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Is It Ever Right to Lie?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 11, 2008

The moral question of lying is one of the most interesting and most difficult to resolve perfectly and precisely. It has occupied the attention of moral theologians since the Patristic Age, yet we still don’t have a complete understanding of what “lying” means. Most of us have a deep intuition that it is morally acceptable to speak falsely in some circumstances, but the Church has not yet offered an official explanation as to why this is the case. Presumably, there is room for doctrinal development here, and I find the question fascinating.

The Lie Problem

Using an example to illustrate the chief difficulty, let’s consider the case of a man with a house guest whom a group of thugs wants to murder. The thugs come to the door. Because they don’t wish to create an outcry before they’re sure they’ve found their quarry (giving him time to escape, for example, from a neighboring house), they don’t force their way in to search. Instead, they knock on the door and simply ask whether their intended victim is within. Note that this case is not unlike the classic example of Christians hiding Jews from the Nazis. In both cases, the problem is simple: If you answer the door, and you don’t trust the thugs’ intentions, do you have to tell the truth?

The vast majority of well-formed Catholics would answer this question in the negative. Under these circumstances, it is perfectly permissible to deceive the thugs at the door. But even well-formed Catholics can’t explain why this is the case, or at least they can’t explain it in a way which is universally-accepted by sound moral theologians down through the ages, nor in a way that has (yet) been endorsed by the Magisterium of the Church. Most of us believe we can (and indeed should) lie under these circumstances, but we don’t know exactly why. This problem so agitated Catholic thinkers during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that their less subtle Protestant brethren began to question whether Catholics believed in telling the truth.

What Constitutes a Lie?

It is best to begin our own examination with a definition of “lying”, and indeed some theologians believe that the solution must be found in the definition, much as “murder” is always wrong but “killing” is not. One of the stronger theological traditions, endorsed by Aquinas and rooted in Augustine, is that lying is speaking deliberately contrary to one’s own mind. (Throughout this discussion, “speaking” means any sort of communication.) This was the most common definition among the Scholastics, and it became a staple of theological manuals in the first part of the 20th century. As Fr. John Hardon puts it in the Modern Catholic Dictionary, “When a person tells a lie, he or she deliberately says something that is contrary to what is on that person’s mind; there is a real opposition between what one says and what one thinks” (an opposition that cannot be merely apparent, explained by ignorance or misstatement).

The first thing to notice is that this definition emphasizes the moral intentionality of lying; the truth itself is not necessarily contradicted. If a person thinks something is true and deliberately states something to the contrary, he has incurred the moral guilt of lying. While this may be so subjectively, it leaves open the possibility that such a person, believing a falsehood, could actually speak the truth by speaking against his own mind.

Because this definition is divorced from the objective truth or falsity of the statement, many theologians have sought an alternative definition. Some have proposed that the proper definition of “lying” is “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” In the early 20th century, the article on “Lying” in the highly-regarded Catholic Encyclopedia dismissed this definition (though it is also traceable to Augustine) as a new and minor opinion which raised more problems than it solved. By the late 20th century, however, it was precisely this definition that made it into the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see #2482).

The definition in the Catechism has the virtue of anchoring a lie in objective reality. To be properly termed a lie, a statement must fulfill two conditions: (a) It must be objectively false; (b) It must be spoken with the intention to deceive. This definition also makes it easier to dismiss falsehoods obviously told in jest (though supporters of the other definition could argue that a falsehood told in jest is not in any meaningful way contrary to one’s own mind), but it does not as easily capture the moral failure of the person who intends to lie but, because his understanding is wrong, inadvertently tells the truth. And neither definition appears to address the question of why it is moral to lie to murderous thugs.

Refined Definitions and Exceptions

Some moralists have argued that we are obliged to state the strict truth no matter what the consequences, on the principle that the end does not justify the means. But this makes a presumption that most thinkers would not admit: that the only reason to shy away from the truth is fear of an evil consequence. In the case of the murderous thugs, however, most people really believe it would be morally evil to reveal the location of the intended victim. It is, in fact, something that only an unimaginative coward would do. Other moralists argue that we are not strictly obliged to speak the truth, but we must not speak falsely. We may, for example, try to change the subject, keep silence, or openly refuse to answer. However, even very moral onlookers might well ask, somewhat contemptuously, whether this was the best we could do. Therefore, to more effectively address this critical problem, a great many moralists have tried either to tweak the definition or to suggest grounds for exceptions.

For example, proponents of the first definition have sometimes argued that a person is not really speaking against his own mind if his conscience instructs him to say something false (for example, to save an innocent person). This is internally consistent, and we must certainly follow our conscience, but the explanation does not provide any principle by which to properly form the conscience. Therefore, its very subjectivity renders it morally unhelpful.

