The controversy over Live Action’s tactics in exposing Planned Parenthood’s abuses is now well known. And in the face of that controversy, some who are willing to countenance lying for a good cause have seemingly abandoned argument in favor of dismissiveness. Lila Rose’s lawyer, for example, was quoted in USA Today as saying that critics had made “much ado about nothing.” Such an attitude to a matter of grave concern—what it means to defend the lives of the unborn in a fully upright way—is unworthy. By contrast, Professor Janet Smith, who has never shirked argument on behalf of the truth, has made a serious effort to support the often ill-defended claims on behalf of Rose and her Live Action colleagues. However, we believe that her recent intervention in the debate on lying and Live Action goes astray and warrants comment. We think that Smith’s commitment to truth should lead her to the conclusion that, as we will show, false assertion is always wrong.
Smith makes a general point concerning the fidelity to Catholic teachings of those who defend the licitness of false assertion (by which we mean here, assertion contrary to what one believes). Relying on the difference between the first vernacular edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which defines lying as speaking falsely to one “who has the right to know the truth” and the later, authoritative Latin edition, which drops the qualifier, Smith suggests that the former view is merely “less probable”, and is not officially condemned.
However, while not always proposed by the Catholic Church as revealed truth to be believed de fide, a teaching contained in the Catechism calls for religious assent by Catholics, or submission of the will and mind to the teaching of the Catholic magisterium. Moreover, as the teaching on lying is shared by Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas and almost every other significant medieval theologian, and since it is stated unequivocally in the Catechism of the Council of Trent as well as the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church, the demand for such assent is quite strong.
Scripture does, of course, describe cases of lying by well-intentioned persons such as Rahab; yet it does not praise the lies themselves and contains a number of expressions of general and grave disapproval for lying and liars (Prov. 30:8, Ps. 5:6, John 8:44, Col. 3:9, Rev. 21:8,27), as well as Jesus’ exhortation that our yes be a yes and our no be a no (Matthew 5:37). And while there are, particularly among Eastern Christian thinkers, some figures who support the telling of lies in extreme circumstances, they are a distinct minority in the Christian tradition as a whole. Thus, not only Catholics, but Christians generally should give careful consideration to the weight of Scripture and Christian tradition against false assertion. And absent significant evidence to the contrary, we should assume that the words of Jesus, of Scripture, and of the Church condemn all false assertion as lying.
Most of Smith’s essay argues against three points of St. Thomas Aquinas, who held all false assertion to be wrong. Her first argument attempts to show that Aquinas overlooked various postlapsarian purposes of speech, holding that all “enunciative signification” must have the purpose of communicating truth. The second argument is against St. Thomas’ claim that a lie does some wrong to the individuals lied to, while the third seeks to undermine his claim that false assertion damages the integrity of the one who asserts falsely. We believe that each of her arguments is flawed.
Aquinas believed that the purpose of assertion through speech is the communication of truth. Assertion is intrinsically a disclosing act, revealing both the world and the speaker’s inner self, or mind. This disclosing relationship between words, world and self is an ordered relationship, and thus, according to Aquinas, it requires a virtue, truth, if it is to be duly ordered. This virtue, truth, serves two goods in ordering the disclosing relationship, the good of sociality and trust among people, and the good of integrity: “that truth by which a man, both in life and speech, shows himself to be such as he is.” It is in light of this earlier discussion of the virtue of truth that Aquinas’ later claim about the wrong of lying must be understood: “For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind.”
Aquinas is not saying here that every use of words, or every speech act, will be unnatural if not assertive; nor is he saying that assertions may not have other purposes besides the signification of what is in the mind. Smith supposes that Aquinas’ “mistake” is to assume a prelapsarian understanding of “the purpose of signification” as being solely for the disclosure of truth. Yet Aquinas is certainly aware of other prelapsarian speech acts not directed at disclosure of truth, such as commands, questions, prayers, and exclamations. His position on lying prescinds from consideration of these other speech acts, since lying concerns only one kind of speech act: assertion. Given the purpose internal to assertion—communication of truth—and given the goods to which assertion is intrinsically, and not merely conventionally, ordered, to assert falsely is always to act contrary to this purpose and the goods it serves.
Thus, it is no argument against this claim to point out that there are other purposes for speech. Neither is it an argument against Aquinas to point out that assertions can serve additional purposes beyond the communication of truth. This is true in all cases in which an act is internally ordered to a good, as sex is related to procreation and eating to nutrition: other licit purposes may be pursued but one must not make a choice that is contrary to the essential purpose.
Of course, as Aquinas recognizes, reasonable moral constraints on deceiving are considerably less stringent than those on lying, for deceiving is a broader category than lying. Smith incorrectly claims that Aquinas’ position would prohibit deceptive practices such as placing an empty tent on a battlefield. Placing tents is not asserting—it does not have the disclosure of truth as its inner purpose—and hence Aquinas’ argument that it is unnatural “to signify by words something that is not in [the speaker’s] mind” is simply irrelevant in such cases. In fact, Aquinas explicitly distinguishes deceiving by means of false assertion or false promise, which is always wrong, from the soldier’s “art of concealing his purpose”.
