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Interfering with the Eschaton: Why Lying Is Wrong

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Lying

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series on the morality of lying. Our first post came Tuesday from Deacon Jim Russell. Yesterday we hard from Patheos atheist blogger James Croft. Today we hear from Catholic blogger Leah Libresco.


 

"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." – 1 Cor 13:1

 
In his essay on the ethics of lying, James Croft correctly says he worries when humans aren’t unsettled by their moral laws. We are imperfect, so we should expect to jostle against ethical injunctions, either because we struggle to live them out, or because our limited vision has caused us to formulate them clumsily.

So when we run into a dilemma like “Nazis at the door, Jews in the attic” or the more quotidian “friend prompted me to give an unflattering opinion” it’s an opportunity to examine our moral assumptions. Croft concludes that truth-telling is good insofar as it promotes the common good. So, honesty may be correct most of the time, but we shouldn’t be rigidly committed to that ideal, lest we become blind to the harm we may do to the people we’re speaking to.

Lying to save a life is a bit like concussing the Gestapo officer at the door. It’s a solution, and it may be the best of a set of bad options, but there’s a wound involved. A sin is a sin, even if the outcome was, on net, good from a consequentialist perspective. You still breached a duty or ruptured the relationship you ought to have with the officer at the door. The fact that you’re lying is a cue that something has gone wrong, whether upstream of your present moment in time or in this instant.

The strict Catholic edict against lying also springs from an awareness of our audience as people, moral agents, or adopted children of God (however you’d like to phrase it). Deceiving is choosing to make it hard for your target to understand the world around them. You’re introducing noise and bias into their signal, interfering with their ability to perceive and respond to the world and people around them.

I like to think of lying (actively or passively) as a special case of a general problem. In her Young Wizards series, Diane Duane would call it being pro-entropy. I might call it interfering with the eschaton. The telos of humanity is to be healed of all divisions. The wounds we have inflicted on ourselves or on others will be closed up, and it will be possible to be wholly united with each other and with God. Lying to someone is creating distance between my target and the world-as-it-is. And I’m deepening the distance between myself and the person I am instrumentalizing.

So whether it’s by omission or commission, deception is a stumbling block. When we’re tempted to lead others astray, we should be suspicious of our own motives. And if it truly seems necessary, we should wonder whether we can fix the problem at the source. How did we end up so out of joint with our neighbor and is there anything we can do to diminish the distance between us? If you are lying to protect someone (from themselves or an external threat) can you also help make them stronger or address the danger?

Honesty is a starting point; you can take the duty to avoid passive deception much further. Humans are prone to any number of biases that make it hard to hear or notice the truth. You may be telling the truth when you use CAPS LOCK, but you’ve made it harder for your interlocutor to listen to you. Tone can be as effective a barrier to truth as misdirection. Chemist Linus Pauling suggested we need to do things that feel like overcompensation, in order to be effective. He wrote, “Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct for subjective error.”

Love begins by not placing any new obstacles in the way of our neighbors. And then we can go on to ask for help with the accidental and natural sources of confusion we encounter in our pursuit of truth.
 
 
(Image credit: 2elearning)

Leah Libresco

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Leah Libresco was raised in an atheist household before graduating from Yale University in 2011 with a BA in political science. She gained notoriety as an atheist blogger who focused on such diverse topics as math and morality. She often wrestled with Catholic ideas and her blog, titled “Unequally Yoked,” started as a place where she could interrogate and consider arguments raised by her then-boyfriend, a practicing Catholic. Readers were startled in June 2012 when Leah announced her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Leah has since been interviewed by CNN, MSNBC, and several other media outlets. Follow Leah through her blog, Unequally Yoked.

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  • 42Oolon

    I still do not see what is "wrong" at all, in any sense, with the lie to the Nazi. What is the wound? What has gone wrong is the Nazis, they are behaving immorally. The person lying is not only doing nothing wrong, but everything right. This person is being brave, heroic and selfless. This is still a "sin" that ruptures a relationship and breaches a duty? This is an act that an all-good and loving God would have some kind of a problem with? If there is a problem with this kind of conduct, any problem, then we have no idea what real morality truly is. I would suggest that the only reason there is any quibble is because Catholics have dedicated themselves to dogma that absolutely prohibits lying. This is a narrow, inflexible way of approaching morality which no one can or should follow.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "I would suggest that the only reason there is any quibble is because Catholics have dedicated themselves to dogma that absolutely prohibits lying. This is a narrow, inflexible way of approaching morality which no one can or should follow."

      Would you agree or disagree with that statement if we substitute "rape" for the word "lying":

      "I would suggest that the only reason there is any quibble is because Catholics have dedicated themselves to dogma that absolutely prohibits rape. This is a narrow, inflexible way of approaching morality which no one can or should follow."

      • 42Oolon

        Yes I would. There are circumstances in which a rapist should not be held morally responsible, but only, as far as I can tell where the rapist is doing so under duress. Such a situation is extremely hard for me to imagine, but I suppose possible. I think I heard such stories emanating from the Truth Commission in Sierra Leone.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "Yes I would. There are circumstances in which a rapist should not be held morally responsible, but only, as far as I can tell where the rapist is doing so under duress. Such a situation is extremely hard for me to imagine, but I suppose possible."

          42Oolon, thanks for the reply. You offer an interesting take, but I think you're confusing morality with culpability. The question I asked about whether the act of rape (or lying) is objectively immoral is a different question than whether someone is culpable (i.e., guilty) for that act.

          For example, I believe lying is objectively evil--that it is immoral in every case--but if someone manipulated my brain waves so as to *force* me to tell a lie against my will, I would not be culpable at all for committing evil (or "morally responsible", to use your language.) Similarly, someone forced to commit evil under threat of injury or death may have little to no culpability.

          But this is a totally different question than the one I asked. My question concerned the *morality* of particular acts. You criticized the Church for being narrow, inflexible, and dogmatic on the *morality* of lying by saying lying is always wrong. But I'm asking whether you'd agree with these statements:

          1) Is rape always wrong? (Or to ask it another way, when is it OK to rape someone?) Note, I'm not asking whether there are situations in which someone under duress is *not culpable* for committing rape. I'm asking whether you think there are situations in which the *act itself* is good--when it would be OK to rape someone.

          2) Is murder always wrong? (Note, by murder I mean killing an innocent person outside the context of war.) Are there situations in which you would consider murdering an innocent person to be good?

          • 42Oolon

            Sure under these qualifiers.

            1) rape is always wrong.

            2) murder is always wrong

            This is, to me with these qualifiers we have secluded specific types of sex and killing here, a set of these actions which I identify as wrong: non-consentual sex and unjustified killing of humans. We have used these words to specify the kinds of killing and sex which we find immoral. In other words you are asking me if immoral sex and immoral killing are always immoral. Yes I say they are.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "1) rape is always wrong.

            2) murder is always wrong

            This is, to me with these qualifiers we have secluded specific types of sex and killing here, a set of these actions which I identify as wrong: non-consentual sex and unjustified killing of humans. We have used these words to specify the kinds of killing and sex which we find immoral. In other words you are asking me if immoral sex and immoral killing are always immoral. Yes I say they are."

            Thanks for the reply, 42Oolon. I think I'm beginning to see where you're coming from.

            My issue though is that the "wrongness" of an act is a moral judgment. It must come from outside the act itself; it can't be include in the definition of a specific act. To define rape as "immoral sex" and murder as "immoral killing" is, I think, to beg the question. It's playing with definitions to assume what we're trying to determine (i.e., whether an act is immoral.)

            In you define rape as "immoral sex" you'll be forced to ask whether a specific act meets that definition. But that's essentially to ask whether the act is immoral. And as you can see, that puts us right back where we were before, wondering whether a particular act is immoral. Such definitions offer no help or clarification.

            To avoid that problem, I'd like to phrase my questions to you in another way:

            1) Is non-consensual sex always immoral?

            2) Is the unjustified killing of innocent human beings always immoral?

            Thanks!

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            My issue though is that the "wrongness" of an act is a moral judgment. It must come from outside the act itself; it can't be include in the definition of a specific act.

            It is not at all difficult to list things that are wrong by definition. For example, would it make sense to debate whether any of the following are sometimes not wrong: arson, assault, blasphemy, calumny, embezzlement, fraud, gluttony, larceny, libel, slander, defamation, vandalism, trespassing, robbery, harassment?

            In you define rape as "immoral sex" you'll be forced to ask whether a specific act meets that definition.

            I think that "immoral sex" is too broad a definition of rape, but with rape and all of the sins or crimes in my list above, what a person did is often not so much a matter of dispute as whether or not what he or she did—especially in the case of a jury trial—but whether or not it meets the definition of the crime that person is charged with. To repeat an example I gave earlier, no one disputed that George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The job of the jury was to determine whether what Zimmerman did met the definition of murder or manslaughter.

            1) Is non-consensual sex always immoral?

            Of course, consensual/nonconsensual is the reigning standard of the day, much to the chagrin of people who believe that most consensual sexual behavior you can think of between consenting adults is immoral, but standards do change. It was only in the last century that most countries criminalized spousal rape. The idea that a man could rape his wife is certainly not to be found in the Old Testament. Taking women capture in war as wives is sanctioned, and there is no hint that the women must give consent.

            2) Is the unjustified killing of innocent human beings always immoral?

            Shouldn't the question be, "Is the killing of a human being always immoral"? You have slipped two moral terms into the question.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "It is not at all difficult to list things that are wrong by definition. For example, would it make sense to debate whether any of the following are sometimes not wrong: arson, assault, blasphemy, calumny, embezzlement, fraud, gluttony, larceny, libel, slander, defamation, vandalism, trespassing, robbery, harassment?"

            But those are not particular acts; those are categories used to describe *kinds* of acts. Read carefully what I said: "the "wrongness" of [a particular] act is a moral judgment."

            "To repeat an example I gave earlier, no one disputed that George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The job of the jury was to determine whether what Zimmerman did met the definition of murder or manslaughter."

            I agree. My point, though, was that even *after* we answer the question of whether Zimmerman justifiably shot Trayvon, or whether it was an unwarranted killing, we still must answer the moral question: is it *objectively* immoral to shoot and kill and innocent person without warrant?

            We assume it is, both as individuals and in the courts. But my contention is that the atheist has no ground for such an assumption. While Christians root this position in the character and commands of God, I don't see how murder can be objectively wrong on atheism. If an atheist *does* think the unwarranted killing of an innocent person is objectively immoral--wrong for all people, in all places, at all times--he must offer reasons why this belief is morally binding on everyone.

            "Of course, consensual/nonconsensual is the reigning standard of the day, much to the chagrin of people who believe that most consensual sexual behavior you can think of between consenting adults is immoral, but standards do change."

            Help me better understand your position. Are you saying that consensuality is merely a subjective trait of moral sex? Do you believe that some day humans may decide that consensuality really doesn't matter and so it's completely moral to force women and children to have sex against their will? Or do you hold that rape is objectively wrong, regardless of what individuals or cultures believe?

            "Shouldn't the question be, "Is the killing of a human being always immoral"? You have slipped two moral terms into the question."

            No, I asked the question the way I intended. What I'm trying to determine is whether we can agree some specific acts--like non-consensual sex, or unjustified killing, or perhaps lying--are objectively immoral. This means they are wrong for everyone, everywhere, regardless of human opinion or consensus vote.

            If an atheist is unwilling to grant this, then several things follow. First, he cannot say any act is truly "evil." He can only say "that particular act disagrees with my subjective definition of right and wrong--criteria that may change in the future." Second, the problem of evil essentially vanishes since objective evil would only be an illusion.

