Skip to main content

Lying and Reasonable Expectation

By Randy Everist

Here’s a simple question: What is lying?

“Ah, well, that’s easy,” you might think. “Lying is telling an untruth.”

But this brief definition doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. For we might think it casts some things as lying which ought not to be so regarded, such as telling a fictional story, making a joke, or even playing certain kinds of games.[1] Further, it may exclude some things from qualifying which we want to say are lies. For example, if the teacher asks the class, “Did one of you draw that picture of me on the whiteboard?” and no one responds, no student told an untruth. However, supposing at least one of them is responsible and/or knows who did it, their silence would likely count as lying to the teacher about their involvement. So, it appears this definition is both too broad (including things we don’t want) and too narrow (excluding things we do).

So, suppose you reconsider and reply: “Lying is deceiving others.”

This at least accounts for lying by omission, as in the case of the teacher. But this runs into a problem we’ve seen before: it includes things we do not really want to say are actual lies. For example, consider your favorite football team. They often come to the line of scrimmage attempting to disguise their defense, or on offense make a fake move before unleashing their real play, and so on. Are these all lies, all moral violations, and hence evil? It would seem not.

So, suppose you think for another moment and suggest this: “Lying is an attempt to have another person x believe P, when not-P is true, and x should have a reasonable expectation (or a ‘right’) to receive the truth about P.”

Now this has some merit. In order to defeat a proposed definition, one will typically want to show it is either too broad or too narrow. Does this definition survive? Let’s test it against some of our examples: First, if we’re telling a fictional story, we get the right answer that we are not lying, since x does not have a reasonable expectation that he will receive the truth about P.[2] Making a joke is also excluded, as are games. There is, of course, the worry that jokes or stories are taken too far—but we tend to agree it’s not in virtue of these being jokes and stories that they are lies. This definition of lying also includes lying by omission.

The “reasonable expectation view” also provides what many of us take to be the “right” answer in some classic ethical quandaries. Consider the family hiding Jews in WWII Germany and the Nazis come by. They ask, “Are there any Jews here?” If you answer “no,” then you are lying and thereby violate a moral norm. If you answer “yes,” however, you are not protecting the innocent (at least not very effectively, anyway). There are some who vigorously defend the “yes” position, perhaps because of a Kantian influence. Kant is notorious for claiming that lying is always wrong, because it is always predicated on a maxim that cannot be universalized or consistently willed to become a universal law. This is also called the “categorical imperative.” A good example is lying to secure a loan. Knowing you cannot pay it back in a timely fashion, you lie to get the loan anyway. If everyone in such circumstances did so, the very institution of truth-telling, promise-keeping, and money-lending would disintegrate. Kant would say what makes lying wrong is not the bad consequences of what would happen, but rather the implication that one’s beliefs or desires are in contradiction. If we were to universalize the maxim in question—that it is permissible to lie about repaying a loan in a timely fashion—the result would be the destruction of the loaning institution, or the very thing that makes money-lending possible. So one both wants the institution to be there and, in virtue of following such an unworkable maxim, does not want the institution to be there.

The matter, however, is not that easy. For it is not clear at what level of generality the maxim should be cast. This matters because, depending on how the maxim is cast—ranging from “It’s okay to lie whenever one wants” to “It’s permissible to lie when doing so is the only way to avoid a grave injustice”—sometimes the maxim can be universalized and sometimes it cannot. Kant’s sweeping conclusion, then, that lying is always irrational and immoral seems unwarranted.

Contra Kant, most typically want to say protection of the Jews by saying “no” is morally justified. But it also seems bizarre to claim lying is ever morally right or permissible. In fact, it’s a violation of the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16)! But on this view, answering “no” is not lying. The Nazi does not have a reasonable expectation for the family to tell him the truth about the Jews, given that he intends to persecute, torture, experiment on, and ultimately kill them. So my solution to the conundrum is not to say that lying is sometimes justified, but rather that withholding the truth or even projecting a falsehood on occasion is not lying at all.

