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Is it moral to lie to an enemy?

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Jonny Glat
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I understand that Rand holds that lying is a lack of integrity and honesty and in the end only handicaps yourself. She argues that lying is an attempt to cheat reality by manipulating others and actually raises the individuals you lied to above yourself. In essence, you lie to someone which makes you their slave, until and unless you choose to admit your lie.

I completely understand that lying is not viable, however I'm perplexed as to whether this is true for enemies.

for example:

A robber breaks the lock on your front door. You grab your pistol from a safe in your closet, which you bought with your own money and have a valid license for, and point it at the robber as he pushes into the bedroom.

The robber says, "that isn't even loaded". Let's assume he's right. That you didn't have time to scramble through your desk in another room for the bullets. You step closer, tighten your grip, and cock the pistol hammer back, then say, "yes it is loaded. Get out of I'll kill you."

By Rand's ethics, you would be immoral to lie to the robber, even though in this situation I maintain that it seems 100% plausible and viable to lie on account of your self defense. The robber may back off and leave, believing your lie.

Thoughts?

Correct me if I'm wrong but I feel that Rand would reply that if a Man is going to abdicate himself from reality and use force against me, I'm permitted to lie (a form of fraud/force)

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First and foremost, welcome to the forums!

Second, yes, it is absolutely moral to lie in emergencies. When you're in an emergency, your goal is to get out of the emergency. When someone is using force against you, your moral principles, value-judgments, and reason in general don't really work as they do in normal situations, and you just have to escape the emergency. Therefore, you should lie to get out of emergencies if necessary. Furthermore, lying is not always dishonest, even when you're not in an emergency. On pages 275-276 of OPAR, Leonard Peikoff explains that if your honesty becomes a tool for people to meet their immoral ends, then you should absolutely lie. These situations include when someone might kill you (as per your example), or when someone is snooping around and trying to get personal information from you, etc.

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By Rand's ethics, you would be immoral to lie to the robber, even though in this situation I maintain that it seems 100% plausible and viable to lie on account of your self defense.

This is a misconception of two interrelated aspects of Rand's ethics here: agent-relativity and contextuality. What does this mean?

The approach of traditional morality is that values are either intrinsic or subjective. Either it is good to do one particular thing because it is good in itself ("good" as an absolute attribute of some thing or action or choice), or else there is no absolute good, everything is just subjective. If Rand says lying is immoral, then it must be intrinsically wrong to do, wrong it itself, apart from its effects on the actors involved. But the agent-relative approach Rand takes is that rightness or wrongness is an aspect of reality in relation to man. The goal of values are to advance our lives, so a value considered apart from its relation to the moral agent fails to fulfill that function. We can't evaluate something as being good or bad apart from its full impact on all facets of that person’s long-range well-being.

So this brings up the aspect of context. Nothing is right or wrong in a vacuum, because there is no such thing as reality in a vacuum. There is always context, meaning the particulars of a specific situation, a background. Things are interrelated with this background, and so the background conditions our understanding of the facts involved. So to ask "is X right or wrong" is to ask "in the context of this particular situation, is it good or bad for me to do X?" The reference to the surroundings of the situation is necessary to preserve context, and the "for me" is necessary to preserve its effects on the acting moral agent. In this way, what the good is dependent upon its effects on you (agent-relative), can differ from person to person, situation to situation (contextual), and within those constraints can still be absolute and mind-independent (objective.)

So when we read the section in Atlas Shrugged or The Virtue of Selfishness where Rand is talking about honesty and considering it as a virtue, she is in other words considering it as a general strategy for long-term success in life, not as some kind of out of context dictum or commandment. The specific application of each of the generalized goods and virtues is unique to each person, and thus it's up to each individual to make decisions based on the unique context of knowledge he has in the varied particular circumstances and situations oh his life. Fooling some person in that instance can save your life, so would definitely be moral. The demands of honesty are for practical, selfish reasons, they don't apply in absolutely all imaginable circumstances regardless of their consequences. So in emergencies, we have different context. The point is that in general, faking reality and trying to deceive people is not a good strategy. There is the above section of Peikoff's OPAR where this is explained. There is also Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics chapter 4, a section on "Special Cases" and a subsection on "Responding to Force" p. 94.

So you're right in suspecting that Rand would say that it wouldn't make sense to be morally required to tell the truth to person threatening you with physical force, and actually has written on that topic. I know there was some incident with some American POWs who were punished by the Army after being forced to denounce the US for some North Korean propaganda films, which Rand wrote about (I'm just too lazy to look anything up atm.)