            If an atheist agrees with the Christian on this, then a discussion about what *grounds* that objective morality necessarily follows.

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            By the way, Leah Libresco's case against lying is not a Catholic argument. It is basically utilitarian.

            The strict Catholic edict against lying also springs from an awareness of our audience as people, moral agents, or adopted children of God (however you’d like to phrase it). Deceiving is choosing to make it hard for your target to understand the world around them. You’re introducing noise and bias into their signal, interfering with their ability to perceive and respond to the world and people around them.

            The Catholic argument against lying is that the God-given purpose of speech is to communicate truth, and it is an offense against God to lie, not a disservice to fellow human beings. Her argument isn't that one may not do evil (lying) so that good may come of it. Rather, she is arguing that no good will come of lying. It is interesting that those who pummeled Deacon Jim Russel for allegedly misrepresenting Catholic teaching did not notice that Leah Libresco's arguments are basically utilitarian and consequentialist.

          • 42Oolon

            "My issue though is that the "wrongness" of an act is a moral judgment.
            It must come from outside the act itself; it can't be include in the
            definition of a specific act."

            What I call moral judgment is something that happens in my head, by weighing factors as best I can. I see no reason to accept that there is such a thing as a moral judgment that is not a thought or brain state in humans. I say something is immoral once it has been shown to me to be an unjustified harm.

            I would therefore say that non-consentual sex is always immoral, because I cannot imagine a situation in which this could be justified. I am inclined to be absolutist on this but in this context I recognize I could be wrong. Same for unjustified killing of human beings.

      • stanz2reason

        Brandon, can you think of any scenario where someone 'raped' for the greater good?

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "Brandon, can you think of any scenario where someone 'raped' for the greater good?"

          No, but I'm not sure why this is relevant to whether lying is objectively and always wrong. The fact that more people commit a particular evil (e.g., lying), even "for the common good", doesn't make it less wrong.

          • stanz2reason

            Lying isn't objectively and always wrong where rape is (or is as much as something can be objectively wrong).

            From the OP...

            Lying to someone is creating distance between my target and the world-as-it-is.

            That's all fine and dandy to sit and muse over in some college philosophy class, and in a sense I agree with it. What I don't agree with is that this is always a bad thing. Would you object to an 8 year old having a pornography collection? That porn exists, that people have sex and people enjoy watching people have sex is 'the world as it is'. Yet I suspect that would be something you wouldn't allow in your home. Blocking out your child's exposure to such things is a lie by omission. Same with movies & television shows with wanton violence. That this deception is done for the purpose of gradually exposing a mind to the realities of the world so that the child might have proper context to judge such things not only makes the lie LESS wrong, but really not wrong at all.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Lying isn't objectively and always wrong where rape is (or is as much as something can be objectively wrong)."

            Based on what? And if I may ask a question I've heard many times in this forum, what scientific evidence do you have to back up that assertion?

          • stanz2reason

            Perhaps you've ignored my parenthesis (let alone the rest of my argument) to dive into 'objective' vs. 'subjective' rights & wrongs, an argument that you seem eager to do. Please re-read my parenthetical note and ask yourself if I was actually making a claim for anything (rape included) being objectively wrong in the sense your question suggests. Frankly, you're just being lazy.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            stanz, I don't appreciate being called lazy. Please cut out the personal attacks. I asked sincere questions to better understand your position. Please respect them with responses.

            You originally said: "Lying isn't objectively and always wrong where rape is (or is as much as something can be objectively wrong)."

            I'm still not clear what you're asserting here. So to help me understand, please answer this question:

            If by "objectively wrong" we mean wrong for every person, at every time, regardless of human opinion, then is rape objectively wrong?

          • stanz2reason

            And I don't appreciate responses that not only ignore the point of my post, but harp on an issue of semantics, one that doesn't in fact even exist.

            Let's be clear where my views are coming from. I believe moral rights & wrongs to ultimately be a subjective phenomenon. This does not preclude one being able have a discussion about ethics any more than it precludes one from a discussion about good/bad films, foods, etc.

            For the purposes of conversation, I continued with the language objectively and always wrong that you mentioned in an effort to relate to you in a manner I felt you to best understand. This was NOT an endorsement of moral objectivity. My parenthetical notation (or is as much as something can be objectively wrong) noted as much.

            So now, instead of having a discussion related to the article (which is what the majority of my earlier post was... and none of it addressed), we're swimming around having a tangential semantic conversation because you didn't make the effort to read my parenthetical note the first time, nor re-read it upon my request you do so. That was and continues to be lazy. It is not a personal attack, but accurate description of your behavior here.

            You also seem to be looking to have a conversation about moral objectiveness / subjectiveness that no one is really interested in having here. Perhaps Commenting Rule #6: STAY ON TOPIC does not apply to you?

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            stanz2reason: You say you accept a morality that is a subjective phenomenon. How does the "common good" relate to this subjectivity, particularly regarding truth-telling? Is the subjectivity "ruggedly individualistic," so to speak, or is there an element of "collective morality" to consider?

          • stanz2reason

            Again, while I don't wish to crowbar the objective/subjective morality into this particular conversation (which is really what's going on) I'll respond to your questions and leave the rest of that conversation to another day. And let's be honest, there's only like a dozen different conversations that happen on a loop at this website. I'm sure there will be an opportunity to discuss again.

            As someones moral values are heavily influenced by their environment (experience, culture, tradition, etc.) and that these values are typically similar within that persons immediate group I think it's fair to say that there is a 'collective morality' of sorts to consider. That isn't to say that these values are somehow collectively right or collectively wrong in an objective sense and they are still owned soley by the individual who has them, but that they are similar and prevalent enough within the group to worth noting as a singular thing, a 'collective morality' if you will.

            Consider a brick wall. Pile one brick on top of another and at some point we regard 'the wall' as an entity in it's own right while in reality it's still just the end product of individual bricks. This truth is similar to the truth of moral values being the product of the individual moral agent. At a basic level the objectivity of moral values is ultimately an illusory manifestation of many subjective individuals holding similar values. There's not one true value that is the objective value any more than there is one brick that is the one true wall.

            The 'ruggedly individualistic' vs. 'collective morality' isn't an either/or situation but a bit of both depending on how you look at it.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "You also seem to be looking to have a conversation about moral objectiveness / subjectiveness that no one is really interested in having here. Perhaps Commenting Rule #6: STAY ON TOPIC does not apply to you?"

            stanz, thanks for the reply. A few things in response:

            First, you're right that I'm interested in a conversation about moral objectivity. Which confuses me because in the next line you say "no one is really interested". This seems demonstrably false. Also, the fact that other commenters have engaged the topic seems to prove you wrong.

            Second, the objectivity of moral acts is entirely relevant to this topic. In fact I would argue it's the hinge on which the whole discussion turns. Determining whether lying is OK in some circumstances is really a question of whether the morality of lying is objective or subjective.

            Third, I find it ironic that while commenting on a post which warns, "You may be telling the truth when you use CAPS LOCK, but you’ve made it harder for your interlocutor to listen to you" you chose to use caps: "STAY ON TOPIC."

            Fourth, since you never answered my single yes-or-no question, and since I'm honestly trying to understand your position, I hope you don't mind me asking another clarifying question. You say:

            "Let's be clear where my views are coming from. I believe moral rights & wrongs to ultimately be a subjective phenomenon. This does not preclude one being able have a discussion about ethics any more than it precludes one from a discussion about good/bad films, foods, etc."

            I know this an extreme example, but please humor me:

            Would you say it's only subjectively wrong to torture and rape a young girl, meaning it's a personal distaste much like your dislike for some films and foods? If rape is just a subjective phenomenon, under what circumstances would it be praised as good or ignored as morally neutral?

          • stanz2reason

            You are correct. Perhaps its just me who isn't interested in being dragged into off topic conversations. You still have yet to respond to my earlier post, one related to the topic at hand that can be sufficiently address without downshifting into tangent topics. It seems the issue of lying is being addressed similarly from both catholics and atheists without changing the topic. If you're out of things to say on the topic at hand and are unable to respond, just say so without pretending your tangent topic is necessary to this discussion.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            stanz, I wasn't aware you asked me a question and were waiting for my response. I'd be happy to answer. Please point me to the specific question.

            In return, can you help me better understand your position by answering my clarifying question, which I'll share again:

            Would you say it's only subjectively wrong to torture and rape a young girl, meaning it's a personal distaste much like your dislike for some films and foods? If rape is just a subjective phenomenon, under what circumstances would it be praised as good or ignored as morally neutral?

          • stanz2reason

            Copied and pasted from my phone of my post from 8 hours ago... forgive the formatting...

            From the OP...Lying to someone is creating distance between my target and the world-as-it-is.That's all fine and dandy to sit and muse over in some college philosophy class, and in a sense I agree with it. What I don't agree with is that this is always a bad thing. Would you object to an 8 year old having a pornography collection? That porn exists, that people have sex and people enjoy watching people have sex is 'the world as it is'. Yet I suspect that would be something you wouldn't allow in your home. Blocking out your child's exposure to such things is a lie by omission. Same with movies & television shows with wanton violence. That this deception is done for the purpose of gradually exposing a mind to the realities of the world so that the child might have proper context to judge such things not only makes the lie LESS wrong, but really not wrong at all.

      • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

        Would you agree or disagree with that statement if we substitute "rape" for the word "lying":

        I think there is a problem with questions like that, which is that rape is wrong by definition. So are theft and murder. It is always wrong to do something that is wrong by definition. It is always wrong to murder, but there are many circumstances in which the Church permits killing. In the debate on lying, I think it is fair to say that all sides agree it is always wrong to lie. The disagreement is over what the definition of lying is.

        I am guessing we all would be pretty much in agreement on what constitutes rape, but in times past, I think it would have been considered impossible for a man to be accused of raping his wife. It would have made no sense. I believe there are even some states where legally the concept of rape does not apply to husband and wife.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "I think there is a problem with questions like that, which is that rape is wrong by definition. So are theft and murder. It is always wrong to do something that is wrong by definition"

          Ah, now this is very interesting. I agree that rape, murder, and theft are "wrong by definition", but permit me to ask a natural follow-up: whose definition?

          "I think it is fair to say that all sides agree it is always wrong to lie. The disagreement is over what the definition of lying is."

          Good point. I agree. And this is why my question above is important: "lying" according to whose definition?

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            Ah, now this is very interesting. I agree that rape, murder, and theft are "wrong by definition", but permit me to ask a natural follow-up: whose definition?

            By basically everyone's definition, including the dictionary. Everyone agrees that murder is wrong. What everyone may fail to agree on is whether a particular killing is murder or not. It has already been agreed (I think) that a destitute person who has no other means of feeding himself and his family may licitly take from a rich person who has more than enough, and that is not theft. As for rape, it is (statutory) rape for an adult to have sex with with a 16- or 17-year-old in all five states surrounding Nevada (California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona), but it is not rape for an adult to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old in Nevada, because the age of consent is 16 in Nevada but 18 in all surrounding states. What is rape in California is not necessarily rape in Nevada. It depends on the definition rape, which depends on the definition of consent.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "[Rape, murder, and theft are wrong] by basically everyone's definition, including the dictionary. Everyone agrees that murder is wrong."

            This is an interesting claim. Do you believe moral rightness or wrongness is determined by the dictionary or popular consensus? If so, then would you agree nothing is *objectively* right or wrong, irrespective of human belief, opinion, or agreement?

