Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Lying

My brother in profession, Paul Byrd, O.P., who blogs over at Dominican Cooperator Brother, has raised the vexed question about the ethics of lying, especially in liminal situations in which the lives of others are at stake. Rather than clog up his comment box, I decided to put my thoughts here.

Paul raised a rather classic question in ethics, both in general and in the history of moral theology itself. I will say from the outset that I believe his resolution (viz. that it is at least on some occasions morally acceptable, perhaps even necessary or praiseworthy to lie) to be mistaken.

To begin with, we want to admit that the overwhelming tradition of moral inquiry in this matter has held lying to be, in and of itself and not merely circumstantially, an evil, one precisely forbidden by the eighth commandment. To help see why this is so, we can look to St Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, truthfulness (veritas) is a virtue by which one is disposed to tell the truth, i.e. to speak and act in ways that are consistent with one's inner thoughts, to be "one in mind and heart" not merely with others but with oneself. While this is the principal object of the virtue of truthfulness, it also includes the inclination readily and easily to speak the truth at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.

For Thomas, the vice opposed to truthfulness is lying, by which one represents externally (by speech or action) what is contrary to what one knows or thinks within. All of the kinds of lying (e.g. simulation, hypocrisy, iactantia [exaggeration of one's merits], ironia [untrue minimizing of one's merits]) share this feature. What is important to note here is that, for Thomas, there is not a "right to the truth" which makes lying to be bad. Simply speaking, others do not have a right that we disclose to them what is true, nor even that we be truthful. Furthermore, lying is not bad principally because of the intention to deceive. For Thomas, even if one had no reasonable expectation he would be believed, he could still be guilty of lying through a seriously intended misrepresentation of his mind/thoughts through contrary external speech/acts. It is the deformation of the one who lies that is at stake, and with that deformation, the whole project of both personal and interpersonal flourishing that is at stake here.

It is worth noting that the definition of the Catechism published in 1992, i.e. "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," was revised in the official edition of 1997 to remove the final phrase, viz. "someone who has the right to know the truth" precisely because of the problematic idea of the "right to the truth." The intention to deceive remains there, and a Thomist could readily accept that generally one lies in order to deceive, but this seems more a near universal circumstance, rather than getting at the essence of lying. Overall, the revision also helps ward off ultimately unhelpful approaches to the "difficult cases" often presented by, e.g. distinguishing, say, lies from "false speech" on the basis of the presence or absence, respectively, of either the intent to deceive or else of the recipient's relative "right" to the truth.

So, how have the hard cases been classically resolved? Thomas' solution, ultimately derived from Augustine, and developed later as the theory of "mental reservation", held that one could, legitimately, speak or act in such a way that, while not misrepresenting what was in one's own mind, nonetheless was possible, even likely, to mislead or misdirect the undesired, even wickedly motivated, inquiry (e.g. the Nazi looking for Jews in one's basement). While some versions of mental reservation have been rejected as hopelessly lax (i.e. saying what is clearly a material falsehood while adding a "corrective" phrase in one's head), the general theory understands that one can justifiably speak in a potentially equivocal but nonetheless truthful way. Moreover, one need not always say anything at all, nor is one generally obliged to tell the whole truth. ("I do not know if he is in," for example, is an acceptable response even when you just saw the person 20, or even 5 minutes ago. The fact is, you *don't* know that he is in. That the listener might conclude you have not seen him in some time is not your moral responsibility to correct. The circumstances when one is giving evidence in court, of course, alter one's moral obligations in the latter regard.)

While some may find this theory a bit too fine-grained, it is not actually a way to allow for lying. Indeed, it is quite the opposite of the proposal that one can morally lie. As tempting as such proposal seems, it tries to get at some ultimately passing good (even if one of great value) through the dissolution of one's own integrity. Even when done in small ways, this erosion of one's own authenticity is destructive of one's own self and, through that, of one's capacity to be personally related to others. This is the good truthfulness protects, and it is the good every lie, even "in a good cause", wounds or destroys.

