Whether it is always wrong on Catholic principles to speak falsely with the intent to deceive
It seems that it is not:
(1) For we find in Scripture a number of stories in which people are held up as heroes and models but who spoke falsely in order to deceive. For instance, the midwives in Exodus 1 did so in order to save Hebrew children, and God dealt well with them, and thus seems to have rewarded them, because it was an act of compassion. Further, Rahab did so about the spies (Josh. 2:5) and for this was spared; and this seems to have been an act of faith. Further, Judith also did so (Jud. 10:12-13), and this seems to have been an act of fortitude. Further, Jehu pretended to worship Baal in order to destroy Baal's prophets, and this seems to have required speaking falsely in order to deceive, but he was praised for it, because it was an act of zeal for God.
(2) Moreover, certain of the Fathers and saints seem to countenance deception in certain cases. Thus St. John Cassian, in the Seventeenth Conference,says (17.20), "We may rightly and pardonably acquiesce in the wrong of a lie, when, as we said, a greater harm depends on telling the truth, and when the good which results to us from speaking the truth cannot counterbalance the harm which will be caused by it." Likewise, St. John Chrysostom, in the first book On Priesthood, says, that a deception "becomes good or bad according to the intention of those who practise it." Further, many Fathers praised Peter and Paul for deception over the matters of the Judaizers. Further, Bl. John Henry Newman in an appendix to the Apologia says that there are many schools of opinion on the subject of lying, and one is free to follow any of them. And he concludes, "For myself, I can fancy myself thinking it was allowable in extreme cases for me to lie, but never to equivocate."
(3) Moreover, intuitively it seems that one should sometimes speak falsely in order to deceive; for if a murderer were at the door demanding to know where someone was, it would seem that he should not be told the truth but sent away by deception. Further, people undercover or in a war often speak falsely in order to deceive, and it would seem that they are not to be blamed for this, because by doing so they protect themselves and many others. Moreover, it is harmful to speak falsely with the intent to deceive in the sense that it violates the rights of others to know the truth and thus not to be harmed by being deceived. However, this right only exists where they are actually harmed by the deception. Therefore it is not always wrong to speak falsely with the intent to deceive.
(1) We are commanded by the Apostle (Eph 4:24) to "put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth"; and he explains the result of this in the following verse, "Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another." Further, we are told by the Decalogue not to bear false witness; but, as Augustine says (De mend. 6), "whoso utters any thing bears witness to his own mind," and it is because of this reasoning that lying in general has usually been considered as barred by this precept. But if this is so, to speak falsely with the intent to deceive is always lying; for it is always bearing witness so as to harm one's neighbor with deception. Further, Leviticus says (19:1), "You shall not lie; neither shall anyone deceive his neighbor"; but this is most naturally understood as forbidding that speaking of false things with the intention to deceive. Further, the Psalmist says of the wicked (Ps. 52:5), "You love evil rather than good, lies rather than honest speech." But lies, which are placed on the side of evil, are contrasted with honest speech; and in honest speech one speaks as truly as one can. Further, we read in Proverbs 8:7, "My mouth recounts truth but my lips abhor wickedness; sincere are all the words of my mouth, not one of them is wily or crooked"; but this implies that it is wicked to speak insincerely, for one's words to be crooked, and in this way not to recount truth. Therefore it implies that it is always wrong to speak falsely with the intent of deceiving. And this is confirmed elsewhere in Proverbs, as when it says (Pr. 12:19), "Truthful lips endure forever, the lying tongue, for only a moment," and (12:22) "Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who are truthful are his delight." Further, in listing sins at one point, Isaiah says (Is. 59), "Your lips speak falsehood, and your tongue utters deceit," and, later, considering offenses against God, "uttering words of falsehood the heart has conceived". Further, we are told (Mt. 7:12), "Do to others what you would have them do to you," but no one wants to be told false things in the expectation that one will be deceived.
(2) Moreover, St. Augustine says (De mend. 5), "no one doubts that it is a lie when a person willingly utters a falsehood for the purpose of deceiving: wherefore a false utterance put forth with will to deceive is manifestly a lie." And this is overwhelmingly the view of the many saints who have commented at length on this question. So, for instance, St. Thomas Aquinas says (ST 2-2.110.3), "as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind." Thus also Bl. John Duns Scotus says (Ord. III suppl. dist 38), "all commonly hold that a lie is a sin," and there it is clear that a lie is understood to be speaking falsely with the intent to deceive; and later he argues that to utter words, knowing the opposite to be the case, and thus with the intention to deceive, is always a sin. The list of saints who have both seriously considered this matter and concluded that speaking falsely with the intention to deceive is always wrong could be extended greatly. Further, Gaudium et Spes says (24), "Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself." Thus one ought to give oneself sincerely, and this is a virtue. But in speaking falsely in order to deceive one not only does not give oneself sincerely, one does the direct opposite. But an act that directly opposes a virtue is a sin.
