Thursday, February 24, 2011

Can You Lie To Fight Evil?

Apologies for the delay in posting.  A cold knocked me out recently and I have devoted my energy to schoolwork or at least thinking about doing schoolwork, thus neglecting the blog.

The LiveAction undercover videos have sparked a debate among pro-lifers over the morality, or rather the immorality, of lying.  Pretty much every Catholic blogger in the Federation of Planets except for me have weighed in on the issue.  It's time for me to submit my two cents of moral theology and examine the morality of lying for a good cause.

First, the facts.  Lila Rose and another Live Action activist posed as a pimp and a prostitute at several Planned Parenthood clinics.  While hidden cameras recorded their conversations, the "pimp" asked an employee at each clinic about services for underage sex slaves.  The PP employees responded positively to the inquires and gave instructions on skirting the law and avoiding government oversight.
In the light of Church teaching on lying, it would seem that Lila Rose and Co. may have sinned by deceiving Planned Parenthood.  The Catechism declares, "By its very nature, lying is to be condemned."  The CCC defines a lie as "speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving."  Does this mean that Live Action was wrong to deceive Planned Parenthood?  Is it always wrong to lie, even to defend innocents?  Thoughtful Catholics have tried to answer these questions and have come to different conclusions.  I will critique several of their arguments and then give you my thoughts on the morality of lying.

I am only producing one anti-Live Action argument because they are all fairly similar, while there is more diversity among the Live Action supporters.  Mark Shea writes,
Believe me.  I’d love to find a loophole here because my loathing for PP is intense.  But, well, I can’t get around the fact that what I’m desperately looking for is a loophole in much the same way that every other clever person who wants to dodge the bleedin’ obvious meaning of clear language does whenever they want to do something they know perfectly well is wrong.  So I’m forced, even in the attempt to bend language out of all recognizable meaning, back to the fact that I know what “lying” means, I know what the Church says, and I know this is lying for a good end, which is as wrong here as it is when faking up a miracle to save somebody’s soul.
It's hard to argue with Mark's literal interpretation and application of Church teaching, though many have tried, some more successfully than others.
On the CatholicVote website, Joseph Bottum writes a defense of Live Action's methods.
But as long as wolves exist, as long as the world remains fallen, we are also called to be as wise as serpents, even while we strive to be as harmless as doves. We are called to govern a world that is imperfect, and thus, for example, there will be war. The canons of just-war theory exist, in fact, to insure that we wage such war for good and sufficient reasons in the defense of the weak and the innocent.
Now, in the realm of naval warfare, there are recognized tricks—each a ruse de guerre that the international laws of war do not condemn. Sailing under false colors, prior to engaging in battle, for example.
Bottum is right about the laws of naval warfare but wrong about their application.  It is true that a ship can sail under false colors during time of war as long as the crew raises their true flag before engaging in combat.  However, this is not at all analogous to the  Live Action scenario.  The laws of war are acknowledged by both sides.  Naval forces recognize that a ship's flag conveys the probable or possible nationality of a vessel but not necessarily its true one.  There is no undercover video sting code of conduct that pro-lifers and abortionists both understand and assent too.  Besides, Lila Rose is not a battleship and Live Action is not at war with Planned Parenthood.

Peter Kreeft's argument in favor of Live Action is also less than compelling.
When [my students] are confronted by a moral legalist like Kant who holds that all lying is morally wrong, they instinctively sense that he is wrong, though they cannot explain why. 
Similarly, when we discuss Kant and the issue of lying, most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. They do not know whether this is an example of lying or not. But they know that if it is, than lying is not always wrong, and if lying is always wrong, then this is not lying. Because they know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil.
The core of Kreeft's argument is one based on moral intuition.  Decent people feel that it is right to lie in some cases, therefore it must be right to lie in some cases.  I love Peter Kreeft but I have to reject his reasoning here.  In his own works such as The Unaborted Socrates, Kreeft rejects the fallacy of appeal to popular feelings.  Just because most pro-lifers support Live Action's deception, and nearly every human being in the world supports the Dutchmen's, that doesn't prove anything.  I will come back later to the Jew hiding analogy.

