Of course I understand the aversion to pharisaical moralism. Nobody, including me, wants a system that offers sacrifices and works up to God which are secretly built on foundations of injustice. I don't want my neighbor's ox to fall in a ditch on the Sabbath and refuse to help him out, or condemn a healer for healing someone on the day of rest. I don't want to pray for your hunger while doing nothing tangible to resolve it. Yet, as a moral idealist, many often think this is the type of vain offering I'm advocating, and I get it. Hopefully I can resolve that misperception of idealism and give you a new vision for the world which causes you to become an idealist too.
The world would be a rational place if we didn’t lie. The world would be a place where autonomy was valued if we didn’t lie to each other. The world would… fill in the gap. Lies, like termites, eat through would. They destroy the foundations and underpinnings of all that is valuable.
In a lie, then, the good which one says they seek to accomplish is betrayed by the compromise of the ultimate - the compromise of the world that would be if one didn’t contribute to its destruction in the lie. When one lies, they often justify the lie by arguing they are seeking to accomplish the greatest good. But lying for the good is like trying to repair or hold up the house by taking bites out of the foundation. It’s counterproductive. It does the opposite of what one says they seek to do. Rather than uphold morality and value, lies - both big and small - destroy it.
As just the tiniest of examples, let’s discuss another common hypothetical that comes up in regard to lying. It’s the infamous wife’s dress. Whenever the topic of lying arises, many commonly - only half jokingly - declare that lying can clearly be ok, because if a man’s wife asks if she looks fat in a particular dress, when she indeed does appear fat, the husband is pragmatically, if not also morally bound to affirm her with a compliment packaged in a lie. Wouldn’t it be mean to tell her she looked fat? Wouldn’t it be unloving? Perhaps. But I don’t think so.
If the husband gives his wife the truth, the wife may have hurt feelings. Maybe she resents the husband and punishes him by giving him the silent treatment or withholding sex for a time. There may certainly be consequences to the husband telling the truth, but notice that these are all the wife’s issues. Yes, the husband suffers, but it is the wife who is doing wrong relationally. The husband declared the truth and the wife is choosing a course of wrongful action towards him. This would be doubly malicious on the wife’s part because she asked for an answer to the question of her rotundity. Desiring to be told a lie isn’t any better than a lie itself, and the husband would have only been feeding into false perception had he not told the truth.
I know, I know. You think I’m crazy. But perhaps if we look at the ideal that lying undermines, you can see that a lie in this situation carries far worse consequences - consequences that the husband would actually become responsible for were he to lie. If the husband lies, he may buy himself some momentary comfort and relational ease, but what if his wife gaining weight has been causing him to become sexually less attracted to her? In avoiding the truth, he avoids a conversation that needs to be had. He avoids facing the truth that his sexual attraction is waning and he avoids working through that, which may mean dealing with his faulty expectations or problematic definitions of beauty. Stuffing all that would lead, at best, to diminished sexual intimacy and frequency, and at worst, seeking sexual fulfillment elsewhere.
If the wife is gaining weight the husband’s lie may also end up endangering her health. If a withholding of affirmation might actually be what the wife needs in order to recognize that her metabolism and body are changing - then a lie would avoid confronting the wife with information she needs to hear, though doesn’t want to - information that might spur her on to living a more healthy lifestyle which could prolong her life, increase her comfort, and heighten intimacy with her spouse.
Beyond the simple well-being of the wife, one also has to consider the way in which a lie undermines the dignity of the wife as a human. Psychologically or sociologically, treating one’s wife as if she can’t handle certain true information is paternalistic. While eating disorders and the like always need to be taken into account, being told the truth in a loving relationship ought to be a positive, relationship building event. To treat a woman as though she’s too frail to handle true information, especially information she asked for, should be something anyone who values the dignity and equality of women is against. Yet a lie in this situation denies exactly this. It patronizes women and fails to treat them as rational beings.