(3) Moreover, it is wrong to impede a rational ability naturally ordered to the communication of truth; but reason, insofar as it expresses itself in speech, is naturally ordered to the communication of truth.
I first make the distinction that verbal acts capable of deceiving because what is said is false come in at least two forms. We may distinguish first those capable of deceiving by claim from those capable of deceiving by promise, as when one promises something and then one breaks one's promise. Only the former is in view here. Further, it is only instances of actually speaking falsely that is in view here, and not withholding of information, or putting it in esoteric form, or the like. Further, speaking falsely is a matter of discernible meaning, and not of merely one way of taking the word; so that pleasantries, whose meaning everyone knows to consist in acknowledgement regardless of the precise thing said, are not in view, either. And many kinds of jokes may be put in this category as well; as Augustine says (De mend. 2), "Setting aside, therefore, jokes, which have never been accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of voice, and in the very mood of the joker a most evident indication that he means no deceit, although the thing he utters be not true."
And I respond that deliberately speaking falsely with the intention to deceive is a sin against oneself, against one's neighbor, and against God. I take these in turn.
(1) One may consider sins against oneself in light of what order they violate and in light of what good they impede by violating that order. Human reason has truth as its natural end; and therefore any act of reason that is wholly contrary to truth is an act that is intrinsically disordered, and thus a sin against oneself as a rational creature. But speech is a rational act. Thus to speak falsely in order to deceive is intrinsically disordered, because it is contrary to truth both as to its object (for its object is to speak falsely) and as to its intended end (for its intended end is that another will believe what is false). But if an act is contrary to the end both as to its object and as to its intended end, it is wholly contrary to that end.
On the second point, the human life as ordered to truth manifests the goodness of God, who is supremely Truth, and to manifest the goodness of God is a great good of human life. Thus to act in a way that is not ordered to truth impedes the great good of manifesting God's goodness as Truth. But never will there be any good that can be obtained from speaking falsely with the intention to deceive that is equal to this great good of manifesting God's goodness. Thus speaking falsely with the intent of deceiving is to prefer a lesser good for oneself over a much greater good for oneself.
(2) To speak falsely with the intent to deceive is a sin against one's neighbor, in terms of both human dignity and social life. A virtue is said to be ancillary to, or a potential part of, justice, through having something in common with justice, even though in some way it does not have some detail of the definition of justice. These potential parts of justice, while not justice in the strict sense, can be considered justice in a broader sense. The virtue of truthfulness, by which human life is made excellent through the disposition to be truthful, has two things in common with justice. First, it is directed to another as a sort of exchange; that is, the truthful person communicates truth to others. Second, it requires that there be a sort of equality, so that what one says is truly equivalent to what one knows or believes, and is not counterfeit. It differs from justice, however, in that it does not consider a legal debt but a moral debt. Legal debts in strict sense arise from the exchange itself, so that one must pay them in full or be unjust, and if one has paid them in full one is released from obligation; although there are legal debts in a broader sense, such as the debt to one's parents considered by the virtue of filial piety, in which one cannot pay them in full, and thus the necessity they impose is not to pay the debt in full but continually to render what is owed, to one's ability. Truthfulness does not consider a legal debt of either sort, because no one is always owed the truth; for instance, sometimes it is good to withhold the truth. But there is a sort of moral debt that involves respect for true good, and receives a certain obligatoriness from a more general obligation. Truthfulness considers such a moral debt, for one owes it to one's neighbor to be a truthful person, out of respect for them and for common good.
(a) Out of respect for the person: because they are rational, they are ordered to truth and find their good in truth. Therefore one owes one's neighbor, in a sort of general way, the good of truth, and protection from its opposite, when one can give it.
(b) Out of respect for common good: Since human beings, being rational, are social, we naturally owe each other what is necessary for preserving human society. But human society depends on the ability of people to trust what other people say. To speak falsely with the intent to deceive is not conducive to such trustworthiness, and, indeed, is wholly opposed to it, since it is opposed to it both as to object (which is to speak falsely) and as to intended end (which is to deceive). Thus it is a sin against one's neighbor.
