“Lie” (falsehood) is an interesting word because of the religious and philophical depth of its meaning. The 9th commandment (Exodus 20:16) is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”, and virtually all religious leaders interpret that commandment as a command from God never to lie and to always tell something called “the truth”.
Aside from the fact that truth itself is elusive, not always a bright white spot with clear edges against a black background, this interpretation of truth runs into many problems. The first, of course, is why did God not say, simply and straightforwardly, “Thou shalt not lie”? Why did he command us not to testify falsely and why restrict it to our neighbors?
To clarify the moral connotations of this word, let me propose a hypothetical situation critically involving truth. Let us consider someone who is a deeply devout Dutch Christian living in Amsterdam in 1942 in a house at 265 Prinsengracht Straat. That person has noticed suspicious activity at the house next door, #263, and on several evenings they have noticed people you know to be Jewish entering and leaving the house.
One day this person is presented with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury (assume such existed) investigating the crime of hiding Jews in the city (which was a crime at the time) and after swearing on the Bible, which they consider the most sacred object in their life, they are asked whether they have any knowledge of Jews living secretly in the city.
True answer: yes. Lie: No. True answer: the family of Anne Frank dies. Lie: they will likely survive. Which answer is more likely to send that person to eternal damnation?
Is truth an absolute good or simply a neutral test of the accuracy of statements we make, the morality of which depends on the outcome of telling the truth or manipulating it?
Should we teach our children to always tell the truth, knowing that they are not going to do it for good reason since sometimes the truth unnecessarily hurts people. Less critical situations arise every day in life: is it really better to tell your friend that her outfit is ugly and hurt her feelings than to lie? Should we tell people that they are stupid just because we know they are?
None of us tell the truth in every instance truth becomes an issue. Lying to falsely accuse anyone is bad because the consequences are bad. Lying to save their lives is good because the consequences are good. Telling the truth or not plays no role in morality. That is probably why the 9th Commandment is not, “Thou shalt not lie.”