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This is a misconception of two interrelated aspects of Rand's ethics here: agent-relativity and contextuality. What does this mean?

The approach of traditional morality is that values are either intrinsic or subjective. Either it is good to do one particular thing because it is good in itself ("good" as an absolute attribute of some thing or action or choice), or else there is no absolute good, everything is just subjective. If Rand says lying is immoral, then it must be intrinsically wrong to do, wrong it itself, apart from its effects on the actors involved. But the agent-relative approach Rand takes is that rightness or wrongness is an aspect of reality in relation to man. The goal of values are to advance our lives, so a value considered apart from its relation to the moral agent fails to fulfill that function. We can't evaluate something as being good or bad apart from its full impact on all facets of that person’s long-range well-being.

So this brings up the aspect of context. Nothing is right or wrong in a vacuum, because there is no such thing as reality in a vacuum. There is always context, meaning the particulars of a specific situation, a background. Things are interrelated with this background, and so the background conditions our understanding of the facts involved. So to ask "is X right or wrong" is to ask "in the context of this particular situation, is it good or bad for me to do X?" The reference to the surroundings of the situation is necessary to preserve context, and the "for me" is necessary to preserve its effects on the acting moral agent. In this way, what the good is dependent upon its effects on you (agent-relative), can differ from person to person, situation to situation (contextual), and within those constraints can still be absolute and mind-independent (objective.)

So when we read the section in Atlas Shrugged or The Virtue of Selfishness where Rand is talking about honesty and considering it as a virtue, she is in other words considering it as a general strategy for long-term success in life, not as some kind of out of context dictum or commandment. The specific application of each of the generalized goods and virtues is unique to each person, and thus it's up to each individual to make decisions based on the unique context of knowledge he has in the varied particular circumstances and situations oh his life. Fooling some person in that instance can save your life, so would definitely be moral. The demands of honesty are for practical, selfish reasons, they don't apply in absolutely all imaginable circumstances regardless of their consequences. So in emergencies, we have different context. The point is that in general, faking reality and trying to deceive people is not a good strategy. There is the above section of Peikoff's OPAR where this is explained. There is also Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics chapter 4, a section on "Special Cases" and a subsection on "Responding to Force" p. 94.

So you're right in suspecting that Rand would say that it wouldn't make sense to be morally required to tell the truth to person threatening you with physical force, and actually has written on that topic. I know there was some incident with some American POWs who were punished by the Army after being forced to denounce the US for some North Korean propaganda films, which Rand wrote about (I'm just too lazy to look anything up atm.)

Thanks for the in depth response especially about the discussion on intrinsic ethics vs. contextual/ Man-centered

ethics. It helped me a great deal.

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  • 2 months later...

The secondary problem with lying to the robber isn't one of morality, but of slavery. You become his slave, chained to the need for him to believe your lie, and to continue to believe it until your emergency situation is resolved. His belief in your lie creates your ability to defend yourself on the course that you have chosen.

The best system is to learn to never rely on a lie. Lies are fragile and flimsy, and require more work to nurture and grow than many alternative paths. In truth, the only people you can successfully lie to are those who trust your word--which, seem the people you'd want to lie to the least.

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The secondary problem with lying to the robber isn't one of morality, but of slavery. You become his slave, chained to the need for him to believe your lie, and to continue to believe it until your emergency situation is resolved. His belief in your lie creates your ability to defend yourself on the course that you have chosen.

The best system is to learn to never rely on a lie. Lies are fragile and flimsy, and require more work to nurture and grow than many alternative paths. In truth, the only people you can successfully lie to are those who trust your word--which, seem the people you'd want to lie to the least.

This is not correct. Lying to a robber (someone violating your rights) does not make one a slave to them. Quite the contrary. It's a form, a moral form, of self-defense, cognitive or intellectual self-defense (using words to deceive in self-defense), a defense against the "enslavement" that the aggressor is attempting.

Just what is your view on physical self-defense? That it too is a form of self-enslavement to an aggressor?

If one has a right to life then one has a right to self-defense, self-defense by any means necessary, including lying, to avoid enslavement.

Edited by Trebor
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But it's not self-defense; it's a reliance of them believing a lie.

If one was to assault the robber, then they'd have attempted to defend themselves physically, or if they tried to reason with the robber, then they'd have defended themselves in a moralistic fashion, or even fleeing would have been a viable option.

Instead, they've chained themselves to a lie, hoping to be believed.

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  • 2 months later...