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            Do you believe moral rightness or wrongness is determined by the dictionary or popular consensus?

            That's actually not relevant to my point. I will grant for the sake of argument that there is natural law knowable by all through reason and conscience. Murder is wrongful killing and stealing is wrongfully taking what belongs to someone else. These are things that are wrong by definition. If I say, "Person A murdered someone," there is no question Person A has done something wrong. If I say, "Person B stole a million dollars," there is no question that person B did something wrong. If I say, "Capital punishment is the killing of a convicted criminal by the state," I am stating a fact. However, if I say, "Capital punishment is the murder of a convicted criminal by the state," you know I am opposed to capital punishment, because if I call it murder, you know I am saying it is wrong.

            So murder and stealing are wrong by definition. They are the words we apply to wrongful killing or wrongful taking of property. But you need to know much, much more than the dictionary definition to know if someone has committed murder or theft. Take the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman was put on trial for murder (in the second degree). There was no question at all that Zimmerman had killed Martin. The question before the jury was whether Zimmerman's shooting of Martin constituted murder. The job of the jury was to decide whether this particular killing was wrongful.

            The commandments against murder and stealing in the Bible are not particularly helpful, in my opinion, because they do not actually define murder and stealing. They tell us that certain kinds of killing and taking things are wrong, but they do not tell us how to distinguish wrongful killing or wrongful taking of property from justifiable killing or justifiable taking of property. And even if morality is objective, it is still the case that certain notions about what constitute murder and stealing differ from culture to culture and from one age to the next. If you travel from one culture to another, or if you hop in a time machine and travel from one age to another, everyone will agree that murder and stealing are wrong, but they may differ on what specific acts they would classify as murder or stealing.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            David, thanks for the comment. I'm still not sure I agree.

            You suggest rape and murder are "wrong by definition", and then when I asked "according to whose definition?" you referenced both the dictionary and popular consensus. In this comment, you now reference the legal definitions.

            But couldn't the same thing be said about lying? Perjury is objectively wrong, according to the law. But perjury is nothing other than lying under oath. The oath doesn't necessarily transform a moral act into an immoral one (or vice versa.) For example, there wouldn't be a case that Claim A is true and moral when uttered without oath, but a lie and immoral under oath. So by the law's definition of perjury we can infer that all lying is wrong (though the law *would* think some lies are *less* wrong than others, it would still agree that all lies are wrong.)

            But this is all besides the point. The point I was trying to make is that saying "things are right or wrong by definition" is ad hoc and still begs the question: it assumes what we're trying to prove (i.e., the rightness or wrongness of lying.)

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            The point I was trying to make is that saying "things are right or wrong by definition" is ad hoc and still begs the question: it assumes what we're trying to prove (i.e., the rightness or wrongness of lying.)

            It is not that "things are wrong by definition." It is that murder is, by definition, the word that is used to describe wrongful killing of a certain type. It is that stealing is, by definition, the word we use to describe a certain kind of act that we consider to be wrong.

            With lying, I think it is quite reasonable to say that lying is always wrong. Lying is the immoral telling of an untruth. Once you call something murder, stealing, or lying you have already made the decision that the killing, the taking, or the telling of the untruth is immoral. I think you are putting the cart before the horse and saying, for example, "That act of killing was wrong because it was murder." It seems to me that in actual fact, we make the judgment about specific acts of killing first, and if they are wrongful killings we call them murders, and if not, we call them something else.

            No one would ever argue that murder is not always wrong, and it would seem strange to me to argue that stealing and lying are not always wrong. The argument is not about whether murder, stealing, and lying are wrong. Those words, because of their definitions, are used to describe acts of wrongful killing, wrongful taking of property, and wrongful telling of untruths. Specifically, in the case of lying, as I understand this debate, everyone can agree that lying is always wrong. What we can't agree on is whether telling an untruth to a Nazi to save a life should be called a lie. Those (again, as I understand it) who do not take what I call the "absolutist" position do not argue that some lying is acceptable. They argue that some instances of willful telling of untruth with intent to deceive should not be classified as lying.

        • josh

          I take 'lying' to mean something like deliberately attempting to create a false impression in someone. We can quibble over omissions vs. spoken contradictions, etc. But I don't see that lying needs to be wrong by definition. E.g. we have the murder/killing distinction but I can't think of a bad-lying/lying-but-not-necessarily-bad distinction. I guess the former could be 'perjury'.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            We could use the word "deception" as a neutral term and "lying" as the term for unwarranted deception.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "we have the murder/killing distinction but I can't think of a bad-lying/lying-but-not-necessarily-bad distinction. I guess the former could be 'perjury'."

            It's in interesting thought experiment, but I think it fails on two accounts.

            First, just because killing has justifiable exemptions (e.g., on the battlefield or to save our life against an unjust aggressor), there's no reason to assume lying does, too. This would be a non sequitur.

            Second, lying/perjury is not analogous to murder/killing. Perjury is simply "lying under oath." Yet lying is still wrong, regardless of whether it's done under oath.

          • josh

            Well, at the moment I wasn't arguing whether or not lying is somehow intrinsically wrong, always wrong, or has exemptions. I was just replying to David Nickol's point that 'murder' could be argued to be wrong by definition. We might think that furthermore all killing is murder but killing isn't defined as wrongful.

            I don't think lying fits that kind of 'wrong by definition' in common usage. 'Perjury' was just a quick thought on something that might be 'lying which is wrong by definition'.

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            First, just because killing has justifiable exemptions (e.g., on the battlefield or to save our life against an unjust aggressor), there's no reason to assume lying does, too.

            My point is that the Church condemns all lies. (See my quotes from the Catechism.) If that is the case, everything rests on the definition of lying. If lying means "telling a deliberate untruth with intent to deceive," then it is a lie (and a sin) to tell the Nazis you are not hiding Jews (if indeed you are). To take an extreme example, suppose Herod's men had tracked down Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus and weren't perfectly certain of their identity. If they had asked Mary whether her baby was Jesus, whom the Wise Men had visited, Mary would have been obliged (as a sinless person), to say "yes," thereby guaranteeing the death of the infant Jesus.

            If a lie is a sin, no matter how small a venial sin, and no matter how dire the consequences of not telling it, then it is forbidden to lie. Period.

            Are you taking the absolutist position? Or do you feel that telling a willful untruth to deliberately deceive someone is sometimes the right thing to do, not a sin?

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "If they had asked Mary whether her baby was Jesus, whom the Wise Men had visited, Mary would have been obliged (as a sinless person), to say "yes," thereby guaranteeing the death of the infant Jesus."

            No, that wouldn't be her only option. She could have remained silent or simply said, "I refuse to say," both of which would be morally justifiable.

            "If a lie is a sin, no matter how small a venial sin, and no matter how dire the consequences of not telling it, then it is forbidden to lie. Period."

            I think we're on the same page here, David. I agree with the Catechism that lying is *always* an intrinsically evil act. Though I also believe that when people lie--especially when they tell white-lies or "Nazi-at-the-door" lies--they may have little to no culpability for that evil act, depending on circumstances, and thus may not be guilty of sin.

            "Are you taking the absolutist position? Or do you feel that telling a willful untruth to deliberately deceive someone is sometimes the right thing to do, not a sin?"

            Depends what you mean by the absolutist position, but if it means "lying is always wrong" then I would hold that. But this is different than "lying is always a sin." Sinning is an act of the will. You have to have full knowledge of the sinfulness of your act, and commit it willingly. I'm not sure most people who tell lies under duress commit a sin.

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            David--I want to add that my greatest concern from a Catholic perspective is to reflect as accurately as possible what the "Church" does and does not do regarding the morality of lying. So, when you say the "Church condemns all lies," I understand you to mean that colloquially, even though from within the Catholic faith it's really important for us Catholics to understand that to mean that it is the common teaching of Catholic theologians (rather than simply the "Church") that condemns all lies.
            The Catechism does repeat this common teaching, which is, again, safe to adhere to and fine for one's personal conscience. Where we have had flare-ups in the Catholic blogosphere is when fellow Catholics got so insistent about what obliged *other* people's consciences, along with accusations of magisterial dissent, etc.
            So, while the "Church" has not settled this question, a "churchgoer" can settle it for himself/herself, but not really for anyone else...

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            Jim,

            I have been going on the assumption that the two sides we have been exploring both condemn all lies, but that those on the "absolutist" side consider every willful untruth told with the intention of deceiving to be a lie, whereas the "okay to deceive the Nazis in search of victims" side would say that although all lies are wrong, a willful untruth told with the intention of deceiving murderers in search of victims should not be classified as a lie.

            In other words, if the definition of a lie in the first English edition of the Catechism is is correct, misleading murderers in search of victims is not a lie, since they do not have a right to the truth. Janet E. Smith says in her piece in First Things:

            The doctrinal unity between the two editions of the Catechism is that all lying is wrong. The diversity is in whether all deliberate and voluntary acts of false assertion are immoral. Christopher Kaczor argued in Public Discourse that it may be that the authoritative version of the Catechism decided to go with the more probable opinion—the one that a greater number of faithful theologians hold but one that is not settled doctrine. It would be wrong to label as dissenters those who continue to argue that the condemnation of lying does not rule out all false signification; theirs is simply the less probable view at this point. Indeed, the failure of the Catechism to condemn explicitly such practices as spying, sting operations, the
            deceptive missives and maneuvers of warfare, and research that involves deception suggests that the question remains open.

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            I see. Yes, then you're approaching the issue as I noted earlier today, as one of two possible "foundations"--the one being that the "lie" is always something sinful (as opposed to the other, which uses the term "lie" to refer to the thing done, regardless of morality).
            It can be slippery to figure out how to talk about this because even when we use "lie" to refer to something always wrong/sinful, we have to somehow still define the act itself.
            The moral debate among Catholic theologians does, I think, reduce to the question of whether all "spoken falsehoods with intention to deceive" are immoral, or not. As you note, the first edition use of "right to truth" adds a dimension not present in the Augustine definition, but a dimension that is, on may conclude, permissible for the Catholic to embrace (since it *was* asserted as a safe opinion in that first edition).
            And your conclusion and use of terms would correctly flow from that first edition assertion--false assertions made to those with no "right to truth" would potentially fall outside the first edition definition of "lying."
            Thanks for helping me understand your comment more clearly! JR

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            I see. Yes, then you're approaching the issue as I noted earlier today, as one of two possible "foundations"--the one being that the "lie" is always something sinful (as opposed to the other, which uses the term "lie" to refer to the thing done, regardless of morality).
            It can be slippery to figure out how to talk about this because even when we use "lie" to refer to something always wrong/sinful, we have to somehow still define the act itself.
            The moral debate among Catholic theologians does, I think, reduce to the question of whether all "spoken falsehoods with intention to deceive" are immoral, or not. As you note, the first edition use of "right to truth" adds a dimension not present in the Augustine definition, but a dimension that is, on may conclude, permissible for the Catholic to embrace (since it *was* asserted as a safe opinion in that first edition).
            And your conclusion and use of terms would correctly flow from that first edition assertion--false assertions made to those with no "right to truth" would potentially fall outside the first edition definition of "lying."
            Thanks for helping me understand your comment more clearly! JR

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            I see. Yes, then you're approaching the issue as I noted earlier today, as one of two possible "foundations"--the one being that the "lie" is always something sinful (as opposed to the other, which uses the term "lie" to refer to the thing done, regardless of morality).
            It can be slippery to figure out how to talk about this because even when we use "lie" to refer to something always wrong/sinful, we have to somehow still define the act itself.
            The moral debate among Catholic theologians does, I think, reduce to the question of whether all "spoken falsehoods with intention to deceive" are immoral, or not. As you note, the first edition use of "right to truth" adds a dimension not present in the Augustine definition, but a dimension that is, on may conclude, permissible for the Catholic to embrace (since it *was* asserted as a safe opinion in that first edition).
            And your conclusion and use of terms would correctly flow from that first edition assertion--false assertions made to those with no "right to truth" would potentially fall outside the first edition definition of "lying."
            Thanks for helping me understand your comment more clearly! JR

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            Do you think Herod's men, who according to the story slaughtered all the young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, would not slaughter a young male baby whose mother remains silent or refuses to answer? In all of the "Nazis at the door" scenarios, anything other than a very successful lie would be tantamount to saying, "Your intended victim is here."

