into the prison courtyard, stood up against the wall, and shot to death.

Now it's just Pablo, alone in the cell.

Thoughts race through his head.  Now that it's just him, if he sells out Ramón, there won't be any witnesses (or at least any on the side of the rebellion).  Who'll know it was him that betrayed the cause?

After much soul-searching, Pablo decides he can't do it.  He has to remain loyal, even at the cost of his own life.  But he figures there's nothing wrong with making his captors look like idiots in the process.  So he tells them that Ramón Gris is hiding in a cemetery on the other end of town.  He laughs to himself picturing the people holding him, the ones who have just killed his two friends, rushing off and dashing around the cemetery for no good reason, making fools of themselves.

His captors tell him they're going to go check out his story, and if he's lying, he's a dead man (which Pablo knows is what will happen).  But after a couple of hours, they come back... and let him go.

He's wandering around the town, dazed, when he runs into a friend, another secret member of the rebellion.  The friend says, "Did you hear?  They got Ramón."

Pablo asks how it happened.

The guy says, "Yeah... Ramón was in a friend's house, as you know, perfectly safe, but he became convinced he was going to be betrayed.  So he went and hid out at the cemetery.  They found him and shot him."

The last line of the story is, "I sat down on a bench, and laughed until I cried."

It's a sucker punch of an ending, and raises a number of interesting ethical issues.  I used to assign "The Wall" to my Critical Thinking classes, and the discussion afterward revolved around two questions:

Did Pablo Ibbieta lie?  And was he morally responsible for Ramón Gris's death?

There's no doubt that Pablo intended to lie.  It was accidentally the truth, something he only found out after it was too late.  As far as his responsibility... there's no doubt that if he hadn't spoken up, if he had just let the guards execute them as his two friends did, Ramón wouldn't have been killed.  So in the technical sense, it was Pablo who caused Ramón's death.  But again, there's his intent, which was exactly the opposite.

The questions don't admit easy answers -- as Sartre no doubt intended.

All lies are clearly not morally equivalent, even barring complex situations like the one described in "The Wall."  Lies to flatter someone or protect their feelings ("That is a lovely sweater") are thought by most people to be less culpable than ones where the intent was to defraud someone for one's own gain.  And as common as harmful lies seem to be, some recent research came up with the heartening results that we lie far more often for altruistic reasons than for selfish or vindictive ones.

A recent paper in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, by Jennifer McArthur, Rayanda Jarvis, Catherine Bourgeois, and Marguerite Ternes, found that while lying in general is inversely correlated with measures of honesty and conscientiousness -- unsurprising -- the most common motivations for lying were altruistic reasons, such as protecting someone's feelings or reputation, and secrecy (claiming not to know something when you actually do).

So maybe human dishonesty isn't quite as ugly and self-serving as it might appear at first.

Note, however, that I'm not saying even the altruistically-motivated lies McArthur et al. describe are necessarily a good thing.  Telling Aunt Bertha that her tuna noodle olive loaf was delicious will just encourage her to inflict it on someone else, and giving people false feedback to avoid hurting their feelings -- especially when asked for -- can lead someone astray.  But like the far more serious situation in "The Wall," these aren't simple questions with easy answers; ethicists have been wrestling with the morality of truth-telling for centuries, and there's never been a particularly good, hard-and-fast rule.

But it's good to know that, at least when it comes to breaking "Thou shalt not lie," that for the most part we're motivated by good intentions.


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