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Readers on Lying

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 15, 2008

The response to last Friday’s column on lying has been remarkable (see Is It Ever Right to Lie?). Many readers have offered their own viewpoints on this complex matter in an exchange of ideas which has been both pleasant and instructive. Every opinion was worth serious consideration. I’ll summarize a few of these observations here.

The question at the center of the column was whether it can ever be morally right to communicate false information. Most correspondents saw the difficulties this question presents, and enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on it. Among those offering solutions, the vast majority addressed only the “thugs at the door” scenario, making no attempt to apply their proposed solution to other kinds of falsehoods commonly considered legitimate (e.g., jokes, misleading statements to protect privacy, undercover police work, reasons of state, wartime intelligence operations, and so on).

Of the solutions proposed, the most common was what I would call “wide” mental reservation. A number of readers suggested that we must interpret what the thugs are really asking (i.e., they appear to be asking if someone is present to be killed), and then we must answer that question with a simple "No", meaning “No, there is no one here you can kill.” Similar solutions have been proposed by the moralists of the mental reservation school, and this is not a position that can be dismissed lightly. Nonetheless, this sort of equivocation is so internal to the speaker’s mind that it is difficult to escape absurdity when we apply it to more ordinary situations. May we really mentally construe the meaning of any conversation as we please and then respond with words which, while apparently clear to the other party, really mean whatever we want them to mean? Taken as a general norm, this raises serious questions.

Some other respondents thought that the right to know must be part of the solution, even if the Catechism did not commit to it. Their argument is that the Catechism’s definition of lying (speaking falsely with the intention to deceive) is correct but perhaps not yet complete. This definition might, without essential contradiction, be one day developed into the definition temporarily found in the initial edition: speaking falsely with an intention to deceive one who has the right to know. This is certainly a possibility, and it would cover many—probably all—hard cases. (The one category this would obviously not cover is jokes, but it can be argued that jokes do not constitute a real difficulty, because deception must be both exceedingly transitory and immediately followed by truth in order to qualify as innocent humor.) However, as several correspondents pointed out, the “right to know” raises its own questions, and a further application of that right to the problem of lying might have to await a better understanding than we now possess.

Others wondered whether the key to the riddle could be found in the motive of the speaker. On this reading, if our intention is to do serious moral good by communicating falsely (as opposed to acting from petty motives, for mere self-agrandizement, or in order to do evil), the intention alone may be sufficient to color the morality of our speech, such that at the very least we may avoid the subjective guilt of sin. Still others speculated on whether an analysis of the lesser of two evils might not come into play in some situations, for example in choosing to lie rather than be complicit in a murder. Finally, two correspondents affirmed categorically that all falsehoods are lies and that all lies are evil. These maintained that one may either speak the truth or avoid speaking it, but never speak falsely. If this opinion is correct, then the fact that most well-formed Catholics do not hold it (as seems confirmed by the correspondence) simply means that most of us are wrong. As I said at the outset, each of these positions is worth serious consideration.

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