This is a misconception of two interrelated aspects of Rand's ethics here: agent-relativity and contextuality. What does this mean?

The approach of traditional morality is that values are either intrinsic or subjective. Either it is good to do one particular thing because it is good in itself ("good" as an absolute attribute of some thing or action or choice), or else there is no absolute good, everything is just subjective. If Rand says lying is immoral, then it must be intrinsically wrong to do, wrong it itself, apart from its effects on the actors involved. But the agent-relative approach Rand takes is that rightness or wrongness is an aspect of reality in relation to man. The goal of values are to advance our lives, so a value considered apart from its relation to the moral agent fails to fulfill that function. We can't evaluate something as being good or bad apart from its full impact on all facets of that person’s long-range well-being.

So this brings up the aspect of context. Nothing is right or wrong in a vacuum, because there is no such thing as reality in a vacuum. There is always context, meaning the particulars of a specific situation, a background. Things are interrelated with this background, and so the background conditions our understanding of the facts involved. So to ask "is X right or wrong" is to ask "in the context of this particular situation, is it good or bad for me to do X?" The reference to the surroundings of the situation is necessary to preserve context, and the "for me" is necessary to preserve its effects on the acting moral agent. In this way, what the good is dependent upon its effects on you (agent-relative), can differ from person to person, situation to situation (contextual), and within those constraints can still be absolute and mind-independent (objective.)

So when we read the section in Atlas Shrugged or The Virtue of Selfishness where Rand is talking about honesty and considering it as a virtue, she is in other words considering it as a general strategy for long-term success in life, not as some kind of out of context dictum or commandment. The specific application of each of the generalized goods and virtues is unique to each person, and thus it's up to each individual to make decisions based on the unique context of knowledge he has in the varied particular circumstances and situations oh his life. Fooling some person in that instance can save your life, so would definitely be moral. The demands of honesty are for practical, selfish reasons, they don't apply in absolutely all imaginable circumstances regardless of their consequences. So in emergencies, we have different context. The point is that in general, faking reality and trying to deceive people is not a good strategy. There is the above section of Peikoff's OPAR where this is explained. There is also Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics chapter 4, a section on "Special Cases" and a subsection on "Responding to Force" p. 94.

So you're right in suspecting that Rand would say that it wouldn't make sense to be morally required to tell the truth to person threatening you with physical force, and actually has written on that topic. I know there was some incident with some American POWs who were punished by the Army after being forced to denounce the US for some North Korean propaganda films, which Rand wrote about (I'm just too lazy to look anything up atm.)

This is a great question and yours is, by far, the best answer.

That said, I think it points to a bigger issue that ObjectivistMathematician glossed over when he replied that:

Second, yes, it is absolutely moral to lie in emergencies. When you're in an emergency, your goal is to get out of the emergency. When someone is using force against you, your moral principles, value-judgments, and reason in general don't really work as they do in normal situations, and you just have to escape the emergency. Therefore, you should lie to get out of emergencies if necessary. Furthermore, lying is not always dishonest, even when you're not in an emergency. On pages 275-276 of OPAR, Leonard Peikoff explains that if your honesty becomes a tool for people to meet their immoral ends, then you should absolutely lie. These situations include when someone might kill you (as per your example), or when someone is snooping around and trying to get personal information from you, etc.

If the circumstances in which someone is using our honesty to meet their immoral ends constitutes an emergency then most of life constitutes an emergency. Just think about all the government forms you must fill out to facilitate taxation, etc.

And in most of these situations, lying is not going to be the best strategy. If the question is can lying ever be moral, I think we can invent situations in which it is. But these tend to be very exceptional situations.

(As an aside, Tara Smith took the position that lying was always wrong on the grounds that any denial of reality, even a feigned one under duress, was toxic.)

But this leads to a more general question: what is the moral response to an immoral world? To what extent is tolerance the appropriate answer?

Edited by hernan
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(As an aside, Tara Smith took the position that lying was always wrong on the grounds that any denial of reality, even a feigned one under duress, was toxic.)
Do you have a reference? This is such a radical position for an Objectivist to take that I think you've misunderstood her.
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Do you have a reference? This is such a radical position for an Objectivist to take that I think you've misunderstood her.

It was in her book Viable Values (which, in general, I think is quite good). I can't cite the page because I load out my copy.

But my recollection is that it was not an offhand remark that might be dismissed, it was an element of her larger moral argument against theft, etc.

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According to the index of Viable Values, lying is discussed at length on pp 166-167 and 170-173. Herein she only discusses the impropriety of lying under normal circumstances, and does not mention the case where a thug has a gun to your head and demands to know where your daughter is.