Smith’s second argument concerns the injustice done in lying to an evildoer. Aquinas addresses the relationship between justice and assertion in terms of the notion of trust. An important discussion by J.L.A. Garcia has extended this thought: in asserting, one actively solicits this trust on the part of another, whilst in lying, one also breaks faith with that solicited trust. But Smith counters with three questions: “Why . . . should we imagine that everyone enjoys an inviolable right to truth in all communications? Isn’t giving the truth to a Nazi like returning a loaded weapon to a madman? Does he have any right to the truth?”
First, if “all communications” is taken broadly to include speech acts other than assertions, then of course the right to truth is not involved in all communications. Now, there are some truths that the Nazi has a general right to. Not the right to be told where Jews have been hidden, but the right to the truth that only by conversion from his wicked purposes can his soul be saved. However, despite the limits of the Nazi’s general right to the truth, the Nazi can also be said to have a right not to have us solicit his trust with the intention of betraying it. To do that is contrary to the love that we owe to all. It is not that the Nazi is somehow worthy of the truth (are we?), but that by making an assertion we have chosen to falsely offer ourselves as trustworthy. In refusing to return a loaded weapon to a madman we are not soliciting the madman’s trust. Finally, Smith takes up St. Thomas’ claim that false assertion is destructive of the integrity of the one so asserting. She claims, rather, that false assertion to protect the innocent leads to growth in virtue, and that those who “failed to deter the Nazis by false assertion would suffer terribly from a sense that they have violated some deeply good part of their being.”
The claim that lying violates an agent’s integrity or self-integration is complex: following on Aquinas’ suggestion, we can say that when our “externals”—our words and deeds—are at odds with what we take to be the case, and what we take ourselves to be, this introduces a kind of disorder into the fabric of our entire person, which has both internal and external, spiritual and material, dimensions. Human persons easily and often recognize that such dis-integration is a bad, and that its opposite is a good to be pursued: we speak well of those courageous enough to speak their mind, and ill of hypocrites, false friends, and flatterers. If false assertion violates this integrity, and this integrity is always good, then false assertion is always wrong, even when done for good purposes. False assertion should not, if this account is true, be expected of itself to lead to growth in virtue.
Of course, lies made to evildoers in situations of great stress are what Aquinas called “officious” lies, and are unlikely to be more than venial sins, if there is culpability at all. So the fact that those who lied to the Nazis, or to Pharaoh, did not go on to wicked lives is hardly surprising, and gives no evidence against the traditional view—venial sin often occurs even in a generally exemplary life. The case of Catholic recusants is more problematic: the lies and deceptions to which some Jesuit missionaries were forced may have had, ultimately, some deleterious effect on their character. The virtues of these Jesuits, in any case, seem much more clearly related to their firm adherence to the Catholic faith in face of many trials, than to their willingness to lie or equivocate on behalf of that faith.
At the same time, it is also to be noted that there are misleading assertions—what Blessed Newman calls “evasions”—that appear not to rise to the level of lies, and it is an open question in the Christian tradition how far these can be used. Newman’s example was that when soldiers were pursuing Saint Athanasius and came upon him without recognizing him, they asked if he had seen Athanasius. Athanasius answered: “Yes, he is close to you.” Such cleverly evasive truth-telling can perhaps be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
It is also worth saying something about those who refused to lie to the Nazis from an unwillingness to do what they took to be wrong. No doubt, among those people of upright will in, for example, the Netherlands, majority opinion supported lying to the Nazis. But the view was not unanimous, as we learn in Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Corrie’s sister Nollie was, together with a young Jewish girl, arrested by the S.D. after she answered the question: “Is this a Jew?” with “Yes.” But, she said to her sister from prison: “No ill will happen to Annalies. God will not let them take her to Germany. He will not let her suffer because I obeyed Him.”
In point of fact, Annalies was rescued almost immediately. Surely such a happy result could not be counted on in every case; but in every case of fidelity to the will of God, who is Truth, Christians can expect that the burdens suffered will not be too great to shoulder, and that Christ himself will take the larger share of such burdens. Paul insists that we are not to do evil that good might result (Romans 3:8), and when the only way to preserve a good such as life is by means of an evil, there we have to commend the situation to Providence, which will bring justice ultimately to pass.
Nollie ten Boom’s witness to faith reveals that rather than violating “some deeply good part of [her] being,” in speaking the truth Nollie did just the opposite. Nor was her unwillingness to lie born of an empty or formalistic obedience to divine command, but from the love of others that God in fact desires of us. More than once, in The Hiding Place, Corrie describes her own amazement at the love showed by Nollie for all persons, including her Nazi oppressors. Surely Nollie was a profound embodiment of one of the deepest Christian norms—that we love and respect all human beings, including sinners (and we are all such).
There is much more to be said, of course, about this issue; the conversation is far from over, and we thank Smith for her presentation and defense of the more permissive view of false assertion. Nevertheless, we find her arguments unconvincing, and believe that there are very strong reasons, in the Christian tradition, in Catholic teaching, in philosophy and in practice, for adhering to the more rigorous view.
Christopher Tollefsen, a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and author, with Robert. P. George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. Alexander Pruss is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University. His book One Body is forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.
Janet E. Smith, Fig Leaves and Falsehoods
Doubting Thomas on Lying
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