Lie to Catch a Liar?

I work in the “honesty” business. As a kind of consumer reports firm, the company I work for seeks to cut out the noise of marketing to help healthcare providers understand how well healthcare equipment and software really perform. The most satisfying part of my work is pointing out where a vendor has been less than forthright in advertising their product’s capabilities. Those companies which sell products that do not work as promoted do not often last long. Honesty is essential to sustaining a business in the long run.

Honesty is inseparable from the gospel and the freedom movement. The 13th Article of Faith reaffirms this:

We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

The advocacy of liberty is weakened when Latter-day Saints use deceptive means to draw people to the truth. At times, though, it can be difficult to advocate for complete honesty when the end result could be beneficial. One of those fuzzy areas for honesty is in law enforcement.

Law enforcement will use various interrogation methods such as saying a dead victim is still alive or tell a suspect their partner in crime is about to rat the suspect out (even though it’s not true) in order to get a suspect to confess “first”. Some officers of the law have gone so far as to create false documents to elicit a confession. As far as police interrogations go, such deceptive tactics have been effective in getting a guilty suspect to confess their misdeeds.

It is undeniably apparent that the deceptive interrogation methods law enforcement agents employ is lying. Given such successes in getting criminals to confess it makes the casual LDS observer wonder if the deceptive tactics employed by lawmen are viewed favorably from a gospel perspective. They’re not.

The Lord makes it quite clear in the aftermath of Martin Harris losing the manuscript of the Book of Mormon early in its translation. The Lord informs Joseph Smith that evil men not only had the manuscript but were making changes to the text. Should Joseph Smith attempt to reproduce the same translated scriptures, these men would use their altered, stolen manuscript and denounce Joseph as a false prophet. The men did this under the belief that Joseph was up to no good:

Now, behold, they have altered these words, because Satan saith unto them: [Joseph] hath deceived you—and thus he flattereth them away to do iniquity, to get thee to tempt the Lord thy God. (Doctrine & Covenants 10:29)

Satan convinced these men that deception was okay so long as it led to the uncovering of someone else lying:

Yea, he saith unto them: Deceive and lie in wait to catch, that ye may destroy; behold, this is no harm. And thus he flattereth them, and telleth them that it is no sin to lie that they may catch a man in a lie, that they may destroy him. (Doctrine & Covenants 10:25)

Regardless of the intent, the Lord does not endorse lying to catch another in a lie.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, wo be unto him that lieth to deceive because he supposeth that another lieth to deceive, for such are not exempt from the justice of God. (Doctrine & Covenants 10:28)

The idea of a suspected rapist or murderer getting out of a conviction because there isn’t enough evidence would drive many law enforcement agents to go to any means necessary to get a confession – even to go so far as to lie. Those who feel thus inclined are not alone in their support for lying. Deception in interrogations is backed by the Supreme Court. The majority opinion in Frazier v. Cupp  condones the use of deception in interrogations:

The fact that the police misrepresented the statements that Rawls had made is, while relevant, insufficient, in our view, to make Frazier’s otherwise voluntary confession inadmissible. (739)

When weighing the pros and cons of using deception to catch a liar, one of the strongest arguments for lying is that the police may lie but at least they are getting murderers and criminals off the street. While I agree that at face value murder is worse than a lie, I am concerned that we are placing ourselves in a position described by Isaiah and reiterated by Jacob in the Book of Mormon:

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.
Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord; and their works shall be in the dark. (2 Nephi 28:8-9)

We can’t write off lying no matter how small it is in comparison to murder or other sin. When the Lord describes who will inherit Telestial Glory he states:

These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. (Doctrine & Covenants 76:103).

Issues like deception need to be viewed in an eternal perspective. We should not settle with advocating for those practices that put our brothers and sisters in law enforcement in jeopardy for celestial glory. While we may be at a greater risk of having potential murderers and worse on the streets, advocating for complete honesty in law enforcement would likely save more souls.

Getting rid of deception in police work would be an important stepping stone to complete honesty in all things. As our Gospel Doctrine manual advocates:

To become completely honest, we must look carefully at our lives. If there are ways in which we are being even the least bit dishonest, we should repent of them immediately.

When we are completely honest, we cannot be corrupted. We are true to every trust, duty, agreement, or covenant, even if it costs us money, friends, or our lives. Then we can face the Lord, ourselves, and others without shame. President Joseph F. Smith counseled, “Let every man’s life be so that his character will bear the closest inspection, and that it may be seen as an open book, so that he will have nothing to shrink from or be ashamed of.” (252)

In our effort to bring criminals to justice as well as creating a society blessed with liberty let us seek the Lord’s path by pursuing honest means by which to do so. As we seek to be honest in our dealings with our fellow men (be they criminals or otherwise) we must strive to be worthy of feeling the Spirit so that others may feel it, too.

