Tuesday, February 22, 2011


After following the wide discussion about the morality of lying all over the Catholic blogosphere last week, I continue to be amazed by the similarities between this conversation and the various conversations about the morality of torture.

One dissimilar element is that the lying debate has been comparatively civil. I guess it makes sense that people will be more likely to come to verbal blows about torture than lying.

Otherwise, though, there have been plenty of similarities, and one of the most glaring is that although it would seem that those who believe there ought to be exceptions from the general prohibition against lying would have the burden of proving that position, the argument has tended to spin about in the other direction; that is, those who think that what Mark Shea has tagged "Lying for Jesus" is morally correct are tending to insist that the side that believes that all lying is immoral must prove that they are right.

To this end, the proponents of the idea that some sort of lying must either be "not-lying" and therefore morally acceptable or else that sometimes lying is a morally good option have created a hypothetical involving World War II, Christians hiding Jews, and Nazis at the door. The hypothetical goes like this: You answer your door to Nazis demanding to know if Jews are being hidden inside. Do you stick to moral purity, refuse to lie, and give the Jews away either by telling the Nazis where they are or by your guilty silence? Or do you lie heroically and save the day?

All objections to this hypothetical are dismissed. When, for instance, I pointed out that as a redhead with a redhead's tendency to blush scarlet under duress I am, for the most part, a terrible liar, and would endanger my hypothetical Jewish friends in such a scenario more by lying than by keeping my pie-hole shut, and when others offered similar objections, we were scolded by the person raising the hypothetical for not taking the hypothetical seriously.

Now, my criticism of this particular tactic should not be taken as a criticism of all those who are discussing this issue rationally and calmly, even those who hold the position that either lying may sometimes be moral or the definition of lying needs to be amended to allow a sort of "not-lying" which looks exactly like lying but is permitted in some circumstances. The reason I criticize it is because it is a tactic that has cropped up in the torture debate, the abortion debate, the debate over the morality of the use of nuclear weapons, and now the debate over the morality of lying.

In the torture debate, the hypothetical was the Ticking Time Bomb--would debaters really refuse to sully their consciences with a little light torture to save the world, or a city, or at least somebody? In the abortion debate, questioners ask: would pro-lifers really let a mother die rather than abort an embryo the size of a grain of rice? In the nuclear weapons debate, the question is: would you really have condemned all those American soldiers to die by forcing them to invade Japan rather than authorize the use of a couple of atomic weapons? And now: would you really condemn your Jewish neighbors to death rather than tell a little fib to the Nazi at the door?


And if you object that the TTB scenario isn't real, that pro-lifers care about the mother's life as well as the child's, that regardless of the what-ifs it was morally wrong to use nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that no Nazi worth his salt was going to take the word of a nervous homeowner that no, seriously, there weren't any Jewish people within the house, your objections are brushed aside as irrelevant, with that one little word: really?

As in: Did God really say you couldn't eat any of the fruit in this Garden? Oh, just the one tree? Really? He said you'd die if you ate it? He didn't mention that you'd become like gods, knowing good and evil? Really?

We should never base our moral conduct on what we might hypothetically do in a dire, life-or death situation, because the sad truth is that most of us, perhaps all of us, would be tempted to commit sins in such situations, and might actually go on to commit those sins. But that many of us would sin is not somehow proof that the action contemplated is actually morally good; on the contrary, it is a reminder of the ubiquity of sin since the Tempter's first employment of that ironic "really?" in the Garden when he tricked our first parents into disobeying the law of God.



melanie said...

The conversation I had with my dad was very interesting. What he said was that unlike "killing a person" which if happens in self defense takes on a different quality "inherently" than murder, lying can never be "not lying" no matter under what circumstances we lie. It's always and forever saying something false which St, Thomas argues is against the nature of speech, the intent if which is to communicate truth. St. Thomas gives a more in depth study of this in a whole treatise on lying. The significance of this seems to be that lying is in fact a graver evil than we allow. He also argues somewhere that deception in
one form or another, is really at the root of all sin. So, I
think it bears contemplating whether or not we have given
enough weight to the sin of lying. The nature of which
cannot change even if circumstances seem to call for it.

Such as a "just war scenario". Now that doesn't mean
that, under duress, any of one us might lie to save
someone ourselves or someone else. But, I offer this hypothetical, imagine the role that lying played in the sexual abuse scandal by priests. Many levels and forms of deception were at work in that atrocity. It seems dangerous to me to try to find ways, even that of "protecting others" to "justify" lying. Again, the nature of lying stays always evil, unlike "killing" which when done for self defense purposes, is actually not " murder".
This has changed my own thoughts on this philosophical problem, but it doesn't mean I would not act in a self-preservationist manner if under duress, that's something I just don't know. But I think we all could use to examine the sin of lying more closely, and maybe take it quite a bit more seriously. I know this is basically what you, Red, have been saying all along.

melanie said...

One more thing, he further argued that since a "just war" theory cannot really apply, or at least, justify the act of lying to achieve a good end, you are simply left with an "good end as a result of corrupt means" argument to defend the action, or more commonly known as "the ends justify the means" But we Catholics knoe this is not true. We take as a basic tenet of our faith that the ends do not ever "justify" the means, more specifically, that a good ends cannot justify a corrupt means. Since lying is always a corruption, it follows that it should not, morally, be used even to bring about a "good" end.

melanie said...

Sorry about typos and weird spacing. I blame the IPad! :-)

Archaeology cat said...

Great post

Lindsay said...

Honest question: How is this sort of legalism different from that which you criticize so vehemently in your defense of Santa Claus? Because, I agree with you on Santa, but I can't see how the rationalization is really so different from a moral sense.

Lindsay said...