Beyond undermining the dignity of the wife as human, Immanuel Kant might point out that to lie to one’s wife about her appearance undermines her autonomy in that being given false information doesn't provide her with all the pertinent information she needs in order to make the best, rational choices - choices as simple as what dress to wear tonight, to much more weighty choices, like how to handle her health or how to work through tensions in her marital relationship. If a wife doesn’t know what her life partner truly thinks and she only has her self-deception to work with, then an honest second opinion on her appearance may be what is needed to make the most rational choice.
A lie in this scenario, then, may provide a husband and wife with temporary comfort, but there are a whole host of relational and physical, short-term and long-term, small and significant consequences which result from a lie. Does that mean a husband should have no tact if his wife asks him how she looks in a dress, or should he just go around telling his wife he thinks she looks fat? Of course not. The truth is best told in the context of a strong and safe relationship and in ways that seek edification. It’s not in the purview of this article to get into all that, though, but please just know that it is a straw man if you’re going to act like I’m telling you that husbands should just call out their wives for being fat, or vice versa.
The point is that when we lie for some good that we hold in our minds, we actually end up only propping up fleeting and secondary things - momentary comfort and self perception. In the case of the wife’s dress, for example, this may be the good of our wife’s self-image or the continuation of immediate comfort and ease in our relationship. However, the purchasing of this short-term "good" involves simultaneously undermining deep, meaningful, relational structures like autonomy, physical well-being, relational intimacy, sexual intimacy, sexual fidelity, trust, and I’m sure a few others I’m missing. Lies often seem to work for good, which is why everyone always brings up Kant's famous lying to a murderer at the door, a Nazi looking for a Jew, or a wife asking about her dress. Sure, lies might often be bad, but there seem to be clear cases where they work for both small and great goods. I can admit that lies sometimes do work, in the sense that they do obtain certain desirable results. But I would argue that these results are usually, if not always eclipsed by the ideals and values they sacrifice, as we just saw with the wife’s dress.
What Kant argued for and what I am going to continue arguing for in this episode, is that the truth is always better for obtaining the ultimate things - the ultimate values. Those ultimate values may be harder to envision in the moment, and they may take a long time to realize. In fact, one might never realize the attainment of the ultimate values they invest in. It may be an investment for the future. My goal in the rest of this article is to show you how this investment works, and explain why it's worth your consistent integrity and sacrifice of immediate gratification. To help cast this vision, I want to start by introducing you to a concept that I think is going to encapsulate in one word what I’m going to end up explaining in many. This is a concept that I’ve actually been mulling over for a long time, but didn’t know there was a term for it until just a few months ago when I was reading through Dr. William Witt’s work on the atonement, of all things. In that work, Witt brought up a term called "eudaimonism." There seem to be several variations of meaning for this word, but the basic gist of the brand I’m going with is essentially this: Doing good works. Like, functionally. Good actually works. As a Christian, this type of thinking makes perfect sense. A good God created a good world, so you’d expect that doing good would produce harmony - shalom. You should get better results from doing good: functioning relationships, health, everything. Of course Christians believe we now live in a fallen world, so telling the truth to a murderer at your door looking for your friend, or to your wife - who may soon become a murderer at your door looking for you if you tell her the truth - it may not always work out well in a fallen world. But truth is not only an integral component of God’s good world, it is a functional component as well. It produces better results.
Before I move on I have to caveat this brand of eudaimonism from two other ideas with which it might be conflated: consequentialism and the prosperity gospel. Both of those eudaimonistic counterfeits are anathemas and I hate them. They produce nothing but rotten fruit, yet they’d be easy to confuse with eudaimonism. First, the prosperity gospel is an idea that says if you follow God then good blessings will come to you. If you send in a thousand dollars to the sleazy televangelist, God will bless you with a sevenfold bounty. That is not eudaimonism, it’s karma. It's guaranteeing that God is going to give you something in return for your actions. Eudaimonism doesn’t say that at all. Rather, eudaimonism says that the world functions in a particular way so that if you do something like say nice things to and love an enemy, that will foster better relationships and less violence than if you up the ante through harsh words and violent confrontation. You might be killed by this enemy you try to love, but your loving actions may actually produce better long-term results by ending the cycle of violence so your kids don't grow up seeking revenge on their father's murderer (see the movie "The Kingdom" for a fantastic example of this cyclical violence).
