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My 'Final' Offer: A Moral Critique of Bluff in Negotiations

David Hagopian

Consider, if you will, three scenarios.

Scenario One:

The sun is beating down on you as you stand in the car lot listening to the salesman drone on about the virtues of his wares. You have been at it for over an hour as almost every salesmen on the lot has tried to close the deal -- to no avail. All you want is the best price on that new family mini-van and all you have heard so far is the party line. Though the salesman offers the van at $18,000, you know that his cost on the van was only $14,000 and that, given current economic constraints, he would accept any offer above $15,000. You offer $15,500. He counters with $16,500.

Though the van is a steal at $16,500, and though you are perfectly willing to pay $16,500 for it, you grab your spouse and storm off the lot saying "My final offer, pal, is $15,500. Take it or leave it."

Query: Have you crossed the line?

Scenario Two:

You are selling your three thousand square foot home which overlooks the Puget Sound on the Washington coast. Comparable homes have sold for $200,000 and your asking price is $210,000.

Lo and behold who comes to your door but yuppies straight from Southern California who want to get out of the rat race and enjoy more "quality time" with their children. Armed with nothing but their distorted (read: inflated) notions about real estate values (occasioned perhaps by smog inhalation), it is obvious to you that this couple doesn't really know what comparable homes in the Pacific Northwest have sold for in recent months.

You know this is going to be a memorable day since opportunities like these only come along once in a life time. As you hear the undeniable sound of cash registers ringing in your head, you inform the inquirers that your asking price is $500,000; you also remind them that a comparable home in Southern California would cost more than $1,000,000. They counter by offering $450,000 thinking that they are getting a great deal. You put on the age-old hesitant seller act, you know, the "I-am-really-making-a-big-mistake" routine. After a brief pause, your reluctance hits a perfectly timed crescendo at which point you hesitantly blurt out -- "Okay, but I get the curtains."

Query: Have you crossed the line?

Scenario Three:

You are an attorney for a day (perish the thought!). Your client is a Christian college which desires to relocate to another state, purchase several contiguous parcels, and build a modern complex which will become a leading institution of Christian higher education.

Only one glitch: before your negotiations ever get underway, you discover for the first time that the parcels your client has targeted are owned by numerous card-carrying members of Atheists United. Were they to learn the true identity of your client, they would either refuse to sell or would price their properties such that the transaction would be cost-prohibitive. As long as they never learn the true identity of your client, however, they will gleefully sign the dotted line.

Given this information, you counsel your client to adopt the Disneyworld land purchase strategy[1] by forming a number of different holding companies (each with a different name) and having those different companies purchase the property over a protracted period of time so that the owners will never even suspect that a single purchaser orchestrated the purchase.

Just as the negotiations get under way for the final parcel, the attorney representing the owners leans over the table, and as he prepares to sign the purchase and sale agreement, he blurts out, "Boy, I am sure glad that you don't represent one of those good-for-nothing Christian colleges." You lean over as he signs the agreement and assure the poor old fool (in the Biblical sense, of course) by saying: "You know you're right, some of those Christian colleges out there really are good for nothing!"

Query: Have you crossed the line?

While most Christians may never represent the interests of others in a professional capacity, most, at one time or another, have bargained or negotiated with others to secure a result.[2] If you found yourself in one or more of these three scenarios, would you have opted for one of the bluffing tactics noted above or would you have created your own poker-faced option? In other words, would you ever do or say something or fail to do or say something to cause or allow another to be misled so that you could secure a favorable result either for yourself or for a client? To step back a bit, and phrase the question in more general terms, may Christians -- including Christian professionals who represent clients -- ever bluff to secure a given result?

First Things First

A Bluff is a Bluff

Most people, of course, associate the word "bluff" with poker or a host of other games whereby a player with an inferior hand but with a lot of bravado can win by simply causing his opponent to drop his superior hand. Though the poker player is only playing a game, he shares one thing in common with those who bluff in "real life" situations: each bluffer says or does something or fails to say or do something so as either to cause or to allow others to believe something that does not accord with reality. The question before us, then, is whether Christians may ever cause or, by their actions, allow others to believe something that does not accord with reality when it is within their power to correct such misimpressions.

A Word about the Word

The question before us presents us with a tremendous challenge, to be sure. But, as with the rest of the challenges we face in life, we must take this one to Scripture, which is the supreme standard for all areas of life -- that is, for all that we believe and all that we do. To say that Scripture is the standard for all areas of life, however, is not to say that Scripture speaks of everything explicitly. Scripture, for example, never explicitly discusses the actual value of a mini-van in twentieth century America, methods of appraising oceanfront property in the Pacific Northwest, or the technicalities of the attorney-client relationship. But Scripture does provide us with general principles which, when properly interpreted, apply to every situation we face in life -- without exception -- from economic value to appraisal methods to the limits of servicing clients.