And by the power of the Holy Ghost [they] may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:5)

Image: LDS Media Library


  1. Interesting. How does this idea of total honesty relate to the use of deception, espionage, infiltration of military or strategic threats? Both Moses and Captain Moroni used stratagem, deception, and espionage in his military campaigns. Joshua sent spies to Jericho who worked “undercover” with the harlot Rahab. Abraham told Abimalech that Sarah was his sister (a half-truth) to save his life as recorded in Genesis chapter 20. And in Abraham 2:25, the Lord told Abraham to lie and say that Sarah was his sister.

    There was also an incident in Nauvoo when a sheriff or constable from a neighboring jurisdiction came to arrest Joseph Smith on some trumped-up charge. Joseph sent down another man in his coat and hat to the officer to pose as Joseph. The man didn’t speak a word to the constable until he got all the way to the neighboring county and, only then, did he reveal when questioned that he was not the Prophet.

    Obviously, the scriptures do not encourage dishonesty, but when Satan would use the saints’ honesty and naivete to defeat the Lord’s purposes, sometimes he permits individuals to enter into “gray areas.” Joseph Smith once commented, “Whatever the Lord commands is right.” The Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not kill,” but the Lord commanded Nephi to kill Laban and Joshua to kill entire cities of people, not sparing even the women and children.

    In a world of realpolitik, secret combinations, professional anti-Mormons, and other threats, we need to be “wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.” Which choice would be more “moral” for a family under Nazi rule: to hide a Jewish family in the attic and lie about it or tell the truth to the authorities who would have exterminated them all? Honesty must serve the greatest good.

    After all, sometimes the best answer to “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” isn’t always totally candid.

  2. Complete honesty can include guile, as pointed out by Greg West. My guess is that the principle of being honest in the face of deception is parallel to the principle of being at peace in the face of aggressive violence. Defensive or responsive violence is sometimes justified in the face of aggressive violence, though (as exemplified by the people of Ammon) it is not necessarily required. I think the same could be said for using defensive or responsive deception or guile in the face of aggressive deception or other forms of aggression. This being said, I agree that government officials are not justified in using deception to determine whether someone is guilty – I’m pretty sure this falls squarely in the realm of aggressive deception.

    I always answer the question , “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” with, “Here, have some chocolate.” That usually seems to work.

  3. I’d have to agree with Greg and Joel here. Generally speaking lying is wrong and a violation of rights [Alma 1:17–18]. However, just like it would be wrong to point a gun at or hand-cuff an innocent person, you are justified in doing such to one who has violated the rights of others to demand restitution. I see the same principle applying to lying: if used to protect rights and demand restitution than you are justified in using it.

  4. I agree that Greg and Joel made some valid points; however, do the ends always justify the means? There are several cases in which FBI agents encouraged, funded, and assisted materially to domestic terrorists who may or may not have ever followed through on their thoughts without that material help. That smacks of entrapment. Is it really morally correct to lie to catch someone in a lie? I think not. D&C 10:28 lays it out pretty clearly, and I think trying to rationalize other actions is stepping onto the slippery slope.

    I’ve thought for a long time that law enforcement is out of control. Condoning lies is only one of the reasons we are becoming a police state. Shouldn’t we hold those who enforce the law to the same standards as those they are there to protect? Are they above the law because they uphold it?

    America has become a nation of depravity, lies, and immorality. Those in authority are part of the problem.

  5. “While we may be at a greater risk of having potential murderers and worse on the streets, advocating for complete honesty in law enforcement would likely save more souls.”

    I agree. And more than just saving souls, I think another benefit of this might be to restore some respectability to our system of justice in the eyes of the citizenry. Our system does not deserve the respect of its people when individuals are prosecuted for lying to police, but police are rewarded for lying to individuals. This is one of many reasons why people increasingly view police more as an occupying force than a means of ensuring order.

    Good article.

  6. Citing both D&C 10:25 and 2 Nephi 28:8,9 in the same article is brilliantly instructive.
    Allowing agents of the government to lie under any circumstance is completely unacceptable. How many millions of Americans have died because of unnecessary wars that the US got into based on lies told by the government? How many millions of non-Americans have been killed by because of the same lies?

  7. All politicians lie and nowadays people don’t even expect them to be truthful. Why any Mormon votes for anybody is beyond me. The whole system is based on the lie that taxation, which is unquestionably theft, is somehow transformed into a thing called a “common good”. Every politician supports theft(taxation) so any vote cast is voting for(actively supporting) lying and stealing.

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