As to Paul's other claims: (a) The case of lying is distinct from justifiable homicide for the reasons seen above. The claim that some people are authorized to kill (or justified to do so) is not rooted in the claim that right intention makes something otherwise evil nonetheless justified. (b) The cases from Scripture have a long, rich, detailed exegetical heritage. The *simplest* thing to note here is that nothing in the Scriptures requires (in fact much of the narrative disallows) the presumption that the acts of the patriarchs and matriarchs, of the kings and prophets, are all praiseworthy. That good that flows from their misdeeds comes from God's providence, not from the virtue of their deceptions (if, that is, these were not cases of mental reservation).  (c) One *cannot* justify the deliberate choice of evil on the basis that the sin is not mortal. Knowingly doing what is evil is knowingly to turn away from the love of God, and in doing so from love of neighbor and of self as well. This is why it is obligatory to avoid any sin at any cost. The world is not made in any way better by the lessening of divine charity within us, much less its being extinguished in our hearts. It is *never* furthering God's Kingdom to draw away from God. (d) See the CCC for what the Church universal holds, and which I note above [bearing in mind to use the revised version of 1997], as well as the Thomistic approach, which represents the longer-standing and majority approach to the question.


bill bannon said...

   The problem I have with this strict position is that a.) Scripture presents "untruths" that are indirectly praised in that they are germane and critical (not expendable) to the good process or result which is praised and b.) Christ is one of the persons who uses an "untruth" therapeutically (as Solomon did when he led the two women to believe that his soldier was about to cut the baby in two).
    We'll start with Him.  Here is the passage:

Matthew 15:22
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."
But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."
10 He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me."
He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children 11 and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! 12 Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.

     Christ led his listeners to believe that He was under strict parameters as to only being sent to Jews but it was a therapeutic ruse like Solomon's communication of an untruth.  Christ is stretching the woman's faith from point A to a new point B and C.
     When approached by the Roman centurion about a similar need, Christ helps the centurion straightway with words that imply the centurion is not a Jew and with no sermonizing about His being sent only to Jews.  Nor does Christ stop Himself from spiritually helping the Samaritan woman at the well with knowledge and fraternal correction.  Again He makes no mention of being sent only to the Jews.

     The other strong case is the praise by God of Jehu who had just slaughtered the 
Baal congregation by herding them into an ambush by words to the effect that they were all (he included) going to sacrifice to Baal together...Baal being a non entity in truth.  God says in 2 Kgs.10:30 
  “Because you have done well what I deem right, and have treated the house of Ahab as I desire, your sons to the fourth generation shall sit upon the throne of Israel.”
     "done well"...."what I deem right"....that couplet seems to protect against Aquinas' idea that the "evil results from any single defect" in an act.  God is praising the process and the result not just the result.

Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P. said...

I fear that your examples are not telling the way you want them to be. For example, in the case of the Canaanite woman, where is the lie? The fact is that Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Granted, this did not exclude helping those outside of Israel (e.g. the centurion, the Gerasene demoniac, etc.). However, on Thomas' view (and the classic view), knowingly allowing someone to draw the wrong conclusion from what you say is not lying. It might circumstantially be wrong on other grounds. Still, it is not what lying is about. So, I am afraid this first case does not at all do what you suggest it does.

The same can be said of the story of Jehu in 2 Kings. As we read, Jehu not only tells the followers of Baal that there will be a sacrifice to Baal, but indeed he actually performs such a sacrifice (2 Kings 10:24-25). Granted, Baal does not exist, but Jehu knows that. Even so, "sacrificing to Baal" is something one can do. When an adult tells a child that they are going to visit "Santa Claus," the adult does not think by the phrase "Santa Claus" to mean "the magical man who actually lives in the North Pole, etc." but rather "that man at the shopping mall playing the role of the magical man, etc." There is no lying in this case, although there is an allowance of deception. (I am bracketing here the question of the parent telling the child about Santa Claus visiting the house and bringing presents in the first place!) So, for Jehu to say "let's offer sacrifice to Baal" is for him to mean "let's gather to do that meaningless and idolatrous rite that you do."

So, as you see, the examples you present are precisely those which Thomas' rightly flexible approach to truth-telling allows as morally permissible (and even possibly, in dire circumstances, as with Jehu, even morally praiseworthy). The key to understanding here is that you have been too loose in your definition of untruth, and this looseness has let you miss the care and precision in Thomas' analysis (and, we should admit, the classic Christian analysis) of the ethics of truthfulness.

bill bannon said...

Go back and look at the details you did not address:
1. " I was sent ONLY to the lost sheep....". You expound as though Christ never said ONLY....Vulgate uses nisi to express that sense of only...(ipse autem respondens ait non sum missus nisi ad oves quae perierunt domus Israhel
2. That really Jehu did not sacrifice REALLY to Baal....hence the lie and the further lie that they would be killed if they did not attend when in fact they would more surely be killed without any escaping if they did attend.
3. The Solomon case you skipped....wherein Solomon
leads the two women to believe that the baby is about to
be split in half with a sword....and this lie is critical to the happy ending.

Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P. said...

