Sunday, 25 October 2009

Moral perspectives on lying

There are a range of Christian theories on the moral acceptability of lying.

The issues around lying seem difficult to fully categorise in English. The problem is a lack of simple words to express subtle differences in meaning. To illustrate this note that the concept of lying can be considered analogous to killing. With killing we have sub-terms such as murder, manslaughter, and capital punishment. We also recognise killing in a variety of situations such as warfare and self-defence. The debate about the morality of types of killing is more transparent because we agree on meaning, even if we disagree or the moral acceptability of them.

Whereas "lying" merely means distorting the truth irrespective of the circumstances. There are terms such as deception, falsification, untruthfulness, but these are basically synonymous. There are situational terms though, such as perjury.

So is falsehood a single conceptual category? I have long thought it meaningful that the 9th commandment is not, "You shall not lie," but rather, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour." I have previously distinguished between reality and what one perceives as reality stating that affirming a false belief is not lying. I have also made the distinction between voluntary and forced disclosure of information which I wish to expand on here.

The moral debate is that either:
  • lying (or specific types or lying) is objectively wrong, that is, various forms of absolutism; or
  • lying is not intrinsically wrong (for all people), (though it may be preferable to avoid in certain situations for other reasons), that is, forms of subjectivism.
Christianity claims that morality has its source in the moral law giver, thus it views the morality of truth telling as objective: the same rules for all people at all times. Here are particular forms of such absolutism.

1. Unqualified Absolutism

Lying is always wrong. People should never lie ever. No matter what the situation or consequences.

Doug Beaumont explains such unqualified absolutism.
Unqualified Absolutism is based on the idea that most moral actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and because sin is always avoidable there can be no actual moral conflict. Given a choice between telling the truth or lying to avoid a murder, for example, one must choose telling the truth for in that instance it is not the one speaking, but the murderer who is sinning. In that case it is better to permit sin than to commit it. This view states that moral "oughts" are viable regardless of their consequences, for any moral philosophy that has exceptions results in relativism. Moral law is based on God's unchanging nature, therefore moral law itself is unchanging. Logically, if an act is intrinsically evil, it cannot become good because of a changing situation. Finally, God can always provide a third alternative to sinful actions.
This is how many people view lying. It is a somewhat reasonable but it lacks depth. Exceptions to rules don't intrinsically mean relativism. True, exceptions can be special pleading or hypocrisy, but they may be legitimate (eg. age based rules). And as I note below, unqualified absolutism may conflate intrinsically different actions.

2. Conflicting absolutism

Lying is wrong, but it needs to be considered within the situation. If lying conflicts with another moral commandment then one must do obey the higher moral. But lying, while required, is still sinful.

Such a position acknowledges that we have moral conflict (at least in this age). I think this is an improvement as it notes that as bad as lying may be, it may not be the greatest evil (though lying is a bigger evil than many acknowledge). This position encourages people to do good and love their neighbour.

It fails in that it suggests at times all options a man may have involve sin. However if we wish to do right, Scripture suggests we are able to do so (thru God). Further, how much less are we to blame when others have placed us in a dilemma, rather than our own prior choices.

3. Graded absolutism

Lying is wrong unless it conflicts with a higher moral commandment. Obeying the higher moral by lying is not wrong or sinful.

This resolves the dilemma of not being able to make a right choice. It affirms moral conflict, but it claims that the choice to do the better is good. And not sinful if a greater good is being done. There may be some support from Jesus' words to the Pharisees. It discussing tithing garden herbs Jesus states
But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
While one could claim that tithing herbs and doing justice are morally equal—Jesus does say not to neglect the former—the context would suggest that doing justice is a higher moral command. Apologists for unqualified absolutism could argue Jesus commands they do both, but there is no conflict between moral obligations set up here, so unqualified absolutism cannot be proven from the passage. I am merely illustrating that moral commands are graded.

It is important to note that this is not arguing that the end justifies the means. Yes, the end is considered, but for the sake of doing good, not for preferred result. Doing good may have unpleasant consequences.

4. Libertarian absolutism

Lying is wrong if one is voluntarily giving information. One need not tell the truth if one is being compelled to divulge information. I am responsible for my actions, not yours.

This has the advantage over graded absolutism in that it recognises that voluntary information and compelled information are categorically different. It is somewhat analogous to saying that predatory killing is sinful but self-defensive killing is not.

Interestingly Jesus' words may shed some light on our understanding here.
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world." For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come." After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, "Where is he?" And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, "He is a good man," others said, "No, he is leading the people astray." Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.

About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. (John 7, emphasis added)
Jesus said he wasn't going but then he did. This implies that Jesus' answer was not true. In fact some manuscripts say, "I am not yet going up to this feast." Which would seem to make Jesus' answer more honest. Looking at the passage it is clear Jesus wished to go without others initially knowing he was there. He is asked if he is going, however Jesus does not wish to tell this person. Being evasive may be construed as a yes. Jesus says that he is not going to this feast. Within the libertarian absolutism view a request is made of Jesus to divulge information he does not wish to give and he is at liberty to answer in a way that does not divulge same information.

This position is distinct from graded absolutism in that one is not weighing up morality in conflict. The distinction is in will for informing.

Although one could think nothing one hears in conversation is reliable, the solution is listen to what people wish to tell you.