However, because truthfulness renders what is owed in a moral way rather than a legal way, it is possible for the severity of one's sin to be greater or lesser depending on what goods one has in view when speaking falsely. Thus, for instance, speaking falsely to save someone from harm in some way is a much less serious offense against one's neighbor than speaking falsely in order simply to have fun, and both are much less serious than speaking falsely in order to cause harm to many. This is because in the former cases the intending of the good considered is by its very nature less opposed to the good of one's neighbor.
(3) To speak falsely with the intent of deceiving is a sin against God. For God is Truth, and all things that are true have a relation to God as Truth. Thus by speaking falsely with the intent to deceive one turns away from God, who is Truth, and this is a sin against Him. Thus Bl. Antonio Rosmini says (Consc. 606), "Truth and goodness therefore must be loved even to the extent of avoiding all danger of acting against them," because, as he says, truth and goodness are God's appurtenances. And he follows this by saying, "We should therefore always be on the side of truth and goodness because these are essentially moral objects and everything opposed to them is intrinsic, formal evil. This is the principle governing all that St. Augustine and other theologians say against lying as opposed to truth." However, it is also true that not all truths are equally related to the First Truth, and thus it follows that not every case of speaking falsely with the intent to deceive is equally severe; further, not everyone has equal cognizance of the relation of truth to God as First Truth, and for this reason as well not every case is equally severe.
From the arguments given above I conclude that to speak falsely with the intention to deceive is wrong, and is primarily wrong as a sin against oneself, and in particular is so because it is, as St. Thomas says, unnatural in such a way as to be inconsistent with one's own moral life. It is, however, also a wrong committed against other human beings, to the extent it violates what is owed in veracity or truthfulness, and a wrong committed against God, to the extent it involves aversion from God as First Truth; and all cases are both, but not always to the same degree.
It should be said, however, that on certain positions, like that of Scotus, God may dispense from the wrongness of speaking falsely with the intent to deceive in certain cases. It is not my intent to address this matter here, where it is not relevant; for in such a case the possible permissibility through dispensation can only be in the nature of the act in somewhat like the way that the possibility of a miracle is in the nature of things.
To the first. This objection has been answered at length, and adequately, many times by moral theologians. Thus the midwives are commended not for speaking falsely but explicitly because they feared God, which they did when they saved the Hebrew children, the falsehood merely being their excuse to Pharaoh. The same can be said of Rahab, who explains her actions in hiding the spies as being due to reverence for the God of the Israelites, and it is in this sense that Rahab acted with faith; and it also seems to commend her for prudence in taking steps to save herself and her family, as Scotus suggests. Judith is likewise praised for seeking to raise the afflicted of Israel. And Jehu is commended, despite being otherwise a truly wicked man, because in this one matter he stood for the Lord. Now, as Aquinas says, Jehu is no model for anyone, and it cannot be assumed that even when he is praised for his goals that his methods are held up as a model for us. And as Scotus says, they clearly are not, for the lie told by Jehu both provoked people to a sin, namely, to worship Baal, and was a way of procuring the death of others. And, as Scotus says of the story of Judith, "her exploit is told in Scripture and recited in the Church as something praiseworthy only to the extent it manifested religious devotion, though some other circumstances connected with this deed are neither praiseworthy nor allowable." With regard to the midwives, to Rahab, and probably to Judith, however, one can say that their action was consistent with love of God and love of neighbor, for they acted in both cases out of love of God and of neighbor; but this does not imply that their means were in every way perfectly appropriate to this, and the fact that they acted out of love of God and of neighbor is consistent with their means being a venial sin. And this is the way the stories have generally been taught through the centuries. Thus Aquinas says (ST 2-2.110.3 ad 3), "Some are commended in the Scriptures, not on account of perfect virtue, but for a certain virtuous disposition, seeing that it was owing to some praiseworthy sentiment that they were moved to do certain undue things."