Just to clarify a bit, I think the question is the same in this debate and the torture one. No one is saying lying is okay, the question is "what constitutes a lie?" Does telling your children a big fat man in a red suit brings the presents constitute a lie? If so, its wrong. There's no way around the fact, though, that it is deception on some level, yk? Those who don't think sting operations are morally wrong are questioning how a lie is defined as well, not whether it is sinful.

The Catholics I respect who don't agree with your position on torture don't necessarily say torture is okay, they just take exception with your definition of torture.

Honestly, I haven't landed firmly on a particular side on some of these things. I'm simply pointing out where your position doesn't quite convince me, yk? I must admit, I found Peter Kreeft's article on the subject very convincing.

romishgraffiti said...

No one is saying lying is okay

Well, yes they are. I've heard many commentors say that lying ok when a higher good is at stake. I'm not aware of anyone disputing that Rahab lied, I am very aware of people invoking the Rahab story to say, "See? Lying is not always wrong!"

And for another similarity Red, I'd point out that we are getting lots of appeals to finer detail. "The Church has never defined waterboarding as torture!" If the Church did define it so, would that end the debate? Nope, because what is next seems inevitable: "Well, yes the Church defines waterboarding as torture, but there is waterboarding techniques like the one's our enemies use, and then there is waterboarding like us good guys do it, and since the Church hasn't specifically taught on the various techniques..." you get the idea. The appeal to finer detail: the bad gift that keeps on giving.

Lindsay said...

Yes, but the question still remains, is a literal "untruth" (like telling your kids Santa is bringing presents or Nazi soldiers that you haven't seen any Jews or your wife that she isn't getting fat) a lie according to its moral definition?

Some have suggested that they should not have literally told lies but only made evasive statements so that they could avoid speaking a literal untruth. I would argue that if deception is their goal, there is no difference whether one speaks a literal untruth or not.

Others have argued that they simply don't have the authority to do this whereas government officials do. The catechism doesn't make that differentiation, and I can't see why that moral definition should be different for Live Action than for government officials such as policemen or intelligence officers.

And truly, there are great theological and moral minds making good arguments on both sides of this issue, which leads me to believe it is one that will only be settled in heaven.

However, as a long-time reader of Erin's, my first thought was that her defense that the "Santa deception" (;-))is not REALLY a lie was the first thing I thought of when reading this post. I agree with her about Santa, but to me, the rationalization that all "untruths" are not "lies" seems inconsistent with this post. Though, I'm sure she can explain why it isn't.:)

The Cottage Child said...

I don't know that I'd call this line of reasoning legalism, but maybe it's an incomplete observation of honesty (though I'm very sensitive to Lindsay's point about finer detail being a good part of rationalization - still chewing). If we measure The Truth as if it is merely a list of facts read off a page, then yes, Lila Rose was wrong, period. She was not being truthful. But in consideration of the other 2 elements of honesty - necessity and kindness, then is the exposure of the greater deception (an apparent institutional hazard at PP) an issue of service to a greater good (I really despise that phrase)?

I keep coming back to Maximilian Kolbe... I've just started studying him so correct as necessary...he gave his life, sacrificially, so that another might not die. We know his motive and is faith, so even though he technically chose death for himself, we don't consider him a case of willful suicide (do we?). His intention mattered. Please don't misunderstand me, I'm not attempting to compare Kolbe's sacrifice in any way to Rose's actions (furthermore, I have no idea of her actual intentions) but I am asking, all else being equal and the sanctity of life being paramount, how can we see one effort, in all it's nuance, as pure, but condemn the other without the same consideration of intent?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I am unambiguously certain that in some circumstances I would indeed lie, and confident that would be the right thing to do. On the other hand, I would have some regret that it was necessary to lie.

I agree though that a hypothetical circumstance provides, at best, a fuzzy justification for that specific hypothetical circumstance. Analogy to any other (perhaps more likely or more real) situation is NOT a good yardstick for any sort of justification.

Lying is a sin. Sometimes we may find a higher good in committing this sin, or an unfortunate necessity. Such exceptions must stand on their own merits, if any, not on the fact that in some other, hypothetical, situation, it would be justified. The burden of proof is on the one choosing to lie, not on those who observe that it is a lie.

Hector said...

Re: I am unambiguously certain that in some circumstances I would indeed lie, and confident that would be the right thing to do. On the other hand, I would have some regret that it was necessary to lie.


I am, also, unambiguously certain that I would lie to the Nazis, and I would be unambiguously confident that it was the right thing to do. And all the priests and bishops in the world, and every Pope back to St. Peter, could not convince me to disobey my conscience.

Re: Lying is a sin. Sometimes we may find a higher good in committing this sin, or an unfortunate necessity

Yup. This is the approach that, for example, the Eastern churches take with divorce and remarriage: it's a sin, but sometimes it's the lesser sin, and so it should be tolerated. I'd say the same goes for lying, though in that case of course the purported sinfullness is much, much lesser.

I would say that the decent thing to do would be to lie to the Nazis, that our natural intuitions lead us to that conclusion, and that if your church tells you otherwise, then something must be wrong or mistaken with your church.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

That said Hector, we should perhaps acknowledge that with the best of intentions, perhaps unavoidably necessary intentions, we have opened Pandora's box. As we learned from the 1960s, or at least I did, when someone with good moral intentions assumes that it is all right to commit a sin for the greater good, someone with more venal intentions, or less good judgement, will take that as license for all kinds of mayhem. Then someone else with no morals or judgement at all will start wailing about their "rights."

So we have to be careful. Nevertheless, I would lie to the Nazis. I would lie to Javert. I would lie to Osama bin Laden. I would lie to Torquemada.