Sunday, May 22, 2011

On Smith on Lying II

Janet Smith has an article in First Things that sums up her previous paper (which I discussed a bit a while back) on Aquinas's account of lying. Some things that were problematic in the original drop out of the summary, but there are still several points that need to be stated.

(1) The mention of John Paul II's words about the Catechism is irrelevant; the official Catechism is and has always been the Latin version. The qualification in the first version was only in the English translation. One of the major points of publishing the Catechism in stages was to allow feedback on quality of translations, and the reason the second edition was put out what was to present translations more faithful to the Latin that was actually promulgated. [ADDED LATER: Tom notes in the comments that the evidence for this is somewhat less straightforward than I had thought. I'm looking into the matter more closely. ADDED LATER: I was wrong on this particular point; apologies. One of the problems throughout has been a lot of confusion about different editions of the catechism. In any case, it doesn't change the other points.]

(2) It's forgivable given that she's just summarizing, but her handling of Scripture is extraordinarily vague and handwavey. The interpretations of the midwives, etc., were not simply ad hoc interpretations designed to save the claim speaking falsely with the intent to deceive is always wrong; there is evidence both in the passages themselves and in how the Church has traditionally understood them to be related to other parts of the canon that support the interpretations. (To take just one example, the midwives are explicitly praised only for fearing God, which they did by saving the children, which preceded their lie to Pharaoh to save themselves.)

(3) As for most of the rest of the argument, my original points still stand: Smith overlooks the context of Aquinas's discussion of lying (the virtue of truthfulness and moral debts of justice broadly construed), she misunderstands the sense in which truth is taken by Aquinas to be the end of speech (e.g., Aquinas does not condemn all false representations of reality, or he'd be condemning almost every videtur in the Summa, since the very structure of the Summa requires giving, in its most plausible forms, false representations of reality, in order to correct or reject them, and her claim about soldiers and empty tents directly contradicts what Aquinas actually says on the subject), and the suggestion that Aquinas, of all people, had no clue that language could be used to "correct, console, encourage, and deter" is merely absurd.

(4) She makes the standard confusion of the right-to-truth crowd in suggesting that if we hold that speaking falsely with the intent to deceive always falls short morally then we are holding that everyone has a right to truth. Actually, very, very few people have any clear and definite right to truth in any circumstances (I mean, seriously, how many times a month are you in a situation in which you would be failing to give someone what you, yourself, definitely owe them by simply not telling them something?); but this is an entirely separate matter.

(5) Given that Smith is famously a defender of Humanae Vitae and its prohibition of contraception, it is the height of irony that almost every single argument Smith gives here has a corresponding version given by opponents of the Church's position of contraception. And this is so extraordinarily obvious that it is simply mystifying to me that she doesn't see it. These are all the kinds of arguments that Smith criticizes heavily when they appear in the texts of dissenting theologians on the subject of sex and procreation; it is remarkable that she leaps to them so easily on a subject like reason and truth. And the thing of it is, the arguments that speaking falsely with the intent to deceive is always wrong are massively stronger than the arguments that contraceptive sex is always wrong: Scripture says a lot more about the general subject of lying, for instance; the great theologians and Doctors of the Church discuss it at much greater length; the intrinsic connection between reason and truth as an end (not merely speech and truth) on which Aquinas builds his main philosophical argument is much harder to evade without being self-defeating; the moral debt of truthfulness admits of a much broader range of philosophical supporting arguments; and the sorts of arguments Smith gives here are much less plausible in the arena of sexual ends than they are in the arena of ends of reason as such. This is an extraordinary apparent inconsistency that needs to be explained.

In any case, my original quodlibetal question on the subject still stands, and isn't affected by anything in Smith's summary here.


  1. Tom K.9:23 AM

    Following up on the "original French" issue:

    A Google search on "Mentir, c'est parler ou agir contre la verite pour induire en erreur celui qui a le droit de la connaitre" raises more questions.

    This, for example, appears to be a French text of the Catechism that contains the qualification, though I can't trace its provenance (and in any case, I'd suppose we'd need a printed edition dated 1992 to be sure). And I found a PDF of a presentation in French given last fall by Michael S. Sherwin, OP, that quotes the above statement as the "Definition du Catechisme (1992)."

    It's possible that the above examples are re-translations back into French from another language, but that's a pretty complex explanation.

  2. branemrys3:04 PM

    Hi, Tom,

    Thanks for pointing this out. That definitely does raise questions; it's possible that there are versions of the later version floating around that are mislabeled as the earlier version, and that mine was one.

    Here's another instance of it from Google Book (the only one, in fact, but in a book from 2006). And here's a 2010 instance of it.

    I've gone ahead and ordered an actual hardcopy of the book from an online used bookstore. We'll see what's going on.

  3. branemrys5:04 PM

    And it turns out that it is indeed found in the French first edition.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.