Friday, May 20, 2011

Good Thoughts on an Old Debate

Janet Smith writes an article in First Things that goes back to the "Is Lying Ever Justified?"debate. Here is a quote:
Can the defense of some false signification be squared with the traditional absolute prohibition of lying? A close consideration of the analogy with the use of lethal force and the taking of property should help us see that the absolute prohibition can be retained. Neither Aquinas nor the Church understands the use of lethal force in defense of innocent life to be an “exception” to the prohibition of murder. Nor does the taking or destroying of property belonging to another when necessary to avert some great evil function as an “exception” to the prohibition of theft. Murder is the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being. Theft is taking something against the reasonable will of the owner, and a reasonable owner would approve of taking property to protect important goods. Therefore, properly stated, although killing and the taking of property are sometimes morally permissible, the norms against murder and theft remain absolute, without exception. Similarly, I believe that the telling of some falsehoods and other forms of false signification are compatible with the absolute prohibition of lying.

The mistake that Aquinas makes (and those words do stick in my throat!) is that he analyzes the question of lying with a prelapsarian understanding of the purpose of signification—an understanding that presumes the innocence of man before the Fall. He does not make this same mistake in respect to the protection of life and property: He realizes that behavior in reference to human life and property is necessarily different in the postlapsarian world. Before the Fall, man has no need to use force against another, nor need he destroy another’s property (or even possess property). But after the Fall, innocent life is often threatened, and property owners are often absent or unreasonable. Thus new forms of behavior are permissible given new realities, behavior directed towards defending human life and protecting other important goods.
I found her argument quite convincing. After reading both sides of the debate I wasn't quite sure. My intuition told me that there should be cases where lies can be told morally. It just bothered me that the arguments of Aquinas that continue to be defended by many Catholics I respect never seemed like they were adequately dealt with. As a Catholic I want to think with the church and not just follow my private judgement. So I didn't want to just say the tradition is just wrong. I wanted something that takes the church's non-infallible teaching seriously. This did that well.

I had trouble finding a quote because the whole thing gets quite involved. Yet if you read the whole thing it makes a very strong case without getting too hard to follow. I was listening to Peter Kreeft say that sanctity and sanity are never in conflict. Catholicism is both. In this debate there were time I was feeling like I had to choose one or the other. This is both sane and holy.


  1. I think the problem is that, on the pro-lie side, the usual tactic was to take an abnormal case — Nazis in Holland, for example — and use the abnormal to build a case for normal policy. Abnormal cases are by definition out of the ordinary, and we can't validly routinize the extreme.

    I've written a couple of posts on the "Lies & Lila" debate; In the second, I finally had to come down against lies as a matter of policy. In extreme situations? Sometimes the best we can do is make the best decision we can under the circumstances and pray for forgiveness if it blows up in our face.

    But the culture of death "rationalizes the use of intrinsically evil methods to pursue good ends. It says to us, 'Evil x isn’t as bad as evil y,' and asks us to ignore the fact that x is still evil. It plays with definitions; it provides examples that play on our emotions; it cites Scripture out of the context of salvation history. It appears to say to us, 'Give us this ha’porth of tar, and we will save the ship,' when in fact it really says, 'All the kingdoms of the earth will be yours, if only you fall on your face and worship me' (cf. Mt 4:9)."

    Hopefully I didn't confuse the matter any further.

  2. The key question is telling an untruth always intrinsically evil? If it is then the matter is simple. You can never rationalize intrinsic evil. That is the very definition of intrinsic evil. But "evil x is not as bad as evil y" is something we do a lot. We can think of lots of examples. A policeman takes a gun away from a man in an angry rage. That is evil. It is his gun. We should respect ownership of private property. But the danger of a greater evil of murder is real so in that situation violating someone's property rights is justified.

    The question is does that ever apply to lying. St Thomas Aquinas said No. That seemed weird to me. I could just ignore that. But I have argued before that one should not ignore what the saints and doctors have said when you disagree. That is the essence of private judgement. But those who argued in favor of justifiable untruths never seemed to deal adequately with that. Even Peter Kreeft appealed only to intuition. That bothered me. Dr Janet Smith changed that.

    Now is Lila's lies may still be wrong. What bothered me most about her actions is that she was doing something we expect a police officer to do but don't really expect it from a private citizen. If she was a vice cop it would clearly be a legit sting. But she is not. She is a pro-life activist. Can a political opponent do stuff like this? Would it be OK to pose as a pimp and offer Obama an under-aged prostitute and film his reaction? Is that fair game? To me you need some credible evidence that he has used under-aged prostitutes. Absent that it is over the line.

    So what evidence did Lila have? Did she present it to the police and ask them to investigate? Or did she just uncharitably try and manipulate someone into an embarrassing situation. I don't know the answer. But I do feel that just the reality that an untruth was told does not close the case. Still moral questions are clear. We can give Lila moral guidance as to how to discern when she should be doing this.

  3. I've wondered if the "better" case can be made by distinguishing mortal versus venial sin and maintain lying is intrinsically evil.

    For example, we could say that Live Action lied and lying is a sin...but does that make it grave enough to be mortal sin? It could be argued that Live Action was venial sin at most, which would help balance out the tension on both sides.

  4. The problem is we are not to engage in even a venial sin. Venial sin is offensive to God and destructive to our soul. We should not say that to balance out tension. We should only say that if it is actually true. That is precisely what is at issue. Is it true?

    To the extent that the debate was focused on Live Action it was definitely wrong. That is some of the criticism was political. People didn't want to see Planned Parenthood lose funding and wanted to refocus the debate not on the evil of abortion but on the evil of lying. That was there and it was not good.

    Still some were not focused so much on Live Action as on the morality of ever telling an untruth. To them it seemed like another case of consequentialism similar to the torture debate. That was worth considering because I think the parallel with the torture debate fails precisely because the act is not bad enough. That is it is not intrinsically evil like torture. But what was needed was coherent moral that showed exactly why it was not intrinsically evil. Something more than a gut reaction. That is what Dr Smith has provided.