A worry arises here about rationality. Suppose the Nazi thinks, “They know, or should know, that telling me an untruth about the presence of Jews will result in their incarceration or death, and the risk that I will check their home anyway is decent. Thus, the rational thing for them to do is to tell me the truth.” Here, it seems the Nazi has a reasonable expectation after all (is it really unreasonable, given the thought process?). But this is why I added “the right” portion above. Given that persecution of the Jews is a moral atrocity, if such people are hiding Jews, it is because they have moral sensitivities (most likely); if that is the case, does the Nazi have the right to expect such people to move against these sensibilities and answer him, revealing the presence of the Jews? It seems not. The one committing a moral crime is not necessarily owed—or does not have the right to reasonably expect—the truth in a particular situation in which he is involved directly with moral evil.

And now we can apply this to a biblical narrative. In an ethics/moral philosophy course, we were once asked how many of us thought Rahab’s lie to cover for the pair of Jewish spies was justified, and how many thought it was not. The professor noticed my hand not going up for either, and I communicated I did not think it was a lie at all. We moved on for the sake of discussion, but I think it is the right answer. It was not truth-telling, but as the enemies of God they did not satisfy what I am calling the reasonable expectation condition, and so should not have expected to hear the truth. Again, it must be noted that this condition deals with the rights one has to the truth in a given situation involving direct moral issues. Perhaps some of the more difficult biblical passages in which non-truth-telling and/or deception seem to be endorsed may benefit from this account of lying in their interpretations, and show that the Bible is not ethically mistaken after all!


[1] Here I am thinking of the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” where the winner is the one who convinces the others of the truth of the story when it is in fact false.

[2] Note also that if one protests that we could tell x “What I am about to tell you is absolutely true,” that it would be a lie. But this comports perfectly well with the definition given: in those circumstances, all being equal, x does have a reasonable expectation to be given the truth.

Image: “fingers crossed” by DGLES. CC License. 


Epicurus’ Quadrilemma and the Logical Problem of Evil


By Randy Everist          

The logical problem of evil (LPE), in contemporary analytic philosophy, has been taken as the attempt to show that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good being cannot possibly exist with instances of evil in the world. The understood reasoning is that an all-good God would desire to eliminate all evil as far as he can; an all-powerful God could eliminate evil altogether; and an all-knowing God would know how to do so. Thus, if there is such a being as God, then there would be no evil. However, there is evil. Therefore, there is no such God. Epicurus is often taken to be the initiator of LPE (although this is possibly misattributed). He said, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”[1] This paper will refer to this as Epicurus’ Quadrilemma. First, the Quadrilemma will be explained, followed by a brief discussion of the possibilities for defeating such a Quadrilemma. Next, two solutions will be proposed. It is the contention of this paper that Epicurus’ Quadrilemma fails to defeat the idea of the Christian God.

As was seemingly typical for the time, Epicurus analyzed all four logical options for God’s willingness and ability to remove evil (God’s knowledge of how to do so is not entertained, but included in discussions since, for the orthodox Christian, God is all-knowing). In order to understand the Quadrilemma, we must first admit that Epicurus was responding to perceived evil in the world. If there was no evil, then there would be no problem to discuss. Thus, four options present themselves: Either God is willing but unable to prevent evil, able but not willing, both able and willing, or neither able nor willing.

One should consider each of these options in turn, as does Epicurus. If God is willing and unable, then he is not omnipotent. J. L. Mackie concurs with this assessment when he writes, “There are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.”[2] This, many suppose, is the straightforward definition of what it means to be omnipotent; anything less is quasi-omnipotence, at best. Mackie admits that this option will not be an issue for those who conceive of God in non-standard ways (such as those who are willing to divest God of omnipotence), but for the majority of theists (and all orthodox Christians), such a move is not an option.