Kreeft advances a side argument that I find more appealing.
The Pharisees could put up strong arguments for a literalism and legalism about the Sabbath and against Jesus’ apparent disregard for it. I think we should have the same reaction to the critics of Live Action [as we do to the Pharisees.]    
The idea that Live Action's critics are being overly legalistic is worth considering.  In the technical sense, Jesus did violate the Law of Moses on several occasions.  However, Jesus is God and in a much better position to judge the proper application of divine law than we are.  Besides, by "breaking" the Law, Christ was pointing to deeper theological truths that had been forgotten by the legalistic Pharisees.  That's not the same as declaring that the law of God only applies when we really feel like it should.  Also, the Magisterium is infallible, and the Sanhedrin was not.  That being said, I do find the anti-legalism argument intriguing, though not entirely convincing.

Like Kreeft, Zmirak accuses Live Action's critics of Pharisaical legalism.
When we speak to each other, conveying accurate information back and forth is one legitimate goal, but it is neither exhaustive nor absolute. When a wife asks her husband, "Do you think I look fat?" she isn't always even asking for a literal answer to her question. What she wants to know is often, "Do you still love me? Am I still attractive?" A puritanical, legalistic answer to such a question is often an act of cruelty, masked by self-righteous "honesty."

If we viewed information as a good, one that must be traded fairly like any other, we would see that a question asked by someone with no right to the truth -- like a Nazi murderer, or a professional abortionist -- is like a demand made at gunpoint by a robber.
He justifies "lying" on the basis of mental reservation and right to the truth.  Telling your overweight wife that she doesn't look fat would be an example of a mental reservation.  That is, you only express part of the truth, or speak the truth in an ambiguous way while you keep your full opinion or information mentally reserved.  Of course, the husband's perception of his wife's attractiveness is more subjective than the dichotomy of being a pimp and a hooker or pretending to be a pimp and a hooker.  The mental reservation argument is one well worth considering and I will come back to it in a bit.

When Zmirak writes about the right to the truth, he implies that a lie is only told to someone who has a right to the truth, and that the Planned Parenthood employees do not have that right.  There is actually some limited Magisterial support for his first assertion.  The 1994 edition of the CCC defined lying as "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth."  This sentence was changed for the second edition of the catechism to the version previously quoted.  Even if you accept the definition of lying contained in the first edition of the CCC, Zmirak's assertion that abortionists do not have the right to the truth because they are equivalent to an armed robber is rather dubious.  Live Action initiated contact with Planned Parenthood of their own volition and their actions produced no immediate live-saving results, a situation hardly analogous to a man with a gun to his head.

My opinion about the morality of deception has been informed by several writers, including those referenced here.  However, not content to simply listen to those that are wiser, I have come up with my own particular theory.

First, it is important to make the distinction between a deception and a lie.  All lies are deceptions but not all deceptions are lies.  The Church teaches that actual lies are always wrong.  However, there are morally licit deceptions such as Mr. Bottum's false flags, that are not technically lies but could be referred to as such using the colloquial use of the word "lie."  This serves to confuse thing quite a bit.  Suffice it to say, a hypothetical "good lie" is not, indeed cannot be, a lie as defined and condemned by Church teaching.

I find myself breaking up the issue of lying for a good cause into two moral quandaries, the Live Action stings and the Gestapo at the door.  Each scenario has its own set of circumstances and choices.  I will try to apply Church teaching to both situations and see what, if any deception can be justified in either case.

Like Zmirak, I believe that the two strongest arguments in favor of "lying for good," are mental reservation, and right to the truth.  A distinction should be made between strict and general mental reservations.  In the case of a strict mental reservation, someone tacks on silent thoughts to their own speech.  An example of a strict mental reservation is someone saying that he hasn't seen someone when he really means that he hasn't seen that person in the last 5 minutes.  In the case of a broad mental reservation, someone says something that is ambiguous though not untruthful, in order to mislead someone.  St. Anthanasius of Alexandria provides an example of broad mental reservation.  St. Anthanasius was fleeing from imperial troops.  When the soldiers caught up with him he hid himself.  His companions told the soldiers that Anthanasius was "close to you."  The soldiers continued on, thinking that they were on the right track.  Strict mental reservation was condemned by Pope Innocent XI in 1679.  Broad mental reservation has not been condemned and is considered legitimate by Catholic theologians.