The second notion people conflate with eudaimonism is consequentialism. Consequentialism says that something is good because it produces good results. So if something ends up working, then it is christened as good on consequentialism. The ends justify the means. That’s not how eudaimonism works. Eudaimonism says that when something is good, it tends to work. On consequentialism, the outcome is objective and what is good is subject to change.The results are determined before the good - so that the good can then be determined. On eudaimonism the good is always kept objective
Both of these bastardizations - consequentialism and the prosperity gospel - pivot on the definition of the notion of what "works." Most of the time people are going to define “what works” as either a Nietzschean will to power or a will to pleasure. And honestly, these two things really go hand in hand and have all sorts of manifestations. Political or social status can help one grow rich, which in turn helps one to maximize pleasures and control. Likewise, becoming wealthy can help one to have more control over life and perhaps become politically influential. Consequentialism, then, scoffs at the idea that something like never lying could actually work, because “works” is going to be defined as power or pleasure.
It was in 2016 that I realized this is exactly the struggle I was having with my Christian community. My white Evangelical community determined that “good” was that which could secure them power. Consequently, what would not have been deemed good a decade before became labeled as good in the twinkling of an eye. And you know what, it "worked." The Republican candidate was elected. Evangelicals grasped power. Yet if you look at what’s been happening to Evangelism since then, the decline went from a graded slope to a precipice. Scandal after scandal, deconstructionist after deconstructionist, and growing cultural animosity towards Evangelicals - animosity labeled as undue persecution against innocent and righteous lambs, of course - it’s all hit a fevered pitch. So if four years of power is what defines “works,” then consequentialists can have their four years. But that’s not what Eudaimonists mean when we define "works.” We’re not talking about momentary power or pleasure, we’re talking about universals. Ideals. Values. Meaning. A will to meaning.
I think the parable of the prodigal son elucidates this well. The prodigal son disrespected his family by asking for his father’s inheritance early. He was essentially saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” He left home with money in hand and lived it up in the city, surrounded by supposed friends. He had money, which gave him control, status, and pleasure. But when his money ran out he ended up returning home, only to find that the father who had raised him, nurtured him, clothed him, and fed him, was still there to do it all again, at the lowest point in his life. No matter what the prodigal son did, he had a foundation. He had a family - or at least a dad - who would always love him and be there for him. The son explored the will to power and the will to pleasure. He found that his actions to obtain these things wills “worked..." For a time. But then he just as quickly found out that what seems to work to maximize power and pleasure is fleeting, and it’s a will to meaning that is truly valuable. A will to meaning is the bedrock upon which true and lasting pleasure and good can be obtained. This is human flourishing right here - the good of not only the prodigal son (the individual), but also the good of the family unit and broader community (society).
