Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Truth be told

Mark Shea dives in again to the question as to whether the Live Action operatives who conduct sting operations against Planned Parenthood are exempt from the Catechism's prohibition against lying. Short answer: no.

It seems pretty clear: we are not permitted to tell deliberate lies, not even when we think we have good motives. Not every act of deception is a lie, of course, and thus not every act of deception is a sin--but when we tell someone, on purpose, something which is not true it's pretty hard to cover that under some sort of an exemption.

In the discussions about this matter, people have brought up undercover journalism and undercover police work--and even the "mystery shopper" whose purpose is to check up on customer service in a way that seemingly tricks employees. While some of these things don't necessarily involve outright lying, to the extent that any of them do they are not any more morally permissible than any other sort of lying. However, it would be necessary to scrutinize such situations rather deeply to determine whether such pretenses actually rise to the level of lies, and in fact, at least as far as police work goes, I believe that police officers must be rather careful to avoid telling the kind of outright lies that will make prosecution of the alleged criminal difficult or impossible from a legal perspective.

Most situations involving pretense also involve people who are aware that a pretense is going on. Actors, writers, and others who craft or perform fiction don't have to worry that they are lying to audiences when they pretend to be "Mr. John Smith," or when they write that Alice screamed as she entered the living room and discovered the body; viewers and readers know that the actor pretending to be Mr. Smith is not any such person, and that the account of Alice's subsequent adventures as the person unjustly suspected of murdering her Great-Aunt Hildegarde for the sake of her inheritance is not meant to be a history, but merely a pleasurable escape from reality. Even in the hypothetical "mystery shopper" case, it is quite possible that employees of the company have been told in no uncertain terms that the store employs such people, and that for their own sake they should act as though every customer is evaluating the store's customer service--as, indeed, every customer may be, though only a handful will be paid to do so.

But are Live Action's video tactics covered under these sorts of provisions? I hardly think so. The operatives who enter the abortion clinics are pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute, engaged in prostituting underage girls who will then need the clinic's services should they become pregnant. They can't enter into this deception without lying (though it is interesting to speculate as to whether, if they could do so, they would then be able to conduct their "sting" without any moral issues). They are not merely withholding the truth from those who don't deserve to have it. They are not practicing reticence, nor engaging in theatrical performance. This is not some harmless prank of the "Candid Camera" variety--and the fact that the harm meant is directed towards a palpably evil organization does not change the morality of the act of lying.

To say this is not to doubt the courage displayed by these people, nor the fact that their motive is to put a dent in the lucrative and evil abortion industry--but evil means don't become good because the people employing them are courageous or because the people they are directed against are engaging in evil; we've been over all of that in the torture debate, haven't we?

The truth is that no matter how much we might wish to believe that Live Action's tactics are morally sound, we ought to know better than that. Truth be told, abortion will only end when it is fought against with the truth--that human beings are, from the moment of conception, intrinsically worthy children of God, made in His image, and worthy of love and protection. But we can't illustrate that truth very well if we treat some of God's children as objects whose only value lies in their being tricked into revealing Planned Parenthood's evil secrets.


Geoff G. said...

This is why I love your work, Erin. Lots of people simply assume that as long as the ends are good, you can do whatever to takes to accomplish them.

One principle that the Catholic Church has always stood for, as far as I am aware, is that the ends do not justify the means. A cardinal example of this is the numerous examples of medieval churchmen (most notably St. Bernard of Clairvaux) defending Jews against forced conversion.

Rebecca in CA said...

I agree, Erin. What I'm wondering is whether the thing could have been carried out in such a way as to appear to be the pimp/prostitute yet ask the questions in a theoretical way..."what could you do for me if I were etc." I would think that could have been carried off. I would take just a little issue with your last sentence, about treating some of God's children as objects--I do think it would have been perfectly morally justifiable to "trick" the employee without lying and that doesn't necessarily mean the employee is being treated as an object. The object is to discover and reveal something true. I agree however that means which are inherently wrong may never be used, regardless of ends, and deliberate lying is one of those means which are not permissible.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Wow, I hadn't even thought of that part of it. Great post!

