When is Lying Justified?

Equivocation and dissembling have been integral parts of political life. How should we judge them?

Among the sinners the drunk porter in Macbeth welcomes into hell is the ‘equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale’. Equivocation is a theme of the play; Shakespeare is thought to have been influenced by the recently written A Treatise of Equivocation by Jesuit priest Henry Garnet. It told other Catholics how to deal with dangerous questions from Protestant inquisitors for, if they admitted that they were Catholics, they could be in serious trouble. Yet to lie under oath was a sin against God. His solution was ‘equivocation’. A Catholic equivocator could lie and tell inquisitors what they wanted to hear, but God would know that what the Catholic said was really the truth in another sense.

The problem arose following the death of (Catholic) Mary I, with a Religious Settlement of 1559 which made (Protestant) Elizabeth I Supreme Head of the Church of England. Senior church bishops then faced the difficult task of stamping out support for Catholic practices. The Catholic and Protestant accounts of what happened remind me a bit of Labour’s and National’s quite different perspectives of some event. Protestants emphasise that the approach was mild if the Catholics were not brazen, that Mary’s previous regime was no better, and that the nation was threatened by invasion by Papist forces, Catholics say that the approach could be very repressive and cite martyrs and other horror stories.

Equivocation did not end (nor begin) in Elizabethan England. I am frequently moved by Shostakovich’s music which picked its way through the bloody repressions of Soviet Russia, bowing to the authoritarian state although underneath was a powerful personal critique if you knew how to listen. He was not alone, of course; others face the same challenge even today. I salute the courageous.

But when is lying justified? Not just being ‘economical with the truth’ but mendacious. Some would say ‘never’; others would say there are circumstances ...

So how are we to think about Metiria Turei’s admission that she lied about her welfare entitlements some 24 years ago? Recall her circumstances.

In April 1991 welfare benefits were cut viciously; in the case of the Domestic Purposes Benefit she was on by 16.6 percent – a sixth – (allowing for inflation). This was one of the major sources of the marked increase in income inequality at the time. That the past levels provided an adequate income for the beneficiaries had been determined by a Royal Commission. Where the new rates came from is unclear but, whatever, there had been no attempt to assess them against the actual experiences of beneficiaries.

Contrast Metiria’s situation with that of a welfare beneficiary on whose living circumstances I did some careful investigation in 2012. At the time she was living on the same (real) income that had been set for 1991 (and hence markedly below the Royal Commission’s assessment). Meg, as I have called her, did not lie but struggled on what was officially available.

She went to a budget advisory service which concluded that by the time she had paid for her food, housing, household energy, medical and educational expenditure, transport and phone she was left with just $19 a week for everything else including clothing and footwear, entertainment, recreation, OTC medicines and personal care, household cleaners and the like, dental care, consumer durables, insurance and a variety of things you probably think of as normal – haircuts, presents, school trips and pets. (Certainly there was no provision for alcohol or tobacco, or even buying a lotto ticket.)

To cope, she cut back on her food budget, usually spending $40 to $80 a week, well below the recommended level of $130 a week that she and her daughter needed for a simple but nutritious diet (as recommended by the University of Otago Department of Human Nutrition). I suspect too, that she skipped some on her health care but that was harder to calibrate.

The result was that she and her daughter ate badly. Unquestionably it was a factor affecting Meg’s and her daughter’s health. It probably also affected her daughter’s education. (In the long run there was additional pressure on public resources as a result.)

So she did not lie but almost certainly she has shortened her life expectancy and damaged the life prospects of her daughter. She was honest, but perhaps some of you will have some sympathy for Metiria’s equivocation, especially as her actions had the happy outcome of her acquiring a law degree followed by an exemplary and socially useful life since. (I am assuming that is also true for her daughter but, rightly, her privacy has been protected so I don't know.)

I am not saying that Metiria’s circumstances were comparable to those in Elizabethan England or Stalinist Russia, but is there a case for equivocation to deal with the repression from Ruthanasia and Jennicide? Are we being hypocritical condemning her and ignoring Meg?

These are very difficult question to answer honestly. But I could not help noticing a recent headline in the New York Times ‘Many Politicians Lie. But Trump Has Elevated the Art of Fabrication’.


(Metiria registered her address for electoral purposes at a place where she was not living in 1993. When I was teaching at a university with personal tutors we went to a lot of trouble to protect our students from the brainless things they did, arguing that the stupidities of adolescence should not compromise their future adulthood. Yes, Metiria was bloody stupid and what she did was illegal. I am not sure, though, whether we should hold it against her. Those who had a blameless adolescence might – if any exist.)