Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tollefsen: "Why lying is always wrong"

There have been a number of posts recently at Public Discourse on the morality of the tactics employed by "Live Action" to catch Planned Parenthood workers doing and saying bad things on camera.  The latest, by Prof. Christopher Tollefsen, is called "Why lying is always wrong", and it is here.  He is responding to, inter alia, this piece by Prof. Christopher Kaczor.

There's a lot going on in these essays; I would urge readers and bloggers to read the whole things.  Certainly, a number of very learned people have held, and hold, the view that Prof. Tollefsen sets out, namely, that it is always wrong to lie.  To make a long story short (again, read the whole things), lying is always wrong because "all lies are unloving. . . .  [They] are incompatible in the deepest way with a will towards communion with others, which must always be founded on truth, both generally speaking (for falsehood does indeed bring with it many pernicious consequences for a community), and, more specifically, the truth of persons."

To his credit, Prof. Tollefsen concedes that his position "could not easily be adhered to."  Indeed, it could not.  As he notes, his view seems to lead to the conclusions that, say, the "practices of undercover work, espionage work, and other forms of journalistic, police, and governmental work that might require lying" are also wrong.  (Telling one's child that the present she is opening on Christmas morning was brought by "Santa Claus" is, I guess, also immoral?)

I'm pretty sure I'm not a consequentialist; that is, I do not believe that what renders an act "right" is the fact that it has welfare-enhancing consequences and I agree (I assume) with Tollefsen that an argument is not refuted simply by noting that among the consequences of its being correct are many costs and inconveniences.  But, I guess I'm kidding myself, because I don't find myself much moved by Tollefsen's arguments (and, it appears, St. Thomas's and St. Augustine's!) here.  

Maybe my reservations are not "consequentialist" ones; maybe, instead, they reflect different judgments on my part about what counts as a "lie" -- I'm not sure.  Maybe my head is just too small:  the distinction between a military feint (designed to trick the enemy into thinking that one intends to do X with one's forces when one really intends to do Y), which is apparently permissible, and going undercover to buy methamphetamine (and, in the course of so doing, lying about who one is), which is said to be impermissible, is hard for me to grasp.

Anyway, and again:  Read the essays, and see what you think.   

https://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2011/02/tollefsen-why-lying-is-always-wrong.html

Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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It certainly is a lot to chew on!

Posted by: Tito Edwards | Feb 14, 2011 12:23:42 PM

The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse. - John Henry Newman

Note the part about "one willful untruth."

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 14, 2011 1:31:57 PM

I'm aware, of course, of the weighty authority on Tollefsen's side. =-)

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 14, 2011 1:33:52 PM

I haven't read the essays, but perhaps one possible counterargument would be that true communion with a liar at times involves getting to the point where you can reveal their lies to the world. Until that point, since they're engaging in some sort of sin or lies, no matter how truthful you are, loving communion is impossible. So, it seems, lying to uncover the lies and sins of others may be permissible, if you accept the duty to help "correct" sinners.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Feb 14, 2011 1:52:13 PM

I would be interested in the thoughts of criminal justice scholars who contribute here on the implications of Catholic teaching on undercover police work.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 14, 2011 1:58:16 PM

Rick,

I won't bother to quote the entirety of paragraphs 2482-2486 from the Catechism here, since everyone has access to it, but it could hardly be more clear that all lies are sinful:

2482 "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving." . . . .

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.

2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. . . .

2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. . . .

In my opinion, it is lying to children to tell them there is a Santa Claus to tell them that presents come from Santa Claus. If I were a parent, I wouldn't do it.

I don't see how a military feint could be considered the equivalent of a lie. A lie is verbal. It must be written or spoken. Deception per se is not necessarily immoral. Even telling untruths within a context where truth is not necessarily expected is not lying (as in the old game show To Tell the Truth).

There has been a very lengthy discussion of Humanae Vitae over on dotCommonweal, and I see a similarity between the extremely rigid requirement that every act of sexual intercourse be open to the transmission of life and that every spoken or written statement not be deliberately deceptive. Of course things are difficult when something is defined as intrinsically evil and never permitted under any circumstances.

I tend toward consequentialism, and I have a number of times in discussions asked if it is moral to do undercover drug work, or to assume a false identity to be a spy. But it seems to me inescapable that such things require lies, and that Catholic teaching condemns all lies. The fact that such things are done all the time and good results come from them does not in any way make them moral within Catholic though.

I recently paid a small fortune for Christopher Kaczor book The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice. A few things I had read indicated it was the definitive book on the topic. I have not read it yet, but I hope Kaczor does a better job with the ethics of abortion than he does with the ethics of lying. In Catholic thought, lying is intrinsically evil and consequently is always wrong.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 14, 2011 2:15:12 PM

David, I am (obviously) familiar with the CCC passages you quote. (I note, BTW, that it includes *actions* against the truth, and not only "verbal" deceptions.) And, I'm not uncomfortable or bothered by the idea of exceptionless moral rules.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 14, 2011 2:48:16 PM

"There have been a number of posts recently at Public Discourse on the morality of the tactics employed by "Live Action" to catch Planned Parenthood workers doing and saying bad things on camera."

