Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do Friends Lie for the Greater Good?

How would a Quaker respond to a moral situation which goes something like this:

It's 1945, Holland, and a German SS trooper knocks on my door and asks if there are any Jews in this household, and in fact a Jew is hiding in the house. One course of action would be to say YES, and away that person goes to the fate that was the plight of Jews. Another course of action would be to say NO. Now that would not be the truth, but the moral principle of double effect would say that the greater good was served by not telling the truth, and this would be morally acceptable.

My friend says Quaker teaching has a ready answer for this situation. When an escaped slave was hidden in the house and a bounty hunter came, the householder would say, "there are no slaves here," since they didn't believe that anyone should be a slave, and so morally ther were no slaves, so it wasn't really a lie.

Don't Quakers have a better answer for my question? I have to believe that such questions have been posed many times and that Friends have a position.

Thank you,
RJK [This letter has been abbreviated and clarified.]

Dear RJK,

You are correct, versions of your question have been posed many times and there is -- well, I don't know if there is a "position," but Friends have advice for this and all morally challenging questions, which is to seek and follow the guidance of the Light Within.

The underground railroad story that you heard from your friend is told often among Quakers. Some Friends consider it to be an example of a satisfying solution to the moral dilemma, since the words spoken are literally true, at least according to the Friends' interpretation of them. For others, it is a disturbing example of sophistry, since the intent is still to deceive. For those in the second camp, that does not mean that the Quaker necessarily did the wrong thing by lying, but just that the Quaker should not pretend to himself/herself that it was not a lie or that it is OK to lie. Sometimes there are no good choices.

In fact, there is a real-life example of a situation similar to the hypothetical one that you describe. It took place in France during World War II. Gordon Browne told how he learned of this story in a conference presentation that is included in the 1998 book Friends and the Vietnam War, edited by Chuck Fager. I am quoting a passage from the book below.

I had a conversation with two French Friends that haunts me yet. They had been helping escaping Jews. The local Gestapo chief had been fed by Quakers after WWI and gratefully sought out local Friends and tried to befriend them. On the day the order came to round up all Jews, he led a squad house to house, searching every room. At the Friends' house where there were at that time Jews in transit, he said to his squad, "We don't have to search here. These are Quakers. They don't lie." Then, turning to the Friends, he said, "Are there any Jews in your house?"

Breathlessly, I said, "What did you say?"

They looked astonished. "We said, 'no,' of course." Then seeing my expression, they said, "We felt a clear conscience was a luxury we could not afford at that time."

I, never tested as they had been, dared not speak, but the slippery slope of expediency and relativism stretched before me. Their terrible dilemma has remained with me ever since.

This incident speaks to some of the complexities of the situation. The French Quakers were able to lie only because Friends have a reputation for never lying. If they had been caught out in this lie, that would spend the "truthfulness chit," and such a choice might never be possible again. The French Friends did not say, "We did the right thing, so our consciences are clear." Rather, they made the best choice they could under circumstances in which they acknowledged they were violating one of their principles and their consciences were troubled. And Gordon Browne's reaction -- how disturbed he was by the story -- testifies to not taking such steps lightly. Once you start lying for "the greater good," very many convenient falsehoods can be explained away as being "for the greater good." So we should lose sleep when we make such decisions.

Another difficulty with the "greater good" principle is that we are not ever in a position really to know what that is. We can opt for the greater good as we see it and understand it, and often we do that because it is the best we can manage. But we do it knowing that our information is incomplete and our judgment is fallible. For example, if the French Quakers helped six Jews to escape that day, and later the Gestapo learned of it, they might return on another day when the Friends were concealing twelve Jews, and this time they would not accept the lie and would search the house.

This is why we don't have prepared strategies or "positions" for such situations. The best we can do -- often in a fleeting moment -- is turn to the Light Within and try to follow in unity with it.

Peace to you,
Chel Avery


  1. I would like to point out that under the circumstances outlined, the fact of lying was only likely to hurt the Quakers themselves and they chose to take that onus on themselves, "felt a clear conscience was a luxury they could not afford." Which seems more important?

  2. Nate, do you really believe that? In an *immediate* sense, the cost was only to their own, personal peace of mind, but in the long run? . . . . I'm sure your imagination is as good as mine.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. "For those in the second camp, that does not mean that the Quaker necessarily did the wrong thing by lying, but just that the Quaker should not pretend to himself/herself that it was not a lie or that it is OK to lie. Sometimes there are no good choices"

    I think often we Quaker, like others, resist the notion of 'no good choices'. We like to think that there MUST be a good choice if there is a god. But that is just the time, I think, to step out in faith with the sense of what seems right, and in that Presence. Thanks for a truly illuminating observation, and the subsequent account, also inspiring.

  4. Some of these louis vuitton can be quite expensive to the mischance of those hapless enough to purchase one. The louis vuitton bag is so concerned about the issue of counterfeiting that Louis vuitton bags has taken severe steps to approach this concern. This lv corporation does not want to continue to keep losing earning or witness its customers ripped off by money-hungry forgers.