It would not seem that the Live Action activists were engaging in broad mental reservation by claiming to have underage sex slaves.  I don't detect any ambiguity in the story they told the Planned Parenthood workers.  If there was mental reservation it was strict, not broad.  Mentally adding the word "hypothetically," to a false statement is the same as simply saying the false statement.  I really don't think that the sting videos can be justified based on mental reservation.

Let's modify the Gestapo scenario a bit.  If the Nazis suspected that you were hiding Jews they would probably search your house and not bother asking you about it.  To make the scenario more realistic, lets say you happen to know where some Jews are hiding and a Nazi asks you if there are any Jews on your street.  You say "there are no Jews living on this street," with the mental reservation that the Jews are not technically living on the street, but in your neighbor's attic.  This sounds like a broad mental reservation to me.  But what if you weren't clever enough to think of something like that and simply said no?  Perhaps if you consider the Nazi's real question to be "will you help me murder some Jews by pointing out their location?" then a simple "no" might really mean "no I will not help you kill Jews, you Nazi bastard."  Is this a strict or broad mental reservation?  I honestly don't know.

Is it lying to tell a falsehood to someone who does not have the right to the truth?  It depends on which Catechism you consult.  Obviously, the newer edition is more authoritative and the Vatican must have modified the definition of lying for a reason.  However, the fact that the passage was changed without necessarily rejecting the essence of the previous version does create some ambiguity.  If the Pope released an encyclical tomorrow that defined lying the way that the first edition of the CCC did, everyone would accept that definition.  It would develop, rather than contradict, the teaching found in the current edition of the CCC.  The question of exactly how ambiguous the definition of lying is would be better answered by a canon lawyer than by myself.  Still, I cannot say with any certainty that the first edition definition of lying is not true.

If it is moral to "lie" to someone who does not have the right to the truth, are the actions of Lila Rose and her associate moral?  Hard to say.  On the one hand, the Planned Parenthood employees are engaged in the business of murdering babies.  This would seem to put their right to the truth in doubt.  On the other hand, the Live Action activists were not doing any immediate good by lying, and it could be argued that the Planned Parenthood workers have the right to know the identities of the people in their evil but legally sanctioned business.  Do people have the right to the truth in regards to the identity of an undercover police officer, and if so do they also forfeit that right to citizen investigators like Lila Rose?  I can't say for certain, but I would be very cautious about deciding who has the right to the truth.

If the "right to the truth" definition of lying is valid, then it is certainly moral to "lie" to the Gestapo when they ask if there are any Jews around.  The Nazis have no right to take the life of the Jews, and thus no right to the knowledge of their location.  The moral ambiguity in this case arises from the uncertainty about the true definition of lying.

Neither the Live Action nor the Gestapo scenarios can be resolved with absolute moral certainty, at least not by this blogger.  However, it is still possible to make some prudential judgments.  There are other, less morally questionable ways to fight Planned Parenthood than undercover video stings.  In this case, I would advise erring on the side of truth.  However, when the Gestapo question you, there is innocent life in immediate danger.  When the Nazis come knocking, I would be happy to tell a fib and err on the side of life.  Of course, self-defense is also an option.  If you want to be as absolutely truthful as possible, cheerfully tell the Nazi where the Jews are, then shoot him in the head.


  1. About time!

    Very well thought out and written, Patrick.

    I really lean toward Kreeft's arguments although, to be fair, I haven't read them all so my stating I side with Kreeft is actually a bit stupid ;-)

    I'm not a big fan of Mark Shea so I skipped him and frankly, the whole thing became a bit boring after a while. The whole issue IMO is best left for God to sort out.

    What I do think is important is that we all develop our consciences in such a way that when we are called on to make a choice, we'll make the correct one.

  2. "What I do think is important is that we all develop our consciences in such a way that when we are called on to make a choice, we'll make the correct one."