            I agree with the Catechism that lying is *always* an intrinsically evil act.

            What do you make of the first-edition definition which said that lying was telling an untruth, with the intent to deceive, to someone who had the right to know? Does a murderer have a right to be told where his intended victim is?

            You have to have full knowledge of the sinfulness of your act, and commit it willingly. I'm not sure most people who tell lies under duress commit a sin.

            Aren't you applying the criteria for a mortal sin to all sin? You must give full consent to commit a mortal sin, but that doesn't apply to all sins.

            If you take what I call the "absolutist position," then you certainly are in good company, but then again, so are those who believe it is sometimes not a lie to willfully tell an untruth with the intent to deceive. But I think people who take the absolutist view are taking a very extreme, very hard-hearted position. I don't think it is moderated much to claim that duress mitigates the wrongdoing. You are, in a sense, relying on human weakness to soften your position. You are relying on the person hiding Anne Frank from the Nazis not to have the courage to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. If the person hiding Anne Frank is a true saint, and lying is always wrong, he or she will have the courage to say, "I cannot tell a lie. She's in the attic." The more virtuous, courageous, and saintly a person is, if your view is correct, the more likely he or she is to tell the Nazis what they need to know to commit murder.

            Remind me never to take refuge in your attic if murderers are after me! :)

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Do you think Herod's men, who according to the story slaughtered all the young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, would not slaughter a young male baby whose mother remains silent or refuses to answer?"

            I'm not sure what they would do. But regardless of the consequence, or a good intention, lying is always an evil act. Now, given the threat of violence one may be *less culpable* for that act (or not culpable at all) but that act itself is still intrinsically wrong.

            "In all of the "Nazis at the door" scenarios, anything other than a very successful lie would be tantamount to saying, "Your intended victim is here.""

            That's not true. Refusing to answer or avoiding answering the question (through red herrings) would be moral alternatives, and ones that don't result in exposing the hideaways.

            "What do you make of the first-edition definition which said that lying was telling an untruth, with the intent to deceive, to someone who had the right to know?"

            I agree with it, though I also embrace the broader definition in the updated Catechism. The latter definition *includes* the first, but expands it. I see no contradiction.

            "Does a murderer have a right to be told where his intended victim is?"

            No.

            "Aren't you applying the criteria for a mortal sin to all sin? You must give full consent to commit a mortal sin, but that doesn't apply to all sins."

            Well in this case, lying is a mortal sin, so the point is moot. But in general, the Catechism explains that "one commits venial sin (i..e non-mortal sin) when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent."

            So it still requires an act of the will, though not a completely deliberate act of the will. You still have to say "yes" to an act for it to be sin. This is why the Church has never considered unwanted temptations to be sinful.

            "But I think people who take the absolutist view are taking a very extreme, very hard-hearted position."

            Would you say the same thing about those who take an absolutist position against murder and rape?

            "If the person hiding Anne Frank is a true saint, and lying is always wrong, he or she will have the courage to say, "I cannot tell a lie. She's in the attic.""

            As I have shown several times, you're presenting a false choice. There are at least two other moral alternatives to the the two options you present: the saint could either remain silent and not expose Anne Frank (though the saint may become a martyr for it) or he could avoid answering the question by talking around it. Nobody is morally obligated to answer every question asked of him.

            "The more virtuous, courageous, and saintly a person is, if your view is correct, the more likely he or she is to tell the Nazis what they need to know to commit murder."

            For the reasons above, this is untrue. There are more noble and morally heroic options than revealing the hideaway's location.

            "Remind me never to take refuge in your attic if murderers are after me! :)"

            I would remind you, and you could be it would be an honest warning :)

            PS. To be clear, I'm not pretending for a second that I wouldn't be tempted to lie to the hypothetical Nazis, or even that I wouldn't give in. For all I know, if I was in the situation my own moral weakness may lead me to immediately tell a lie. But my own moral failing wouldn't transform the act of lying into a moral act. It would still be wrong. A sin doesn't become less sinful because many sinners commit it.

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            I'd like to juxtapose this comment with Brandon's above, for the sake of making clear my own attitude toward this issue within the Catholic context. I've been regularly accused of somehow asserting the validity of only *one* side of the question--the less rigorous side. But that's not accurate.
            My hope is to reassure Catholics that we don't have to *divide* over this issue--that the "common teaching" approach Brandon adheres to above is as legitimate as, say, the "you've got to be kidding" side of the issue expressed by Dr. Peter Kreeft (in his excellent essay on this question).
            Some would have us believe that, for Brandon to be "right" about this, that would mean that Dr. Kreeft actually is engaging in magisterial *dissent* by taking the less rigorous view. And that type of conclusion is divisive and plain wrong.
            I hope this is clear enough--my view is that *both* sides of this question are legitimate views in the Catholic arena. Use of reason and formation of conscience will dictate which of these "right" sides an individual will embrace....

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            For all I know, if I was in the situation my own moral weakness may lead me to immediately tell a lie.

            Suppose you are in a "Nazi at the door" situation, and it is clear that refusing to answer will be taken as an admission that you are hiding Jews. It is further clear that the Nazis cannot be misled by various evasive responses. May I assume that what you are saying is that if it came down to a binary choice between telling a lie and allowing the Jews to be discovered by the Nazis, you are not certain how you would react is such an extreme and fearful situation, but you hope you would have the presence of mind to remember clearly that all lies are wrong and the courage to tell the truth? May I assume you think it might take heroic virtue not to lie to save lives, and you would not judge harshly someone who lied under the circumstances, but you would recognize as incredibly virtuous someone who would stick to the "never, ever tell a lie" policy?

            If so, I must admire, in a way, your highly principled stand . . . even if I find it appalling!

            One question: If you are a Jew, and the Nazis come to take you away to an extermination camp, don't you have the right to resist, including with deadly force, if necessary? If I am hiding Jews and the Nazis come for them, if I can shoot some of the Nazis and spirit the Jews away to a safe haven across a nearby border, don't I have the right to defend the Jewish lives with deadly force? If so, wouldn't that put me in an odd situation where in order to save lives I either had to willfully utter a falsehood with the intent to deceive or defend the lives of the Jews with deadly force, I would be morally obligated to use deadly force?

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Suppose you are in a "Nazi at the door" situation, and it is clear that refusing to answer will be taken as an admission that you are hiding Jews. It is further clear that the Nazis cannot be misled by various evasive responses...."

            Besides being a near-impossible situation (how could you know all those things?) and therefore mostly irrelevant, here's what I would say. Catholic moral theology *never* permits committing an evil act to achieve a good end. This idea is known as Consequentialism, and we reject it. You can never sin (i.e., lie) even to prevent other sin (i.e., murder.)

            (PS. This is why the Church condemns torture. Even if you could assure that torture was the only way to attain a crucial bit of advice that would save thousands of people, you cannot torture someone to attain it. Torture is always a grave sin, always an assault on the dignity of the human person, and thus can never be used, even for good intentions.)

            "May I assume you think it might take heroic virtue not to lie to save lives, and you would not judge harshly someone who lied under the circumstances, but you would recognize as incredibly virtuous someone who would stick to the "never, ever tell a lie" policy?"

            Yes. You nailed it. Thanks for respecting me by presenting my position accurately. (The only thing I would add is that I would respect *even more* the crafty saint able to not only avoid sin, by avoiding lying, but cleverly prevent the Nazis from finding the hideaways.)

            "If so, I must admire, in a way, your highly principled stand . . . even if I find it appalling!"

            I'll take that as a veiled compliment :) Thank you.

            "One question: If you are a Jew, and the Nazis come to take you away to an extermination camp, don't you have the right to resist, including with deadly force, if necessary?"

            Of course, so long as you're convinced your life is really in jeopardy. Deadly force can only be used against the threat of murder.

            "If I am hiding Jews and the Nazis come for them, if I can shoot some of the Nazis and spirit the Jews away to a safe haven across a nearby border, don't I have the right to defend the Jewish lives with deadly force?"

            You do if you are *sure* the Nazis are coming to kill them and/or you. You have the right to defend *anyone's* life with deadly force, but not until a real act of aggression. In other words, Catholic tradition rejects "pre-emptive killing."

            "If so, wouldn't that put me in an odd situation where in order to save lives I either had to willfully utter a falsehood with the intent to deceive or defend the lives of the Jews with deadly force, I would be morally obligated to use deadly force?"

            No. Because shooting someone who is attempting to kill you is not a sin. It's killing-in-self-defense, not murder. As most of us have agreed elsewhere in this post, killing is not intrinsically and objectively wrong. There are certain situations (like self-defense or in war) where killing is justified.

            Yet lying is always wrong. It's intrinsically and objectively disordered, according to Catholic teaching. So while you may be morally obligated to defend someone's life through deadly force, you are *never* morally obligated to lie (in fact you're morally prohibited.)

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            Besides being a near-impossible situation (how could you know all those things?) and therefore mostly irrelevant . . . .

            I cannot believe that Catholic thought requires certitude before taking even the most serious of actions. If you know there is an escaped child-killer on the lose, and someone is breaking into your house (where your four children are), and you have a gun, after giving sufficient warning, you are justified in shooting. You don't have to say, "How do I know this is the escaped child killer? If it is, how do I know if he doesn't just want to visit? If he really does intend to kill my children, how can I be sure he won't change his mind when he sees how sweet they are?"

            There are clearly people whose job it is to lie. What about undercover drug agents? FBI agents who infiltrate terrorist groups? Deep-cover CIA agents? Does the Catholic Church actually condemn anyone who takes on an assumed identity to fight crime, or terrorism, or gather intelligence? (This, by the way, is a fascinating issue that nobody here has discussed, as far as I can recall.)

            It is all well and good to say that it is always impermissible to do evil so that good may come of it, but in many instances (self-defense, for example) what would otherwise be considered evil is permitted or even required. I think in some of the teachings of Jesus there are at least hints of a radical (in a neutral or good sense) morality, such as turning the other cheek. But those have mostly been rationalized out of existence as authentic commands.

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            I take 'lying' to mean something like deliberately attempting to create a false impression in someone.

            I think that in Catholic thought, and perhaps in ethics in general, one of the characteristics of a lie is that it is morally wrong. The Catechism says

            2482 "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving." The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: "You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies."

            2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man's relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

            I don't think, given that, it makes much sense to talk of "bad lies" and "good lies." So it makes sense to me to think of lying as something wrong by definition, and then work out the definition of what constitutes lying, just as we think of murder as wrong by definition (wrongful killing of an innocent person) and work out what constitutes murder (as opposed to self-defense, capital punishment, killing in battle, manslaughter, and so on).

            Of course, we in a philosophical discussion, we can use any words we want, just so long as we clearly define our terms, but I think it makes the most sense to think of lying as something wrong by definition, like murder.

