The response by Christopher Tollefsen and Alexander Pruss to my piece, “Fig Leaves and Falsehoods” indicates, I hope, that the needed conversation about the morality of all false signification is underway in earnest. I believe philosophers, theologians, and lay people must wrestle with this issue and help the Church clarify its teaching on lying.
It is not of great importance but it is curious that Tollefsen and Pruss misconstrue the intention of my article. I made it perfectly clear that I had not undertaken the project of defending the actions of Lila Rose and associates.
Whereas Tollefsen and Pruss speak of “assertion” I speak of “enunciative signification.” I prefer to use the more cumbersome “enunciative signification” because “assertion” in common parlance refers to speech acts whereas Aquinas (and the Catechism) refers to both words and deeds that attempt to communicate to another about reality.
I believe those who defend some false enunciative signification have an easier time dealing with Scripture than those who condemn all false enunciative signification. Those who maintain that all false enunciative signification is wrong, are faced with the task of explaining a multitude of instances wherein false enunciative signification leads to good and, it seems, approved results.
Since Augustine and Aquinas came to Scripture with an a priori that all false signification is wrong, they were obliged to try to find some explanation for the many instances when it seems to be approved. For example, Aquinas accepts Augustine’s explanation that since Sarah was related to Abraham on his father’s side, she was his sister. Aquinas identified true statements made to deceive as a formal falsehood and a mendacium: “If, on the other hand, one utters falsehood formally, through having the will to deceive, even if what one says be true, yet inasmuch as this is a voluntary and moral act, it contains falseness essentially and truth accidentally, and attains the specific nature of a lie.” (ST II-II, 110:1, resp.) Abraham spoke the truth but with the will to deceive and thus it seems he lied.
Aquinas explains the passage in Luke 24:28 where on the road to Emmaus Jesus pretended he would go farther as a kind of pretense, a signification not meant literally but figuratively (e.g, he was going to heaven). The figurative meanings may be intended as further meanings but it also seems to me that Jesus intended the disciples to think that he was literally going farther.
Tollefsen and Pruss also failed to respond to the evidence that I provided from material issued by the Holy See that the authoritative version of the Catechism “repeats the doctrinal content” of the 1992 version which suggests that version was without error. Note that the first (and the second) edition received an imprimi potest from Joseph Ratzinger. Were the authors of the first edition and Ratzinger guilty of challenging settled Church teaching? Moreover that imprimi potest should be revoked if it includes teaching contrary to the faith. (Oddly, the Vatican website still posts the first edition!).
The only magisterial statements that support the condemnation of all lying are Innocent XI’s condemnations of mental reservation. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Catechism would have cited such teaching had it wanted to convey that the teaching was settled. Let me refer those interested in a scholarly treatment of the Church’s position on falsehoods to a superb STD dissertation, Catholic Teaching about the Morality of Falsehood, by Rev. Julius A Dorszynski, published (with a nihil obstat and imprimatur) in 1948 by the CUA Press. Dorszynski argues that the morality of telling falsehoods is an open question and also argues for the morality of telling some falsehoods. I also recommend: Boniface Ramsey, O.P., “Two Traditions on Lying” The Thomist 49 (1985): 505-533.
Tollefsen and Pruss also fail to address the failure of the Catechism to condemn spying, sting operations, social white lies, jocose lies, and all forms of deception used in warfare. Catholics desperately need guidance in such matters, since such behavior is routine in virtually every culture.
Tollefsen and Pruss seem to misconstrue my argument when they note that Aquinas acknowledged other purposes for speech than the communication of truth. I was clear that I understood that Aquinas acknowledged many purposes for speech that is not enunciative. As I stated, commands, questions, etc. serve purposes other than asserting truths about reality. Only the truthfulness of enunciative signification is at issue, signification that makes a statement about the way things are.
My colleagues curiously state: “Neither is it an argument against Aquinas to point out that assertions can serve additional purposes beyond the communication of truth.” My claim, however, was that enunciative signification not only can and does serve purposes other than the communication of truth such as consolation, encouragement, and deterring people from evil and, most importantly, those purposes do not require strict adherence to the truth. If we use the principle operatio sequitur esse, we would readily acknowledge purposes for enunciative signification other than strict communication of the truth. (More about this below).
Tollefsen and Pruss challenge my claim that Aquinas’ condemnation of all false signification would rule out a soldier placing an empty tent in a field in order to lead the enemy to think that the soldier is in or near the tent when in fact he is hiding somewhere. I am not sure they fully understand the scope of the Church’s and Aquinas’s condemnation of false enunciative signification. The Catechism states “To lie is to speak or act against the truth” (2483; my emphasis) Aquinas states: “The term "words" denotes every kind of sign. Wherefore if a person intended to signify something false by means of signs, he would not be excused from lying.”(ST II-II: 110:1, ad 2).”
Tollefsen and Pruss say “Placing tents is not asserting—it does not have the disclosure of truth as its inner purpose.” What is its “inner purpose”? It is certainly not asking a question or making a command. It is signifying that there is someone in the tent with the hopes that the enemy will be deceived about reality. It is presenting something through signification that does not correspond with what one knows in one’s mind. I do not see how the act is anything other than false signification.
