Why Hard Cases Make Bad Law: A Satire

Former World War II German soldier complains: “Why does everyone think it’s okay to lie to me?”

Hölst Schüler, a former private in the Nazi German army who was tasked for two weeks during the war with going from house to house to ask people whether they were hiding Jews, reported recently that he “felt very hurt” that everyone seemed to think it was “perfectly okay” to lie to him.

“I mean, the war has been over for decades,” said Mr. Schüler, “but people still lie to me constantly. And they feel very self-righteous about doing it too!  What’s up with that?”

“I asked my son the other day whether he had made any Jewish friends at school, and he said, ‘No way dad,’ even though his best friend Murray Finkelbaum was standing ten yards away.  I see them play together every day.  It was an innocent question — really,” complained Mr. Schüler.

“My wife lies to me about going to the store; my business partners lie to me about the business; my friends lie to me about whether they own televisions, whether they watched the World Cup Game, everything.  I can’t get a straight answer out of anybody.”

“What really hurts about all this,” said Mr. Schüler, “is that all these people say they’re against lying.  ‘Oh sure, we accept the Ten Commandments,’ they say.  But the moment they hear I used to be a World War II German soldier, all that ‘commandment’ stuff goes right out the window,” said Mr. Schüler, as he tried to open his car door only to realize that his teenage son had lied to him about which set of keys opened his new Volkswagen Jedda. “Besides, it’s not clear to me, even if you could lie in the very particular instance of a Nazi soldier asking whether you are hiding Jews, whether you can lie in any situation other than that one. So, okay, if you’re hiding Jews from Nazis, I suppose you might lie; but if you don’t have any Jews in your house, and you don’t have Nazis at your door, then I think you’d better just tell the truth.”

When asked by a reporter whether he realized that the question of whether you would lie if a German soldier asked if you were hiding Jews had become a classic question in philosophy classes and a frequent justification for lying, Mr. Schüler shook his head and said: “The real irony of the whole thing is that the survey was set up to show the upper brass that since lots of German citizens were hiding Jews, we should abandon our attempts to deport them.  But when we went out to ask people, they lied, or they hedged by saying things like “No, I’m not hiding Jews” or “No, I’m not hiding Jews” or they just changed the subject.  The result was we could never get an accurate count so we couldn’t prove anything.  It was tragic really.

“It leaves me wondering,” said Mr. Schüler, looking off thoughtfully into the distance. “I mean, the way things have turned out, and the way this little two-week program has turned into this epic moral question that everybody argues over, what if people had just been honest with us?”

Since investigators have never been able to identify the existence of such a program, however, all of Mr. Schüler’s friends and neighbors have always assumed he has been lying about it.  “I know that’s what I would do,” said Schüler’s neighbor Hans Frei.  “I’d lie about having been involved in it; I’d lie about what the program was about; I’d lie about having been in the Germany military period.  I mean, let’s be honest, everyone lies.” 

Unfortunately investigators have also never been able to establish the fact that any German soldiers were ever given the task of knocking on doors and simply asking “Are you hiding any Jews?”  “We never operated that way,” said former Oberstleutnant Heinrich Müllerstürm.  “We just kicked doors down.  I mean, what sort of idiot would knock on the door and just ask ‘Are you hiding Jews’? It’s ridiculous.” 

When asked why the case had become so notorious among moral philosophers over the years, Müllerstürm speculated, “I’ve always assumed it’s because a lot of these professors lie all the time.  When we used to ask them during the war what resources they required, they would always overstate their needs by at least 15%.”

“Take that Heidegger fellow, Rector over at the University of Freiburg; you couldn’t get a straight answer out of him,” recalled Müllerstürm angrily.  “If he told you all the Jews were gone from the university, sure; but if he told you they needed more test tubes in the lab or more books for the library, you knew he was lying.”

Asked whether he was aware of a project to survey German families to find out whether they were hiding Jews in order to convince government officials of the unpopularity of their policies, Müllerstürm promptly changed the subject, saying: “Did I mention how much I like that tie?  Can I ask you where you got it?”

At last report, Hölst Schüler, that former German private, was lost somewhere in Hamburg after an elderly couple lied to him about how to get to the local hospital.  “He had no right to that information,” announced long-time resident Andreas Kappelmann standing beside his wife Anna.  “I used to think lying was wrong, and I would never do it.  But then one day a university professor asked me whether I would lie if a Nazi knocked on my door and asked whether I was hiding Jews.  I realized then that lying was actually a good thing to do when people have no right to the information.”

When asked whether he would lie to a reporter, Kappelmann replied: “No, of course not.  I would never lie to you.  And by the way, did I mention how much I like your tie?”


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 38 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.