To the second. We must be very careful in interpreting the words of certain of the Fathers, not because their arguments are not worthy of respect, but because words may shift meaning over time. And this is clear here, for sometimes the Church Fathers will speak of lying in cases where we would not; and this is true in both the case of Cassian and the case of Chrysostom. For Cassian includes under the term at least three things, promise-breaking, withholding the truth, and speaking what is false, and he does not consider any of the three precisely under the aspect in which they might involve the intent to deceive, but only insofar as deception can be an effect that follows from them. For the monks asked Joseph whether they should break a promise that they certainly did not make with the intent to deceive, for they were sincere in it at the time; but they are worried that if they break the promise they will have had the effect of deceiving others, and perhaps provide a model to others who would take it as an excuse for deceiving themselves. Likewise, Chrysostom is defending himself not for speaking falsely but for not speaking the truth; for he led his friend to assume that he, too, would join the priesthood without delay, despite the fact that Chrysostom knew that his obligations to his mother prevented it; and he did this not by saying anything false, but simply by not telling his friend about his obligation to his mother, knowing that his friend would assume that Chrysostom told him everything. And Chrysostom did this because he knew that it was better for his friend and for the Church for his friend to become a priest, but also knew that his friend would not do so unless he thought that Chrysostom would be ordained with him. Thus Chrysostom says this stratagem or economy should perhaps not even be considered a deception in the proper sense; and his discussion does not seem particularly relevant to this question. And I would argue that this is also true with regard to the interpretation of Peter and Paul as providing, for the purpose of teaching,a dissimulation; for we are not told that either spoke falsely.
Nevertheless, it is true that some few of the comments made by Cassian do apply to speaking falsely with the intent to deceive; however, the tenor of his comments on the subject cuts in the contrary direction to that suggested by the objection. For Cassian even in the sentence quoted above suggests that speaking falsely with the intent to deceive is wrong; and thus he always states that it is either wrong or is at least morally poisonous. His position seems rather to be that, where we cannot see a third alternative in a choice between sinning against oneself by speaking falsely and sinning against God or neighbor, it is less bad to sin against oneself, and that any wrongness in this is pardonable, or, as we might say, venial. And in this way Cassian's position more or less coincides with that above.
As to Newman, his intent in saying that one may follow any of the schools of thought is simply to argue that Catholics are not obligated to agree with St. Alphonsus Liguori on every matter, which Kingsley's argument falsely presupposed. And as to his own position, he says that casuistry is a science for which he has neither the ability nor the temperament, and only addresses the issue at all tentatively and for the purposes of defending himself against Kingsley's charges of equivocation. And he merely considers in this regard the possibility that deliberately saying something false might be only materially a lie and not formally one. Of material lying he says, "It seems to me very dangerous, be it ever allowable or not, to lie or equivocate in order to preserve some great temporal or spiritual benefit" because he does not believe we have clear ways of determining when an untruth is merely materially lying; but he does seem to allow it to protect a secret one has moral obligation to keep, because in such a case one would not be relying on one's own judgment. However, he does not clearly distinguish between withholding truth and material lying, and is explicitly only giving a tentative position, nor does he seem wholly consistent in what he means by 'material lying'.
All other appeals to the Church Fathers on this point can easily be seen to be similar to these.
To the third. The hypothetical scenario of the murderer at the door has been dealt with many times since St. Raymond of Penafort proposed it to clarify why it is wrong to speak falsely with the intent to deceive; and similarly with ambushes and the like. These cases are in fact analogous to the Scriptural cases discussed briefly; the arguments at most show that the wrong is venial, not that there is no wrong. Further, there are many cases of people being faced with such situations without lying, and therefore necessity is not a legitimate appeal. Now, it is certainly true that certain occupations, being difficult, make certain kinds of sins easier, but it is also true that these sins, not being absolutely contrary to love of God and of neighbor, are often at most venial, and that one may still live with charity despite these imperfections in one's life. Thus Aquinas says (ST 2-2.40.3), referring to Ambrose's De Officiis, "Now a man may be deceived by another's word or deed in two ways. First, through being told something false, or through the breaking of a promise, and this is always unlawful. No one ought to deceive the enemy in this way, for there are certain 'rights of war and covenants, which ought to be observed even among enemies'."
As to the suggestion that speaking falsely with the intent to deceive is only wrong to the extent that it violates someone's right to know the truth and thus not to be deceived, thereby harming them, this objection confuses the moral debt of truthfulness with certain kinds of legal debt, and in any case is shown wrong by the arguments given above, for speaking falsely with the intent to deceive also inflicts harm on oneself and is inconsistent with respect for God as Truth. Moreover one should be worried about the implications of it in other ways, because it has repeatedly been used to justify wrongdoing; so, for instance, Grotius, to whom this line of argument is due, uses it to argue that it is not lying, and thus not wrong, to speak falsely to some people in order to deceive them, simply because of who or what they are. And this does not seem consistent with respect for human dignity.