Knowing Biblical principles, though, isn't enough. In order for Biblical principles to do us any good, we must also know a little bit about the various situations we face. And, we must also know a thing or two about ourselves. In other words, we need to see that a full-orbed Biblical ethic calls us, as ethical decision-makers, to apply Biblical principles to the various situations we face.

The question we must always keep before us, then, is "What does Scripture say to me in light of the situation I am facing?"[3 ] Well, what does Scripture have to say to us about bluffing? In this brief study, we will examine relevant Biblical principles regarding our general obligation to speak the truth. Then, we will apply those Biblical principles to the case of bluffing and examine the various rationales Christians offer to justify bluffing to see if bluffing is a morally permissible option for the believer.

Truly, Truly

We have defined bluffing as (1) doing or saying something that doesn't accord with reality (the truth) or (2) failing to do or say something that accords with reality so as either to cause or to allow others to be misled as to the truth. Given this definition, it would behoove us to examine what Scripture has to say about truth, including the different ways in which Scripture uses the word "truth," our general obligation to utter the truth, and under what circumstances, if any, we may ever deceive others or allow them to be deceived.

A Look at the Trees

In order to discover what God says about our obligation to speak the truth, we must turn to Scripture which quite plainly informs us that we are generally obligated to speak the truth and to avoid lies.

At least two lines of Biblical proof lead to the undeniable conclusion that we are generally commanded to speak the truth. First, we are to imitate God who speaks the truth. Scripture teaches us that God is truth in the metaphysical sense (Jn. 14:6), that all of His ways are truthful in the ethical sense (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 111:7; and Is. 25:1), and that He speaks the truth and cannot lie (Rom. 3:4; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18) in the epistemological sense. Although the character of God is a tall bill to live up to, Scripture nonetheless commands us to do so; put simply, we are to imitate God. (Matt. 5:48; Eph. 5:1). Just as we are to be holy for God is holy, so we are to be truthful and speak the truth because God is truthful and speaks the truth. Second, Scripture explicitly commands us to speak the truth (Zech. 8:16; Eph. 4:25).

Just as we are commanded to speak the truth, so we are forbidden to lie. This is true for at least two reasons as well. First, we are commanded to resist Satan (Js. 4:7) who is the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). Since lies emanate from Satan's very character, and since we are to resist Satan's wiles, it follows that we are to avoid lies. Second, Scripture rather explicitly commands us to lay aside falsehood (Eph. 4:25) and to refrain from lying (Ex. 20:16; 23:1; 23:7; Col. 3:9). Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that lying is characteristic of those who are depraved (Ps. 58:3; Rom. 1:25; II Cor. 4:14), and that liars will be consigned to hell (Rev. 21:27; Rev. 22:15). From Joseph's brothers (Gen. 37:31-35) to Potiphar's wife (Gen. 39:13-18) to Pharaoh (Ex. 9:28) to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:3), we learn how lies destroy others, inflict pain, and result in punishment.

A Look at the Trees

Having focused briefly on the forest, we must now take a quick look at the trees. No doubt we are generally commanded to speak the truth and to avoid lies, but are we always obligated to reveal the truth to others? Does Scripture, in other words, ever permit us to utter a falsehood or conceal the truth if doing so may create false impressions? Only after we answer this all-important question, will we be in a position to examine the legitimacy of bluffing and the various rationales offered to justify it. Consequently, let's turn to the spectrum of views regarding when, if ever, we may utter a falsehood or conceal the truth from others.[4]
The Absolutist View
At one end of the spectrum is the view that believers may never utter falsehood or conceal the truth. This obligation, we are told, is absolute and admits of no exceptions whatsoever. According to this view, we cannot do or say anything that will prevent the truth from being known and must do everything within our power to remedy falsehoods and perpetuate the truth. Central to the absolutist view is the idea that when we speak, we must make sure that what we say is always true. If this view is correct, bluffing, as we have defined it, is impermissible to the extent that it involves uttering falsehoods to or concealing the truth from others.
The Almost-Absolutist View
While some believers exclaim that we may never utter falsehoods or conceal the truth, others claim that Biblical injunctions to speak the truth and to avoid lies are close to being absolute. These believers reject the literalism inherent in the absolutist view and consequently qualify the absolute requirement by allowing for exceptions for such things as playing games which require the players to put on airs (e.g. poker), using rhetorical devices (e.g. hyperbole, satire, irony, fantasy), playing practical jokes, enjoying surprises (e.g. surprise parties), making false comedic claims (e.g. "The funniest thing happened to me..."),acting, and faking a move in sports. Aside from such narrow exceptions, however, the almost-absolutist view proclaims that we must always affirm and reveal the truth.[5]