The second option Epicurus considers is that God is able to do so, but unwilling. This, says he, means that God is malevolent. Mackie agrees, claiming that, “a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.”[3] The third option, though concluded with a question, is just the claim that if God were to be both willing and able to eliminate evil, then there simply would not be evil. However, the initial postulate is that there is real evil in the world, and thus this entails that the conjunction of God’s being both willing and able to eliminate evil is false. Finally, if God is neither able nor willing, then he is not worthy to be called God.

There are three major ways that someone can defeat a proposed dilemma (regardless of the number of options presented). First, one may show other options than those presented. So, if the Quadrilemma gives the Christian four paths to take, this would involve showing there is a fifth option. This does not seem to be available, since Epicurus exhausts the logical possibilities. Second, one can show that the consequences do not follow. So, for example, this would mean showing that if God were both willing and able to prevent evil, that evil could still be around. Finally, one can “bite the bullet” and accept that the proposed paths do show the consequences they claim, but that such consequences are not absurd or otherwise undesirable after all. This last option does not seem to be available to Christians either, since none of these conceptions of God (or of evil’s non-existence) are adequate for Christianity. Thus, if the Christian is to overcome the Quadrilemma, it is to the second way he must look.

There are actually two ways to go about this kind of a solution; first, from the standpoint that God is willing but unable to prevent evil given certain other facts, and second, from the standpoint that God is both able and willing to prevent evil, but that certain other facts interfere. If either of these solutions is even possible, then the LPE fails.

While Epicurus devoted equal writing time in his brief formulation of the LPE to each side, he nonetheless focuses on the idea of omnipotence. This is because the power to control was the key to providence. If this was not compatible with evil, then it showed, for Epicurus, that whether or not such a being as a God existed, he would not be provident in the affairs of men.[4]

The first possible solution is to attack the premise that, “If God is willing and unable, then he is not omnipotent.” This is because God is willing that there be no evil, but given libertarian freedom, this places only a logical limit on God’s power, and thus omnipotence is preserved. Most philosophers, atheist, theist, and otherwise, accept that God’s omnipotence does not entail the ability to do the logically impossible, inasmuch as these are not activities to be done. Therefore, if it were to turn out that, given some other fact, God would not be able to eliminate evil by logic, it would not count against his omnipotence.

Alvin Plantinga suggests that there are some good states of affairs that God cannot bring about without thereby allowing for evil. He takes man’s having libertarian freedom of the will to be one of these states of affairs. He claims, “If a person is free with respect to a given action, then he is free to perform that action and free to refrain from performing it.”[5] If this is the case, then God is both willing that evil should not be (given that he is all-good) and also willing that man should have such libertarian freedom. However, this freedom, by definition, means God cannot guarantee that free creatures will always go right; given their freedom to refrain from performing good actions (and thus also to perform evil ones). Therefore, there is a very real sense in which God is willing that evil should not exist, and unable to prevent it, given the fact of libertarian freedom.

However, it may be objected, per Mackie, that God could simply have created beings who always freely choose the right.[6] That is to say, if God is able to create such beings and willing to do so, there should not be any evil. This leads to the second possible solution to the Quadrilemma: God is both able and willing to prevent evil (since he could force man to act a certain way), but there is evil because he is also willing to allow man libertarian freedom, and this accounts for God and evil. This may sound like the same solution as before, but there are two major differences. First, this is being applied to another horn of the Quadrilemma: the one that assumes God is both willing and able to prevent evil. Second, it will introduce another facet of Plantinga’s thought.

His idea of transworld depravity (TWD) is crucial to understanding the solution. TWD depends on counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs). The idea is that there are truths about what any free creature would do in any set of circumstances. Plantinga’s example is that if Curley were offered a bribe for $20,000, he either would or would not take it.[7] Suppose that Curley would not have taken such a bribe, but that in the exact same set of circumstances, he would have accepted the bribe at $35,000. This means that such a world containing the exact same set of circumstances as the $35,000 bribe where Curley freely accepts the $20,000 bribe is not feasible for God, by simple logic. God could force Curley to do it, but he could not force Curley to do it freely.