          • josh

            Well, there is no 'given that' here. Why should I start off by accepting Catholic conclusions? Note that the Catholic definition offered above doesn't seem to differ from mine significantly. 'A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with intent to deceive.' Good enough for government work. The Catholic opinion then goes on to hold that based on this definition and various Catholic assumptions, all lies are sinful. (Perhaps. Catholics here have argued that it isn't a settled question amongst themselves.) So I'm arguing that it isn't definitionally wrong, although some would say that the definition plus Catholic assumptions implies that all lies are wrong.

            Or, maybe more to the point, defining lying as wrong gets us nowhere. (just like defining murder and rape similarly.) It is at most a semantic shift without content. I'm asking when is it wrong to lie. By which I mean when is it wrong to 'speak falsehood with intent to deceive'. You're asking when is 'speaking falsehood with intent to deceive' a lie. By which you mean when is it wrong. I don't want to spend time arguing a purely terminological dispute, but I do want to be clear that it is only terminological.

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            I don't want to spend time arguing a purely terminological dispute, but I do want to be clear that it is only terminological.

            I understand your point and almost agree. But I think it would be a mistake to forget that we do not think of lying and speaking a falsehood with intent to deceive as perfect synonyms. Saying, "You are lying!" or, "You are a liar!" are not neutral. They are almost always taken to be serious allegations. If you suspect someone is telling you an untruth to be polite or to flatter you, it's doubtful you would say he or she lied or is a liar. We are still shocked when politicians whom we know are bitter enemies actually accuse one another of lying. Usually politicians and public officials bend over backwards to avoid the words lie or liar, no matter how adamantly they insist that someone is not telling the truth. We don't generally behave as if we believe there are good lies and bad lies. We tend to call "benign" untruths not lies, but "little white lies" or "fibs."

            I think we all instinctively react to someone saying, "You're lying," as an accusation and a very serious one. We don't ask, "Yes, but do you mean good lies, or bad lies?" So I think we all think of lying as something wrong as our default assumption, though we may change our minds about particular instances if given enough information.

    • Loreen Lee

      I wonder how much 'courage' it would take to 'stand up to the Nazi', say that you disagree with 'his ethics', and therefore you are not going to cooperate with him. Surely, in such an instance, the person would be acting, as the introduction of this blog states, in a way that 'narrows the gap', between the wholeness which is represented as the final goal in life, and the telling of a truth within a particular circumstance. But how many would open themselves up to the possibility of 'martyrdom' for such a cause?

      • stanz2reason

        Throwing your life away and endangering the lives of those around you in such a manner is a fools way of taking an ethical stand and is as courageous as jumping out of a plane with out a parachute. There is a time and a place for such things. I see no rational reason for believing that scenario is one of them. Being a self-righteous idiot isn't martyrdom.

        • Loreen Lee

          Did you not notice the 'use' - 'mention' distinction?

          • stanz2reason

            Putting an apostrophe around a word doesn't automatically create a use-mention distinction. Perhaps it would be better to just say what you're looking to say.

          • Loreen Lee

            You are holding me up to a very high standard of truth telling, here, that does not...stanz2reason, fit in very well with my ironic sense of 'humor'!

          • Loreen Lee

            "You still breached a duty or ruptured the relationship you ought to have with the officer at the door." My comment was merely an illustration of what could be implied as the ideal relationship that could have obtained between the Nazi officer and the possibility for 'truth telling'.....

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

    Leah wrote: *** "Lying to save a life is a bit like concussing the Gestapo officer at the door. It’s a solution, and it may be the best of a set of bad options, but there’s a wound involved. A sin is a sin, even if the outcome was, on net, good from a consequentialist perspective. You still breached a duty or ruptured the relationship you ought to have with the officer at the door. The fact that you’re lying is a cue that something has gone wrong, whether upstream of your present moment in time or in this instant."***
    A couple observations on this third installment: First, I'm noting that Leah opts to leave unaddressed the in-house Catholic moral theological debate over what constitutes lying and appears to embrace the "common teaching" on the issue. And this is just fine, presuming at this point that a Catholic who does so acknowledges that other Catholics' mileage may vary on this issue, and without resulting in disunity or division among Catholics.
    Second regarding the relationship "you ought to have with the officer at the door," I would counter-argue that the officer, as the unjust aggressor, has *already* twisted the relationship of "neighbor," which opens up a very different line of thinking regarding how we interact with the unjust aggressor. You can't be in communion with someone who refused to be in communion with you because of their aggression, and the person has a right to "neutralize" aggression as an act of self-defense (or defense of others). So I would argue that this is the quality of the relationship that dramatically affects the calculus of truth-telling--when one is subject to unjust aggression, other factors come into play besides harmony with one's neighbor.
    Thanks Leah! A very thoughtful concluding piece to the trio!

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Jim - I agree. I'm somewhat baffled by Leah's treatment of the "Nazi at the door" scenario. She writes:

      Lying to save a life is a bit like concussing the Gestapo officer at the door. It’s a solution, and it may be the best of a set of bad options, but there’s a wound involved. A sin is a sin, even if the outcome was, on net, good from a consequentialist perspective. You still breached a duty or ruptured the relationship you ought to have with the officer at the door...If you are lying to protect someone (from themselves or an external threat) can you also help make them stronger or address the danger?

      I would love to hear her elaborate more on this scenario and her reasoning. Leah seems to be saying that to lie is sinful regardless of context and probable consequence, and that even in this extreme case, you should not - in Kantian fashion - breach your "duty." She says if it "seems" necessary, we should wonder first whether we can fix the problem at the source.

      But in this scenario - equivalent, I would imagine, to the intensity and impulsivity of combat or emergency response - there is scant time to abstractly weigh alternatives, and it's as close to necessary as one gets this side of omniscience. It seems to me to be an instance of "legitimate defense" (Catechism 2263-2265), not a sinful breach of duty.

      I would not fault anyone for lying in the "Nazi at the door" case and I really do doubt that God would either. As many have pointed out here at SN before, God is not out to play "gotcha" with us in terms of sin. This scenario represents a grave situation of compulsion, violence, and fear, by - as you note Jim - an unjust aggressor who has already radically warped the I-Thou relationship.

      This is not the norm, but precisely the rare exception, and my calculus is that we should deal with exceptional cases with exceptional thoughtfulness and care. We should also not take the rare exception to be the rule, and fudge the moral framework of duties and virtues that makes difficult cases so difficult to begin with.

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        Borrowing from the Catholic language, Leah may be saying that lying to the Nazis is "objectively disordered" but not sinful. This is because it's not really a free act. The terribly disordered consequence of the action limits the freedom of the action.

        This doesn't seem so complicated or controversial. Leah's seems to be saying that in a perfect world lying would never happen, in that a perfect world lacks both lies and Nazis.

        • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

          Hey Paul - I would tend to agree with that characterization, but I don't think that's what Leah says:

          Lying to save a life is a bit like concussing the Gestapo officer at the door...there’s a wound involved. A sin is a sin, even if the outcome was, on net, good from a consequentialist perspective. You still breached a duty...

          "A sin is a sin" - meaning that lying in that situation is not just a disordered, not-ideal, or imperfect act, but a sinful one. (And I disagree.)

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I suspect that Leah actually doesn't mean what she says here, only because of the comparison she makes to lying elsewhere in the article:

            Lying to save a life is a bit like concussing the Gestapo officer at the door. It’s a solution...

            Which I would read to mean that lying, though objectively disordered, is justifiable in the same way that just war doctrine is justifiable.

            It would also seem to me that, if Leah Libresco actually means what she says, then concussing the Gestapo officer is at least as much a sin as lying, and she would reject just war theory.

            I suppose I too would like a clarification.

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            I would infer that Leah is, as indicated by the OP title, saying that lying is always "sinful" or wrong. But you raise an interesting comparison between other forms of self-defense against unjust aggression (like just war theory) and lying. And here is where things really seem to hinge on Aquinas' articulation of the issue, focusing on lying as immediately opposed to the purpose of speech, such that its intrinsic "evil" seems to arise from this first and foremost, regardless of other circumstances. Meaning that we can't use evil so that good can come from it, and if lying is always contrary to the purpose of speech, one can never lie without at least venially sinning...

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I still think you can get a just-war-like theory out of Aquinas.

            He says (S.T. II-II, Q 110, A 1): "Accordingly if these three things concur, namely, falsehood of what is said, the will to tell a falsehood, and finally the intention to deceive, then there is falsehood--materially, since what is said is false, formally, on account of the will to tell an untruth, and effectively, on account of the will to impart a falsehood."

            Why not apply the principle of double effect? I'm telling a falsehood not with the intention to deceive but with the intention to save lives. That it deceives someone is a foreseen but not intended consequence. After all, I might wish both that the Nazi know the truth and that the Nazi not harm the Jews.

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            I'd agree--I think a whole lot hinges on the "intention to deceive" part, and I think one could in good conscience view this through a "double effect" lens, so to speak.

            EDIT: not sure Aquinas would agree, though, but I definitely see the angle you do...

      • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

        Yes, Matthew, by adhering to the common teaching on lying expressed by Augustine and Aquinas, you actually do end up with a necessarily absolutist approach to lying as intrinsically evil because it is a misuse of the faculty of speech, in itself. And in the scenario above, if one says anything at all, the assertion must be in itself truthful.
        Yet on the contrary, Chesterton and others have concluded that it is more reasonable to straightforwardly assert falsehood in such situations than to try to cleverly equivocate or use mental reservation.
        More often than not, those who take the rigorous view of the common teaching on lying readily admit that they, too, would probably end up lying in the heat of the moment, and have to ask forgiveness for this venial sin after. As a practical matter, both the rigorous and the less-rigorous Catholic (on lying) seem to see the same concrete solution, with one seeing it as venially sinful and one seeing it as not sinful...

  • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

    I don't think this post sheds any new light on the issue, and in fact takes us a step backwards. Leah Libresco seems to be saying that it is a sin to tell the Nazis, "I am not hiding Anne Frank in the attic," even if it saves Anne Frank's life. She says,

    It’s a solution, and it may be the best of a set of bad options, but
    there’s a wound involved. A sin is a sin, even if the outcome was, on
    net, good from a consequentialist perspective.

    Someone correct me if I am wrong, but I don't think, in Catholic thought, committing a sin is ever considered to be "the best of a set of bad options." If something is a sin, even a venial sin, Catholic thought says you must not do it.

    Libresco speaks of "the strict Catholic edict against lying," as if Catholic thought on the matter of what constitutes lying were settled, but as Jim Russell's post clearly demonstrated, exactly what constitutes a lie, and when a deliberate untruth may be told are open questions, not a matter of a "strict Catholic edict."

    Libresco says, "Honesty is a starting point; you can take the duty to avoid passive deception much further." It is not clear to me what she meant, but it is very clear Catholic teaching that speaking the truth is not always the right thing to do. The Church, for example, doesn't teach that gossip is acceptable as long as it is true. It strictly prohibits priests from telling what they hear in confession. Even the anti-lying absolutists like St. Augustine approve of all kinds of misdirection to avoid giving a true answer to the Nazi at the door.

    • ziad

      Although I agree with you on most of your comment, I wanted to explain the Catholic position on gossip. Gossip us wrong for a completely different reason. Just because it's truthful does not change the fact that it's still a gossip. Gossip is wrong because it's hurtful for the person and could cause extreme psychological issues or burn bridges within members of the community. As I understand it, it is placed as part of "thou shall not kill" commandment

      • 42Oolon

        You have just explained why gossip is wrong for purely secular reasons, of course. (And also not all gossip causes any psychological issues or burns bridges, in fact I would be surprised if much of it did.)