Other proponents of the first definition have proposed that the problem can be resolved through mental reservation. For example, if you ask an attorney whether his client is guilty, he may properly answer “I don’t know”, and intelligent people in his culture will understand that this means “I have no communicable information to impart.” Hence the attorney uses a mental reservation about what he means by the words “I don’t know,” but it is a mental reservation understandable by all parties (termed a “wide” mental reservation). The problem with mental reservation theory is that it can make truth-telling dependent on one’s capacity for spur-of-the-moment mental sleight-of-hand (often called “strict” mental reservation). For example, if you’ve been playing baseball in the street (again!) and you break your neighbor’s window, the neighbor may run out and demand to know whether you did it. Under some theories of mental reservation, you can answer “No” if you are really thinking “No, I did not break it with my bat; it was the ball that broke it.” Such equivocations, whose true sense is determined only by the mind of the speaker, were condemned by the Holy See as early as 1679, but more serious explorations of mental reservation have continued. Some versions of the theory were widely endorsed well into the 20th century.

Still other thinkers have taken a completely different tack, arguing that the immorality of lying admits of exceptions. Some have argued that one is not obligated to tell the truth to an enemy, or that political leaders may speak falsely for reasons of state. Most thinkers in this camp would argue that, just as one can morally kill in self-defense or in defense of another, one can morally lie to save a life. The problem here is that once murder is properly defined, the need for exceptions disappears. Murder is a special class of killing, commonly defined as the deliberate taking of “innocent life”, and it is not murder to kill an unjust aggressor, for the unjust aggressor has lost his “innocence”, that is, he has forfeited the right to have his life preserved in these circumstances. The better question, then, is whether a more precise definition of “lying” can be situated within a broader category of “speaking falsely” in order to achieve similar clarity.

One effort to do so has gained considerable favor among theologians in the last hundred years. This is the proposal to tweak the definition of lying as follows: “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.” This sentence, in fact, is taken from the initial edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2483). When the Catechism was first published, there was some speculation that the Holy See had finally decided to throw at least a modicum of Magisterial weight behind this solution to our dilemma. For this definition enables us to handle lying and falsehood in a manner very similar to the way we handle murder and killing. Through a person’s intention to use particular knowledge for an evil end, that person would presumably forfeit his right to know. Thus it would be morally acceptable to speak a falsehood to the murderous thugs. But we would no more call this “lying” than we would call an act of self-defense “murder”.

Not Yet Resolved

Alas, the matter is not so easily resolved. For, as it turns out, when the official Latin text of the Catechism was released (after a process of revision in the original vernacular languages), the right to know was dropped. The operative sentence now reads simply: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” This does not mean that the original formulation was wrong, but it does mean that the editors of the Catechism were not prepared to endorse it in an official Catholic reference work. One can imagine that a great deal of consultation and discussion preceded the very few textual changes that were finally made. In the end, then, the Catechism does not directly address our problem.

The Catechism, of course, is not an infallible text. In promulgating a catechism, the Pope does not intend to issue a series of definitive magisterial teachings on every topic it covers; rather, the book is intended as a convenient reference work, carefully assembled, reviewed and monitored by Church officials. Nonetheless, the Catechism represents a considerable weight of ecclesiastical opinion on the side of a definition which incorporates both objective reality and human intentionality: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (a citation from Augustine), and “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” (Again, see numbers 2482 and 2483.) And while our question is neither directly addressed nor ultimately settled, the emphasis on the intention to deceive does suggest another possible line of thought. For, when we speak falsely to our murderous thugs, we may at least question whether our intention is to deceive. Presumably, that intention—if it consciously exists at all—is very secondary. What we primarily intend is to prevent them from doing evil.

It would satisfy a well-formed conscience, I think, to permit the speaking of falsehood when it is the only means we can think of to prevent someone from committing an immoral act. But if so, it is hard to reach such a conclusion only by denying the intention to deceive. There must be something more than that, for we could also say that when we lied to our boss last Wednesday, our intention was not to deceive but to save our skin. Clearly this is just one more possibility for exploration, and so far all the possibilities in history have not led to a formal doctrinal development which can settle the matter. Often such developments occur only when specific concerns (or errors) become so severe that the Magisterium is more or less forced to study a question and make a pronouncement . Happily, I am not aware that the Church’s imprecision on this question has ever led to a great heresy or to a widespread and dangerous confusion. For most of us, the moral challenge is to find the courage to tell the truth instead of “spinning” it for our own petty purposes. Still, the question is very interesting and not at all unimportant. At the very least, it reminds us of the need to attend carefully to our own moral formation, while relishing the sheer intellectual adventure of exploring Truth.

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