The Sicilian said...

Oh, I just laughed out loud. No sooner did I finish reading your post than I said to myself, as I clicked the comment link, "This is why I love her blog." A second later, I read the 1st line of Geoff G.'s comment. No matter what side we're on individually given any issue, I appreciate your honesty and clarity.

Red Cardigan said...

Gosh, thanks, all! :)

Rebecca, I think to me the difference is that a trick of some kind can be done without disrespecting the person--that is, that you could pose hypotheticals as you suggest and the person could have the chance to respond in a moral way.

It may be hair-splitting, but in the endless torture debates I realized that there's a lot that hinges on just how we see the other person. Someone pointed out that the Live Action videos actually entice the employees into sin (e.g., to saying that sure, they can help underage sex workers get abortions). We shouldn't ever be comfortable with tactics that do that, in my book.

Hector said...

Wow. Well, not for the first time, I disagree with Erin. Lila Rose is a courageous young woman who deserves credit for exposing Planned Parenthood, which is an organization I have total contempt for. What she did was no worse than a cop pretending to be a prostitute or a drug buyer. Sometimes you've got to fight fire with fire, and you're never going to bring down an organization like Planned Parenthood except through publicly exposing them to embarassment, shame, and vilification, until decent people leave the room when they hear that So-and-so works for Planned Parenthood.


Hector said...

My suspicion is that this kind of smart, sophisticated undercover work is going to do more to destroy Planned Parenthood and its works than any number of sidewalk protests. Give Live Action ten years, and (I hope) Planned Parenthood will be filing for bankruptcy.

Go, Lila!

Paul said...

1) Consider the scriptural account given in 1 Kings 3. When Solomon says: "Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other", should we conclude that Solomon is an immoral liar, or should we conclude that Solomon was wise and understanding?

2) "They are not merely withholding the truth from those who don't deserve to have it."

Why do you say that? On what grounds? If someone asks me a question about what I would do in particular circumstances, and wants to know my answer, do I have a right to know whether the question is based on real circumstances, or hypothetical circumstances?

Rebecca in CA said...

I understand your point--and this is probably hair-splitting, but the whole subject reminds me a little bit of the subject of birth control. ABC as a means of avoiding conception is inherently wrong, whereas the use of knowledge of cycles to avoid conception is not. However, in either case, someone could have a disordered end, such as frivolous reasons for avoiding a child, or could have mixed up in their intentions, a disrespect of the other person involved, and those factors could also make the action wrong. And the fact is that ABC tends towards disrespect of the other person. Nevertheless the disorder inherent in ABC is different from the other disorders possibly involved. So I guess I would say that while tricking someone without directly lying could sometimes be morally licit, there could be other aspects involved which would make the action sinful or imperfect.

MightyMighty said...

I think that undercover police officers do have a moral license to lie in order to bring down drug dealers, Bernie Madoff-types, child molesters, etc. Are we really going to say that a cop can't perform an undercover sting, probably the only way to catch an internet prowler? In those situations, it's pretty hard to only imply, but not directly say that you are the ideal victim. Online, how does one imply that one is eight-years-old, or in second grade, without having to lie? "My mommy says I shouldn't give people our address," is a lie coming from a 35-year-old man. Saying that he likes unicorns and ponies is also a lie. So we should take the moral high road, and try not to mind too much about the kids who are not getting protected from perps we can't put in jail?

I think that Lila Rose is the equivalent of the police in a country that refuses to hold abortion clinics to at least the same standard of tattoo parlors. She is trying to protect the victims of sexual abuse who routinely have their abuse, often by family members or teachers, covered up with an abortion and then contraception. Can we really think that white lies are not permissible in an effort to save rape victims from a federally funded abortuary.

Hector said...

Mighty Mighty,


I would suspect that Lila Rose sleeps perfectly well at night, and that her conscience troubles her not a whit. Regardless of whatever Erin, the Catechism, or anyone else might say.

