The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Veracity of the Past and Present

VERACITY, in this sense, always has respect to a fact, that is, to something done, or to something which we believe to be doing.

Moral truth consists in our intention to convey to another, to the best of our ability, the conception of a fact, exactly as it exists in our own minds.

Physical truth consists in conveying to another the conception of a fact, precisely as it actually exists, or existed.

These two, it is evident, do not always coincide.

I may innocently have obtained an incorrect conception of a fact myself, and yet may intend to convey it to another precisely as it exists in my own mind. Here, then, is a moral truth, but a physical untruth.

Or, again, I may have a correct conception of a fact supposing it to be an incorrect one, but may convey it to another, with the intention to deceive. Here, then, is a moral falsehood, and a physical truth. Pure truth is communicated, only, when I have a correct conception of a fact, and communicate it, intentionally, to another, precisely as it exists in my own mind.

The law on this subject demands, that, when we profess to convey a fact to another, we, to the best of our ability, convey to him the impression which exists in our own minds. This implies, first, that we convey the impression which exists, and not another; and, secondly, that we convey that impression, without diminution or exaggeration. In other words, we are obliged, in the language of jurisprudence, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

This law, therefore, forbids, 1. The utterance, as truth, of what we know to be false. I say the utterance as truth, for we sometimes imagine cases, for the sake of illustration, as in parables or fictitious writing, where it is known beforehand that we merely address the imagination. Since we utter it as fiction, and do not wish it to be believed, there is no falsehood if it be not true.

2. Uttering as truth, what we do not know to be true. Many things which men assert they cannot know to be true; such, for instance, are, in many cases, our views of the motives of others. There are many other things which may be probable, and we may be convinced that they are so, out of which we cannot arrive at the certainty. There are other things which are merely matters of opinion, concerning which every several man may hold a different opinion. Now, in any such case, to utter as truth what we cannot know, or have not known to be truth, is falsehood. If a man utter any thing as truth, he assumes the responsibility of ascertaining it to be so. If he, who makes the assertion, be not responsible, where shall the responsibility rest? And, if any man may utter what he chooses, under no responsibility, there is the end of all credibility.

But, it will be said, are we never to utter any thing which we do not know to be true? I answer: we are never to utter as truth what we do not know to be true. Whatever is a matter of probability we may utter as a matter of probability; whatever is a matter of opinion, we may state as a matter of opinion. If we convey to another a conception as true, of which we have only the impression of probability, we convey a different conception from that which exists in our own minds, and of course we do, in fact, speak falsely.

3. Uttering what may be true in fact, but uttering it in such a manner, as to convey a false impression to the hearers.

    As, a. By exaggerating some or all of the circumstances attendant upon the facts.

    b. By extenuating some or all of the circumstances attendant upon the facts.

    c. By exaggerating some, and extenuating others.

    d. By stating the facts just as they existed, but so arranging them as to leave a false impression upon the hearer. As, for instance, I might say, A entered B’s room, and left it at ten o’clock; within five minutes after he left it, B discovered that his watch had been stolen. Now, although I do not say that A stole B’s watch, yet, if I intentionally so arrange and connect these facts as to leave a false impression upon the mind of the hearer, I am guilty of falsehood. This is a crime to which pleaders and partial historians, and all prejudiced narrators, are specially liable.

4. As the crime, here considered, consists in making a false impression, with intention to deceive; the same effect may be produced by the tones of the voice, a look of the eye, a motion of the head, or any thing by which the mind of another may be influenced. The same rule, therefore, applies to impressions made in this manner, as to those made by words.

5. As this rule applies to our intercourse with men as intelligent agents, it applies to our intercourse with men under all the possible relations of life. Thus, it forbids parents to lie to children, and children to lie to parents; instructors to pupils, and pupils to instructors; the old to the young, and the young to the old; attorneys to jurors, and jurors to attorneys; buyers to sellers, and sellers to buyers. That is, the obligation is universal, and cannot be annulled, by any of the complicated relations in which men stand to each other.

Nor can it be varied, by the considerations, often introduced, that the person with whom we are conversing has no right to know the truth. This is a sufficient reason why we should not tell the truth, but it is no reason why we should tell a falsehood. Under such circumstances, we are at liberty to refuse to reveal any thing, but we are not at liberty to utter what is false.