Another great place you can go to get a glimpse of this concept is in Victor Frankel’s book entitled, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It’s an absolutely beautiful book that gets inside the heads of Nazi concentration camp survivors. One of Frankel’s thoughts from the book reminded me of a crossroads the prodigal son came to. Frankel wrote about how prisoners would sometimes obtain cigarettes as part of their rations or for various work details. Of course cigarettes did one no good. What the prisoners really needed was food, as they were only given something like 10 oz of bread a day and maybe some broth. Cigarettes, then, were for trading. You’d trade them for food in order to survive. Frankel said that whenever they saw a man smoking a cigarette they knew he had less than 48 hours to live. Smoking cigarettes rather than trading them for food meant that an individual had given up hope just as the prodigal son had given up home. It was a giving up of a will to meaning and embracing the fleeting will to pleasure. But things didn’t turn out quite so bleakly for the prodigal son as it did for those who smoked cigarettes in the concentration camps, because the prodigal son chose differently at the crossroads. Luke says that the prodigal son was “longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate” Of course that’s disgusting - to eat the remains of a cob the pigs had eaten off of and that had been slopped in the mud. But for a Jew it would have been infinitely more disgusting considering that an unclean animal - a pig no less - had come in contact with this food. Yet the prodigal son, in his longing to satiate his senses with the basest food that could be imagined - recognized that his life held more meaning than to stoop to satisfy his longing with what would have only been a temporary reprieve. Instead of smoking the cigarette - or eating the defiled cob - instead of doing a momentarily disgusting thing so that good may abound, the son chose the ultimate thing and turned towards home and towards his good father. He left the cob - his immediate sustenance that he needed to survive - in order to have his patience rewarded and his relationship restored when he was welcomed by his father with a fattened calf.
All of this is really just a long way of saying that while you might think Kant and I are crazy for the position we hold on lying, my bet is that if you do think that, you have a different, and what I’d call a skewed definition of this idea of “what works.” You might think you define “what works” as a will to meaning, but in reality, you definite it as some amalgamation of power and pleasure in the positive, or in the negative, you might define "works" as the avoidance of pain and discomfort for you or someone else. I’m sure you’re chomping at the bit right now for me to try to make my case that never lying actually obtains greater meaning, because you don’t think the case can be made, especially when it comes to murderers at your door. We’ll get there.Trust me. But before we do, I want to show you a parallel example that I think will help us when I try to show you how never lying obtains meaning for us. I want to look at the instance of martyrdom.
What, if anything, does martyrdom obtain? It doesn’t work. It’s pointless, right? It ends a life and prevents any more meaning from being created by the martyr, either through disciples or through progeny. Yet it was an early church Father, Tertullian, who declared that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. It was Telemachus, a martyr, who supposedly brought an end to much of the gladiatorial contests in Rome through his martyrdom. How is it that martyrs can obtain with their one life, the lives and wellbeing of multitudes, saving both souls and lives through the influence of their death?
Well, the martyr may embrace a refusal to dehumanize their enemies. They may refuse to deny reality. They might refuse to devalue their convictions. They display a bold confidence. There are any number of ways that a martyr, with their spiritual capital, redeems the lives of many. For while this world is being expunged for the martyr, another world is simultaneously being put on display for those looking on the martyr and seeing what she is doing with her life. How is she spending her life? And exactly here that we see that foundation of would we talked about at the beginning of the episode. Martyrs display what would be if everyone lived life as they did. What the martyr believes works - what is valuable and what is meaningful - is made evident by their courage, faithfulness, and integrity in facing even the most gruesome of ends. Their means of integrity displays their true and ultimate end, which is embedded in their very own ending. They put on display ultimate, immutable, and pure ideals through their living out of a will to meaning. How could someone with a will to pleasure or a will to power ever compete with eternal and incorruptible things like those? Conservative Christian consequentialists will give you four years, but a Christian martyr who refuses to compromise her integrity will give you eternity.
The martyr really puts things into perspective for us, especially when we, like the psalmist, look around and see that evil seems to prevail. The martyr helps us to see that the aging and decrepit former philanderer and the weakened and impoetent dictator may have had a few good decades, or so it seemed, but by the end of their lives, there is nothing left but rubble. There is no eternal there. Unlike the martyr, it’s the persecutor who displays that their system doesn’t work, for the persecutor displays insecurity, hate, violence, dehumanization, and an extreme sensitivity to opposition. The persecutor displays nothing but vacuity and destruction. Ironically, in trying to erase the meaning of another, the persecutor displays their own meaninglessness, and allows the martyr to put their eternal values and meaning on full display. So if we are going to sit here and say that what works is defined as pleasure or power, we completely miss what actually plays out in the vacuity and hopelessness of a persecuter's actions, or in the deep meaning of the martyr’s actions.