        • ziad

          Western Culture does not strike me as being gossipy. I come from the middle east and my people are very, very gossiping people. You have no idea what gossips can cause in such places, especially when the honor of a women is in dispute. It can ruin women's lives at best and lose their lives at worst.

          • 42Oolon

            The point is that the problem with gossip you identified are the human consequences, not the theological or spiritual consequences.

            It sounds like you are talking about harassment, not gossip.

          • ziad

            I am not sure what you mean about theological or spiritual consequences. Could you give an example of one?

          • 42Oolon

            I can't I'm an atheist I think no such thing exists.

          • ziad

            lol I am wildly guessing here that you think some theist do not rationalize moral issues and they condemn certain behavior just because they were taught that way. I totally understand where you come from if that was your experience. This is largely due because they are not catechized correctly, or they do not understand the Bible correctly (in the case they are Christians and not Catholics).

            Every time I commented on a moral issue, you state that I mention it for purely secular reasons. Which I think you mean by that is I am using reason rather than theological concepts or quoting the bible to talk about these moral issues. I could definitely use the Bible or theology to talk about these same moral concepts and issues, but that would not benefit our atheists friends including you (unless you are asking for Bible versus or why Catholics believe in a certain way). We have mentioned it before, but we believe in the Natural Law concept, which implies that we can get to moral answers through the use of reason and observing nature around us. We claim that reason and faith cannot contradict each other.

          • 42Oolon

            I am talking about the absolute perfect objective morality that God is supposed to possess and that we supposed to be able to somehow access through religion. This morality, we are told, is the basis for all morality and also proves that a God must exist. I have heard it hinted that this is accessed by some kind of revelation, that sounds like moral intuition.

            Some atheists, like myself, think there is no God and that our sense of morality has developed due to biological and social factors. We usually explain how we can be moral in the same way you do. E.g. gossip is wrong because it hurts other people rather than it being contrary to god`s nature or something.

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            Although, it might be worth mentioning that even theists who accept the Ten Commandments as a basis for a moral system are accepting that, through the Decalogue, God reveals commandments based on both love of God *and* love of neighbor (the first few commandments focus on love of God and the rest on love of neighbor). So there really is common ground to be had between the atheist (or humanist?) and the theist in the realm of "people-based" morality. By recognizing the good of the individual and the common good, both the theist and the atheist may well share moral values despite the vastly different anthropological views we might have.

          • 42Oolon

            There is no doubt that theists and atheists overlap. It is the distinction that I am interested in. I would never accept something as immoral simply because it was commanded. I think this is the distinction. We both apply humanistic morality, but Catholics are also restricted by the text of the bible whether or not it is moral on the humanist side.

          • ziad

            420, I hope I am not derailing the conversation off topic. Do you have examples of topics that "humanists" and Catholics contradict (and think its because its in bible only - no rational ideas)? We probably cannot discuss them here, but just asking you for a list :)

          • 42Oolon

            I understand that Catholics find using contraception and engaging in homosexuality as morally wrong in some way. I do not. I see no harm to humans, in any way direct or indirect from these things in and of themselves.

          • ziad

            Some Christians (and other theists) do have that stance. As Catholics, we believe morality can be achieved through critical reasoning (What we call Natural Law). The church teaching and the bible do help us in discerning moral issues, but they are not contradictory to what reason can lead us to. This is of course evident in atheists that understand moral issues and are good people.

            This is not to take away from the stance that perfect objective morality exists (and it could be used to support theistic ideas). We still firmly believe that. We just think that you can reach it through reason alone (I think this is a stronger appeal to "perfect objective morality" if it is universal and not subject to religious belief).

            I am interested to know if you think that morality is objective or not.

          • ziad

            I was not talking about harassment. I was talking about gossip.

            For example, a young lady was walking with a guy friend back to her house. Some of her relatives spot her with the "stranger" that they have never met. They start a gossip that the young lady is dating a guy and that they saw her kissing him. Whether or not the gossip is true is irrelevant. The young lady's reputation is in the gutter now. At best, the parents will side with their daughter, but her reputation is broken and no man would want to marry her. At worst, the parents take action against their daughter and would hurt her physically (and in some cases kill her). This is common in middle eastern culture. Some people start a gossip intending to do harm, and others do it without noticing.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Gossip, revealing true but negative things about a person to someone who does not have a right to know, is wrong because it steals or destroys that person's good name which he has a right to.

  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

    What I get from Leah is that lying is always bad, but since we live in a messed-up world, lying may be the "least bad" of a bunch of bad options. Just like it may be least bad to hit the Gestapo officer on the head, it may be least bad to lie to him. The best thing is if there was no Gestapo to begin with.

    To Review:
    Jim Russell says that lying is sometimes the best course of action. James Croft says that lying is sometimes the best course of action. Leah Libresco says that lying is sometimes the best course of action even though it's always bad.

    At the end of the day, everyone agrees! Not bad for two Catholics and an atheist.

  • Octavo

    "You still breached a duty or ruptured the relationship you ought to have with the officer at the door."

    Did anyone actually feel this way when lying to Nazis to save lives?

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

    Btw, I should have raised this issue earlier, but will now:

    One of the struggles in dialoguing on moral questions like lying is that we can define the terms either according to the quality of the act or according to the quality of the morality of the act. The term "lying" can mean for some the very act of "speaking falsehood with intention to deceive" (or some other description of the thing done), OR it can mean for others *only* those such acts that are actually evil, immoral, or sinful.
    If "lying" describes only the act itself regardless of its morality, we then can discuss whether all such acts of lying are moral or immoral.
    If "lying" is used *only* to describe those particular acts of "speaking falsehood with intention to deceive" that are evil, immoral, or sinful, then we have to discuss this in terms of there being some *other* act that "looks like" immoral lying but might not be immoral and thus might need a different label (like what Newman came up with: "the material lie" distinguished from the sinful lie)...
    The point of raising this is to double-check how we're "hearing" or reading the term "lying" in the discussion.

  • josh

    I think Leah's conception of lying being always wrong, or always a sin at least boils down to the idea that in an ideal world we would never have a reason to lie. You lie to the Nazi because of what went wrong in the past, it's a symptom of a fallen world, etc. But this strikes me as kind of irrelevant. The question is what you will do now, not what you would do if the world was different. She says:

    "The telos of humanity is to be healed of all divisions. The
    wounds we have inflicted on ourselves or on others will be closed up,
    and it will be possible to be wholly united with each other and with
    God. Lying to someone is creating distance between my target and the world-as-it-is."

    Well, I don't believe a word of that. But if I allow that it is true for the sake of argument, if the telos is what makes something wrong then it doesn't follow that all lying is wrong. Consider: I am descending a mountain path. My telos is to reach the bottom, where everything is great. Having descended some way I come to an impassible cleft. My only option to proceed is to backtrack and go around the cleft. This backtracking puts more distance between me and the bottom, but it is the telos that determines I take the roundabout path. Now it may be that in hindsight I could have taken some other route from the start that would have been straighter, but given that that didn't happen, my current circumstances dictate that the roundabout path is required by the goal. The telos concept makes my ethics situational. Nazis are at the door. Whatever could have been done in the past to avoid that situation is moot. In the current situation, if we are only judging by a route to the healing of all divisions, it seems infinitely likelier that said route goes through lying to stormtroopers than through getting innocents killed. Which would make that route not only the best of a bad set of options, but definitionally the 'good' option.

    • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

      To play the devil's advocate, but maybe in the other direction, I'd say that your approach to teleology is incomplete, but very useful for this discussion.

      Climbing down the mountain, my goal is to get to the bottom. I might have to double back on the path. Even though doing this means going away from the bottom, my intent is to get to the bottom, so it's still acting toward that end. Or I could lop off my legs.

      One of the interesting questions here is what is lying more like for these people who believe in teleology? Is it more like doubling back, or more like lopping your legs off? Can lying be part of the purpose of speech, or is it always opposed to the purpose of speech?

      Now, all this hinges on whether there is some sort of objective teleology or purpose. Maybe there is. The way it seems to me is that there is no cosmic purpose to speech, and so lying can be good or bad depending on how it helps or harms the human condition.

      • Randy Gritter

        Actually speech has a cosmic purpose. It is called the gospel. As Christians we need to proclaim the good news in a manner that causes others to believe it. So being believable is very central to accomplishing that goal. Lying makes us inherently unbelievable.

        • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

          I think that's a good argument for Christians generally not to lie. Generally, sure. But always?

          I'm not sure how effective telling Nazis about the Jews in the attic, or telling your wife that her butt looks big in that dress, will help with proclaiming the gospel.

          • Randy Gritter

            Think about it. If I tell you something that might lead you to become a Christian you have to decide if I am credible. I am a Christian. I want you to be saved. That would be a lie for a noble cause if there ever was one. Yet it is essential that you know I would never do it. That I would never lie even if it made you accept the ultimate truth. How much could little lies about my wife's butt hurt the cause? (BTW, I am blessed with a wife that makes that a non-issue)

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            For myself, I'd be more likely to listen to the Christian who lied to the Nazis than the Christian who valued the truth over other people's lives.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "For myself, I'd be more likely to listen to the Christian who lied to the Nazis than the Christian who valued the truth over other people's lives."

            Let's assume you're an agnostic wondering whether God exists, and your primary goal is to get at the truth (which knowing you, Paul, I think is a good assumption).

            Would you really prefer someone willing to lie over someone you know will always tell you the truth, regardless of the consequences?

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I would really prefer the guy who lied to the Nazis.

            For religious conversations, respect is as important to me as trust. If I knew that a Christian friend of mine lied to the Nazis about hiding Jews, I wouldn't trust him any less, but I'd respect him a lot more. I'd also trust someone who refused to lie, even to the Nazis. And I would admire that person's consistency. But I would have very little respect for such a person, and as a consequence I think that person would have little impact on my quest for truth.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "For religious conversations, respect is as important to me as trust."

            This is really interesting and I'd love to have you unpack it. How would you define respect and trust? And to me, the two would seem to flow together. The more I trust someone, the more I respect them (and vice versa). I don't see them as independent.

            "If I knew that a Christian friend of mine lied to the Nazis about hiding Jews, I wouldn't trust him any less, but I'd respect him a lot more."

            I guess we're just apart on this. I think telling someone the truth is more respectful than lying to them to avoid negative results.

            Thomas Aquinas defined "love" as to will the good of the other. He also maintained the greatest act of charity is to lead someone to the truth.

            I'd agree and apply those same qualities to "respect." The ultimate act of respect, in my mind, is to share the truth with someone, even in the face of uncomfortable or negative consequences.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            This is really interesting and I'd love to have you unpack it. How would you define respect and trust? And to me, the two would seem to flow together. The more I trust someone, the more I respect them (and vice versa). I don't see them as independent.

            Trust - A tested belief that what someone tells me is the truth.

            Respect - Admiration shown to someone as a result of their moral qualities.

            Trust and respect are closely linked. But trust really involves that I believe that a person will tell me the truth, not necessarily that they will tell everyone the truth.

            I could have a friendly academic conversation with someone who told the Nazis about the people in his attic, but I would never explore deep issues with him, and I'd shut off any attempts he made toward talking about my religious conversion.

            How can I be open to someone who morally I despise?

            On a side note, say you know that you cannot bring yourself to lie to the Nazis, but you know that your friend would lie to them in a heartbeat. Would you always make sure your friend gets the door and that you are nowhere to be seen, so your friend is always questioned instead of you? Isn't this showing a lack of love for the Nazis, because you don't lead them to the truth?

