instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, June 01, 2013

My Solomonic judgment

One line of defense against the proposition that lying is always wrong is the claim that many Scriptural passages present lying in a favorable light. Abraham said Sarah was his sister, Jacob told Isaac he was Esau,  Rahab lied to the Jerichoans at the door, Judith put one over on Holofernes. Some suggest that Jesus lied in saying He wasn't going up to Jerusalem, or had come only for the children of Israel, or was going to continue past Emmaus.

Here I just want to comment on the suggestion that King Solomon lied in his famous judgment on dividing a baby between two women who each claimed to be the mother:

The king continued, “Get me a sword.” When they brought the sword before the king, he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other."
When the true mother revealed herself through her love for the baby, and
all Israel heard the judgment the king had given, they were in awe of him, because they saw that the king had in him the wisdom of God for giving right judgment.
Since this passage comes immediately after God promises Solomon, "I give you a heart so wise and discerning that there has never been anyone like you until now, nor after you will there be anyone to equal you," I agree that the sacred author intends for Solomon's command to cut the child in two to be seen as true wisdom.

But I don't agree that his command was a lie. An imperative statement like that doesn't have a truth value; it asserts nothing that can be contrary to a thought in Solomon's mind.

If a grammatical argument seems too slick or sterile, then go ahead and ask yourself what idea in Solomon's mind his words and actions are contrary to. They are, obviously, consistent with an idea that is contrary to what [we may presume] was in his mind, but that in itself does not constitute a lie. If it did, to speak English, or any natural language, would be to lie, since all natural languages have ambiguity.

Nor is it reasonable to deny that Solomon's words and actions were ambiguous -- or equivocal, to use the term that applies in matters of speech. The whole point of the story is that he had in him the wisdom of God for giving right judgment. Once they heard the story, all Israel saw that his words and actions were consistent with the idea of causing the true mother to distinguish herself; you don't need the wisdom of God to see how it works, just to think it up in the first place.

It might be countered that allowances for equivocal language don't apply in this case, that while yes, as a proposition a command is not (in a fussy technical sense) contrary to the intention to countermand it, it is contrary to a lack of intention to ever, under any circumstances see it carried out..

To that I would say[, first, I'm not the one who proposed an imperative command as an example of a lie, and it's not my fault if the contradictory proposition is so close to self-evidently true that its proofs seem too slick to be sound.

And second,] I don't think the counterposition holds up given (again) that Solomon had in him the wisdom of God for giving right judgment. (And recall that Solomon having in him the wisdom of God is the whole foundation of using this passage to argue that lying is sometimes just.) I think the question of intention is ill-posed in this case. Any judgment in these circumstances would necessarily be conditional on the identity of the mother not becoming known. But given his wisdom, Solomon would have been morally certain that the identity of the mother would become known. It's not a question of intention here, but of expectation. There was no expectation that the command would be carried out, so there was no need to intend to carry it out.

If that's still not clear, I'll add that Solomon did intend the servant to whom the command was given to accept it as a command and to act accordingly, which in itself is sufficient to make Solomon's act consistent with the virtue of truthfulness.

I suppose it remains to be asked whether Solomon's act might yet teach us something about truthfulness and lying since it might be said to have succeeded through the means of deceiving the women into expecting that the baby would be killed. This is perhaps different from common or garden equivocation, in that their misapprehension can't be passed off as an acceptable but unintended side-effect.

On this question, I'll just point out that Solomon was acting as judge of these women. As judge -- and king -- Solomon used his God-given authority to test the women, to construct circumstances in which they were free to respond as they wished. The women, in turn, acknowledged and submitted to Solomon's authority in the case. It seems to me that a petitioner cannot be both tested and deceived by a just judge at the same time. At the very least, whatever lesson on truthfulness one wants to draw from this would need to be seen in light of the judge-petitioner context.