Turning to "Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics" also by Tara Smith, pages 94-100 she endorses lying to someone who is using force against you.

It is permissible to lie to bank robbers, burglars, kidnappers and their ilk. A person stands under no obligation to divulge his knowledge to an inquiring Nazi. In such cases the person who lies is not attempting to gain a value... Rather he is acting rationally to protect a value under attack. Indeed when one person demands what is not his by threatening force (the Nazi asking "Are you hinding any Jews in here?" or the gun-brandishing intruder demanding "your money or your life," for instance), to respond truthfully would implicitly accept the aggressor's insinuation that he is entitled to what he demands. In such cases, as long as he thinks he can do so safely, the victim should misrepresent the relevant information in order to portect the threatened values. These lies would be justified in the same way that action in self defense is.

[i typed that out so it may have minor errors in it.] I personally would go so far as to say that by this reasoning there are cases where lying is not only permissible, but it is the only moral course of action.

In other words, I can understand why you might think Dr. Smith said it was _never_ OK to lie, because Viable Values addresses only a normal context. But the fact is, when considering other contexts, Dr. Smith gets the right answer there too. The next paragraph after the one I quoted discusses the importance of remembering context when dealing with questions like this.

Edit: Put the Tara Smith quote in a quote tag, and added the sentence at the end of the following paragraph.

Edited by Steve D'Ippolito
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I believe, hernan, after a quick look at Viable Values, that you are equivocating between "dishonesty" and "lying." In some contexts, one can lie and yet be perfectly honest - true to reality.

I was going to say more, but Steve D'Ippolito has basically said what I was going to say [well, maybe not exactly the same thing].

[One should always be honest, but in being honest, one may properly lie in certain contexts. One would be lying, but one would be honest because honesty is about being true to reality, all of reality. If someone is acting to violate one's rights, in being true to one's rights, one may well need to lie.]

Edited by Trebor
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Steve and Trebor (and softwareNerd), I am happy to be corrected on Tara Smiths's claims about lying, though I am curious as to the distinction between dishonesty and lying. (How is lying ever true to reality?)

But I must point out that this is a digression from my larger point which did not rest on the parenthetical aside to which softwareNerd had replied.

I am much more interested in the larger question I raised: what is the moral response to an immoral world? To what extent is tolerance the appropriate answer?

My own assertion, and here I suspect that I am diverging from Rand, is that the morality of my choice is not a straightforward function of the morality of your choice as ObjectivistMathematician had quoted Peikoff.

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(How is lying ever true to reality?)

Honesty (Lexicon):

"Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others." Galt's Speech

In reality, one has a right to one's life and therefore a right to self-defense. If one is confronted with someone initiating force in violation of one's (or other's) rights, one is perfectly moral to use force, even deadly force, in self-defense. One is being true to reality, specifically one is being true to the fact that one does in fact have rights and that someone acting to violate one's rights is wrong - they are not offering you a value, and your self-defense is in defense of a value. One is protecting rights.

Lying in such a context, to protect one's values against an initiator of force, is not an attempt to defraud someone of a value, but to protect a value.

The distinction is the same as that between the initiation of the use of force and the use of force in self-defense. It would be a strange code of morality that held that using force, including deadly force, in self-defense is moral, but lying in self-defense is immoral.

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Honesty (Lexicon):

"Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others." Galt's Speech

In reality, one has a right to one's life and therefore a right to self-defense. If one is confronted with someone initiating force in violation of one's (or other's) rights, one is perfectly moral to use force, even deadly force, in self-defense. One is being true to reality, specifically one is being true to the fact that one does in fact have rights and that someone acting to violate one's rights is wrong - they are not offering you a value, and your self-defense is in defense of a value. One is protecting rights.

Lying in such a context, to protect one's values against an initiator of force, is not an attempt to defraud someone of a value, but to protect a value.

The distinction is the same as that between the initiation of the use of force and the use of force in self-defense. It would be a strange code of morality that held that using force, including deadly force, in self-defense is moral, but lying in self-defense is immoral.

It's a worthy distinction, in theory, but one that deserves further consideration given the human condition.

Let me ask directly: what is the morality of lying to avoid taxes?

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It's a worthy distinction, in theory, but one that deserves further consideration given the human condition.

Let me ask directly: what is the morality of lying to avoid taxes?

It is illegal to advise someone to break the law, so I can't answer that directly, in the sense of saying that one should lie to avoid taxes. That said, one could make a case that it is moral to lie through one's teeth to the IRS. Moral? Yes. Legal? No.

