Radical honesty, i.e. the pledge never to lie anymore, will improve your personal life and relationships with the people you care about. You will see that in the end most people will value your pledge highly and they will appreciate your honesty. At least, that’s what Joep van Agteren proposed in his blog ‘Radical honesty movement: New Years resolution’ a couple of months ago. Joep is not the only one I know who thinks that the naked truth is better than a nicely dressed lie. Many seem to agree with him, though most will admit that it is extremely difficult to live by this pledge. However, I do not believe that lying is necessarily a bad thing and I think that often telling a lie is better for everybody. Since then I have been searching for a convincing counterargument. This proved to be difficult, obviously. Lies may often be told in the best interest of the other person as you don’t want to burden people with the painful truth, but the question still remains whether it wouldn’t have been better to tell the truth anyway.
In the following passage from the German classic novel ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ (Every man dies alone), written by Hans Fallada, this moral issue is put forward when the main character Otto Quangel, who is to be executed for trying to sabotage the Nazi regime, asks a visiting pastor to lie to his wife Anna, who is held captured in a different prison. The husband and wife have been held apart from each other for months now and Otto knows that his wife will be heartbroken if the pastor tells her that he is already dead, long before it’s her time to be executed.
“When the time comes, I beg you not to tell my wife that I had already been executed before her. Please tell her that I will die in the very same hour, instead.”
“That would be a lie, Quangel, and I, as a servant of God, cannot disregard His eighth commandment.”
“So you never lie, Pastor? Have you never lied before?”
“I hope,” the Pastor replied, confused by the others’ mocking look, “I believe that I have always tried in my feeble efforts to keep God’s commandments.”
“And God’s commandments want you to abstain my wife from the consolation of dying in the same hour as I do?”
The pastor goes off, offended and astonished. Otto Quangel was executed that same night. Anna Quangel never got word of this execution and even when she inquired about her husbands’ well-being the guards told he had sent her his regards. She died in her sleep, probably dreaming about her reuniting with Otto, when a bomb hit her prison.
What would you do if you were the Pastor? What would you do if you were her guard? Would you tell her the truth?
Original text, from ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ written by Hans Fallada
“Ich bitte Sie, meiner Frau, wenn es so weit ist, nicht zu sagen, dass ich vor ihr hingerichtet worden bin. Sagen Sie ihr bitte, dass ich in der gleichen Stunde mit ihr sterbe.”
“Das wäre eine Lüge, Quangel, und ich als Diener Gottes darf mich nicht gegen sein achtes Gebot vergehen”
“Sie lügen also nie, Herr Pastor? Sie haben also noch nie in Ihrem Leben gelogen?”
“Ich hoffe,” sagte der Pastor, verwirrt unter dem spöttisch musternden Blick des andern, “ich hoffe, dass ich mich stets nach meinem schwachen Kräften bemüht habe, Gottes Gebote zu halten.”
“Und Gottes Gebote verlangen also von Ihnem, meiner Frau den Trost, dass sie in der gleichen Stunde mit mir stirbt, zu versagen?”
I'm from Utrecht, 22 years old, I did a bachelor Econometrics and Operations Research in Maastricht and I am currently doing the masters Public Policy and International Economic Studies. I like to read, write and sail and I'm an active member of both M.S.V. Tragos and ESN Maastricht. If you want to read about my experiences during my semester abroad in Vienna, or read about Oktoberfest or the Ball I participated in, please have a look at my older posts.