Have they also made similar such posts when an undercover investigation, the likes of which go on everyday, come out in the press?

Nice to see David citing the catechism. Perhaps he could also do so when it doesn't suit his purposes.

Posted by: [email protected] | Feb 14, 2011 4:50:41 PM

Indeed, lying is a terrible thing. It can be a crime, and it is typically a serious sin. But there is something to consider regarding the motiviation for lying along the lines of a legitimate self-defense or, better, a defense of the innocent and the good against the evil. When I taught in Rome, I had the occasion to visit various religious houses. I also lived in one. I came to know that they hid Jews and others, such as escaped allied prisoners of war, who were hunted down by the agents of National Socialism during the Second World War. It seemed that many of the hiding places were never detected and thus protected their occupants. When the religious superiors were asked by the German agents if any Jews, POWs, etc. were on the premises, the answer was unequivocally "no." If these assertions were lies, do they fall into a different category other than sin? It strikes me that the motivation for the misrepresentation in this type of context was to seek good and to avoid evil. It may be that there is a category of misrepresentation that is not lying and, therefore, not a sin or not wrong.

RJA sj

Posted by: Robert John Araujo, S.J. | Feb 14, 2011 5:20:38 PM

kephas25,

You say: "Nice to see David citing the catechism. Perhaps he could also do so when it doesn't suit his purposes."

I am always happy to cite the Catechism, although I do accept as justified the slap on the wrist Rick gave me for doing so. We all know what the Catechism says. I am not sure what my purposes are supposed to be here. It seems to me that it has long been the teaching of the Catholic Church that one must never lie, no matter what. I think in agreeing or disagreeing with the teachings of the Church, I have always done my best to represent them accurately. I don't happen to completely agree with the statements I quoted from the Catechism—I think there is something to be said for consequentialism—but I think they are clear Catholic teaching, and I think some Catholics are uncomfortable with them being applied to a sting operation directed against Planned Parenthood. Also, they are uncomfortable with them being applied to such things as undercover operations and espionage, which I am sure almost all of us believe bring about beneficial results. But who says that makes them moral? Interestingly, Tollefsen says, "Some have expressed surprise that these practices should be called into question; yet Augustine felt it necessary to address the morality of lying precisely in order to stop the practice of Christians infiltrating heretical sects for the defense of the faith; so questioning the legitimacy of undercover work is a very old part of the Christian tradition . . . ."

You say: "Have they also made similar such posts when an undercover investigation, the likes of which go on everyday, come out in the press?"

Of course, the fact that some people are criticizing LiveAction when they (allegedly) have not criticized other undercover investigations does not in any way render their criticisms of LiveAction invalid. And of course Tollefsen cites his own previous work on the topic dating to 2007 titled "Lying: The Integrity Approach." So I don't think he can be accused of criticizing LiveAction and never having criticized anyone else previously who engaged in the same kind of activity.
http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/ajj52&div=12&id=&page=

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 14, 2011 5:41:22 PM

Fr. Araujo,

You say: "If these assertions were lies, do they fall into a different category other than sin? It strikes me that the motivation for the misrepresentation in this type of context was to seek good and to avoid evil. It may be that there is a category of misrepresentation that is not lying and, therefore, not a sin or not wrong."

But it is the position of the Church that lying is intrinsically evil and that evil may never be done so that good may come of it. Lying with the best of intentions, I was always taught, is still a sin and must still never be done. See the Newman quote above, or ask anyone who went to Catholic school when I did (during the 1950s and early 1960s) what we were taught if we could lie to save the whole world.

I ran across the following while googling on this topic. It is from Charles Curran's Moral Theology of John Paul II:

**********
In the early twentieth century, however, some moral theologians proposed a different reason for the moral malice of lying. . . . . The newer approach recognizes that the faculty or power can never be viewed in itself but only in its relationship with the person and the person's relationship with the other person. The ultimate malice of lying does not consist in going against the God-given purpose of the faculty of speech (the perverted faculty argument) but in violating my neighbor's right to the truth. If the other does not have the right to the truth, what I say is false speech, but it is not the moral act of lying . . . .
**********

This was the view reflected in the first version of the Catechism:

"To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth."

Then Cardinal Ratzinger had it changed to the following:

"To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error."

Curran says: "Ratzinger well knew that many Catholic theologians today use the analogy of lying to argue against the faculty-act analysis with regard to human sexuality."

So it seems clear that Cardinal Ratzinger saw a slippery slope in moving away from the "perverted faculty" argument against lying. I see it too, although it's a slope I would probably be willing to ride all the way to sea level. But I don't understand why "conservative" Catholics would.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 14, 2011 6:09:28 PM

I'm closing this comment thread, and urging folks to continue the conversation in the thread attached to Robby George's recent post.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 15, 2011 8:20:56 AM