Edited by Trebor
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It is illegal to advise someone to break the law, so I can't answer that directly, in the sense of saying that one should lie to avoid taxes. That said, one could make a case that it is moral to lie through one's teeth to the IRS. Moral? Yes. Legal? No.

Well, all right, obviously I'm not seeking to entrap anyone. I'm happy to read between the lines.

Here is my argument: it is generally unwise to mess with tax authorities. It's unwise and therefore immoral because they are only too happy to destroy you. It is moral, not immoral, to pay a ransom if you are reasonably confident that the ransom paid will achieve it's end. (Not always a safe assumption with criminals but generally safe with government taxes.)

This is, I think, not an isolated example. Can we generalize from this? I think so.

Which brings us back to my claim:

My own assertion, and here I suspect that I am diverging from Rand, is that the morality of my choice is not a straightforward function of the morality of your choice as ObjectivistMathematician had quoted Peikoff.

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Yes, I agree. There are two different issues or aspects of morality involved. So, yes, one has the moral right to lie to protect oneself against anyone acting to violate one's rights, but one has to consider the context. This would be the same were one in Nazi Germany, to use the common example, and hiding some Jews in one's attic (the Frank family for example). One has the moral right to hide them, but it is dangerous.

Edited by Trebor
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I'm not sure if this deserves a new thread, but thinking further on this question: what is an enemy?

As I noted above, I think it is a mistake to dump the taxman and a extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer into the same bucket for the simple reason that one can be fairly confident that the taxman can be bought off at the demanded ransom, not so the typical extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer.

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I don't understand why you think that they are different, in the relevant sense. Sure, pay your taxes ("the taxman can be bought off at the demanded ransom") or comply with the extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer (the extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer can be bought off at their demanded price).

What's the relevant difference? Why not "dump the taxman and a extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer into the same bucket"?

An enemy is someone who is actively out to destroy one's life or values, including one's pursuit of one's values.

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I don't understand why you think that they are different, in the relevant sense. Sure, pay your taxes ("the taxman can be bought off at the demanded ransom") or comply with the extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer (the extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer can be bought off at their demanded price).

That is precisely the difference I had in mind. Knowing that person A can be bought off but person B might come back for more as soon as he is paid is a very important piece of information. Person A is a trustworthy extortionist and person B is not. That ought to impact any rational response.

What's the relevant difference? Why not "dump the taxman and a extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer into the same bucket"?

An enemy is someone who is actively out to destroy one's life or values, including one's pursuit of one's values.

"Out to destroy" is a very poorly worded definition. The taxman and the extortionist are, broadly speaking, out to make an easy buck at your expense. The destruction of your live or values is incidental to this objective. (Of course, there are more extreme instances in history but let's stick with the typical.)

There is a related question: is it ethical to treat someone as an enemy without telling them? Of course I don't mean that anyone who qualifies as an enemy deserves the time of day, much less a formal declaration of war, but if you are in the habit of keeping your enemy list secret then how do your friends know they are not on it?

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"Trustworthy extortionist"? Isn't that an oxymoron?

"[O]ut to make an easy buck at your expense" is a form of destruction of your life and values, incidental or not. The taxman, the extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer are acting by choice, not by accident, against your life and values. The man who claims a right to take anything from you by initiating force, in principles claims the right to take everything from you.

Is it ethical to treat someone as a enemy without telling them? Why do you ask? The answer, in my view, would depend on the context.

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"Trustworthy extortionist"? Isn't that an oxymoron?

Do you disagree that the difference I cited previously exists? It is a fact of reality that one can (generally) trust the taxman to go away after he is paid what he demands but that a criminal extortionist cannot be so trusted. (Perhaps organized crime would fall somewhere in between.)

"[O]ut to make an easy buck at your expense" is a form of destruction of your life and values, incidental or not. The taxman, the extortionist/kidnapper/blackmailer are acting by choice, not by accident, against your life and values. The man who claims a right to take anything from you by initiating force, in principles claims the right to take everything from you.

Well, sure, but you generally cannot control that. The only question is how to respond to it. And whether the two situations deserve the same response.

My claim is that one can make a calculated decision in the case of the taxman to pay the ransom and avoid the threatened harm.

Is it ethical to treat someone as a enemy without telling them? Why do you ask? The answer, in my view, would depend on the context.

What are the criteria for deciding? I cited one such, the risk that friends would question your fidelity and integrity to them.

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