Friday, February 18, 2011

Lies and Lila: Constructing a "just lie doctrine"—UPDATED

I have what I hope will be my final thoughts on the issue here. But, as Harry S. Truman said, "Never say 'never', 'cause never's a helluva long time."
*     *     *

The law falls silent in the midst of arms.
The mere fact that war has broken out does not mean
that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.
Gaudium et Spes, 79 § 3 (cf. CCC 2312)

For the last two weeks, the Catholic blogosphere has been rather turbulent with the burning question: Were Lila Rose and LiveAction justified in securing the videos exposing some of Planned Parenthood’s corrupt activities through pretense? Is lying justified in the fight against abortion? Is it ever justified?

A quick survey of the answers:
  • Reginaldus, New Theological Movement: It’s a sin to lie, even to Planned Parenthood. (Note to self: never embed your conclusion in your title.)
  • Carolyn Moynihan, Mercatornet: Entrapment is too much of a sticky wicket; even MSM journalists are backing away from it.
  • Richard Collins, Linen on the Hedgerow: Of course you may lie; you can be a saint and lie. (See the note under Reginaldus.)
  • Christopher Tollefson, Public Discourse: A movement built on truth shouldn’t win its victories by lies.

  • Joseph Bottum, Tollefson’s argument is “ultracrepidarian”.
  • Pia di Solenni, There are modifiers; refer to CCC 2488-2489.
  • Christopher Kaczor, Public Discourse: “… [T]he basic strategies undertaken by Live Action need not involve intrinsically evil acts that must always be avoided whatever the cost.”
  • Steve Kellmeyer, The Fifth Column: Lila Rose and LiveAction are wrong.
  • Dawn Eden and William Doino, Jr., Busted Halo: See Tollefson.
  • Mark Shea, National Catholic Register: Dawn Eden is right, darn it! (Doesn’t quite count, because you’d have had to have seen Ms. Eden’s opinion before; still ….)
  • Joe Hargrave, The American Catholic: The issue is debatable, but one shouldn’t hold such a firm position that being a heretic is preferable to accepting a Church definition in the opposite direction. (First nominee for the 2011 Defensor Fidei Award!)
  • John Zmirak, InsideCatholic: "We don't need to pervert our image of God such that we believe He is pleased at our Pharisaical observance of the law, even when it results in the death of the innocent." [Again, my apologies for my earlier treatment of your position, Dr. Zmirak.] 
  • Peter Kreeft, (guest): The “lying is always wrong” position verges into Pharisaic legalism.

Of all the defenses of Lila Rose, Kreeft brings up the most salient point, which can be summed up in a quote from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”

Grant that there moral absolutes. Grant that there are actions which are intrinsically evil. Grant that honesty is, in most cases, truly the best policy, and that the end doesn’t justify the means.

The question is not whether lying is intrinsically evil. It is. The question is whether it’s so evil and depraved that one must never lie regardless of the consequences of the truth.

And this is precisely where the wicket gets sticky, because many “culture of death” rationalizations end with the words, “Wouldn’t evil x be better for P than suffering evil y?” At the same time, while the end doesn’t justify the means, the end isn’t therefore irrelevant.

Consider killing in self-defense, or in defense of the lives of others. In a situation where a hostile person presents an immediate and direct threat of death, and non-lethal means of preventing innocent lives from being taken are practically unavailable, killing is considered licit (CCC 2263-2265). Under very strict conditions, war is considered just even though it inevitably entails the commission of many evils by many people to many people, limit these how we might (CCC 2309-2312). The acts themselves remain intrinsically evil, and to be avoided whenever humanly and morally possible. In practical terms, though, they’re not always avoidable and not always the worst evil present.

I’m not happy about either the “hiding the Jews from the Nazis” or “ticking time bomb” scenarios used by most of the previous writers, because I’m not convinced that either scenario as presented is realistic.

It would be one thing if, while walking down the street in Amsterdam, a Gestapo officer accosted you and asked, “Do you know of any Jews being hidden by any of your neighbors?” It would be another if the Gestapo were tearing your house apart with ruthless efficiency (fear, surprise, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Führer) while the officer in charge screamed at you, “Where are they hidden, you traitor!?” In the second case, a lie wouldn’t protect the Jews any more effectively than silence (cf. CCC 2489), and your fate is pretty much sealed anyway (not the comfy chair).

