Saturday, February 19, 2011

On a Recent Dispute about Lying

The Live Action videos about Planned Parenthood have plunged the Catholic blogosphere into a fierce debate about the morality of lying. Some of the notable posts:

Christopher Tollefsen, Truth, Love, and Live Action at "The Public Discourse"
Joseph Bottum, The Unloving Lies of Lila Rose? at ""
Christopher Kaczor, In Defense of Live Action at "The Public Discourse"
Monica Migliorino Miller, Did Live Action Lie? at ""
Christopher Tollefsen, Why Lying is Always Wrong at "The Public Discourse"
Mark Shea, Dawn Eden is Right, Darn It at "The National Catholic Register"
Peter Kreeft, Why Live Action Did Right and We All Should Know That at ""
Mark Shea, Last Comments on Lying for Jesus at "The National Catholic Register"
Hadley Arkes, When Speaking Falsely is Right at "The Public Discourse"

There are more, but that gives the flavor. It's tempting to take it as a sign of just how far Catholic moral theology has collapsed that this is even an issue: Tollefsen's view is the traditional Catholic view, and the arguments brought forward against this view are extraordinarily bad, some of them having been answered for literally centuries. For instance, Kreeft appeals to intuitions even though we know that intuitions on this change often -- in the nineteenth century Catholics were regularly bashed as condoning lying precisely because they were said to allow too much room for kinds of deception that they didn't call lies: in those days intuitions went exactly the opposite direction Kreeft assumes ours will go today. This is the problem with appealing to intuitions in any context: 'intuition' is a fuzzy term including many different things; if you appeal to intuitions you haven't established anything until you've also identified the underlying basis of the intuition. Likewise, Bottum and Miller and some others point to ambiguities when dealing with legal investigations, wars, etc., completely glossing over the fact that there is more leeway in such cases (albeit not infinite leeway) because they are not private actions but actions for the public good authorized by the magistrates given charge over that good. This is obviously not relevant here, because the people in question were not legally authorized investigators. (It would still be a matter of debate how far such investigators can go without doing something morally shady, but it would be much more a real matter of debate than this artificially induced one.)

Arkes says:
I don’t think that a couple of my dearest friends...really wish to put themselves in the position of saying that those householders in Amsterdam were engaged in something “intrinsically immoral” when they spoke untruthfully to the Gestapo about the Jews they were hiding. Nor do I think we wish to say that the householders, who managed in that way to avoid making themselves accomplices in the project of genocide, were running the risk of corrupting their character by “undermining the love of truth.”

But this is precisely the point, and this is exactly what Tollefsen wishes to say, because it is what Catholic theologians have regularly said for more than eight hundred years. Part of the problem in this dispute is the sort of rhetorical greasiness exemplified by Arkes' move here. We don't have to speculate in the abstract about what good and decent people do about lying in the Nazi-at-the-door scenario. We have accounts by these Amsterdam householders of the moral dilemmas they faced in this context, e.g., in the works of Corrie ten Boom; many of them were pious Dutch Calvinists, who were at least as strongly convinced that lying is wrong as Tollefsen. As such, they did not take the consequences automatically to justify them. Some of them refused outright to lie. Many lied but took themselves to be doing the right thing in a morally defective way, and they asked Christ for forgiveness for that defect and admired those rare souls who were able to face the same circumstances without having to stain themselves with a lie. Others did not know for sure whether they had done something that was strictly wrong, but stilled prayed to Christ to forgive them if they had. (All three of these would be legitimate options for Catholics in the same place.) And this was bound up in the very reasons why they were hiding Jews in the first place: it was the very same sterling characters that were often behind both their acceptance of the dangers of hiding Jews and their refusal merely to accept the rightness of a lie. To say that an action is simply wrong is far from saying that it is out-and-out evil for someone to do it; sometimes it's just the one part of an extraordinarily good action that just falls short a bit. It happens; and a moral view of the world that does not recognize this is a moral view of the world that cannot handle the world's actual complexity.

It's worthwhile, I suppose, to point to the fact that Aquinas had already dealt with this same basic argument. In his discussion of lying he asks whether lying is always a sin. (His answer, of course, is that it is.) He considers the following objection:

No one is rewarded by God for sin. But the midwives of Egypt were rewarded by God for a lie, for it is stated that "God built them houses" (Exodus 1:21). Therefore a lie is not a sin.

The midwives of Egypt, of course, lied in order to protect Hebrew children from death at the command of Pharaoh. Aquinas replies:

The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): "And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses." But the subsequent lie was not meritorious.

In the next article, he talks about whether lying is always a mortal sin. A mortal sin in Catholic theology is a sin that is simply inconsistent with loving God and neighbor; a venial sin is a sin that is consistent with love of God and neighbor, but either an impediment to full love of God and neighbor or a defect in the way we love God and neighbor. And Aquinas's position is that some lies are mortal sins, but many are venial: "But if the end intended be not contrary to charity, neither will the lie, considered under this aspect, be a mortal sin, as in the case of a jocose lie, where some little pleasure is intended, or in an officious lie, where the good also of one's neighbor is intended." The lie of the midwives was an officious lie; it was a morally defective way of doing the right thing. Since we human beings are full of defect and limitation, we all do this on occasion. It does not make them any less morally admirable for their courage and dedication, it does not reduce the excellence of their dedication to the good of those Hebrew children. They are heroines of high caliber. But that doesn't change the moral defectiveness of lying itself.

ADDED LATER: Henry Karlson reminded me of his series of posts on Peter Lombard's discussion of lying, which pulls together much of early Christian tradition on the subject, and was influential on much of Christian tradition afterward.

ADDED LATER: Since I note St. Thomas's view above, I should note that I discuss the relation of his view to Bl. John Duns Scotus's here (to which I can add that Scotus agrees with Aquinas on the midwives and other analogous cases in Scripture). They both, of course, agree that lying is in some sense always wrong, and St. Bonaventure agrees with them both; and, of course, St. Augustine before them all had much the same view (and again here, which is interesting because it is in response to undercover operations against heretics). Nor are these the only saints to make this point clear. It's one thing to have slight variations and unusual gray areas; but a question that should be raised by some people in the discussion is: How many saints do you have to contradict flat out before you at least raise for yourself the question of whether you are making the right moral judgment?

ADDED LATER (Feb. 22): I'll have a post up later today on Cassian, and hopefully sometime this week on Chrysostom; Cassian and Chrysostom are usually the ones people appeal to when they want to reject the dominant tradition. There's good reason to be cautious about such a move in both cases. I hope at some point also to have up a discussion of the more purely philosophical reasons to think that the 'right to know' alternative, which seems to be the most popular, is regress rather than progress. [Cassian's up.][Chrysostom's up.]

ADDED LATER: My full position, insofar as it can be crammed into a blog post, is here: A Quodlibetal Question on Lying.