This view, therefore, would condemn bluffs to the extent that they involve affirming a falsehood (affirmative misrepresentation) or concealing the truth (nondisclosure). If however, one could successfully characterize bluffing as falling within one of the noted exceptions -- for example, if bluffing were analogous to poker or hyperbolic speech -- then bluffing might be permissible after all.[6]

The Half-and-Half View
While both the absolutist and almost-absolutist views hold that believers may neither utter a falsehood nor conceal the truth, the half-and-half view holds that while we may not utter falsehoods (except as noted above), we may, under some circumstances, conceal the truth from others, that is, from those who are not entitled to it. Of course, if the half-and-half view is correct, bluffing would be permissible not only if it could be characterized as falling under one of the noted exceptions above, but also if it simply involves concealing the truth from others who have no rightful claim to the truth.
The Biblical View
As illustrated by the chart below, we have seen that some believers claim that we are forbidden to utter falsehoods or conceal the truth while others claim that we may not utter falsehoods but may conceal the truth from those not entitled to it. Nonetheless, others claim that under very narrow circumstances, believers may both utter falsehoods and conceal the truth from those not entitled to it. We shall refer to this view as "the Biblical view," because, as I will argue, this is the view that Scripture teaches, when Scripture is rightly understood.
VIEW: games, rhetorical devices, etc.? affirmative, misrepresentations? non-disclosure?
Absolutist No No No
Almost-Absolutist Yes No No
Half-and-Half Yes No Yes
Biblical Yes Yes Yes

According to the Biblical view, the ninth commandment (prohibition of bearing false witness) is a general commandment subject only to the exceptions laid down by the Lawgiver Himself. In this way, the ninth commandment is analogous to the sixth commandment which generally prohibits killing, but allows for three exceptions: capital punishment, personal self-defense, [7] and national self-defense (just war). In the same way, while the ninth commandment generally forbids affirmative misrepresentations and nondisclosure, it allows for both under very narrow circumstances: to preserve and protect human life from unjust aggressors. As we shall see below, the Biblical view does not require the believer to choose between the "lesser of evils" any more than exercising legitimate self-defense involves the "lesser of evils." In neither situation does the believer sin, provided his behavior falls under the umbrella of a legitimate exception to the general rule.[8]

Though an exhaustive survey of the textual support for the Biblical view is beyond the ambit of this study, one need only think of the following exemplars: (1) the Hebrew midwives who were specifically blessed by God for not only allowing Hebrew male babies to live contrary to the king's edict, but who thereafter lied to Pharaoh by telling him that they could not kill the boys who were born because they were born too fast (Ex. 1:15-20); (2) Elisha who deceived the army of Syria that sought to capture and kill him by leading them -- with the help of God -- right into the hands of the King of Israel who released them after letting them know who was boss (II Kg. 6:8-23); (3) Rahab who is twice commended in the New Testament (Heb. 11:31; Js. 2:25) for deceiving the king's representatives by hiding Israelite spies, saying that she did not know where they were (when she knew exactly where they were), and helping them escape (Josh. 2:1-24); (4) Joshua, the military strategist, who deceived the city of Ai by means of an ambush (Josh. 8:3-29); (5) Samuel who, in order to save his own life, was instructed by God Himself to mislead others by creating the false impression that he was only offering sacrifices when, in fact, he was anointing the king-elect of Israel (I Sam. 16:1-5); (6) Jael who was praised as "the most blessed of women" after she deceptively promised to protect the wicked tyrant Sisera and then gave him a splitting headache by driving a peg through his temple (Judg. 4-5); (7) Michal, David's wife, who put a fake body in David's bed after David fled for his life from Saul's henchmen (I Sam. 19:12-17); (8) David himself who feigned insanity to deceive the King of Gath (I Sam. 21:10-15; 22:1); and (9) Jeremiah who was commanded by King Zedekiah to lie so that he would not die (Jer. 38:24-28).

When John Murray, the chief proponent of what I have termed the half-and-half view, surveys most of these Biblical exemplars, he concludes that in no instance did anyone utter a falsehood and thereafter receive divine blessing indicative of divine approval. According to Murray, the only lesson to be gleaned from these exemplars is that we are entitled to conceal the truth from those who are not entitled to it. Murray's analysis is questionable for at least three reasons.[9]

First, Murray appears to read his conclusion into some of the texts he interprets, as when he tries to link the divine approval showered on the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:20) with their disobedience alone (Ex. 1:17) when they were clearly blessed for both their disobedience and their justifiable deception (Ex. 1:19). Much the same can be said with respect to his analysis of Rahab's disobedience and consequent deception.