With martyrdom under our belts, let’s switch over to the concept of lying now and consider Kant’s murderer at the door. What does lying entail?Lying may work, but it also might not, as Kant himself shows. People often act as though lying will save a friend while refusing to lie will mean certain death, but that claim is wholly unsubstantiated. People think lying is a much more effective means than it actually is. So, maybe lying works, but maybe not. So let's just take what we do know. We know that lying dehumanizes a person, it reduces autonomy, it undermines the social contract, and it embraces and displays a world that should not be. It justifies the known means by the hypothetical ends - and wildly optimistic ends at that. For a Christian there’s even more reason not to lie. Lying contradicts the character of God, and the embracing of evil displays our lack of faith in God. Compromising on God's moral standards shows that we either believe that God is powerless to save us, or that God isn’t deserving of our faithfulness in all circumstances. As you can see, lying is terribly problematic and leads to a horrendous depiction of God's good world.
Yet if we take a look at truthfulness from the standpoint of what "works" through the lens of a will to meaning, we will see a completely different depiction. Integrity, no matter what, works in a eudaimonic fashion, in that it fosters a world that eschatologically will one day be by providing, through our integrity, a foretaste of what would be, if only we’d all refuse the evil for the good. People recognize the importance of integrity and lone voices elsewhere. Be the matchstick that steps out of line. I see that meme a lot. Be that German citizen who speaks up to the Nazis when all your neighbors are silent, even though that means you'll be persecuted or killed. Be the one person with a camera and a voice when you’re witnessing police brutality against someone else, even though that endangers your life and likely won't lead to indictment of the police. We all know that those things might cost you, but if everyone just goes along and embraces evil, what would the world be? We all dream of a better world - of what should be - and we constantly call on our society to display what would be at a cost to themselves. Clearly, most of us don't truly believe that we get to pick and choose our morality. But that begs the question… If you should speak when your neighbor’s autonomy is being violated by the Gestapo, shouldn't you speak up when it’s being violated by a lie.
Whether we realize it or not, most Christians are consequentialists who typically have a will to power. I mean, just look at the run Christendom has had in the West. It doesn’t take much digging through history - or even modernity - to see the death grip Christianity has had on the sword But that will to power only lasts so long - until a death grip turns into death throes. We’ll have to see how things play out, but even as a Christian, I, like Kierkegaard, think the demise of Christendom will be a good thing in the end. Christendom’s will to power is so antithetical to the message of Jesus, I don’t know that the world can pick out Christ from much of Western Christianity. Nevertheless, Christian nationalism is on the rise in the West in part because Christians think that Christendom's will to power has been a good thing and want to preserve it, or get it back. I'd like to explore this will to power and compare it to what I'm proposing here as a eudaimonic will to meaning.
For the sake of analogy, let’s explore Christendom's will to power by switching over to the field of art. Just imagine that Christians, because they ought to have the clearest picture of the world as God intended it to be, tend to be the best painters in the world. Imagine that these Christians - these painters - all of a sudden decided to quit painting. They got this bright idea that, because they loved art so much, they were actually going to spend their time and resources not painting, but taking over society. But don’t worry, the paintings wouldn’t stop. These Christian painters were taking over society so they could force everyone else - all the non-painters - to start painting. Painters love paintings so much, they’re going to make everyone paint! Even if that coercion meant that the natural born and professionally trained artists were no longer painting, but politicking. Even if they had to coerce and force painting on people. Even if the non-painters didn’t want it or didn’t have the skillset to do it. Even if they had to destroy priceless paintings so there would be more incentive to produce art - it would all be worth it so that everyone would become a painter. Can you imagine the resentfulness the world would have towards art and painting? Can you imagine the low quality of art that would be produced in such a society?
