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Is it ever justifiable to lie?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 16, 2011

The bold pro-life activists of Live Action have been spectacularly successful in unmasking Planned Parenthood, and demonstrating how the world’s leading abortion provider shows its cool indifference to the welfare of young women. But the group’s unusual tactics—arranging ‘sting’ operations using false identities and hidden cameras—has produced another interesting benefit. For the past month, we have seen a lively debate among moralists on the question of whether it is ever justifiable to lie.

Arriving late to the debate, I want to make two things clear at the outset:

First, the success of the Live Action campaign does not necessarily mean that the group’s tactics are justified. A good end does not justify the use of immoral means. Thus it is not an adequate response to say that if Live Action operatives had not misled Planned Parenthood staffers, they would not have been able to expose that organization’s corruption. If the means were immoral, it would have been better not to employ them, regardless of the outcome.

Second, some critics of Live Action’s tactics have impeccable pro-life credentials. It is unfair to suggest (as, I fear, some Catholic Culture readers have suggested) that the moralists might think differently if they were actively engaged in the pro-life cause. Few Americans have done more for that cause than Robert George, to name one example. Yet George has argued that the Live Action tactics are unjustifiable.

Like others who take a similar view, George argues that it is always wrong to lie. If that is the case—if misleading someone is inherently wrong—then the circumstances are largely irrelevant. The end cannot justify the means. If there are no exceptions to the rule that it’s wrong to tell a lie, the argument is over.

Moreover, the belief that lying is always and intrinsically wrong has some formidable proponents. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas advanced that view. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2485) teaches: “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”

But if a lie is always wrong, what exactly is a lie? Are there times when it is permissible to deceive people—when a deception is not a lie? The Catechism (2482) defines the term: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” Then, to clarify further, the Catechism (2483) says: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”

At this point the argument seems almost overwhelming. Live Action did intend to deceive the Planned Parenthood staff members. If lying “by nature” is condemned, is there any way to avoid condemning the Live Action tactics?

There may be. The original edition of the Catechism had provided a slightly different definition of lying: “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.” [emphasis added] The highlighted phrase was edited out of the final, authoritative version of the Catechism.

Of course, the fact that the Catechism is authoritative does not mean that its wording is perfect. A loyal Catholic might argue that the original wording was preferable, and certainly the exclusion of that critical phrase from the final edition does not mean that the original statement was wrong. Still, it is easy to understand why Church leaders would want to tighten the definition, eliminating a tempting justification for falsehood. If I am already inclined to tell a lie, I will very likely be inclined to rationalize that the person to whom I am lying does not deserve the truth.

Still the loophole implied by the original wording of the Catechism definition seems to match a common-sense moral judgment that many—if not most—people would make. Even when I am not tempted to lie, when my own interests are not at stake—when I am, in fact, sitting at my desk trying to frame this argument—I can readily see circumstances in which a lie seems easily justifiable.

Many of those involved in the debate about Live Action tactics have brought up the same example: You are a member of a Dutch family, hiding Jews from the Nazi extermination campaign during World War II. The Gestapo come to your door, and ask if there are any Jews inside. Are you justified in saying No? I think so; I think most people will agree.

Hadley Arkes has drawn the same point further. If you always object to lies and deception, you cannot approve of spying or police undercover operations. Indeed, Arkes argues, you should not serve in public office if you feel compelled to tell the unvarnished truth under all circumstances.

Janet Smith (a moral theologian who has earned an enviable reputation for defending Catholic teachings even in the “tough cases”) has asked whether there is a distinction to be made: whether there are some circumstances in which deception is morally justifiable. Those who do evil should not expect that we will be fully candid with them, she suggests—in what appears to be a variation on the theme of the original Catechism definition. Perhaps, she writes, by making that distinction explicit, we can clarify and develop the teaching of the Church.

Peter Kreeft adds another perspective, noting that the critics of Live Action’s tactics rely on abstract moral reasoning, whereas our natural sense—our moral intuition—points in a different direction. The lessons of experience must be taken into account, he argues, just as surely as the lessons of logic.

