Lying: a Metaphysical Issue before a Moral Issue

JANET E. SMITH

Aquinas holds that lying is wrong primarily because it violates the nature/purpose of enunciative speech. This paper raises the possibility that 1) enunciative speech has more purposes than that identified by Aquinas and 2) that some kinds of falsehoods build up rather than destroy society. I am going to identify some principles in Aquinas' own thought that I believe lend support to the claims I am making.

Preface

Saint Thomas Aquinas
1225-1274

I have written the following to enrich the public discourse among Catholics on the morality of telling falsehoods to evildoers to save the lives of the innocent. The question is of immense importance and needs to be discussed. I believe that all teachers of the faith should present the teaching of the final version of the Catechism as normative but that they are also free to note that many faithful philosophers and theologians believe that some falsehoods do not fall under the condemnation of lying. In fact, I think even more philosophers and theologians would express their views publicly if it were established that the Church has no settled teaching on the telling of falsehoods to evildoers to save the lives of the innocent. It is not my purpose to make that argument here but I would use the fact that philosophers and theologians who are faithful to the Church on all other matters disagree strongly on this matter to indicate that it is not a settled teaching.

I think another major reason deterring some who privately think that the telling of falsehoods to save the lives of the innocent may be moral from publicly expressing their views is the fact that such luminaries as Aquinas have condemned the telling of all falsehoods. Indeed, his views have provided the foundation for the Church's teaching. Here I am going to put some challenges to Aquinas. This essay is very "tentative"; undoubtedly there is much more to be said about "speech acts" than I have presented but I believe that these preliminary thoughts may make a contribution to the debate.

All challenges I make to Aquinas' work are based on the fundamental principles that guide his analysis. That is, Aquinas uses Aristotle's teleological view of nature as a basis for his morality. Things and acts have natures and purposes. We are to respect those natures and purposes in our choices. Aquinas is not a consequentialist. He does not judge actions to be moral or immoral based on the balance of good and evil that result from an action. Nonetheless, one should strive with one's action to do good and avoid evil. But one should never do evil to achieve good. Doing evil for Aquinas is violating the nature or purpose of a thing or action. For instance, Aquinas argues that adultery is wrong because it violates the nature and purpose of marriage. Adultery has terrible consequences and that is because it violates the nature and purpose of marriage.

As we shall see, Aquinas argues that it is wrong to lie because lies are falsehoods and falsehoods violate both the nature and purpose of enunciative speech (speech that asserts something as true or false) and man's nature as a social animal.

The challenge I make below is to his understanding of the nature and purpose of enunciative speech and to his view that lies always damage society. I am not in any way making a consequentialist argument.


Aquinas' View

Aquinas condemns all false representation of reality, including saying something false for the purpose of amusement, what Aquinas calls a "jocose lie." Aquinas has a true zero tolerance policy for speaking falsehood (and some other forms of falsely conveying what is on one's mind as well).

Many are claiming that it is always wrong to knowingly say something false for any reason or purpose. They call this lying. One of the major proponents of that view (with some nuances) is Thomas Aquinas. His view has influenced many people who argue that lying is wrong largely because of the reputation that Aquinas has for brilliance, wisdom and, most importantly, holiness. Who would want or dare to disagree with Aquinas? Who would want or dare to lead others into sin? I undertake this challenge to Aquinas with considerable trepidation but with the hope that my challenge will lead to greater clarity about telling falsehoods.

Aquinas believes that we can kill in self-defence but that we can never lie to defend our own lives or the lives of others. This position may seem unintelligible to many but it is rooted in his understanding of what truth is and what a lie is.

Although many follow Aquinas, some of his followers do not know precisely what Aquinas understands a lie to be nor the precise reason why Aquinas condemns lying.


The Definition of a Lie

First let us establish what Aquinas understands a lie to be. This is a metaphysical question; a question about the essence or nature of the act called lying.

When speaking about lies, Aquinas is referring to the "speech acts" that he calls enunciations. We use speech for many purposes, such as asking questions and giving commands. Enunciations are statements that are asserting something to be true or false. Falsehoods are false statements, enunciations that assert something contrary to the truth.

Uttering a statement that is false and committing the sin of lying are not the same. Only some false statements are formal lies or sins.