Certainly, Aquinas acknowledges that ambushes are done for the sake of deceiving. Aquinas is not opposed to permitting people to be deceived in some situations. He is, however, opposed to deception that happens by false enunciative signification. The only “ambushes” Aquinas allows are those that involve “hiding” one’s plans. The enemy is deceived, not by false signification but by one’s hiding one’s location.
I am, of course, pleased that Tollefsen and Pruss seem to approve of soldiers’ placing tents with the purpose of leading the enemy to draw false conclusions about their whereabouts. Though, again, I do not think they can claim Aquinas’ support. What support could anyone offer to invoke Aquinas’ support for false passports, missives from the military that state a false starting time for a battle in order to deceive the enemy, disguises used by spies, and the whole variety of false significations that are standard fare in warfare and many modes of police work and spying? After all, he was opposed to jocose lies, social lies, and lies to save lives.
In his article for the Thomist, “Lying and speaking your interlocutor’s language,” Pruss argued that it is moral for someone hiding Jews in his attic to say to a Nazi seeking to kill the Jews, “There are no Jews in my attic.” Pruss argues that such a statement is not a lie (would Tollefsen agree?), but is a kind of speaking another’s language. The protector hears the Nazi saying “Do you have despicable individuals in your attic that I am seeking to murder?” His negative response means “I have no despicable individuals in my attic” and that is a truth.
I think Pruss’ position is more in line with mine than Tollefsen’s. Pruss’ position could be expanded to explain and justify many instances where good people are inclined to engage in false enunciative signification, such as when encouraging and consoling. “You look lovely tonight.” “You will do better next time.” The recipient generally understands that these words are not meant to be taken literally but are the language of love, so to speak. In fact, these communications are less deceptive than Pruss’ “speaking the language of the Nazis.” In the case of encouragement and consolation, the interlocutor understands quite precisely what the speaker means and does not feel deceived, whereas the Nazis, though purportedly being addressed in their own language, would be deceived and indeed that is the intention of the speaker.
Tollefsen and Pruss argue that the reason that false signification is wrong is that one is not being true to one’s self. That claim seems much more Kantian than Thomistic. When speaking of a subcategory of false signification, the category of hypocrisy or dissimulation, Aquinas does speak of presenting one’s self as other than one is for that indeed is what hypocrisy is. Yet, Aquinas does not portray lies in general, jocose lies, social lies, protective lies, as being some violation of inner integrity. They are, again, a misuse of the purpose of enunciative signification: a communication of the truth about reality. Sometimes the reality that one is communicating about is one’s inner self, but only sometimes. I see no evidence in Aquinas of a concern for the type of “disintegration” that Tollefsen and Pruss find in false enunciative signification.
Moreover, their use of J.L.A. Garcia’s claim that when we communicate we are “soliciting” another’s trust does not, I think, find a true parallel in Aquinas. Aquinas certainly thinks that engaging in false signification destroys trust but I can not see that he speaks of “soliciting” trust. Here I do not want to engage Garcia’s arguments but to say that when one responds to a Nazi one is “soliciting” his trust, seems to me to misportray the relationship. Not all speech “solicits trust.” Indeed, the Nazi is not using speech to solicit trust but to facilitate horrifically evil actions. I believe I would serve my relationship with the Nazi better by preventing him from engaging in his horrific actions. I think he would have much to thank me for; more than if I had walked with him to arrest the Jews in my attic.
Tollefsen and Pruss do not address the key challenge I make: the challenge that the taking of human life and the taking of property of others is permissible in some circumstances—the circumstances of a postlapsarian world. Indeed, one could kill the Nazi or forcibly take his weapons from him to prevent him from killing Jews. Why is false signification morally impermissible in the same circumstances? The work that needs to be done now is to study why Aquinas thought it moral to kill in self-defense and to take what belongs to others when in dire need. What justifies those actions? Would that justification extend to false signification?
They also do not take on the related claim that Aquinas develops his understanding of the purpose of language in a deductive fashion rather than using the more inductive principle “operatio sequitur esse.” That is, he determines the purpose of language by constructing an analogy between God’s speaking a “word” that created the universe and man’s use of language to replicate that word. Rather, I believe he should have arrived at the purpose of language by observing how in fact man uses language. I think there are all sorts of contexts where those communicating have a strong suspicion they are not receiving the truth and do not expect the truth and sometimes do not want the truth. Indeed, God uses some modes of language in less than straightforward ways. For instance, God asks questions but not with the purpose of gathering information he does not know. He makes threats he does not follow through on. He leads people to believe he wants things from them that he does not.
Those who do not accept Aquinas’s premises on which his argument is based should not claim him as an ally. Nor should those who do not accept all of his conclusions which follow ineluctably from his premises. (And few do: Tollefsen and Pruss seem to reject his views on ambushes). Those who do not accept Aquinas’ premises—which include foremost his metaphysical understanding of the purpose of enunciative signification—will need to provide another explanation for either a qualified or an unqualified condemnation of all false enunciative signification.
Tollefsen and Pruss offered a nonThomistic reason for condemning all false enunciative signification. They need to give an argument for their understanding of the purpose of language and they need to deal with the fact that in this postlapsarian world, many virtuous people engage in a great deal of enunciative signification does not involve strict adherence to truth. In the end, my objection to their position is that they, like Aquinas, too narrowly construe the purposes of enunciative signification.
Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.
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