    Absolutely! By criticizing Kreeft's moral intuition argument, I certainly don't mean to devalue the conscience.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  3. I've already had my say at my blog.
    As Matt abbott said, the good thing is that it is being discussed.

  4. Regarding "a distinction should be made between strict and general mental reservations", here is a helpful quote from Fr. Slater's classic book:

    ... [Strict mental reservations] is the restriction of one's meaning in making an assertion to the proposition as modified by some addition made to it within the mind of the speaker... In wide mental reservations the words used are capable of being understood in different senses, either because they are ambiguous in themselves or because they have a special sense derived from the circumstances of time, place, or person in which they are spoken...Although strict mental reservations are lies, and therefore sinful, yet wide mental reservations are in common use; they are necessary, and they are not lies. They are necessary because justice and charity require that secrets be kept. and frequently there is no other way of keeping them. They are not lies because... words take their meaning not only from their grammatical signification, but from the circumstances in which they are used... Although these wide mental reservations are not lies, yet they must not be employed without just cause, for the good o society requires that we should speak our mind with frankness and sincerity in the senses in which we are understood by our hearers, unless there be a good reason for permitting their self-deception when they take our words in a sense that we do not mean.

    Fr. T.S. Slater, SJ, A Manual of Moral Theology (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1925), vol. I, bk. VI, pt. VIII, ch. IV, pp. 292-293.

    This whole Lve Action/PPH thing is a very complicated issue, and I have yet to form a final opinion. I prefer to observe the immediate reactions and think about things for a while.

    What's interesting is that, Catholic pro-lifers are incessantly castigated as irrational absolutists yet, within the Catholic sphere, there is now a debate of the moral quandaries associated with this whole affair... and this within the context of America's archenemy to the pro-life movement, i.e. Planned Parenthood.

  5. TH2: Thanks for the passage on mental reservation. Fr. Slater's definition is the best one I have seen so far. Good point about the debate demonstrating that pro-lifers are a lot more rational and have a greater appreciation for moral complexities than we are given credit for.

  6. Great analysis!

    "On the other hand, the Live Action activists were not doing any immediate good by lying"

    I would argue that this cannot be known for sure and that even if it is so that the later good resulting from these actions far outweighs the culpability of deception. If stings are considered "lying" how can a police officer possibly be considered a good Catholic? I don't see how a criminal has the "right" to the truth and since I consider abortionists and their ilk murderers and conspirators I don't see how they have a "right" to know the truth of a sting operation, especially when the sting operation's sole purpose is to expose the truth for the greater good.

  7. @Theresa. This leads us to the quandary that our government fights criminals like robbers and kidnappers, and allows abortionists to live. Our legal code, the code that is meant to make every citizen virtuous, sets this forward. If we treat abortionists the same way as criminals, and "sting" them like this, I fear this code may begin to weaken. The precedent Live Action took may be applied to other, undesirable ends. Who will determine what is right and wrong if U.S. laws collapse?

    @Patrick: Like I said, this is thorough and engaging. I cannot help but notice that the arguments against Live Action seem to make more sense than the other side, but I will need even more time to discern this.

  8. @Sean

    But, our legal code is broken. What kind of just legal code allows for the murdering of innocent lives? Plus, I am still not sure how a criminal has the "right" to the truth when someone is exposing their criminal deeds or actions. Plus, Eric Sammons makes a good point, if deception or refusing to tell the truth is acceptable in circumstances like in the case of the Nazis and it isn't acceptable in order to save a life/lives in the pro-life cause in limited circumstances then when exactly would it be acceptable?

  9. Sean: I appreciate your concerns about vigilantism, but Live Action didn't actually do anything illegal. Some states do not allow citizens to take video of others without their consent. Live Action did not do any stings in those states.

    Teresa: I would agree that our legal code is in serious trouble, but it is derived from a legitimate government.

  10. Thanks, Patrick. It's the legitimate government part that trips me up. If we lose American democracy, everything it's doing right is gonna come down too. It's not an easy question to solve.

    And I do concede that it was not illegal. My comments there were confused.