As is his custom, Aquinas uses Aristotle's "causes" (specifically matter, form and finality) to define a lie: if these three things concur, namely, falsehood of what is said, the will to tell a falsehood [voluntas falsum enuntiandi], and finally the intention to deceive [intentio fallendi,] then there is falsehood – materially, since what is said is false, formally, on account of the will to tell an untruth, and effectively, on account of the will to impart a falsehood [voluntatem falsitatem imprimendi]. (ST II-II, 110:1)

The essence of a lie is that a person intends to make a false statement, something contrary to what the person believes to be true. This action necessarily entails the intention to cause another to have a false opinion and that is what really makes the falsehood a lie.

For a person to have spoken a lie in the full sense there must be the deliberate telling of a falsehood (or the making of a statement thought to be a falsehood) and telling with the intent to deceive.

Qualifications

In Aquinas's view not all false statements are formal falsehoods or lies. That is, sometimes people say things that are false that they believe to be true. For instance, someone might wrongly think it is raining (the last time he looked, it was) and say it was raining although it was not raining. His statement would be a material falsehood but not a formal falsehood.

Nor is saying a falsehood necessary for a speech act to qualify as a lie. Again, if one intends to say something false with the will of deceiving [voluntatem falsum dicendi] but in fact says something true, the person is nonetheless lying. (ST II-II, 110:1) For instance, if someone thought it was not raining but said it was raining (it began raining since one last looked) one would have intended to say something contrary to what is the fact, and only accidentally said what is true. That person is lying.

Moreover, Aquinas considers the person who speaks the truth with the intention of telling a falsehood to have more truly lied than one who mistakenly tells a falsehood: "Hence it is more in opposition to truth, considered as a moral virtue, to tell the truth with the intention of telling a falsehood than to tell a falsehood with the intention of telling the truth." (ST II-II, 110:1) That is, if someone knew that by telling a truth he would cause someone to have a false opinion, he would be lying. Thus I believe Aquinas would not approve of misleading Nazis who were attempting to kill Jews even with true speech. I believe his principles mean someone answering the door of his neighbor's house (who is harboring Jews) and responding to a Nazi demanding that he "Turn over to me any Jews in your house" would lie if he said "There are no Jews in my house." Such is true speech, but said with the will of saying something false [voluntas falsum enuntiandi], which Aquinas finds to be the essence of a lie.

Summary

So these acts qualify as lies:

  1. Any statement that does not faithfully represent what is in the mind of the speaker. That is a material lie.
  2. Any statement intended to cause someone to have a false opinion, whether or not it is truthful. This is a formal lie.

Those who deliberately say something they know to be false with the intention of causing someone to have a false opinion have lied. According to Aquinas, if someone hiding Jews in his attic deliberately (a formal falsehood) said there were no Jews in his attic (a material falsehood) and did so with the intention of leading the Nazis to believe there were no Jews in his attic, he would be lying.

And we should remember that Aquinas counts not only false enunciative speech as lies, but actions that misrepresent what is on one's mind. If a thief demanded of some woman "give me your purse" and she intentionally gave the thief a purse that belonged to someone else (and devoid of precious items), she is thinking one thing: "This is not my purse" but engaging in an action that conveys a different message. Aquinas considers this action to be a lie.

Note, however, in the above analysis, that Aquinas has given no moral judgment on lying. He has simply described what lying is, not why it is wrong. He does believe it is wrong to tell any falsehood, even for the sake of protecting innocent lives and even jocose lies, but to this point I have not explained why Aquinas believes it is wrong to intend to say something contrary to the truth.


Why Lying is Wrong

Purpose of signification (speech)

There are many enunciations that are meant simply to create or maintain an atmosphere of cordiality. "I am fine." "I am pleased to meet you." "I am happy you came." "This meal is really delicious." "No, you didn't stay too late last night." Few engaged in such exchanges of speech are much mindful of the truthfulness or falsity of the speech.

