Wednesday 29 July 2015

Is it right to lie to save lives?

So a rather trenchant discussion has been taking place on Twitter (and what have I told you before about Twitter? Really not a good medium for such discussions...) about whether it is right to tell a lie to save lots of lives.

The context is the sting operation by the Centre for Medical Progress which has resulted in three (so far) chilling videos exposing Planned Parenthood's practice of selling parts of aborted unborn children (or foetuses, if you prefer the technical term - it means the same thing) for profit - and discussing the whole business in the most callous terms.

Clearly we should fight the evil abortion culture of deadly lies with every legitimate weapon available to us. But is lying a legitimate weapon?

I feel torn both ways  on this. On the one hand, I can see (and have seen) very strong arguments against lying. On the other, I can see (and have seen) very strong arguments in favour of what CMP has done. I have also seen very poor arguments marshalled, and indeed some ad hominem, which add heat rather than light to the debate.

People on either side of the debate see why their own side is right so clearly, and see how the other side is wrong with equal clarity; but I do not.

So this blog is an attempt to articulate some of my thinking; I do not necessarily expect to reach a definite conclusion (though I may, of course, surprise myself).

On the one hand, it seems to me that lying is a particularly serious type of sin. It is not just an offence against God's law, and normally an injustice to our neighbour; it is also an attack on God, in so far as it is an attack on the truth, and God the Son said: I am [...] the truth. Likewise, it is a siding with the Devil, who is the father of all lies. So even a relatively trivial lie, a venial sin, is (I think) a particularly serious type of venial sin, and therefore very dangerous for the person who commits it.

And any sin, mortal or venial, is to be avoided. It is a first principle of Catholic moral philosophy that we must not do evil in the hope of achieving good ends. Or to put it the other way around, for an action to be good, both the means and the end must be good.

Further, based on the Natural Law, St Thomas Aquinas makes it quite clear that every lie is sinful.

On the other hand, our duty to the truth is not, perhaps, as simple as it first appears. There are certainly occasions when it would be wrong to reveal the truth - the most obvious being the seal of the confessional. So withholding truth is not, in itself, always sinful.

Further the moral theologians allow deception (in certain circumstances) as legitimate, and it is hard to see the moral distinction between deception by devious means and a lie direct.

And then there is our fundamental moral intuition. It seems self-evident that to tell a lie in order to save lives is not a terrible thing to do. The example of hiding Jewish people from the Nazis and lying when you get the knock on the door is hard to refute without great moral discomfort.

Because of concupiscence (that is the damage to our natures left by Original Sin) I am wary of appeals to moral intuition. As I have observed before it is too easy to make excuses in sin.  But in this case, the moral intuition is inclining us to do something dangerous, not easy, so the question of it being disordered by self-interest seems less obvious, and therefore the moral intuition more worthy of respect.

So my heart pulls me in the direction of allowing the lie to save lives.  But then my head rebels: I consider St Thomas More, for example. He could easily have argued to himself that by a small lie, he could do far more good, both politically, and with regard to his vocation as a husband and father, than by sticking to the truth and dying, with no chance of achieving anything. Yet we revere him as a saint, a martyr and a hero for his witness to truth: and who would dare to say that no good came from it?

So perhaps a strict adherence to the truth, even if it prevents us from taking actions which we believe might well save lives, is what God wants: and He will use it according to His infinite wisdom and love, in ways that we cannot foresee.

Moreover, where does it end? If I will tell a small lie to save lives, would I tell a big one (eg falsify research, or lie on oath)? And if I would, what else would I do? Threaten an abortionist? Kidnap his child? Bomb his clinic? Murder his child as a warning (for after all, if taking one innocent life could save thousands...)? Where does one draw the line?  And how does one decide where to draw it?

The moral basis for our pro-Life beliefs is surely that there are some actions that are inherently wrong: if I don't adhere to that, on what basis do I proceed?

And then my heart revolts: are you not playing the Pharisee? Posing as virtuous, when you know the truth is quite other? You say you refuse to sully your purity to save lives, when you casually sin on a daily basis, with no greater purpose than your own comfort or whims?

And of course, my head knows the answers to that, not least the chilling quotation from Newman, and so it goes on.

And then people are quoting Rahab and all that, and I think, what about Abraham, who was ready to kill the innocent Isaac because God told him to do so? Obedience to God's law is foundational, not Pharisaical, surely? And so it goes on and on.

And part of me knows what I would do, but I am also clear that we cannot deduce what we should do from what we would do: that indeed would be arrogance, implying that all my behaviour is virtuous...

So I admire the clear-headed logic and rigour of those who insist that we cannot sin to do good: they are surely right.

And I admire the compassion of those who insist that lying to the likes of Planned Parenthood in order to stop the slaughter of children is legitimate: how can they be wrong?

And I cannot find any authority in the Church to support the notion that not all lying is sinful (if anyone can, please let me know!)

And I know in my head and my heart that there cannot, finally, be any conflict between Caritas and Veritas: for they are one and the same Person. 

And I remain unsure.


And why does it matter?

It matters because both truth and love matter.

It matters because in fighting abortion we are fighting a spiritual battle: so we must ensure that we are fighting it in ways that do not collude with the Father of Lies, but rather are taught us by the Father who is Love and Truth.

