Long before Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell rocked the Delaware GOP by upending establishment favorite Mike Castle, she founded a group named the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT). SALT focuses on promoting Christian morality among Generation X and places particular emphasis on always telling the truth. In 1998, while O’Donnell was a guest on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she elaborated on this point, arguing that “telling the truth is always the right thing to do, I believe, and that’s what always gets you out of a situation.”
Comedian Eddie Izzard pressed her on just how far she would take her anti-lying beliefs. Izzard asked O’Donnell whether or not she would lie to Nazis who showed up at her door during WWII and demanded to know if she were hiding any Jewish people in her house. O’Donnell refused to even entertain the notion of concealing the truth from Nazis in that scenario because “you never have to practice deception.”You never have to deceive others because "God always provides a way out," said O'Donnell.
Talk about losing one's moral compass.
Now, I know what's going on here. O'Donnell rather unexpectedly won the Republican primary, and now liberal sources of information are going after her. Still, I can't help but comment on this, because the extremism in O'Donnell's bungling of Izzard's question must be dealt with.
The situation Izzard presented to O'Donnell is one confronted by who knows how many students every year in introductory ethics courses. Kant is famous for having agreed with O'Donnell, but for different reasons. Kant held that anyone who lied in this kind of a situation would be following a certain rule, e.g., "When I wish to protect others from harm, I will tell a lie." But it is impossible even to conceive of a world in which everyone followed exactly the same rule. Why? Well, the liar is successful only if he is believed, but if everyone followed the same rule, the liar would not be believed. The rule, therefore, ought never to be followed, according to Kant, since it is inherently contradictory.
I think that Kant was wrong in this. Do not misunderstand me: I believe we have a strong moral obligation to tell the truth. But, as with perhaps all obligations, it can be overridden by a more stringent obligation in the right circumstances. And in the circumstances O'Donnell was asked about, you are obviously morally obligated to lie, since our obligation to protect others from grievous harm is obviously more stringent than our obligation to tell the truth in the imagined circumstances. College freshman can handle such reasoning with ease; O'Donnell seems unable to.
And this is the problem with extremist thinking. If you believe, like O'Donnell, that moral principles are absolutely exceptionless, you lose your moral compass and end up making moral judgments that are obviously wrong. O'Donnell attempted to finesse the problem by claiming that God would ensure that no one would ever be faced with such a situation. But we know better: people are faced with such moral dilemmas every day, everywhere. Add to that the fact that it is extremely unlikely that God exists.
This is what happens when amateurs attempt to engage in ethical reasoning.