In the second scenario: Wouldn’t sodium pentothal be just as effective?

It seems to me, then, that to construct a “just lie doctrine”, you’d have to fulfill several conditions:

  • The person is unable to evade the circumstances through other morally licit means;
  • The evil act to be prevented is real and immediate, not remote, theoretical or probable;
  • The person lying is morally certain the person to whom he intend to lie will commit a greater intrinsically evil act, whether as a result of the truth or regardless of the truth;
  • The lie has a reasonable chance of either preventing the evil act or delaying its execution sufficiently to allow other means of preventing it;
  • An evasion or silence would not be as effective or more effective in preventing or delaying the evil act.
While I can construct a doctrine to cover a “defensive lie” (that is, a lie meant to directly protect other people), I have a hard time believing Lila Rose’s lies to be defensive save in theory. Rather, they’re provocative, intended to elicit specific responses which may or may not be routine evils.

In war, value sets can get turned upside-down and inside-out. There is something to Dr. Kreeft’s argument about the first act of the mind, the one that says, “Are you kidding? Of course it’s okay for LiveAction to do that!” But do our hearts leap to that answer because it is okay … or because we loathe Planned Barrenhood so much that we want it to be okay?

What scruples can we sacrifice in a culture war?

Addendum—February 20, 2011
It should be clear that I'm not entirely satisfied with my own "just lie doctrine", let alone any of the other arguments promoted to absolve Lila Rose and LiveAction of sin. But neither am I convinced that all intrinsic evils are equal.

It seems to me there are two dangers involved. On the one hand, Scripture and Tradition are clear that we ought not "persist in sin, that grace may abound" (Rom 6:1-2), so a consequentialist attitude towards sin is utterly out of court. On the other hand, Dr. Kreeft rightly points out that a Kantian legalism has its own danger: not only can it tie our hands, preventing us from preventing evil, it can also be used as justification for shirking our obligations towards those for whom we are responsible.

Like it or not, we instinctively recognize that some evils are worse than others. That's why we have a distinction between venial and mortal sins. That's also why the test case of hiding Jews in Nazi Germany touches the issue of lying so closely: while in theory the Gestapo officer who asks "Do you know where Jews are being hidden?" is entitled to the truth, we instinctively recognize that giving the true answer—"Yes, let me show you where they are"—will lead to an incalculably worse result than saying, "No, so sorry, I don't." The injury done the Gestapo officer can hardly be considered "grave matter"; the internment and execution of the Jews, however, would be extremely grave and you would be guilty of participating in it if you told the truth. And that's why so many people instinctively shrink back from the idea that lying is never, never, never permissible.

However, neither the "Jews hidden in the attic" nor the "ticking time bomb" scenarios are equipped to deal with entrapment journalism. In both scenarios, we're looking at a choice forced on a person by circumstances beyond his/her control; with entrapment journalism, the journalist is the creator and, to a great extent, the controller of the event. With the first two scenarios, the lie is essentially defensive, injuring one party only as necessary as will protect other parties; with entrapment journalism, the lie is provocative, pushing the other person into self-incrimination.

Whatever else you can say about LiveAction's videos, they weren't demanded by the kind or degree of necessity that pertains to the usual justifications for lies. So I don't believe it's Pharisaical or Kantian to call their actions objectively wrong, as much as I'd like to be grateful for the help they provide.


  1. Is it always just and moral to never lie? Any married man who has fielded the "Does this dress make me look fat?" question would give an interesting answer to THAT one!

    My own query about this is, "Why does this sort of deception provoke outrage now?" We've had law enforcement agencies perform sting operations for centuries, yet there's been no outcry (except from the ones successfully stung).

    If it presents such a moral dilemma why hasn't it been previously addressed?

  2. "If it presents such a moral dilemma why hasn't it been previously addressed?"

    That's a very good question. According to what I've read from the other sources—go ahead and check them out; I've provided links—various saints have addressed lying over the centuries. And I'm not sure that the morality of "sting" or "entrapment" videos by LEOs hasn't been addressed before. It's hard to predict what will trigger our collective consciences into saying, "Hey, wait a minute ... was that a stop sign back there?"