Aquinas condemns lying (and other ways of communicating falsehood) because he believes that it violates the very purpose of signification or communication which is to convey what is in the mind. The purpose of the mind is to grasp reality correctly and the purpose of signs or communication is to manifest or display that correct understanding of reality. As he states: a "manifestation or statement is an act of reason comparing sign with the thing signified; because every representation consists in comparison, which is the proper act of the reason." (ST II-II, 110:1) A lie is wrong because it improperly represents what is in one's mind. As he states: "Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. 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." (ST II-II, 110:3; my emphasis)

Consider how Aquinas defines truth: he states:

Hence, everything is said to be true absolutely, in so far as it is related to the intellect from which it depends; and thus it is that artificial things are said to be true as being related to our intellect. For a house is said to be true that expresses the likeness of the form in the architect's mind; and words are said to be true so far as they are the signs of truth in the intellect. In the same way natural things are said to be true in so far as they express the likeness of the species that are in the divine mind. (ST I, 16:1)

Let's break this down a bit beginning with the final claim of the above passage. "[N]atural things are said to be true in so far as they express the likeness of the species that are in the divine mind." (ST I, 16:1) Every thing that exists in the world is said to be a "word" of God; it is an "expression" of what is in the divine mind. Insofar as things fulfil their nature they are "true" speech of God. When we are thinking about reality we are forming concepts in our minds of the "speech" that God has uttered. We need to conform our concepts as truly as we can to those realities that God has spoken. So when we speak, we are attempting to reproduce the concepts that initiated in God's mind and were produced in the world. Our speech must be true to God's "speech". We should have in our minds the truth that God "spoke" and speak only that truth.

For Aquinas, then, lying violates the nature or purpose of enunciative speech, which he believes to be the conveyance of one's understanding of reality which should correspond to the way reality really is. Aquinas's whole moral theory depends upon things having natures given to them by God; to violate those natures is to do wrong. For instance, Aquinas holds that sexual intercourse has a nature; fornication, homosexual acts, masturbation, etc., are wrong because they violate the nature and purpose of sexual intercourse.

Aquinas condemns all false representation of reality, including saying something false for the purpose of amusement, what Aquinas calls a "jocose lie." Aquinas has a true zero tolerance policy for speaking falsehood (and some other forms of falsely conveying what is on one's mind as well). Not all lies are mortal sins, but all lies are sins. Lying to protect the life of another and jocose lies are venial sins but they are sins nonetheless. In the same way that it is wrong to commit an act of adultery to save innocent human lives, it is wrong to tell a falsehood to save innocent human lives. That is a venial sin in his view, but a sin nonetheless and thus an action that ought not to be performed no matter how much good comes from it.

Social Cohesion

Lying also violates another purpose of enunciations since enunciations are not only the representation of what is in one's mind but are the representation of what is in one's mind to another, to another who deserves to know the truth. Telling a lie, then, is a violation of justice. As Aquinas says: "Since man is a social animal, one man naturally owes another whatever is necessary for the preservation of human society. Now it would be impossible for men to live together, unless they believed one another, as declaring the truth one to another. Hence the virtue of truth does, in a manner, regard something as being due." (ST II-II, 109: 3. Ad1).

Questions:

Suppose, though, that the conveyance of what one believes to be true is not the sole nature or purpose of enunciative speech? Suppose enunciative speech has multiple purposes? And suppose that some falsehoods do not destroy trust and in fact serve to build up trust and fellowship? Let us explore those possibilities.


Multiple purposes of language

How does one determine the nature or purpose of language? Aquinas does not tell us how he arrived at his understanding of the purpose of language. He uses a principle in the determining the nature or purpose of other things that is expressed by the phrase: agere sequitur esse, "action follows being". This means that things can do what they can do because of the kind of things that they are. This means that by watching the kind of things that a thing can do, we can understand what the thing is; we can understand its nature. "If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck." Following this principle, we would say that we can know the purpose of language by observing how in fact language operates.

Since this is a fallen world, though, sometimes things do things that are contrary to their natures. Human beings fornicate as well as engage in conjugal relations. Only those things which a thing does that perfect its nature are natural to it. I will be arguing here that telling some falsehoods benefit human beings. In this fallen world, man needs to do many things that he did not need to do in Paradise.