Building on that point, let me observe that most people tolerate and even applaud deception in some cases—not only under extreme circumstances (such as the sheltering of Jews from Nazis), but even in everyday life. We accept “little white lies” for comparatively frivolous reasons, and feel no pangs of conscience about them. Even St. Augustine, whose position on this question is as rigorous as anyone’s, allowed that lies are not immoral when they are told as jokes. Someone listening to a joke is not deceived, so there is no offense against truth. But consider these cases, in which there the intent to deceive is unmistakable:

  • An attractive teenage girl tells a male classmate that she would like to accompany him to the dance, but unfortunately she is busy. The truth is that she finds him revolting and would be embarrassed to be seen in his company; she spares him that truth.
  • A clumsy guest knocks a vase off your table, shattering it. You tell him not to worry, that the vase is a cheap old thing. Actually it is a beloved family heirloom, but you are a genial host, and want to set your guest at ease.
  • A neighbor invites you to dinner, and serves unpalatable food. You choke it down, smile, and announce that you are enjoying it.
  • You plan a surprise party for your spouse. When the day comes, you say that you need help picking up a few things from a friend’s house—where dozens of people are hiding behind the door, ready to shout: “Happy Birthday!”

In each of these cases, telling the truth would have caused only some mild discomfort. Yet most of us, I feel sure, would applaud the deceptions. Why? Are we really slaves to social convention, so that we would rather be “nice” than uphold the truth? I think not. I think another factor is at work here.

The above cases do not represent weighty moral problems, I admit. But for that very reason, they cast some doubt (in my mind, at least) on the proposition that deception is always morally wrong. If there are no justifiable exceptions to the rule against lying, why are we, in practice, willing to make exceptions—to justify what would seem unjustifiable—for such trivial reasons? If, on the other hand, there are exceptions to the rule—if there are times when deception is justified—then Janet Smith is right, and there are more distinctions to be made. I do not know how to make those distinctions; I leave that to more qualified moralists. But I feel sure there are distinctions to be made.

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Show 16 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Solzy2004 - Apr. 08, 2011 12:43 AM ET USA

    I'm very uncomfortable with people who make the "it's NEVER OK to lie" argument without distinctions. I'd never be able to be relax with them, to be truly their friend (maybe they wouldn't want me! '-). They're like fundamentalists. Maybe their "It's never OK to lie" IS a LIE!

  • Posted by: paul20105493 - Mar. 29, 2011 5:37 PM ET USA

    Another measure that isn't mentioned in the article or any of the responses so far is love. Is the person telling the falsehood doing it out of love for others? I think this would excuse all four of the simple examples. The person lying to the Nazis would be acting out of love for the hidden Jews & without malice to the Nazis. I believe that Live Action is acting out of love for the unborn children & without malice toward Planned Parenthood - only to stop them, which is loving toward them too.

  • Posted by: aakog2612 - Mar. 20, 2011 10:08 PM ET USA

    I agree with the strict definition of a lie and would argue that in the four examples given there is always an option that's neither a lie nor hurting the other person. They might go something like: - No thank you. I think I will be going to the dance with Bob (if she is an attractive girl she probably has an idea who else would be asking her out and to whom she would say "yes" to). This would not be uncharitable nor constitute a lie

  • Posted by: atila9565 - Mar. 19, 2011 2:42 PM ET USA

    Phil, the social examples that you bring forth show one thing: without these "white lies", life in society would be unbearable. Surely some more fine grained distinctions must be made.

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Mar. 19, 2011 12:24 PM ET USA

    The Reverend William G. Most once told me that one must always be prepared to make distnictions, that truth is not invariably simple and easily understood. Too many, even of the highest moral probity, find it much simpler to make absolute statements about complex moral issues than to deal with messy reality. Cardinal Newman once said that he would attack the murderer rather than tell him the woman ran to the right rather than the left. But he admitted others might think differently.