Second, Murray's distinction between affirmative misrepresentation and nondisclosure -- as illustrated by his analysis of Samuel's God-instructed half-truth -- is untenable. Quite frankly, his distinction resembles medieval scholasticism by focusing on form (the mode of communication) as opposed to content (the substance of the communication). In layman's terms, both affirmative misrepresentation and nondisclosure involve communication which can be calculated to deceive. Nondisclosure, in fact, can be and often is every bit as deceptive as an affirmative misrepresentation, as was the case with Samuel's intentional half-truth. Sometimes, in fact, nondisclosure can even be more deceptive than an affirmative misrepresentation.

Third, until Murray provides criteria for distinguishing those who are entitled to the truth from those who are not, his distinction, taken at face value, may result in the exception swallowing the rule. Though Murray is guided by a passionate and admirable desire to safeguard truth, the half-and-half view he articulates could ironically permit nondisclosure in all negotiation encounters provided that one could stretch the elastic label "not entitled to the truth" to cover his counterpart. By contrast, the Biblical view is much more narrowly circumscribed: it would allow for affirmative misrepresentations or nondisclosure only to protect human life from unjust aggression.[10]

Determining the Relevant Benchmark

Before analyzing the various rationales offered to justify bluffing, we must determine the relevant benchmark for determining whether an affirmative statement or a given nondisclosure culpably crosses the line between right and wrong. The benchmark should consist of two prongs. First, it must consist of a subjective focus which, in turn, has a dual focus: (a) whether the actor intends to deceive the recipient, and (b) whether the recipient will, in fact, be deceived. Second, it should consist of an objective focus: whether that which is said or concealed accords with reality and is logically consistent.

When we combine the subjective and objective focal points, the benchmark that emerges is as follows: Only if we intend to communicate anything (verbally or nonverbally) about reality, must we be sure (1) that we communicate that which accords with reality and that which is internally consistent (objectively true), and (2) that we do not intend to deceive the recipient and that we do not actually deceive the recipient (subjectively true). This benchmark helps to explain our general obligation to speak the truth and to avoid lies. It also explains why games, rhetorical devices, practical jokes, surprises, and fake moves in sports are morally permissible since nobody thereby intends to communicate anything about reality.

Baiting the Bluff

So far we have seen that the absolutist view does not allow for any exceptions but that the almost-absolutist, half-and-half, and Biblical views all allow for games, rhetorical devices, and the other noted exceptions. The almost-absolutist view is limited to such exceptions and would condemn bluffing to the extent that it involves affirmative misrepresentations or nondisclosure. The half-and-half view would allow for nondisclosure from those not entitled to the truth, but would condemn affirmative misrepresentations (provided that none of the noted exceptions apply). Finally, the Biblical view would allow for the noted exceptions as well as for affirmative misrepresentation to and nondisclosure from unjust aggressors.

The distinctions between the four views are important because they largely determine under what circumstances a bluff would be permissible. Were a police negotiation team, for example, to negotiate with a kidnapper who is about to kill his hostages, the Biblical view would allow the negotiators the full panoply of options while the absolutist, almost-absolutist, and half-and-half views would not.[11] Since most negotiation encounters, however, do not involve protecting life from unjust aggressors, we will hereafter focus on the exceptions the latter three views hold in common: games, rhetorical devices, and the rest. But since these noted exceptions provide some of the more sophisticated rationales which have been offered to justify bluffing, we should first dispense with some rather unsophisticated rationales.