The reason for this, is the following: The obligation to veracity does not depend upon the right of the inquirer to know the truth. Did our obligation depend upon this, it would vary with every person with whom we conversed; and, in every case before speaking, we should be at liberty to measure the extent of our neighbor’s right, and to tell him truth or falsehood accordingly. And, inasmuch as the person whom we address, would never know at what rate we estimated his right; no one would know how much to believe, any more than we should know how much truth we were under obligation to tell. This would at once destroy every obligation to veracity. On the contrary, inasmuch as we are under obligation to utter nothing but the truth in consequence of our relations to God, this obligation is never affected by any of the circumstances under which we are called upon to testify. Let no one, therefore, excuse himself, on the ground that he tells only innocent lies. It cannot be innocent to do that which God has forbidden. “Lie not one to another, brethren, seeing ye have put off the old man with his deeds.”

That obedience to this law is demanded by the will of God, is manifest from several considerations:

1. We are created with a disposition to speak what is true, and also to believe what is spoken. The fact that we are thus constituted, conveys to us an intimation that the Creator wills us to obey this constitution. The intention is as evident as that which is manifested in creating the eye for light, and light for the eye.

2. We are created with a moral constitution, by which (unless our moral susceptibility shall have been destroyed) we suffer pain whenever we violate this law, and by which also we receive pleasure whenever, under circumstances which urge to the contrary, we steadfastly obey it.

3. We are so constituted that obedience to the law of veracity is absolutely necessary to our happiness. Were we to lose either our feeling of obligation to tell the truth, or our disposition to receive as truth whatever is told to us, there would at once be an end to all science and all knowledge, beyond that which every man had obtained by his own personal observation and experience. No man could profit by the discoveries of his contemporaries, much less by the discoveries of those men who have gone before him. Language would be useless, and we should be but little removed from the brutes. Every one must be aware, upon the slightest reflection, that a community of entire liars could not exist in a state of society. The effects of such a course of conduct upon the whole, show us what is the will of God in the individual case.

4. The will of God is abundantly made known to us in the holy Scriptures. I subjoin a few examples:

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor.” Ex. 20:16. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.” Prov. 6:16. “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile.” Psalm 34:13. Those that speak lies are called children of the devil, that is, followers, imitators of the actions of the devil. John 8:44. See also, the cases of Ananias and Sapphira, and of Gehazi. Acts 5, and 2 Kings 5:20-27. “All liars shall have their portion in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone.” Rev. 21:8. “There shall in no wise enter therein (into heaven) any thing that maketh a lie.” Ibid, verse 27.

From what has been said, the importance of strict adherence to veracity is too evident to need further remark I will, however, add, that the evil of falsehood in small matters, in lies told to amuse, in petty exaggerations, and in complimentary discourse, is not by any means duly estimated. Let it be always borne in mind, that he who knowingly utters what is false, tells a lie; and a lie, whether white, or of any other color, is a violation of the command of that God by whom we must be judged. And let us also remember that there is no vice which, more easily than this, stupefies a man’s conscience. He who tells lies frequently, will soon become an habitual liar; and an habitual liar will soon lose the power of readily distinguishing between the conceptions of his imagination and the recollections of his memory. I have known a few persons, who seemed to have arrived at this most deplorable moral condition. Let every one, therefore, beware of even the most distant approaches to this detestable vice. A volume might easily be written on the misery and loss of character which have grown out of a single lie; and another volume of illustrations of the moral power which men have gained by means of no other prominent attribute than that of bold, unshrinking veracity.

If lying be thus pernicious to ourselves, how wicked must it be to teach it, or specially to require it of others! What shall we say, then, of parents, who, to accomplish a momentary purpose, will not hesitate to utter to a child the most flagitious falsehoods? Or what shall we say of those heads of families, who direct their children or servants deliberately to declare that they are not at home, while they are quietly sitting in their parlor or their study? What right has any one, for the purpose of securing a momentary convenience, or avoiding a petty annoyance, to injure for ever the moral sentiments of another? How can such a man or woman expect to hear the truth from those whom they have deliberately taught to lie? The expectation is absurd; and the result will show that such persons, in the end, drink abundantly of the cup which they themselves have mingled. Before any man is tempted to lie, let him remember that God governs this universe on the principles of veracity, and that the whole constitution of things is so arranged as to vindicate truth, and to expose falsehood. Hence, the first lie always requires a multitude of lies to conceal it; each one of which plunges the criminal into more inextricable embarrassment; and, at last, all of them will combine to cover him with shame. The inconveniences of truth, aside from the question of guilt and innocence, are infinitely less than the inconveniences of falsehood.