    As for "Does this dress make me look fat" ... C'mon, Subvet, you know that's one of those questions women ask that men can't answer right no matter what they say! (LOL) Seriously, the dress never makes her look fat. We don't speak the whole truth—"No, your flabby muscle tone and oversized butt do that!"—but we do tell them the truth—"Dear, you look fine to me!"

  3. While we're talking about linked information, this man's take on things may prove of interest:

  4. Thanks for the link, Subvet. I have a lot of respect for Dr. Nadal, though I don't think the posts disagreeing with LiveAction's tactics have been especially damning—if anything, most admit to feeling some guilt. We all acknowledge the beautiful gift horse Lila Rose has given us, and the compulsion to look it in the mouth rather spoils the pleasure. And I wouldn't blame her if she felt we were all a bunch of ingrates for it. What can I say, except what I've already said ... "What scruples can we sacrifice in a culture war?"

  5. "What scruples can we sacrifice in a culture war?"

    Honestly, I have to admit that's a hard question to answer. My own tendency (which I fight against with varying success) is to believe the ends often justifies the means. Except when it's used against me. Then it's a horrendous mindset to have. Don't believe it? Just ask me.

    And some people will say that complete honesty is the first step in recover. Whatever.

    But even with all of that in mind, I wonder if we're being too scrupulous regarding this topic.

    Dr. Nadal seems to make the point that since prolifers have science on their side (especially in proving the humanity of the unborn) anything that Live Action has done will be more an anomaly than the norm. I think he has a point.

    Call me cookoo but with that in mind I see this whole controversy as demonic in origin, designed to create dissent & divisiveness amongst the prolife movement. Who is most influenced by the demonic element? Could be either side to be honest. The end result is the same and that would be the important point. So it behooves all of us to continue recognizing the good intentions of those we disagree with.

    That last sentence applies especially to myself. When this controversy first surfaced I posted a scathing denunciation of all detractors of Live Action. I'm now regretting it and will post a followup with an appropriate amount of crow served to moi.

    Thanks for the calm and reasoned dialog.

  6. The Catechism says that lying by its nature is to be condemned. That means, by its very commission, lying is evil. And it's a principle of Catholic morality that you can't commit evil for a good end. I don't think you really understand the meaning of the word "intrinsically". It means that the act itself-- not the intentions, not the consequences-- is evil in and of itself. Provoking death in self-defense is a consequence of disarming an aggressor because you're only supposed to use the necessary amount of force. The self-defense argument in Catholicism is a product of the theory of double effect. Killing itself is not justified.

  7. @ Suzanne:

    "I don't think you really understand the meaning of the word 'intrinsically'. It means that the act itself—not the intentions, not the consequences—is evil in and of itself."

    Exactly. That's precisely what it means, and precisely what I meant when I said, "The question is not whether lying is intrinsically evil. It is."

    Re-read the post. In the end—and it shows at the end—I'm not entirely satisfied with the concept of a "defensive (or just) lie". The issue, as it pertains to Lila Rose and LiveAction, is still being argued; as Subvet suggests, it's almost demonic how obsessive we've become over the point. I think more than anything else we all need to step back, take a deep breath, and remember that we're supposed to be united for a cause; then we can come back and discuss the issue with more charity.

  8. 'Never embed your conclusion in your title' - Why not?

  9. Purely a style concern, Richard ... from my perspective, it gives away too much, leaving not much incentive for the prospective reader to go through the whole thing. But there are people who've been writing and blogging a lot longer than I have who may feel differently.

  10. Your account of my argument in the Insidecatholic column is dishonest. Go to confession.

    Seriously. I disposed of the "stealth liberals" in a single paragraph and moved on to address those with sincere questions.
    John Zmirak

  11. @ John: Thank you for stopping by my humble blog. Speaking of humble, that should describe the pie I need to eat. My apologies, sir. I've provided the link for whomever wants to see the full of your argument.

  12. This afternoon, I e-mailed the CDF with this question. Here's the blog post I wrote with my letter pasted in:

  13. Here's hoping they reply soon. In the meantime, Lila Rose has released a statement on the whole dust-up; not surprisingly, she disagrees with people who disagree with LiveAction's tactics. I don't honestly think anything less than a firm "no" from the CDF will stop them.

  14. Thanks for the compliment about my post above.

    Here is my latest on this issue.


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