  • Posted by: jflare293129 - Mar. 19, 2011 7:22 AM ET USA

    Live Action intended deceit? That's questionable. "Deceit" usually implies a right to know something and reason to act in a particular manner based on information. The stings provided opportunities for PP staff to demonstrate knowledge of law and intent to act. If we want "deceit", look at PP's assertion that they provide critical health services to women. We all know what "services" PP provides. Hint: They don't hand out health pills.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Mar. 18, 2011 11:45 PM ET USA

    Many will be familiar with the concept of "mental reservation" by which someone may withhold the truth or even deceive those with no right to it. So in the case of PP and Life Action, One might say, "If I told you my Friend here needed an abortion could you help me?" So no "lie" is told. (no assertion made) but the listener could deceive themselves. In general The church has used this kind of logic to justify, "undercover work" Watch the video of live action and one sees they proceed similarly.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Mar. 18, 2011 10:05 PM ET USA

    It is a tricky issue, but my sympathies are with LiveAction. I do think however they should be very careful not to subject any particular private person to public scorn. The name and face of the individual targeted should be concealed, and LiveAction supporters should strive to avoid a triumphalist tone. It would be a tragedy if a humiliated person decided to commit suicide and there are precedents for this. Then it would certainly be impossible to justify the deception.

  • Posted by: tturner3998 - Mar. 18, 2011 9:18 PM ET USA

    If our words were not sacred they could be thrown away on falsehoods. But they are sacred because the Word was with God and the Word was God. Why is God called the Word? He guarantees us meaning forever. This Eternal Word is Truth itself and cannot lie. Likewise, in our own small way, we must not lie so we can be more like God Who loves us.

  • Posted by: Antigone - Mar. 18, 2011 9:08 PM ET USA

    Allow me to clarify my previous comment. This isn't to say that Phil Lawler's piece is lacking in charity, because it clearly is not. Mr. Lawler, you are simply engaging in the intellectual pursuit of truth. However, too often around the web (and here I am referring mainly to comments on blogs, articles, etc.) the attacks on George, Tollefsen, Grisez et al's arguments have been mean, petty and personal. I don't see how this convinces any person of good will that George et al are wrong.

  • Posted by: Antigone - Mar. 18, 2011 9:03 PM ET USA

    I have been deeply disturbed by the lack of charity many pro-lifers have exhibited in the blogosphere towards those pro-life thinkers who have argued that Live Action committed wrongdoing by lying. I can't think of a single moralist whom I've read making the argument that lying is always wrong who hasn't also argued in an almost always hostile secular world that abortion is wrong. In fact, it has made me want to side with George et al. more, since after all, "By their fruits shall ye know them."

  • Posted by: kman - Mar. 17, 2011 2:40 PM ET USA

    IMHO...Live Action did not lie because they made no type of assertion that they were telling factual statements. If they would have attempted to actally take service under their pretense, then it would be lying because their action would have asserted that their words were to be taken as factual. PP *assumed* that their statements were factual and responded as they wished....exactly why sidewalk theater is not lying either.

  • Posted by: Skip - Mar. 17, 2011 11:05 AM ET USA

    Milliions of innocent babies will die this year by the ravage of abortion. I suspect if we really think about this brutal reality (i.e. the procedure itself), there would be no argument. If the babies could speak, they would scream for help. Would we stand by arguing whether or not it is moral to decieve PP to help these innocent children? I think not. I understand the slippery slope, but in some ways, this is a ridiculous argument. To be "real," let us get out there and help!

  • Posted by: jmjgrogan2399 - Mar. 17, 2011 5:46 AM ET USA

    I support the actions of Live Action, but I have two comments. 1 Why hasn't just war theory been invoked in this debate? 2 Planned Parenthood is a group of liars and criminals. Live Action used a proof by contradiction to demonstrate that. (Assume that PP will do the right thing. Then let them think I'm doing something illegal to show that they wont do the right thing.)

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Mar. 16, 2011 11:56 PM ET USA

    I've pointed out in my blog (http://epiph.blogspot.com/2011/02/defending-lila-rose.html) that the Hebrew midwives, Rahab and Judith all practiced outright deception and lying and were subsequently blessed. Mark Shea has rejected my argument (http://www.ncregister.com/blog/last-comments-on-lying-for-jesus), but it seems the Scriptural precedent is that it is OK to deceive in order to save innocent human life. When it comes down to it, the Incarnation itself was the biggest deception ever.

  • Posted by: Pop - Mar. 16, 2011 9:51 PM ET USA

    This is a must read for anyone seriously interested in living in reality.

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