Red Cardigan said...

Paul, there are many things that happen in the Old Testament that aren't exactly moral guidelines for today. Besides, do we know for a fact that Solomon was lying? He issued a command--a command that, as king, he had the full authority to retract, as he did. And as far as the Live Action operatives--they went out of their way to enter PP and present themselves as people they were not, making many untrue statements; clearly, this is not of the same order as denying the presence of Jews to the Nazis sweeping the neighborhood (to use a frequently cited example).

Hector, I want Planned Parenthood to fall as much as anybody--probably more than some, since I oppose all artificial contraception as well as abortion. But the ends don't justify the means; if I learned anything in the torture debates, I learned that. You're using the same reasoning that says, "We must stop terrorism, so torturing detainees must be moral." It's not--and neither is lying.

MightyMighty, nobody has a moral license to lie. No circumstances can make an objectively evil act into a good one. To the extent that police officers engage in deception, then, it must be determined whether they are actually lying or not before we consider the morality of their actions. This doesn't mean that I or anyone else can assess their culpability (or Lila Rose's, for that matter). But as a Christian I am extremely uncomfortable with the notion that lying must sometimes be okay, when our moral theology is clear that it isn't.

If you want to argue that Live Action isn't at all engaged in lying, then make that argument; I'm sympathetic to it. But if you tell me it's okay for *them* to lie because they're doing good, then I must reject that as the consequentialism it is.

eulogos said...

I would want to know what great moral theologians such as St. Alphonsus Liguori thought in cases like this.
Not only undercover policeman lie; lying to suspects is legal and a standard interrogation practice. I really dislike lying as an interrogation practice (ie your partner has already confessed, we have the crime on videotape etc)
as it seems so sleazy-ie it doesn't meet MY gut moral test.
I am not sure I feel that way about undercover actions.

My feeling about these PP workers is that they imagine that their services will help the underage workers etc, ie get them meds for sexually transmitted diseases, "take care of" unwanted pregnancies early on, get them contraception, and that they want to help these women even though they can't remove them from the situation they find themselves in. Also they believe they are properly engaging in medical confidentially about sexual matters. Of course I disagree that these services are "help" but it does seem as if people who are indeed doing what PP wants them to do, are then put in a position where they are fired for public relations purposes by PP, which replaces them with another low level person and goes on making money. I wish there were some way of getting at the folks who are really raking in the dough at PP!

So, does anyone know what St. Alphonsus said about spying and undercover operations with respect to lying?

Susan Peterson

Paul said...

Red Cardigan: "there are many things that happen in the Old Testament that aren't exactly moral guidelines for today."

Yes there are. However, for the incident I pointed out (1 Kings 3), Scripture says: "When all Israel heard the judgment the king had given, they were in awe of him, because they saw that the king had in him the wisdom of God for giving judgment." If in fact (following your line of argument where it would seem to lead) Solomon was an immoral liar, this would mean that we pretty much couldn't believe anything whatsoever in the Old Testament. Rather than think that, it would be better to simply conclude that there was an error somewhere in your line of argument.

Red Cardigan: "do we know for a fact that Solomon was lying?"

The mother was evidently entirely and totally convinced that Solomon meant what he said ("in the anguish she felt for it")! But I really don't think that Solomon ever meant it. So, there is a falsehood there. I believe that Solomon was hiding the fact that he was only speaking hypothetically, so as to figure out from the womens' reactions which one was the real mother. In terms of Catholic teaching, this did not amount to a lie (which necessarily requires the intention to deceive, and not necessarily the intention to hide information).

Red Cardigan said...

Paul, I don't feel qualified to sit in judgment on King Solomon's inner intentions. Besides, as you say, hiding information isn't the same as lying; and as I said, giving a command, as a king, that he had the full authority to counteract a moment later isn't lying, either. It's not as if he said falsely, "Ladies, I've already cut the child in half." Giving an order, even one he didn't intend to have carried out, is not, in my mind, a lie; you were the one who raised the example, so I went along with it.