Off the Deep End: More Simple Rationales

The Bluff is Harmless
Believe it or not, some have held to the belief that bluffing is morally permissible because it is harmless. By what standard? The bottom line is that what seems right isn't necessarily right. "There is a way which seems right to a man," the book of Proverbs twice warns us, "but its end is the way of death" (Prov. 14:12; 16:25).
The Bluff is Successful
Some try to justify bluffing because it works. Unfortunately those who try to justify bluffing by appealing to its success have been duped by a utilitarian definition of truth which is foreign to Scripture. Utilitarians to the contrary, the moral permissibility of an act does not solely depend on its consequences; that is, the ends don't justify the means. Paul condemned those who accused him of adopting the view that we may "do evil that good may come" (Rom. 3:8). Maybe it's time more Christians imitated Paul in this respect (I Cor. 11:1).
Most People Bluff
So what? Popularity does not determine the moral propriety of a given act. Were popularity to distinguish right from wrong, we should throw Scripture away and adopt the Gallup Poll as our authority for all of faith and practice. As Christians we need to realize that the voice of the people is not the voice of God. Maybe if more Christians obeyed the voice of God in Scripture, the trend toward moral compromise would be reversed.
The Bible Offers Little Guidance
Sure we should obey Scripture, claims one Christian attorney, Jeff Van Duzer, but when it comes to the conflict between personal ethics and professional loyalties, "[t]he Bible offers very little guidance . . . ."[12] Since Scripture is our standard for all of life and not just the source of warm fuzzies on Sunday mornings, then believers have an obligation to study Scripture diligently so that they need not be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth (II Tim. 2:15). Contrary to Van Duzer's assertion, Scripture is profitable for "teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness" so "that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (II Tim. 3:16-17). Thus, those who claim that Scripture offers little guidance deny that Scripture equips us for every good work. Van Duzer's problem is not that Scripture is unclear; Van Duzer's real problem is that Scripture is all too clear.
God Leads Us Moment-by-Moment
After building his house of bluffing on the quicksand of speculation, Van Duzer concludes that his failure to find black and white on this issue has taught him two important lessons:
First, my failure to find black and white lines along my journey has reminded me that God leads not so much by a code of ethics, which I can refer to as if he were absent, but rather by a personal moment-by-moment involvement in my life. Second, it has taught me humility. . . . and . . . the depths of God's grace.[13]
This rationale seriously errs on at least two scores. First, Van Duzer misunderstands the transcendence and immanence of God. Scripture teaches us that God is transcendent (that He is the covenant Lord, creator of the universe, the One who is not dependent upon his creation). But it also teaches us that He is immanent (that He is Immanuel -- God with us). Just as Van Duzer errs with respect to the nature of God by failing to see that God is both transcendent and immanent, so he also errs with respect to the nature of God's Word which reflects the very character of God. Instead of taking into account the normative, situational, and existential perspectives in Christian ethics, Van Duzer sadly ignores the normative perspective altogether (i.e., what Scripture requires of us -- apparently because he doesn't think that Scripture offers any concrete guidance on this issue) and focuses exclusively on the existential perspective (how God works in us moment-by-moment). Unfortunately for Van Duzer, though, the choice is not between a code of ethics out there and God's leading in here; the transcendent and immanent God of Christianity leads us moment-by-moment precisely by His code of ethics found in Scripture.

Second, we should not be confused by the false humility inherent in Van Duzer's view. There is nothing humble about neglecting Scripture and trying to resolve ethical dilemmas on our own. Quite the opposite is true. A believer who is genuinely humble and who truly appreciates the depths of God's grace submits to God as He has revealed Himself in His Word.

Scripture Sanctions the Bluff
Some may attempt to argue that Proverbs 20:14 sanctions bluffing: "`Bad, bad,' says the buyer; but when he goes his way, then he boasts."

Far from sanctioning the bluff, this verse, when interpreted in light of the Book of Proverbs as a whole, provides no justification for bluffing at all. Those who conclude that Proverbs 20:14 sanctions bluffing commit the naturalistic fallacy by leaping from what is described to what is prescribed without providing adequate Biblical warrant in support of their leap. The Book of Proverbs often describes an activity in one place, and goes on to condemn it elsewhere.

Take, for example, the issue of bribery. Proverbs 17:8 describes a bribe as "a charm in the sight of its owner" which prospers him wherever he turns.[14] Yet, just because a bribe may be a charm and may, in fact, lead to apparent prosperity, it does not follow that Christians may justifiably take bribes. In no uncertain terms, Proverbs 17 later condemns bribes (Pr. 17:23; see also, 15:27 and 29:4).

What is true regarding bribes is equally true regarding bluffs. One of the most frequent themes in Proverbs is truth. Often Proverbs commands us to speak the truth and to avoid lies. To be sure, buyers often feign disappointment to reduce a purchase price, and many such buyers thereafter boast; but Scripture nowhere condones or approves of such conduct. After all, there is a difference between describing the way things are and prescribing a code of conduct. Those who appeal to Proverbs 20:14 need to sit up and take notice of this all-important distinction.

The Upper Crust: More Sophisticated Rationales

Having examined some of the less sophisticated rationales Christians have offered to justify bluffing, we must also briefly turn our attention to some of the more sophisticated rationales which have been offered in defense of bluffing: bluffing as a game, bluffing as hyperbole, and bluffing as advocacy.
Bluffing as a Game
Many games require their participants to bluff, the most notable of which is poker. As we observed at the outset of this study, a poker player with an inferior hand may actually win the hand by bluffing, that is, by convincing his opponent with a better hand to fold. When it comes to games like poker, then, it is not always as important what hand you have as how you play the hand you have.