Plantinga’s argument is that it is at least possible, for all we know, that the relevant CCFs are such that for every libertarianly free creature (who is non-divine and enjoys morally significant freedom), they would ultimately go wrong with respect to at least one action in every feasible world in which they are instantiated. If this malady (TWD) affects Curley, then Plantinga concludes, “Every world that God can actualize is such that if Curley is significantly free in it, he takes at least one wrong action.”[8]

This is where Plantinga tightens the rope. After establishing this basic case, he refers to the possibility that, for all we know, every “creaturely essence” is afflicted with TWD.[9] That is, left to themselves, human free creatures will always ultimately go wrong at least once. If this is the case, then, while God is willing that evil be prevented, and is able to do so (say, by causing or forcing man not to go wrong), given libertarian freedom and complete TWD, Mackie’s claim that it is feasible for God to instantiate free creatures who only and always do the good is possibly false. This conclusion may seem weak, but it is important to remember the LPE is purporting that the existence of God is logically impossible to square with evil, and Epicurus’ Quadrilemma is purporting to discuss all of the relevant logical facts and consequences. If these two solutions are even possible, then the Quadrilemma’s consequences are avoided.

In order to understand where Epicurus went wrong, one must understand his underlying moral philosophy. A complete undertaking of that is out of the scope of this paper. However, it should suffice to note that, for Epicurus, the most important thing in life was pleasure. He had a nuanced approach that was more than basic hedonism. By focusing on the life of the mind, the end goal of Epicurus was to lead people to “a transformative experience that altered one’s daily life and led to genuine satisfaction and happiness.”[10] But this was Epicurus’ mistake: his entire Quadrilemma and preceding philosophy presupposes that the point of man’s existence is his own happiness.

William Lane Craig disputes this philosophy entirely. In commenting on the modern objections to evil and suffering in the world, he writes,

One reason that the problem of evil seems so puzzling is that we tend to think that if God exists, then His goal for human life is happiness in this world. God’s role is to provide [a] comfortable environment for His human pets. But on the Christian view this is false. We are not God’s pets, and man’s end is not happiness in this world, but the knowledge of God, which will ultimately bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Many evils occur in life which maybe [sic] utterly pointless with respect to the goal of producing human happiness in this world, but they may not be unjustified with respect to producing the knowledge of God.[11]

Thus, there is a great good to be had in creating free creatures capable of entering into love relationships with God. While there may be other versions of the problem of evil, LPE as applied by Epicurus’ Quadrilemma fails. This is because God may be willing to eliminate evil, but given his instantiation of free creatures, such a thing is not feasible, nor does it count against his omnipotence due to logical concerns. It may also be that God is able and willing (given he could force creatures never to do evil), but that given the point of free creatures existing and the possibility of TWD affecting all non-divine beings, evil nonetheless exists, as solely the fault of mankind.




Image: John McColgan – Edited by Fir0002taken by John McColgan, employed as a fire behavior analyst at the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Public Domain. 


[1] John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1990), 310.

[2] J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, Michael L. Peterson, ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 90.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tim O’Keefe, “Epicurus,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (, accessed February 22, 2015.

[5] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), 29.

[6] Mackie, 98.

[7] Plantinga, 46.

[8] Ibid., 47-48.

[9] Ibid., 53.

[10] Aleksandar Fatic and Dimitrios Dentsoras, “Pleasure in Epicurean and Christian Orthodox Conceptions of Happiness,” in South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 4 (2014:), 524.

[11] William Lane Craig, “The Problem of Evil,” (, accessed February 22, 2015.


Argument for God from Moral Intuitions

By Randy Everist

I think that, if our moral intuitions are to be regarded as true, then God is the best explanation for those moral intuitions being present. Not only that, but I think that the best explanation for those moral intuitions being true is God’s action in our lives. So, the argument would go as follows:

  1. If our moral intuitions are true, then God is the best explanation of this fact.
  2. Our moral intuitions are true.
  3. Therefore, God is the best explanation of this fact.
  4. If God is the best explanation of moral intuitions, then He exists.
  5. Therefore, God exists.