I’m obviously not talking about Christians painting real paintings here. I’m speaking of Christians painting with the brush of morality, the vision of eschatology. We Christians say we believe in a good God who created a good, functioning world, so we should have the best vision by which to depict the ideal through the living out of our lives. We shouldn’t, as Christendom and the will to power have done, quit painting the ideal in an attempt to force everyone else to live out the ideal we proclaim, while refusing to live it out ourselves. Christendom ends up not living out the ideal it proclaims because they don’t really think it works. A will to meaning is powerless. But if a good God created a good world, why wouldn't a will to meaning work and why would moral compromise often be required to bring about good? Doing good would fail only if God doesn't exist as the creator of our world, he doesn't exist as wise, or he doesn't exist as good. Embracing the damnable doctrine of realism, consequentialism, and power is making a statement through one's morals that God doesn't exist with all his superlatives, or perhaps he doesn't exist at all. Conversely, if a good, wise, and loving creator God exists, then eudaimonism - a life always seeking the good, no matter what - works.
Our job as Christians, then, is to faithfully represent the world that truly is - the world that would be if only everyone could see the painting - could see reality clearly. I think this sort of sentiment is offered up in an early Christian document called the letter or the Epistle to Diognetus. I want to quote it at length here because I think it’s a beautiful summation of what I’m trying to convey here. The epistle says,
"What the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, 1 Peter 2:11 though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet keeps together that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they keep together the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake."
Christians ought to be the soul of the world - the painters depicting reality. Contrary to what the will to power or the will to pleasure tells us, the true painter’s canvas is often the canvas of suffering, just as we saw with the martyr. Suffering destroys all but the truest of the true - that with ultimate meaning and value.
There’s a famous story of another artist - in this case, sculpting rather than painting. The story is that of Michelangelo working on the famous statue of David. According to some accounts, Michelangelo said something like, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” While he probably didn’t say that, there is a quote that is more probable which says something similar, though it wasn’t specifically about the great statue of David. "The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material." Whether Michelangelo said either of these brilliant statements or not, I think we can recognize that great artists have a knack for doing this kind of thing. They see as existent reality what we, the unartistic couldn’t even imagine in our minds. Yet after the artist’s creation is completed, it looks so easy and we can’t imagine that it would have been any other way. Artists give us a vision for what was there all along, we just couldn’t see it.
So it is with suffering and meaning. Suffering whittles and chips away at our hearts and lives of stone. It forces us to come face to face with the choice of whether we’ll seek meaning through integrity, or whether we'll compromise for a will to power or pleasure. It forces us to choose whether we’ll eat the cob the pigs stripped clean and smoke the cigarette, or whether we’ll return home to our good father. We can choose to embrace and identify with the statue of David that the chisel of suffering is leaving behind in order to reveal a magnificent sculpture to the world, or we can identify with the discarded rubble and dust destined for oblivion.
Truth, while seemingly inconsequential at times, is a part of the vision for the good, meaningful, valuable, ideal life. Meaningless lies - or lies that seem to obtain a good greater than the lie - are easy to embrace if we fail to understand the foundation of a world that must be built to support the priceless, massive, heavy, - yet fragile statue of meaning woven into the fabric of the universe - a statue that suffering, and those made to suffer, are able to reveal more and more to the world through their display of the eternal. But such a work can only be created and put on display by those who harbor a foundation - a scaffold of would. Jesus, on such a scaffold, once held on his back, the world that he created with his hands. Christians are invited to erect the same woulden scaffolds, in the same shape - that of a cross. The servant is not greater than the master. On our scaffolds - in our suffering - through our unwillingness to compromise integrity or to deny meaning - the world will see one even greater than David put on display - David’s son, the Christ. The world, through our display, will see that what would be, once was. And is. And is yet to come.