Is Live Action merely hiding information? No. They are presenting themselves as people they are not and then telling specific lies as part of what they are doing. They do not have King Solomon's authority over the people they are speaking to, either. The situations are completely different.

Rebecca in CA said...

Solomon did not lie, because his sentence was not in the indicative. He was ordering an action. It was a deception, not a lie.

Paul said...

Red Cardigan: "Besides, as you say, hiding information isn't the same as lying."

Exactly. Solomon didn't lie. He hid the information that he was proposing a hypothetical solution, to give the impression that he was a ruthless ruler. The false mother was concerned for her own safety, so she went along with what Solomon seemed to be saying. The true mother was in anguish for her child, and was willing to contradict this (apparently) ruthless ruler, if it would save her child. Neither of the women asked Solomon if he was genuinely proposing to kill the child.

Which is why what Live Action did is, on the face of it at least, defensible: they hid from Planned Parenthood that they were setting up a hypothetical situation, and posed what seemed to be a question based on real circumstance.

Anonymous said...

Since no underage prostitutes were produced for PP, it is hard to say what the employees intended.

If I were in such a situation, in any medical setting, I might well appear to go along with the "pimp" to get access to the girls and get them to social services. Lying to a pimp to rescue children forced into prostitution doesn't seem like a crime or a sin. And in fact, I wouldn't be lying if I "agreed" to "help out" the girls, no matter how the "pimp" interpreted it. Being vague isn't a sin, is it?

Just saying, we don't know the ultimate outcome that might have occurred had it been a real pimp with real child prostitutes. So we might want to hold our judgment on this particular matter.


Anonymous said...

Also - mystery or secret shoppers do not lie. They simply go on a shopping trip and report back about what happened.

Not at all like police undercover work, where an identity is assumed.
Has the Church outlawed undercover police work???

Rebecca in CA said...

No, being vague is not a sin!!! It's important to distinguish. With lying, you are using words directly against their purpose. With ambiguity, you are allowing a person to take words in a way which you do not intend. It is only a sin to do that when the person has a right to know the truth. In the situation which you describe, there is no right to the truth and deception is justifiable.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Although I agree with Hector on the underlying principles, I have nothing but contempt for Lila Rose, and a good deal of respect for Planned Parenthood. For one thing, if abortion were totally removed from the equation, Planned Parenthood still has plenty of valuable work to do.

It does seem to me that Planned Parenthood, which used to rely primarily on volunteers when my mother was one (while giving birth four times, with no abortions) is now over-reliant on the fad for "business models" among non-profits. Thus, they look for their best revenue source, and on a strictly business basis, find that they can pump up revenues by pushing abortions, rather than, by making an individual option available.

LFK said...

Hate to bring up the Nazi examples again, but I was specifically thinking of people who had counterfeit identification papers made up in order to escape detainment and probable death. They were posing to save their own lives; I believe most would agree that this is an acceptable deception. The problem is that unborn babies slated for death at the abortuary have no means of "posing" for themselves, no means at all for self-defense. Erin said that there was no duress, no immediacy. Really? Tell that to the next baby slated for execution. But having stated these thoughts, I am still uneasy with Machiavellian reasoning. I am still trying to decide what side of this controversy I am on. Here is an excellent post on the topic in which the writer makes an anology to just war:
Is it applicable to this situation? I'm still pondering. May the Holy Spirit guide and teach all of us.

Siarlys Jenkins said...


Although some go so far as to say, "I know that's a baby dear, and I don't want it, so I'm killing it," most of us who support Roe v. Wade do so on the specific ground that what is removed is NOT a baby. In fact, Justice Blackmun's opinion explicitly recognizes that if a fetus is legally recognized as a person, then the plaintiff's argument (Roe) necessarily fails.

That's why I am perfectly willing to move the line back to around week 20, but not to prosecute women for murder who have abortions during the first trimester. Abortions during third trimester are already illegal in every state, unless the mother's life or health are in danger, and Roe v. Wade explicitly allows for such laws.