Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Zmirak on Lying

ChristineN drew my attention to this essay by John Zmirak, which I found interesting because it represents much of what is dangerous about the 'lying is OK sometimes' contingent of the Big Catholic Blogosphere Debate about Lies. Most of what Zmirak says is superficially plausible but false.

(1) Calling mental reservation a "legalistic tactic" is essentially a confession that one knows nothing of the basic theory underlying cases of conscience about deception. (I have to say, too, that I am reaching the point that whenever Catholics misuse the word 'legalistic', which as a theological term of disapprobation has a very specific meaning, I'm starting to take it as a sign that the person in question doesn't know what they are talking about.) Anyone who speaks so frivolously of basic casuistics has no business stating an opinion on Catholic moral theology as if it were anything more than a guess. Mental reservation is in fact the very opposite of a "legalistic tactic" because it is not a tactic at all; it is something that people do all the time, and is obviously not lying, and the only question is when it is wrong to do it.

(2) Likewise, with regard to Pius XII: (1) there is no evidence whatsoever that Pope Pius XII authorized the forging of baptismal certificates (we do have evidence he authorized others to do what they could to save Jews, and that those people took it on themselves to forge baptismal certificates, and that the Pope eventually put an end to the practice), and (2) even if that weren't so, the forging of a false document on the authority that puts forward the true documents is obviously not in itself a lie because it can be part of a security system to foil those who have no right to certain information, and (3) even if that weren't so, saints and Popes are not immune from venial sins in extraordinarily difficult times, which those times obviously were. [ADDED LATER: On this point, see William Doino, Jr.'s excellent discussion.]

(3) Obviously in matters like the Nazi at the door the overruling consideration for any Christian must always be the demand of charity. This does not mean that anything you do to save someone else is OK. In fact, saving someone else, while worthy in itself, doesn't tell us anything about whether you used wholly virtuous or partially defective means to do it. That's why there is a whole category of 'officious lies': precisely what the name means is that it's a lie told in the furtherance of a good duty. They are all sins -- venial sins, but sins.

(4) If Zmirak weren't so busy calling mental reservation a "legalistic tactic," he might have learned from some saints who discuss mental reservation, say someone like Liguori, that "literal truth or reverent silence" is a false dichotomy. It is not that the traditional view has an impoverished view of how language works (the discussions in Liguori and elsewhere are dizzyingly sophisticated accounts of language); it's that Zmirak has an impoverished view of how moral theology works. And what is more, practically every paragraph of his essay shows that he does not have any understanding of the major discussions of lying in moral theology. No one who is competent to speak on the subject will make such an amateurish mistake as suggesting that "Do not lie" implies "Answer directly every question put to you" or that parables and other fictional stories have the same characteristics as a lie. These have all been explicitly addressed over and over by people who have a far greater familiarity with virtuous life than Zmirak and myself.

If people like Zmirak had a really, really good argument with some very subtle flaw, it wouldn't be so bad. Moral theology can be difficult at times, and there are things all over the place that can trip up anyone. What is awful is that these are arguments that have been addressed at extraordinary length by saints and theologians for a millenium and a half now, and not only isn't Zmirak coming up with anything new, his argument involves no coherent account of what a lie is, is not informed about the history of the discussion of the subject, and is nothing but a stumblingblock put in the way of his readers.

[ADDED LATER: Zmirak has a follow-up article, which I briefly discuss here.]

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