(3) and (5) are logically entailed conclusions. What do we make of (1)? We should only deny this if we think that while our moral intuitions are true, there is a better explanation. Notice this claim is much more modest than saying that God is the only explanation of moral intuitions being true. All we are claiming is that, for however many explanations there are, God is the best one. Without getting into a lengthy discussion as to what makes a good explanation (though that is surely important here), let’s cover some of the features. First, an explanation needs to fit all the facts. Let’s consider the facts: God’s creating in us a sense of moral knowledge (moral intuition) is certainly possible (it’s not unknown, or even unlikely, for example, that God possesses this power). It also seems likely that God (taken to be the monotheistic God of perfect being theology) would ensure that our moral intuitions are generally reliable. Why would he do that? Simply because an all-good God would want to ensure creatures made in his image generally had the opportunity to do the good (and thus, to be significantly free moral agents). This is not possible if they can’t very well even recognize the good. In a sense, God has told us, via our conscience and moral intuition, what is good and thus what we ought to do.

Second, the explanation needs to be relatively simple. It won’t do, for example, to claim that the best explanation of our moral intuitions being true is seventeen gods—at least not without argument. One God is simple enough (after all, the entire “God-of-the-gaps” charge is based at least secondarily in how simple it is).[1] Competing explanations won’t cover it as well as a theistic one: for instance, it just seems fortuitous that these moral intuitions turn out to be true. For instance, animals don’t need true moral intuitions in order to survive, so the mere postulated fact that evolution occurs and we are here isn’t a sufficient explanation for why we have moral intuitions and they are true. So it seems (1) is a pretty good candidate to keep around.

Perhaps an opponent will then bite the bullet and reject (2). “You’re right,” he may say. “God is the best explanation of moral intuitions being true, but I’ve got news for you: they aren’t.” There are two different objections that can be presented to the second premise. The first objection is to claim that moral intuitions aren’t always true. They’re false sometimes, and, in some cases, plenty of times.[2] But the response back can be two-fold: first, in (1), we just mean generally true, not universally. Second, simply because some intuitions are wrong sometimes, it doesn’t follow that they are all suspect.[3]

The next objection is that all moral intuitions about moral facts fail because all moral facts are false. That is to say that there just are no objective moral values or duties, and so any intuitions about this are illusory. Now this is entirely consistent with a naturalistic account of obtaining a sense of objective moral values (or moral intuitions). However, while it is consistent, it is wildly counterintuitive (literally!). Most people cannot shake the feeling that certain things (e.g., racism, homophobia, beating up the elderly, bullying, torturing babies, etc.) really are wrong, and their moral intuitions are not deceiving them. One might suspect that even the objector does not really believe that nothing is really wrong. But then it will follow that God is the best explanation of our moral intuitions being true.

It seems to be an obvious truth of logic to infer that if God is the explanation of moral intuitions being true, then he exists. In any case, I don’t know what it would mean to claim that God is such an explanation, but he doesn’t exist! If that’s the case, we have an epistemic variant of the moral argument for God’s existence that can be used.

[1] Consider, in fact, that people often say that naturalism is sufficient to account for the way the world is, and thus a God is wholly unnecessary—in short, naturalism is a simpler explanation for the way the world is (so the charge goes).

[2] There are a great many people, for example, that claim to intuit homosexual behavior as permissible, whereas many others intuit it as impermissible. One set of intuitions, if this is true, is definitely false (as a whole).

[3] One cannot show a possible area of knowledge to be unreliable just by showing one error (or even a few more): simply because some people reason incorrectly, it wouldn’t follow that no one reasons correctly!

Photo: “Lake Crescent Sunset” by Kevin Dooley. CC License.