Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them
I’m going to follow up my post on Live Action and Lila Rose with a more general post on lying, because it sparked quite a heated debate. At the outset I want to say that I don’t condemn people outright who believe it is morally acceptable to use deception to expose evil, but I do believe that they are wrong. Moreover, I believe that the ferocity of some people in defense of this position is completely unwarranted and unreasonable; there have been notable Catholic saints and thinkers on both sides of this question throughout history, and so it hardly seems right or fair to violently denounce a fellow Catholic for taking up one position or the other.
Before I talk about lying, I want to talk about consequentialism. As I understand it, as the word is typically used, it is a point of view that looks only or primarily to the consequences of an act to determine whether or not it is morally right.
Because certain people, and I believe we all know who they are, have abused this term, others have upped the absurdity ante and will not take seriously any mention of consequentialism. However it is an actual problem, and it is actually wrong. Consequentialism is the opposite of total indifferentism to consequences, which I believe is just as disordered. Consequences do matter, and must be taken into consideration. But they are not the most important factor, and I believe most of us know this.
We must speak about consequentialism because many people wish to justify sting operations on the grounds that they do good, and in the case of Live Action, they may even save lives. I find this justification dubious since it isn’t clear that any particular lives are being saved form immanent death, but rather that the murderous operations of an abortion mill may at some point in the future be hindered. Certainly among the many factors we would consider is the immediacy of the harm that is supposedly prevented by the lie.
That being said, even in cases where the immediacy would be evident, it can be argued that it is still not permissible to lie, not even when a life is at stake. Many have already mentioned the absolute prohibition on lying favored by St. Augustine. To this I will add that of Pope Innocent III:
Holy Scripture forbids us to lie even to save a man’s life. If, then, we allow the lie of necessity, there seems to be no reason from the theological point of view for not allowing occasional murder and fornication when these crimes would procure great temporal advantage; the absolute character of the moral law will be undermined, it will be reduced to a matter of mere expediency.*
There are two things about this quote I want to expand on here.
The first thing worth noting is that Innocent III is completely right; if we can allow the “lie of convenience” to save lives, why not other intrinsic evils? Pro-lifers usually reject the argument that there should be allowances for abortion in order to “save the life of the mother”, though some who wear the label do make the exception, as do some who call themselves Catholics. Though I’m not sure it is ever actually necessary to kill an unborn child to save its mother, suppose it were? What if, in a more drastic scenario, a thousand lives could somehow be saved by consenting to one abortion?
We Catholic pro-lifers can easily understand why it is never acceptable to kill an innocent human being, but how does that argument fly with others when you are arguing that it is ok to lie when it is convenient or expedient? They can point to an inconsistency in your moral criteria, and you can only respond by saying that murder is worse than lying. You would even likely have to reduce deliberate, premeditated deceptions from mortal to venial sins. Not the lie told in a moment of panic and weakness, but the lie you planned out a month ago with 10 other people and meticulously executed.
And this brings me to the second point worth noting in Innocent III’s words: the phrase temporal advantage.
This is applied even to the saving of a person’s life. And it hearkens back to St. Augustine’s quip that, faced with a question by a dying man when the truth will likely kill him, it would be better for the dying man to lose his body than for the other to lose his soul. This way of thinking of course does not readily come to mind for many of us. Some of us have elevated the preservation of human life even above the preservation of the supernatural life of the soul, if not in true belief than in rhetoric. This will ultimately be to our detriment. We also believe that it is our job to save the world from evil, or again our rhetoric conveys this message. I have been guilty of this in the past.
But in truth, I don’t see saving lives as the highest possible good, through which all or almost all sins can be excused. I see saving souls as the highest good, and no sin at all can be excused in that endeavor. I would rather be struck dead in a state of grace tomorrow than live another 50 years with a troubled conscience. And truth be told, I would wish the same for anyone I loved.
Or maybe I am really just a naive child at heart, who still believes in the literal meaning of the phrase “we can never do evil, even if good will come of it”, or that we are supposed to emulate God “who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” Sometimes the truth hurts. And sometimes a lie can save a life. But we can never forget the warning of Christ:
And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Of course I predict that some will try to use these arguments against me as it pertains to gun ownership, killing in self-defense, just wars, and the like, assuming I promote evil when it suits me. But the same Pope Innocent III who categorically condemned lying lived and reigned during the Crusades, and even ordered a few himself. My opposition to lying has nothing to do with the sort of Kantianism or something-elseism that is likely to accompany a whole range of modernist, liberal ideas about self-defense and warfare. And as I have made clear, I value the life of the soul more than the life of the body. So while we may disagree on when killing counts as self-defense, or when a war is just or unjust, that isn’t the same as disagreeing over whether or not it can be right to commit murder or invade another country without provocation.
So, go ahead, do your worst in the comment boxes. Per Matt. 10:28, it ain’t you I fear.
*I could not find the original source of this quote. It is mentioned in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on lying, but quoted in a presentation on the morality of lying here. I trust it is authentic, but if anyone knows otherwise, let us know.