Seen in this light, it is not all too surprising that some have tried to justify bluffing by comparing it to poker or other games where bluffing is commonplace and is not to be taken at face value. Van Duzer has compared the typical negotiation encounter between trained attorneys to a poker match:

In many ways, legal negotiations resemble a poker game. Negotiations are generally clearly demarcated as such; each lawyer knows that the game is underway. Statements made and impressions created are not to be taken at face value.[15]
In all fairness, Van Duzer proceeds to note some of the weaknesses of the game analogy:
The analogy is not exact, however: The accepted "rules" of negotiating are much less clear than poker rules, and not everyone will recognize the game. When one moves from the paradigm of two lawyers negotiating on behalf of sophisticated clients down the scale toward one-sided negotiations between a lawyer and the un- or under-represented individual, reciprocal awareness of the game and its rules diminishes substantially. Thus, the negotiating ploy is not deceptive per se; its potential to deceive will depend upon the setting and approach.[16]
The game analogy is particularly appealing because it is sensitive to the fact that ethical principles are not applied in a vacuum. The game analogy appropriately takes varying situations into account; it acknowledges that actions cannot be evaluated outside of their proper context. Yet that is also where its weaknesses begin. For while we must carefully apply our ethical principles to the various situations we encounter, we cannot allow our situation to dictate our ethical principles. Unfortunately, however, that is what the game analogy encourages. Even worse, the game analogy may very well lead its proponents down the infamous slippery slope since it justifies any falsity as long as such falsity can be construed to be an indispensable part of a game. O what a tangled web we weave . . . .

The game analogy also errs by focusing exclusively on whether the recipient is actually deceived by a given bluff. Basically, what Van Duzer is saying is that as long as the recipient is not actually deceived, the bluff is morally acceptable. But does this reasoning stand up to scrutiny? On Van Duzer's reasoning, an outright lie would also be justified, provided that the recipient sees through it. As opposed to Van Duzer's errant standard, the relevant benchmark for determining whether a given statement involves culpable deception should focus on both subjective and objective considerations. [17 ] What makes an outright lie wrong is the fact that its perpetrator ostensibly intends to communicate something about reality and proceeds not to do so.

True, games do not violate the relevant benchmark because game-playing occurs in an artificial environment where the rules are understood and arbitrarily agreed to by each player before the game gets underway. In other words, game-players, by definition, do not intend to communicate anything about reality. But can the same really be said with respect to negotiators? Don't negotiators use bluffs specifically because they want (bluffer's intent) their counterparts to rely to their detriment upon them (recipient's reaction)? In the end, the game analogy breaks down precisely where it is most needed. Hence, negotiating in "real life" is not really a game at all.

Bluffing as Hyperbole
Some may suggest that bluffing is akin to various rhetorical devices, and in particular, to hyperbolic speech whereby a speaker resorts to an extravagant exaggeration which he does not intend to be taken at face value.[18] When a mother claims, for example, that she has told her child a million times to clean up his room, she does not intend to suggest that she has literally told him a million times; and if her son is linguistically adept enough, he will never be deceived by the exaggeration. Thus, hyperbolic speech passes the test since, by definition, it is never to be taken at face value. The exaggeration can usually be separated from the deeper truth it communicates.

This is not so with bluffing. Unlike hyperbolic speech, the typical bluff is used precisely because the bluffer intends for it to be taken at face value. Otherwise, why would he use it? And a bluff could only be taken at face value if it did not consist of an extravagant exaggeration -- in which case it is not really hyperbolic at all. Thus, the hyperbole analogy has gone the way of the game analogy by breaking down where it is most needed.

Bluffing as Advocacy
While Van Duzer vigorously argues that bluffing does not involve deception because its propensity to deceive will vary from situation to situation, he argues in the alternative that "[e]ven where a bluff would be deceptive, however, it may still be ethical."[19] How does Van Duzer support this claim? Allow him to explain for himself:
When I became a lawyer I took an oath to represent my clients "zealously within the bounds of the law." In representing my client, I promise (both implicitly and explicitly) to act on my client's behalf to the best of my ability.

In light of these promises, if my personal standards prevent me from using a legal negotiating ploy, I have lied to my client. . . . Indeed, I may have violated my solemn oath.