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Trust and respect are closely linked. But trust really involves that I believe that a person will tell me the truth, not necessarily that they will tell everyone the truth."

            But in the two options under considerations, you have one person who is willing to lie depending on the perceived consequences, and another who would never lie to you.

            It would seem if you're most interested in truth, the latter would be far more trustworthy. You might *like* the first person better, and enjoy his company more, but if we're talking about the trustworthiness of his message, I'd take the second person every time.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I'm more interested in a person I can morally respect.

            If a reliable "truth-giver" is all that's necessary for good evangelism, God should have left us a computer. We could type in our questions and get the true answers. If the measure is truth, the computer would be much better than people.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "On a side note, say you know that you cannot bring yourself to lie to the Nazis, but you know that your friend would lie to them in a heartbeat. Would you always make sure your friend gets the door and that you are nowhere to be seen, so your friend is always questioned instead of you? Isn't this showing a lack of love for the Nazis, because you don't lead them to the truth?"

            Catholic moral theology differentiates between moral obligation and moral opportunity. If you choose to speak to answer the door and speak to a Nazi, then you're morally obligated to speak the truth. But if you *have the opportunity* to speak to Nazis and yet choose (wisely) to avoid it, that's not immoral for you tell no lie.

            Regarding your last question, Catholics believe in a hierarchy of truths. So when, for exampled, I noted Aquinas' statement that "the greatest act of charity is to lead someone to the truth", I would have been more accurate to say "Truth" instead of "truth", Truth as in ultimate truth. Therefore in the Nazi-at-the-door situation, the most loving act would be to lead the Nazis to the Truth of the inviolable dignity and value of every human person. That Truth supersedes smaller truths like "where the Jews are hiding."

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Thanks for the clear answer. Interesting.

            I suggest that, if you ever have to house fugitives from the government, you keep a good liar handy to answer your door. ;)

            I would respect someone who took those sorts of precautions in order to save people's lives as much as I would respect someone who would lie to the Nazis in order to save people's lives.

          • DannyGetchell

            If you valued adherence to an abstract commandment as more important than saving the life of an innocent human being, I would without hesitation reject the faith to which you were seeking to convert me.

          • josh

            If someone isn't willing to lie to Nazis I wouldn't trust their judgement even if I convinced myself they would never intentionally lie.

      • josh

        Just to be clear, I don't actually subscribe to any notion of teleology. But even within Leah's framework it seems to me there are problems with the notion that lying is always wrong if what makes something wrong is its not conducing to some end, which she implies is 'the healing of all rifts'.

        • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

          I'd agree with everything you said in your response if you would replace "not conducing to some end" with "being diametrically opposed to the end of the actor"

          Of course, if you wouldn't make that substitution, then we probably disagree about what Leah Libresco is trying to say.

  • Alan Robinson

    I have read the three articles on lying and all of the comments. After reading Leah's article, I took away from it that there is a distinction to be made between communication falling into vice/virtue and evil/good. An intentional deception to save the innocent may not be a vice but it can not be considered a good. Ideally, a person in a state of grace would always consciously act knowing that God is always part of the equation and seek to do God's will. In the hard case of lying to save the innocent, it may be an exercise of the natural virtue of prudence but an offence against the truth which would be a moral evil.
    I would think in the sight of man, the deception could be heroic and worthy of praise, but in the sight of God, the deception should be considered a cause for repentance to restore the right relationship with God who we failed to trust will bring justice.
    In addition, the distinction could be made between it being a vineal sin if it was done out of fear which is likely as apposed to being done due to a rejection of the Hope we have in God to bring about the ends according to his purpose or a loss of Faith that God will do what he has said. In either case, it should still be a cause of repentance...in my opinion.
    I am learning a lot from this discussion.

  • Raymond

    I admit, I find lying one of the messier questions to deal with. What makes many people absolutely opposed to lying uncomfortable is that many arguments in favor of lying have such an "ends-justify-the-means" mentality to them. (like the usual example of lying to nazis) If the ends justify the means in that case, though, why not others?

    One solution some Catholic thinkers have used is to distinguish between lying and deception. Hence, a man hiding Jews in his attic could say to an SS officer asking him if he knows where Jews are hiding, "How should I know?" or "Do you think I'm stupid enough to hide Jews" or some other such. (This from Raymond of Penafort in the 13th century). Hence, some distinguish between deception and lying. Raymond even suggested that one could simply deny the man (in this case Jews) are hiding there and this would not be a sin if it was in accord with his conscience.

    Similarly, a doctor asked a question that would violate doctor-patient confidentiality could reply "I don't know" without lying. Perhaps likewise with a priest asked to violate the seal of confession. "Did so and so confess to murder?" The priest could refuse to answer, but also maybe reply "I don't know," since he does not know in his capacity as man, but as standing in the place of God.

    I wonder if there is another way to allow some lying but avoid the risk of implying an ends-justify-the-means approach. One could argue that the SS officer has no right to the information of where the Jews are hiding. Because he has no right to the information, I am not wronging him by deceiving him or even by lying to him. Who then do I wrong? God? Maybe, but I think you could also argue that if the SS officer is not wronged by my lying to him, then God is not.

    I hesitate to comment since it's such as messy question, or at least seems like it to me. And I don't want to encourage shallow responses like, "aha, so it is ok to lie." That being said, I'll throw this out for discussion.

    • Randy Gritter

      Does the SS officer have the right to know? I would say generally police are entitled to the whole truth. Tell them everything you know as quickly and clearly as you can. But in this case you are breaking the law. You are hiding Jews. Maybe we need to ask what justifies breaking such a law. If we understand that then we can understand why not cooperating with the police enforcing the law might be OK.

      • Raymond

        I think you're right and this is a key question. Now, Aquinas would say that when civil laws violate natural law or God's eternal law, we are not obliged to obey. Hence, it would be very easy to conclude that the Nazis are in violation of God's law and hence there is no moral obligation to co-operate with them.

        And of course, the police are not always entitled to the whole truth. A policeman, for example, is not entitled to expect a priest to break the seal of confession just because the policeman needs to find a criminal.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        In the US, we have the right to remain silent. In addition, police routinely lie to people.

    • DannyGetchell

      Were I a Catholic, I would unhesitatingly lie to the Nazi. Then at my next confession, I would tell the priest exactly what I had done, and why, and I would accept the associated penance.

      If another Nazi asked me the same question, a week later? Lather, rinse, repeat.

      • Randy Gritter

        This is a typical myth about confession. You cannot do something planning to confess it. Confession requires contrition. That means really being sorry you did it. Not being sorry you ended up in that situation but being sorry for what you did. Planning to be sorry for what you are about to do is just incoherent. You are going to do it yet are planning to wish you had not done it. If the wish is sincere you will just not do it.

        • Raymond

          Perhaps a person could lie to the Nazis, then bring it up in confession as something he was not sure about and seek guidance on. But yes, of course I agree with you that can't just repeatedly do something you know is a sin with intent to confess and just repeat the process.

        • DannyGetchell

          A fair point. I intended more of a tongue in cheek attitude than my post conveyed.

          What I would really hope is that the confessor would say "You came here to confess that you SAVED a LITTLE GIRL from the NAZIS???? Puh-leeezzee!!! Go back home. son, and contemplate your sins, then come on back.

      • Fr.Sean

        Hi Danny,
        As far as my memory can serve i remember this question being discussed. When a Nazi would ask you if you had any Jews in your home what he was asking for was the Human who's not really human and is more of a "parasite" or something to that effect on society. Thus saying "NO" is not a lie because what he thinks is in your home is not in your home. Rather a human being of Jewish descent is in your home which was not what he was asking for. because his understanding if flawed you are not consenting to his form of belief. In other words, what he is asking for is not in your home. therefore it isn't a lie.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

    A word of thanks to SN and to all of you who have graciously participated in real dialogue, mature dialogue, on this subject for the last few days. More than once this week, elsewhere in the blogosphere, I've found myself the subject of derision and calumny because of my words here. And this from *Catholic* bloggers who have to this point refused to engage the subject respectfully here, refused to let me defend myself and my position at their sites against some wildly inaccurate claims, and refused my open invitation to charitably, in print or in person, debate the issue.
    I make mention of this only to, again, make sure you know how heartfelt is my appreciation for our conversations here, but to acknowledge that Strange Notions is that rare gem in the blogosphere, proving once again that it is possible for people with vastly different views and backgrounds to come together and have fruitful and respectful exchanges, even when disagreeing. Thanks.

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Hey Jim - I agree, the dialogue that these three articles created was really rewarding. It was great to see a reasoned moral discussion focused (for the most part) on something other than hot-button issues. If nothing else, I hope it's a teachable moment in terms of the diverse panoply of ideas and approaches that can exist within the Church on some questions. That's a good thing!

      Regarding the derision of your article, I assume you're talking about a certain response over at Patheos. I was really stunned by what was written there. I can only suspect that some people have an ax to grind in this discussion, or fear some unflattering comparisons, implications, extrapolations, etc. I say oh well - if we're good philosophers we will follow the truth where it leads. And I wonder whether similar accusations would be launched at Peter Kreeft, who wrote:

      ...Most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. They do not know whether this is an example of lying or not. But they know that if it is, than lying is not always wrong, and if lying is always wrong, then this is not lying. Because they know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil. If anyone is more certain of his philosophical principles than he is that this deception is good, I say he is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian...you have to deceive the Nazis. Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It’s a good thing to do. If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles.

      I wouldn't go so far as calling it morally "stupid." But I certainly would call it morally legalistic.

      • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

        Thanks, Matthew, I appreciate your encouraging words. I think the differing views on lying and truth-telling are getting a fair hearing here at Strange Notions. And if anyone should want to compare what I *really* say on the issue to what some have said that I say? I'm glad they can come here to read the trio of posts and the attached comments.

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        I agree with everything in your comment, Matthew. I just want to add one tweak to your final note, however. You say:

        "[T]he Bishop confirms Valjean's story that [the candlesticks] were a "gift," securing his freedom. The Bishop, if we want to be legalistic, was lying to the authorities and being dishonest - and yet, isn't this a sublime illustration of grace and mercy?"

        I don't think this is necessarily a lie. The bishop, like all Christians, views everything he has as a gift--both a gift received from God and a gift meant for others. It's no lie to say the candlesticks were a gift in the truest sense.

    • stanz2reason

      Sorry that you've been getting flack from people Jim. Thought your article on the matter was good.

  • http://brianniemeier.com/ Brian Niemeier

    I'd never thought of lying as sowing divisions in defiance of the eschaton. Well said.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I don't understand how so many Catholics are getting their panties in a twist here just to avoid admitting that lying is a sin (always). It's not like she's claiming it isn't sometimes a very practical sin, or that anyone would be doomed to Hell forever for choosing a lie over some other really bad hypothetical. All the word sin means - is something you need to make your peace with God over. Will God forgive you for lying to a Nazi, um yeah I'm pretty sure he will. Do you still need to ask His forgiveness anyway? Yep, for that and every other little imperfect thing we may do. Same thing goes for wrath and envy, we don't get off the hook just because the person we're mad at said something really dumb or the person we're jealous of is totally bragging all the time anyway.
    For atheists who might not believe in God, sin, or some ideal of perfection, you're off the hook (logical consistancy and all). But for anyone that DOES believe in a standard of perfection, please repeat after me: "I am not that standard. When my actions are not in line with perfection, the world will not end. If I can get over my giant ego and just admit that I occasionally do bad things because they seem less bad than other bad things, I will probably still be able to sleep at night thinking of myself as a generally good person"

    • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

      I think your analysis is very wrongheaded and not in conformity with Catholic teaching. You are basically saying it is no big deal to commit a venial sin, because you can ask for forgiveness and get it. It is as if you are saying venial sins are permissible sins, but mortal sins are not. You're saying, "So a lie is a sin! So do what you need to do and God will forgive you." This kind of thinking is, in my opinion, the very unfortunate consequence of dividing sins into two classes—venial and mortal. It's implies it's no big deal to commit a venial sin.