It matters because our vocation as humans is to know, love and serve God.

It matters because to sin is cataclysmic: whether that sin is lying, or failing to do all we legitimately can to save innocent lives.

And on a very practical note, it matters to me, as it reveals a huge gap in my own education, and the need to study this issue further.


As ever, I welcome comments: feel free to put me right, point out where I am an idiot, etc. 

However, I will not post comments that are unduly disparaging of others.


Luke O'Sullivan said...

Here's a consideration: Are we bound to be truthful in circumstances which have have been built upon lies or are contrary to the truth?

Take the Nazi at the door example: Their ideology and their desired outcome (the extermination of Jews) is based on lies and untruths. As they have presented an untrue reality to us, are we justified in responding according to the nature of that reality?

In the same way that fiction isn't a true lie, we are responding to their fictitious reality in kind...

Delia said...

This seems a good article:

Ttony said...

I asked about ruse de guerre on Twitter, and was told that deception was OK but lying wasn't. I really don't get this.

However, what I do get is Just War, and in the same way that Just War theory has had to adapt to the fact that the context in which it was originally developed-war between sovereign states-has had to be adapted, so, also, I think, are we allowed to venture a hypothesis that the struggle against the culture of death is sufficiently analogous to a war to allow us to use Just War as a guide to what we are entitled to do against our enemies: a word chosen with care.

St Augustine, and then St Thomas Aquinas had to work out why the Fifth Commandment could be broken legitimately in wartime: that's why we have a theology of Just War. I think this is a useful field to explore in the context of the fight against the culture of death.

Sig Sønnesyn said...

As someone who has seen the slippery slope from white lies for a good or innocuous purpose to living on lies that I will regret as long as I live, the sin of lying is particularly frightening to me.

The present situation re PP is such a complex field of moral agency that whatever way we turn we seem to meet some form of impasse, but we cannot let that paralyse us. I have been missing two aspects in this discussion: 1: the intended effects of lying on the people deceived, and the unintended effects on the moral character on those who lie; and 2: The other available options in the individual case.

We may very well argue that the shocking practices of PP make exposing these practices an act of mercy, in as much as it may force those who commit evil to desist; but as no actions leaves the agent unchanged, and no sin leaves the sinner unchanged, the lies told to expose these practices will impact on those who made these videos. This is a very real danger facing all those who want to commit technical transgression to achieve a greater good. No transgression is ever purely technical.

Therefore we should also ask ourselves, and the video makers, what other options we may have had, and how necessary these videos actually are for the struggle to preserve life from conception to natural death. As horrific as the selling of fetal body parts is, the actually ending of embryonic life is more horrible still, and we do not need these videos to prove that. If the videos were a recorded under false pretences, that will weaken their power as tools to change minds, and give the PP people a line of defence.

However, the question of whether the secret photographers were right or wrong is now mainly between the, God, and their confessor (if they have one). What we need to consider for the future is what the means we use will accomplish, and what they will effect in us.

Anonymous said...

The trouble is, once you start saying that means justify ends, where do you stop? Some pretty horrific, even murderous, crimes of violence have been committed against those who work in the abortion industry, in the name of protecting the unborn. What about the effect of those acts on the souls of people who planned and executed them, let alone on the victims?

We have seen the escalation of violence also in the anti-vivisection, animal-rights movement. I am deeply anti-vivi myself, but I can't support what has been done by fanatics in this cause (fire-bombing, blackmail, poisoning, to name but three).

Simply, the slippery slope argument applies here. Once people step outside their moral boundaries, in the name of whatever cause, all bets are off.

Ttony said...

After some further thought, I have come to the conclusion that the Just War analogy works. The problem St Augustine and Aquinas had was that they had to square war with the fifth commandment. Killing is always wrong, but under certain circumstances, the consequences of not getting into a position where killing might be the only outcome of your actions, can be worse than the consequences of doing so.

CCC 2483 is interesting too: "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error (my emphasis). Were the people who made the films really trying to lead PP into error? They deceived PP into believing that they shared their belief system but were not trying to get PP to engage in greater perfidy than was the case anyway. CCC 2484 says that the gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

One more observation: why has there been such a rush from Catholics to condemn the film makers for lying, thus deflecting what could have been a coordinated campaign against PP into an orgy of navel-gazing? The more I think about this, the more I worry about it.

And one confession: if the Twitterstorm about lying hadn't started, or if I hadn't seen it, I would have simply be full of praise for the ingenuity and skill of the film makers who managed to get PP to expose itself in all of its loathsome awfulness to the world.

Mary Kay said...

I will use two of your examples: regarding the Nazis, our own beloved Pope Pius XII encouraged the forging of birth certificates to save the lives of Jews who were trying to escape the clutches of the Nazis. And before him, St. Thomas More encouraged his dear daughter Meg to do what she could to live, and to make mental reservations about the outcome. He could not do it because he was a well-known figure and the problem was focused on him. But his daughter and their family lived.

Sometimes, I think, we must be pushed to the line in the sand to make such decisions. It is good to discuss them, but definitely not good to berate the film makers for doing what they could to not only protect the lives of babies, but to expose the vile nature of the PP folks.

Our Lord, as judge, will handle that, and we should be praying daily for his mercy on all of us caught up in this terrible situation.