Van Duzer then attempts to support the duty an agent has toward his principal by arguing that in Scripture, slaves are to serve their non-Christian masters, citizens are to honor pagan rulers, and soldiers are to serve in oppressive armies. Thereafter, he correctly notes that "there are limits to the loyalty owed to a principal" but then mistakenly adds that "these limits cannot be determined in the abstract from Scripture."[20 ] When it comes to representing non-Christians, Van Duzer rejects (1) shunning representative occupations (because it would lead to abandoning the world) and (2) dividing our lives between the sacred and the secular (because it would lead to a dual morality). Finally, he recommends that the only "Biblical approach is to grope forward, cognizant of the inherent conflict and trusting God to use us to work out His will."[21]

Just so we are clear, Van Duzer argues (1) that a bluff, even if deceptive (i.e., even if the game analogy doesn't apply and even if bluffing violates our personal standards), is ethical because of the attorney's duty to abide by his oath to represent his clients zealously and (2) that our only option as believers is to grope forward and hope against hope that we do what God expects of us. Several difficulties plague this argument.

First, Van Duzer's use of the term "ethical" is at odds with Scripture. Bluffing may be "ethical" according to man-centered codes of legal conduct (which is Van Duzer's standard for purposes of this argument), , but it is by no means "ethical" according to the supreme standard of Holy Scripture.

Second, since what is "ethical" is to be judged by Holy Scripture, unjustified deception is never "ethical." What Van Duzer is really saying is that his duty to his client imposes a moral obligation on him to engage in deceptive bluffing. Van Duzer, though, errs grievously since we are never under a moral obligation to sin. Van Duzer's argument thus assumes that God puts us in situations where we must choose between the lesser of evils. This assumption is unfounded for three reasons. (a) The God of the Word is the God of this world. He sovereignly created and providentially governs this world in such a way that His Word and His world work in harmony together. On Van Duzer's view, God either isn't sovereign or isn't capable of providing infallible revelation to guide His people. (b) God's revelation itself provides that sin is never inevitable because God -- who is completely faithful and trustworthy -- has promised that He will always provide us with a way of escape (I Cor. 10:13). Van Duzer better start looking! (c) To suggest that we are put in situations where we must choose the lesser of evils seriously undermines the Biblical doctrine of Christ who was tempted in every way as we are tempted yet was without sin (Heb. 4:15). If we face temptations where we must choose the lesser of evils, then Christ, in order to be tempted in every way as we are tempted, must have also faced such a situation. But if Christ faced a situation where he had to choose between the lesser of evils, then Christ had to sin (contrary to Heb. 4:15); if, however, Christ did not face such a situation, then he was not tempted in every way as we are tempted (contrary to Heb. 4:15).[22]

Third, even assuming for the sake of argument that God does put us in situations where we must choose between the lesser of evils, the present case of bluffing is distinguishable because the bluffer has voluntarily put himself in the moral dilemma by undertaking an unbiblical oath or by unbiblically construing a legitimate oath to require obedience to man as opposed to God. Contrary to Van Duzer's assertions, Scripture provides very clear guidance on these issues. While oaths are not evil per se, Scripture quite clearly tells us that we may never bind ourselves to sin.[23]

Fourth, Van Duzer stumbles on his view of oaths because he stumbles on his view of the limits of an agent's obedience to principal. According to Van Duzer, "these limits cannot be determined in the abstract from Scripture." Sadly, Van Duzer's defective view of Scripture has reared its ugly head again. Van Duzer needs to stop and realize that Scripture, as God's perspicuous Word, actually has a lot to say about the limits of the obedience an agent's obedience to a principal. To begin with, Scripture informs us that we are first and foremost agents of God in this earthly realm -- ambassadors for Christ -- whose citizenship is in heaven (II Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:20). Moreover, as ambassadors for Christ, Scripture generally commands us to obey those in authority over us, and directs us to disobey such authorities only when they command us to sin (either by commission or omission) and when we have no means by which we can obey God.[24] Thus, a Christian agent may do what a non-Christian principal requests him to do except when a non-Christian principal requires him to sin and the agent has no means by which he can obey God. Furthermore, because the attorney-client relationship, for the most part, is voluntarily assumed in America, attorneys have tremendous control over whether or not they will represent a given client at the outset. Christian professionals should not represent non-Christian clients or Christian clients, for that matter, if such clients will require them to sin.