      But according to authentic Catholic thought, it is a very big deal to commit any sin. In Catholic thought, sinning is something you absolutely must not do. If you must make a choice between committing a venial sin and letting a person die, you must let the person die. If you must make a choice between committing a venial sin and allowing a nuclear war, you must allow nuclear war. While the Catholic Church recognizes that all humans are weak and will commit sins, it never gives its permission to commit even the most "minor" of sins.

      But for anyone that DOES believe in a standard of perfection, please repeat after me: "I am not that standard. . . .

      No one alive today is perfect, but all Christians are called to perfection.

      I will probably still be able to sleep at night thinking of myself as a generally good person

      Here's a memorable quote from C. S. Lewis that I just reproduced a couple of weeks ago in another thread:

      Perhaps you have imagined that this humility in the saints is a pious illusion at which God smiles. This is a most dangerous error. It is theoretically dangerous, because it makes you identify a virtue (i.e., a perfection) with an illusion (i.e., an imperfection), which is nonsense. It is practically dangerous because it encourages a man to mistake his first insight into his own corruption for the first beginnings of a halo round his own silly head. No, depend upon it; when the saints say that they—even they—are vile, they are recording a truth with scientific accuracy.

      I should add that I don't think of myself as vile, and I am saying this as somewhat of an outsider where Catholicism and Christianity are concerned. So people would have a right to ask, "Who are you to tell us we are wrong to think of ourselves as pretty good people rather than vile sinners? You have no right to try to tell Catholics what they ought to believe!" I can only say that's how I understand Christianity and Catholicism, and if I am wrong, I trust someone will point it out.

      • Kristen inDallas

        You're catching me on the wrong side of the argument. It is not my intention at all to imply that just because we can be forgiven for something means we should just go sin all we want willy-nilly. My comment was intended for those that seem to be so scared of admitting that they might sin, that they'd rather convince themselves that sins aren't really sins at all. I wouldn't disagree with you one bit, that ideally we wouldn't ever lie. I also wouldn't disagree with you that the church doesn't sanction lying under ANY particular set of circumstances. My argument is for those on the other side of the fence. For those that have looked at the "lying to a bad guy" hypothetical and know they would end up lying, I'd say it's better to sin and and repent, than to rationalize away any need for humility.

        • Randy Gritter

          The goal is to discern what is the highest ethical ideal. Is it really the case that refusing to lie in that situation is more pleasing to God than trying to save lives by lying? Whether we are strong enough to live that ideal is another question. Should we even want to live that? Should we be willing to refuse to answer and possibly die or is the safer answer just as moral or perhaps even more moral than the truthful answer? Even if we can't live it that does tell us something about God.

      • JByrne24

        "If you must make a choice between committing a venial sin and allowing a nuclear war, you must allow nuclear war."

        If that is in conformity with Catholic teaching, then there is much wrong with Catholic teaching.

    • Guest

      Your definition of sin is very dangerous: it is an offense against God, ourselves, neighbor, the Church, which also causes damage which must be repaired(e.g. consider a lie that damages someone's reputation or causes other bad events to ensue.) Furthermore we can't presume forgiveness and if we do something with the attitude beforehand that "Oh I'll do it anyway, God will forgive me", are we really sorry, and therefore will we really be forgiven. Be careful of trying to minimize or rationalize sin by saying everyone does it, I'm not perfect, etc. How different from the saints who would have died rather than deliberately commit a sin!

  • BrianKillian

    I think that any notion of lying that's not connected somehow with the concept of justice, cannot make sense of all our intuitions about the morality of lying. In the Catechism, although this reference to justice was revised out of the explicit definition of lying, it is still there in the three or four paragraphs that the Catechism devotes to the subject.

    Any definition of lying in a moral sense needs that sense of 'dueness' to relativize it regarding the circumstances. The absolutist definitions of lying are 'natural law' type arguments where you should never violate the supposed purpose of speech. But speech has a very utilitarian function which I think undermines that kind of approach.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

    The ironies get richer: elsewhere, at a site on which I am forbidden from commenting, my work here at Strange Notions is being discussed. A commenter states in part: “He [meaning me, Jim R] recommends his point by referencing the Catholic encyclopedia entry, but that entry shows what a minority opinion the ‘special cases’ position has always been. He continually makes the ‘common teaching’ of the Church but fails to mention that the CE entry calls this not just the common teaching, but the ‘common and universally accepted teaching of the Church.’”

    The irony is that this commenter actually *misquotes* the Catholic Encyclopedia entry!
    Which actually reads: “The doctrine which has been expounded above reproduces the common and universally accepted teaching of the Catholic schools throughout the Middle Ages until recent times.”

    Why won’t these commenters come here to discuss these things? Then I could help explain that the *real* quote from the source says exactly what I’ve said it says—that this teaching on lying is the common teaching of Catholic theology (mentioned more than once in the article) which in *this* quote is said to be a “universally accepted teaching of the *Catholic schools*” (not “the Church”) as in the Catholic theological schools (as in *Scholastic* theology). And during what period has this been “universally” accepted by the Scholastics? Through the Middle Ages until “recent times”.
    And *then* the article goes on to mention the “discordant voices” who have, from the 18th Century forward *challenged* the universally accepted teaching embraced by the Scholastics!
    Isn’t that what I said? And how can anyone be saying this teaching is unassailable when various theologians have been *challenging* it—since the 18th Century??? Such theologians (Newman names a few, too) aren’t being labeled “dissenters” from magisterial teaching—rather, they are challenging the common teaching of Catholic theologians…

    Folks, come here to SN if you want genuine and careful dialogue on this topic…

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I tried to defend you on Mark Shea's blog and he banned me from further comments. It guarantees him the last word.

      • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

        Thanks for the effort, Kevin--I saw that you had posed an excellent question. Nothing says "come, let us reason together" like blogospheric excommunication as a consequence of asking an intelligent question... :-) Thanks, JR

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Jim - Although I'm new to the controversy, I really don't understand the brash dismissal here, much less derision. With intellectual heavyweights and standbys like Cardinal Newman, Peter Kreeft, GK Chesterton, and Janet Smith in your corner, it's a wonder that people are treating the position like a Pandora's box, let alone the flouting of a non-negotiable. I would encourage Catholics to use their own noggins a bit more on this subject instead of assuming that the Augustine-Aquinas position must hold on every question.

      • Chris

        As you are new to the controversy, you may be unaware that from what I have seen JR has actually been banned from several blogs for inappropriate conduct. At other blogs the moderators usually have to end up disengaging with him or block him from further comments. He does have a history of "misrepresentation", to put it politely, and other questionable tactics, used ultimately for the sake of sticking to his opinion and contradicting people for the sake of doing so, rather than a search for the truth. I also believe people have even lodged complaints with his superiors. Mark is speaking with quite a background to work from, and if there is an issue of possible scandal- which I think can be claimed- then he may be justified.

        • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

          Hi, Guest:
          I always am amused by the "banned by five or six different blogs" ad hominem. Ask Kevin Aldrich about his "inappropriate conduct" that got him banned...
          I will say this: if you want to spend quality time discussing my personal shortcomings, I'm willing to give you all the time you want, even in public. How much time do you have? But this probably isn't the right forum.
          Rather, this seems the *right* forum for discussing the quality of the claims and arguments I've offered regarding the subject of lying and Church teaching.
          So, you appear to claim I've done some "misrepresentation" on this subject--if so, can you be specific? Thanks, JR

    • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

      There is one aspect of this debate that the "heavy hitters" on the Augustine/Aquinas side never seem to deal with—or at least I have never seen anything on it—and that is the issue of undercover narcotics agents, government employees from many agencies who infiltrate suspected terrorist organizations, deep-cover CIA operatives, and the like. There are also things like political advertising and campaigns where distorting the truth is routine, and advertising of products which is often far from truth oriented. I have never seen Catholic leaders (say, the USCCB) insisting that Catholic politicians must be absolutely truthful or that Catholics must not be undercover agents or intelligence operatives work in the advertising business.

      And yet, certain parties react to the suggestion that some untruths may be acceptable in difficult situations as if it were an attack on the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. And being nasty about it, too.

      • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

        David--yes and amen! This very directly explains the sort of "pastoral" passion I have for this issue--how many Catholics are quite directly involved in important work in which they must regularly and concretely face these questions regarding truth-telling and falsehood? Whether having to do with national security, crime-stopping, etc., we already *know* that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church leaves the application of the common teaching on lying up to the individual conscience. The Magisterium does not, as you say, prohibit Catholics from undercover work, etc.
        So why should any lay Catholic say *anything* publicly that points fingers at others for forming their consciences on these "truth" issues in a manner left undisturbed by the Magisterium itself?
        They shouldn't. But some have and some still do.
        God willing, if I get my book project on this subject properly started and finished, the book will be dedicated to Catholics everywhere who serve the common good through undercover work.
        And thanks, David, for point out this important aspect of the lying issue.

        • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

          I think many on the "absolutist" side would like to dismiss the debate as almost entirely academic, saying the possibility of the "Nazis at the door" scenario actually happening is vanishingly small. But in addition to the things already mentioned (e.g., undercover agents), there's the Federal Witness Protection Program. I am sure many other situations arise daily in which people would have to be tremendously creative in order not to utter falsehoods. Another could be people who have signed nondisclosure agreements.

          • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com/ Jim Russell

            Right, and there is the example of Pope Francis recounting the story of how he was able to aid a target of a political regime by letting the person assume his priestly identity to escape. I can't see how one could square the common teaching on lying with this type of deception--the "absolutist" view would have to conclude there was at least venial sin involved in such subterfuge on the part of the future Holy Father...

  • Cam

    As far as I understand the Nazis-at-the-door experiment, the entire point is to test our ethics on lying in a situation where telling the truth is guaranteed to cause immediate, measurable and terrible consequences. Like, that's the basic premise of the experiment. You can't just say "well how about other solutions, like distracting the Gestapo with cookies?". This might be a real-world solution, but we're not looking for real world solutions, we're trying to test our ethics.

    So while the parts of your essay that make claims about the inherent harms of lying are fine in themselves (albeit built on a foundation of things that aren't real), you haven't addressed the issues raised by the thought experiment at all, and the 'strict Catholic edict against lying' isn't looking too great at the moment (noting that other Catholics, and possibly the catechism, disagree with you on the strictness of this edict).

    Assuming that we accept your claims about the inherent harms of lying, it would be awesome if you could explain why you think these harms are always going to be less desirable than whatever harms come from telling the truth in a given situation. You're a virtue ethicist who just caused the death your Jewish friend- why is this okay? Screwing with telos or whatever might be bad, but is it as bad as people dying? Though it's not even clear at all from your post what you think the best action to take in the thought experiment would be.

    "The telos of humanity is to be healed of all divisions. The wounds we have inflicted on ourselves or on others will be closed up, and it will be possible to be wholly united with each other and with God."

    Um, citation needed. Did god tell you this? Is this in the bible? If so, what passage?