5. Authoritative absolutism

Non aggressive version
  • Lying is wrong in non-aggressive situations. Self-defence against an aggressor allows for lying. Authorities are owed the truth.
Libertarian version
  • One need not tell the truth if one is being compelled to divulge information unless being compelled by a legitimate authority.
Authoritative absolutism states the voluntary information must be true as per libertarian absolutism, or that all information must be true unless facing an aggressor. It states that, in general, compelled information does not need to be true though there can be variation on what is meant by compulsion.

But this position does allow an appropriate authority to force information (whereas strict libertarian absolutism would not). A person following libertarian absolutism would allow one to lie in court if he did not wish to divulge the truth. Non-aggressive absolutism would mean that it is eumoral (morally good) to tell the truth in legitimate courts and immoral to withhold it. Note the caveat: obeying a lesser authority is not required if that means disobeying a higher one. Obeying a policeman, a ruler, or a court is necessary even unjust ones, or in unpleasant circumstances; unless doing so compromises a higher earthly ruler or God.


People may argue for the legitimacy of any of these options within Christian theology. Unless one recognises that the concept of lying may include more than one category, graded absolutism is as far as one can advance and this seems to be the best approach. However the knowledge of a permissible sub-categorisation based on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary knowledge sharing allows for more nuanced views.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Let it rain

The Newsboys sing a song called Let It Rain. It is about the apostle Peter before he dies. I think the frequent mention and allusion to water in the song is very clever.

Let It Rain

Fisher of men remembers...

And I have watched in wonder
As with a word You calmed a raging sea
I have seen You make the wine from water
Mud and water made a blind man see
Water still reminds me
Of the seaside where our eyes first met

Let it rain
Lord we're waiting for Your rain to fall
Let it rain
Bringing back the wonder of it all
And I can see Your face again
When You let it rain

And I've been bathed in mercy
By every gesture, every word You've said
Once I spoke of power and high position
You took a towel and washed my feed instead
Water, like a promise
Heaven opens, but I'm not there yet


I've been foolish
Thought I know it all
Three times I denied Your name
Your forgiveness, like a waterfall
Washes away my shame

A new dawn is breaking
Another hour, and then I leave this place
I am ready Lord to give my life for you
I'm so ready Lord to see Your face
Water like a promise
And in this final hour I think my final prayer shall be
Would You let it rain?
Let Your Spirit fall afresh on me


Saturday, 10 October 2009

Adjusting multiple choice examinations

Multiple choice examinations have several benefits. They have no intra- or intermarker variability. In fact they can be automated. And I wouldn't be surprised if they are as effective as any other system in effectively evaluating material.

They need to be well written.
  • The correct answer needs to be clearly more correct than other options.
  • The correct answer should not be able to be guessed by the construction of the question.
  • The order of the answer option should be random.
  • A reasonable number of options need to be given.
    • And the same number of options for every question.
  • A significant number of questions needs to be included.
    • The problem with multiple choice questions is the chance element. This can be reduced by increasing the number of questions.
If we have 20 questions with 4 options for each question, then random guessing will lead to people getting 5 correct on average (Exam mark = 25%); 20 / 4. However the range of correct answers will be quite great. Some will get 1 correct (5%), others 10 (50%). Whereas 200 questions will mean that people get 50 correct on average (Exam mark still = 25%), but a much lower range. Some may get 40 correct (20%), others 60 correct (30%).

Thus both exams when taken by people ignorant of the topic will give an average mark of 25%, but the chance of any particular individual getting a high mark is much greater with a smaller number of questions.

This seems obvious based on the examples above. Mathematically the range of marks is (inversely) related to the number of questions. The standard deviation of the range of answer marks is inversely proportional to the square root of the number of questions.

The other issue is standardising the results. Because people are likely to get 25% of the answers correct by chance (for 4 options), then one could subtract 25% from the final mark. So if you get 25% as a raw mark, you likely didn't know the answer to any of the questions, that is your knowledge is 0%. So we subtract 25% from your mark to get your adjusted mark, which is 0%.

However if you get 100%, it is unlikely you knew 75% and got the other 25% correct by chance. Rather you get the ones you know correct, and you tend to get about a quarter of the ones you don't know correct. So if you know 50% of the questions you will get 50% plus a quarter of the remaining 50%, that is 12.5%, which gives you a total of 50% + 12.5% = 62.5%. So a raw mark of 62.5% needs to be scaled back to 50%. And 100% means you know all the answers and does not need to be scaled back at all.

So we need to adjust the raw marks linearly to get adjusted marks.
  • Let N be the number of questions.
  • Let R be the number of options.
  • Let X be the number of questions correct.
  • Let Y be the adjusted number of questions correct.
  • X/N is the raw mark.
  • Y/N is the adjusted mark.
  • N/R is the chance number of correct answers.
When X = N/R then the mark needs to be adjusted to zero, ie. Y = 0.
When X = N then the mark needs no adjustment, ie. Y = N and Y/N = 1 (= 100%).

The number of questions correct equals the number of questions known plus the remaining number of questions divided by the number of options.

X = Y + (NY)/R

Rearranging for Y we get

Y = (RXN)/(R – 1)

Or as a mark

Y/N = 100% × (RXN)/N(R – 1)

And any negative numbers are given zero.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Bursting bubbles...

...literally. Presumably this was taken on a high speed camera. Very clever.

From Flickr. There are several other similar photos.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Random quote

The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome becomes bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.

Cicero, 106-43 BC

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Internet interlude

I will be away from the internet for a fortnight. I have some posts scheduled to come up, but I am unlikely to respond to comments.


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