Fifth, though Van Duzer tries his best to steer clear of a dual morality, he inevitably swallows dualism whole hog by putting his client's interests above his personal standards. As R.L. Dabney pointed out over a hundred years ago, if something is wrong for the attorney to do personally, it does not become right if it's done on behalf of a client.[25] We are morally responsible for everything we do. Agents cannot sin and lay the responsibility for that sin on their principals. In the chilling words of Dabney,

Let every man rest assured that God's claims over his moral creatures are absolutely inevitable. He will not be cheated of satisfaction to his outraged law by the plea that the wrong was done professionally; and when the lawyer is suffering the righteous doom of his professional misdeeds, how will it fare with the man?[26]


God never intended the Christian life to be a grope in the dark as Van Duzer wrongly claims. Instead, we are to bask in the light of God's Word. When we reject that light, however, we consign ourselves to the darkness and futility of a godless ethic. It is no surprise, therefore, that Van Duzer feels as though he has to grope in the dark. But praise be to God who is not only the light of light but is also the Truth. And as the Truth, He personally indwells us so that we may learn to walk in the truth and speak the truth.

So the next time you find yourself on the car lot, at the front door, or across the table, pause for a moment and pray that God would lead you in His truth (Ps. 25:5) so that your "mouth will utter truth" (Prov. 8:7). For "[t]ruthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment" (Prov. 12:19).


[1] I have referred to this strategy as the "Disneyworld" strategy since the Walt Disney Company used this strategy to purchase the land required to develop Disneyworld in Florida. Of course, Walt Disney is by no means the only corporation to have used this strategy.

[2] Negotiating does not fall within the sole domain of attourneys, businessmen, or diplomats. Most of us negotiate more than we think. From deciding where to go out to lunch to which movie to rent to which child gets the car on Friday night, nogotiating is woven into our cultural fabric.

[3] A full-orbed Biblical ethic involves three perspectives: the normative (deontological) perspective, the situational (consequentialist) perspective, and the existential (personalistic) perspective. Simply put, a Biblical ethic looks at principles, problems, and people.

[4] Bu "conceal" I do not mean mere silence (which is rarely deceptive in and of itself.) Concealment and its synonym, nondisclosure, as used in this study, refer either to silence coupled with some form of behavior (expression, mannerism, etc.) or the utterance of a half-truth.

[5] The exceptions noted above do not rise to the level of culpable deception because nobody thereby intends to communicate anything about reality. See the discussion of the relevant benchmark below.

[6] We will examine these rationales below.

[7] By self-defense, I mean both defending oneself and/or others.

[8] We will counter the "lesser of evils" theory below when we examine the "Bluffing as Advocacy" rationale.

[9] Murray, Principles pp. 135-45. I offer the following criticisms of Murray's view with no slight trepidation since I consider him to be amoung the most gifted theologians of this century. Nonetheless, I am constrained to take even Murray's conclusions to the standard of Scripture to see "whether these things [are] so" (Acts. 17:11).

[10] Of course, were adherents to the half-and-half view to claim that the category of persons not entitled to the truth is limited to unjust aggressors, then the half-and-half view and the Biblical view would both permit nondisclosure to unjust aggressors. They would differ only when it comes to affirmative misrepresentations vis-a-vis unjust aggressors which the Biblical view allows while the half-and-half view does not. For an interesting debate between advocats of these respective views, see "Issue & Interchange: Are We Ever Morally Justified in Deceiving Others?" Antithesis, Vol. I, No. 3, May/June, 1990, pp. 42-46.

[11] It almost goes without saying that a crisis nogotiation team may not want to deceive a given suspect since doing so may reduce its credibility in future situations. As always, we must consider the consequences of our behavior before we launch into a given course of conduct.

[12] Jeff Van Duzer, "Personal Ethics and Professional Loyalties: A Case Study", Christian Legal Society Quarterly,, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1989, p. 14.

[13] Ibid, p. 15.

[14] Elsewhere Proverbs also explains that a bribe subdues strong wrath (Pr. 21:14).

[15] Van Duzer, p. 14.

[16] Ibid.

[17] See the discussion of the relevant benchmark above.

[18] I have not see the rationale in print anywhere. I offer it as one possible rationale for justifying the bluff.

[19] Van Duzer, p. 14.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] For a more thorough critique of the lessor of evils theory, see John Frame, Medical Ethics, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 198-), pp. 8-10.

[23] See David Hagopian, "So Help Me God: A Biblical View of Oaths", Antithesis Vol, I, No. 1, January/February, 1990, pp. 42-247.

[24] See David Hagopian, "Forgive Us Our Trespasses? A Biblical View of Civil Disobedience and Operation Rescue", Antithesis, Vol. I, No. 3, May/June, 1990, pp. 9-14, 33-39.

[25] R.L. Dabney, "Morality of the Legal Profession", Discussions, Vol. III, Philosophical, pp. 10-16.

[26] Ibid., p. 16.

David Hagopian, B.A., J.D. is an attorney with a Los Angeles-based law firm and a Senior Editor of Antithesis.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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