Lying to Criminals

Monday, September 25, 2017

From tech businessman Jacques Mattheij comes a life lesson about honesty, which includes the bonus of an example of the impossibility of applying moral principles in the absence of context. Mattheij describes an episode from his youth, when the growing evidence of his technological ability attracted the attention of a shady relative:

... I could easily see is that this would be a beginning, and a bad beginning too. You can bet that someone somewhere will lose because of crap like this. (Fortunately, now the EU has made odometer fraud illegal). You can also bet that once you've done this thing and accepted the payment that you're on the hook. You are now a criminal (or at least, you should be) and that means you're susceptible to blackmail. The next request might not be so easy to refuse and could be a lot worse in nature. So I wasn't really tempted, and I always felt that "but someone else will do it if I don't" was a lousy excuse.

If you're reading this as a technical person: there will always be technically clueless people who will attempt to use you and your skills as tools to commit some crime. Be sure of two things: the first is that if the game is ever up they'll do everything they can to let you hold the bag on it and that once you're in you won't be getting out that easily.
The young man's thinking reminds me of both (1) Ayn Rand's case against lying, as related by Leonard Peikoff in "My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand" and (2) the proper way to apply principles.

Is it always wrong to lie, as, for example, Mattheij did when he told his relative he couldn't do what he was asked? Or might there be cases in which telling the truth would actually be wrong? Ayn Rand once summarized the virtue of honesty as follows:
Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud -- that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee -- that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling -- that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.
When a criminal, through the initiation of force (or the threat thereof) places you in a position in which your statement of a fact only makes him better able to make you act against your better judgment, you are in a situation in which telling him a lie is a perfectly moral (or, in some situations, the only) thing you can do in self-defense. This is not "stooping to his level" (as an intrinsicist might say), because you aren't trying to obtain anything by fraud. Nor is it an example of subjectivism, because one is actually doing this in order to continue acting (or once again be able to act) in accordance with one's best judgment. Neither inflexible commandments nor the fiction that reality is infinitely malleable can provide any useful guidance on the matter of how to live one's life.

-- CAV


SteveD said...

An interesting question though is whether or not Mattheij was wrong to lie in that particular instance. The family member wasn't actually threatening violence and it seems to me that Mattheij was lying to simply escape from an uncomfortable position - one might even say, he took the easy way out.

Gus Van Horn said...


That's a fair question, and I think that in most contexts, you would be right to reach the conclusion you did.

But I am inclined to grant more leeway to him based on his youth. Many younger people (a) do not know how much trouble disagreeing with an adult may or may not cause or (b) don't have a great deal of confidence in themselves in all areas. In such a case, and particularly if put on the spot, and doubly so if (as seems possible from the post) he were alone with this person and might have reasonable doubts he would react violently.


Gus Van Horn said...

Finishing the sentence above:

... I'd give the benefit of the doubt or conclude that he acted morally.

Steve D said...

I agree he should probably be given the benefit of the doubt. I thought about adding a phrase or sentence to that effect in my previous comment. Something like this: in any case, his overall inclination and ultimate decision was morally right, only his method of implementation is in doubt, perhaps do to an unintentional error but at most, a minor ethical infraction.

- although I didn't get the impression that his family member was necessarily a violent criminal or that M thought he was in physical danger so I am not sure that part of your comment applies; it's hard to say -

The interesting idea this episode brings to my mind is the moral status of lying to a criminal in the instance where the criminal is not trying to force you or threaten violence or the moral status of lying to a non violent criminal in general. It seems we can agree that in most cases this would still be wrong absent a mitigating context such as the points you brought up.

Gus Van Horn said...


Although I'm hardly making a case for lying to criminals as a default, I think there is the following issue with criminals, at least known criminals: One knows they have not merely been immoral, but have broken the law, which means they have violated someone else's rights. If they've done that, what might they NOT stoop to? When such a person (and I am talking about (a) a real criminal (vice one manufactured by improper law) who has (b) not demonstrated reform) attempts to entangle someone else in his schemes, one has to factor that in to what he says. In other words, there might be an implied or implicit threat that wouldn't be present if someone else made exactly the same proposal (say, from ignorance or credulity).

Say someone "offers" you a chance to join a Ponzi scheme. If it's your gullible Aunt Martha forwarding an email to you, you might feel safe explaining why you won't touch it with a ten foot pole. On the other hand, if your second cousin Ace, five years after finishing a prison sentence, makes the same "offer," you might be wise to plead a lack of funds.