To the 1st: Actually, what Jesus says is quite literally true. His mission, i.e. his earthly mission, was only to the lost sheep of Israel. He was not sent, as such, to bring the Canaanites to faith. Hence, there is nothing even remotely false in Jesus' claim. Of course, he knowingly tells the woman this so as to solicit from her a conversion and a response in faith. That is, he is willing to allow her to take the claim to mean "I am sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, and therefore I will have nothing to do with you," so that she can make her act of faith. Note, however, that there is nothing in being sent "only" for one purpose to prevent also doing something else per accidens, if you will, and not quoad finem.

To the second: You are really stretching here. By your logic, the early Christians ought not to have scrupled about offering incense to the genius of the Emperor since the genius of the Emperor was a non-entity, and therefore they were not doing anything except burning incense. One of the reasons sacrifices to Baal were wicked, of course, is that they were motivated by false belief. Even so, the sacrifice to Baal led by Jehu was as real as any sacrifice the priests of Baal ever offered. So, there was no lie. He did exactly what they had always done.

Second, there is no lie in the threat to kill them should they not attend. That threat was surely accurate. From what we know of Jehu in 2 Kings 10, he would surely have carried this threat out! They may have been led to a false sense of security in coming, thinking he would *not* kill them if they should come. Of course, Jehu never said anything of the sort. Indeed, he even let them sacrifice to Baal, which is exactly what he said they would do.

To the third: I saw no reason to attend to every objection, but as you want to insist on it, here we go. To take you last point first. The lie is not so much critical to the happy ending as the true mother's willingness to part from her own child as well as the false mother's willingness to see the child killed and her fellow harlot suffer the loss of a child as well. Most Biblical threats, whether by God or kings, contained the implied clause that the right behavior on the part of those being judged will lead to the threat not being carried out. This is not a matter of lying or truth-telling; it is a question of genre and context. Because of Solomon's wisdom, he knew he would not have to carry the threat out. Still, a threat can be real and no lie if it truly relates the only other alternative.

Ultimately, you are eliding the relationship between external speech and internal thought (which is the classic perspective) and the relationship between the words and the external state of affairs. While these are not unrelated, the moral analysis of truth-telling is more bound up in the former than the latter.

bill bannon said...

I see no truth in your response concerning Christ. I get the sense that defending Aquinas is primary to you. He was wonderful...I read virtually the whole ST....he was not infallible but a catechism avoids all complications if it follows him in this question.
Jehu was lying within battle so his fake sacrifice gave scandal to no one unlike the early Christian cases. Solomon's lie being compared to the conditional threats of God is off base: Solomon unlike God was never going to cut the child in half and would have stopped the soldier had he been faced with two disinterested prostitutes who both
stole the child from a third woman....a scenario he could not rule out.
Adios. We are going nowhere fast. Thanks for your incredible whole burnt offering which is your vocation in this difficult time.

Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P. said...

Dear Bill, thank you for your prayers for my vocation. You might reconsider, though, your first comment re: my defending Aquinas as primary as it imputes rather bad will to me. I will presume you do not mean it in this sense. Thomas, of course, on this matter is passing on a more ancient lore re: truth-telling, and he does it especially well. Said differently, nothing in what I have written intends to ascribe any infallibility to the Angelic Doctor. Still, the authority of his argument is to be seen in the many and holy people who, engaging the Scriptures, come to more or less the same conclusions. So, while you may see no truth in what I have written, Christians holier and brighter than either of us have.

You might want to consider, re: Solomon, God's command to Abraham that he sacrifice Isaac or, more to the point here, his explicit threat in Jonah that Nineveh was to be overthrown in forty days. Note that God does not give Jonah the message, "If you do not repent, forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown." I worry that, on your reading of truth-telling, God's indicative threat (i.e. Nineveh will be overthrown) would be a lie. I suspect you would not care for that conclusion.

I think I read Solomon's gift of wisdom rather more richly than you are willing to grant. That is, I take the story to indicate not that Solomon was hoping for the best, but rather that his divinely-gifted insight into the human heart assured him that there would not be a bad outcome. The point of the story, after all, is to show the wisdom of Solomon, his insight into the ways of things, so his being able to rule things out was clearly part of his gift (as, in a parallel way, Daniel's wisdom is seen in the case of Susanna in which Daniel both knows Susanna is innocent and the judges guilty and he, being wise beyond his years, need not worry that his examination would lead to Susanna's death).

Thank you for your comments. I am sorry that you feel we have gone "nowhere fast." Surely the point of disputation is not merely, in short order, to lead the disputant to yield his point!

Pax in Christo!