Establishing the facts of the matter

Language certainly does operate to convey the truth. When people speak to us, we generally assume they are speaking the truth and are generally very offended if people do not speak the truth. Truth telling is particularly important in legal transactions. Lying in the courtroom is a very serious offense against the common good, especially when designed to convict the innocent. This is true "bearing false witness". Telling your boss you were home sick when you were at a football game is wrong; telling your teacher that you lost your homework because you failed to do it is wrong. And it is wrong no matter what the consequences; even if you are certain to lose your job and risk the wellbeing of your family; even if you are certain to fail and risk the future of your career. Neither are you free to tell a falsehood to someone who deserves to know the truth even if you think great good can come from it; e.g., you may not tell falsehoods to legislators about what Planned Parenthood does even if you think great good could come from your falsehoods.

Falsehoods of this kind I believe are "unjust falsehoods" and surely qualify as "lies"; that is signification that violates an extremely important purpose of signification. They are intrinsically wrong and can never be told even should great harm come from not doing the evil or great good come from doing the evil.

Justifiable falsehoods

But I also believe there are many uses of language that are not driven by the purpose of conveying exact truthful correspondence between what is in one's mind and what one says. I need to provide examples of enunciations that may in fact be false by the standard of exact truthful correspondence between what is in one's mind but are neither spoken nor received by reasonable individuals as statements meant to convey such a correspondence.

I believe there is a very important division of the kinds of enunciations that involve deception. One category of falsehood is those told to individuals who are not expecting the straightforward truth. The one speaking is using speech for the benefit of the recipient who would not reasonably object to what was said. I will call these "conventional falsehoods." These are often told by very good people whose otherwise highly refined consciences do not rebuke them for this mode of speech. The other category of falsehoods are those told to individuals who very much want to know the truth and who object to being told falsehoods. I will call these "protective falsehoods." (I am not giving an exhaustive list of either category).


Conventional Falsehoods: Falsehoods Received Without Objection

Cordiality

There are many enunciations that are meant simply to create or maintain an atmosphere of cordiality. "I am fine." "I am pleased to meet you." "I am happy you came." "This meal is really delicious." "No, you didn't stay too late last night." Few engaged in such exchanges of speech are much mindful of the truthfulness or falsity of the speech.

Encouragement

When a coach tells a young boy going up to bat that he knows he "can do it" even though the coach really believes the boy cannot, he is speaking in a context where such words are uttered as encouragement.

Reassurance

I believe the omnipresence of benign falsehoods in society indicate that they are virtually indispensable to harmonious social life. The fact that reasonable people do not object to such falsehoods indicates that they are not harmful. The fact that good people regularly tell such falsehoods indicates that they do not corrupt character.

When a mother tells children whose divorced father pays them no attention: "I am sure he loves you" even though she believes he does not love them, she is providing consolation, not literal fact. The parent who tells a child frightened by the break-in and murder next door, that "it will never happen here", is providing needed reassurance. A husband who tells a wife that she looks beautiful in an outfit in which she looks pretty darn awful, in certain contexts, is giving crucial support; the veracity of it does not matter.

Fiction

Mankind has written fictional works from the beginning. These works construct imaginary worlds and make assertions about the deeds of imaginary characters. These are works that do not give an accurate rendition of reality. The author knows that what he speaks or writes does not have a factual counterpart.

Medicinal

Sometimes the best way to calm an insane or demented person or even a child is to agree with a falsehood that they insist upon.

Jokes and Teasing

There is much humor that depends upon deception. When done in non hurtful ways, reasonable people enjoy these falsehoods.

Strategic falsehoods

Often in wartime, some imprudent reporter will ask a general if he intends to launch an attack on the enemy at a certain time. The general tells the falsehood that he has no such intention, although the plans are fully in place. Those hearing such a statement would likely not know what to believe. They would know that it would be exceedingly counterproductive for the general to disclose his plans and that any equivocation about his plans would do great harm to a just society. Reasonable individuals would not really expect him to disclose his plans and would not find his falsehood objectionable.

Investigatory falsehoods

Researchers regularly deceive participants (both those who know and who don't know that they are participants) in experiments. Knowledge of the participant of what is happening would destroy one's project.

Scholarly speculations

Scholars, such as Aquinas, offer explanations for situations that they truly don't know whether or not they are true. They present these explanations in the enunciative mode. For instance, Aquinas gives explanations for some of the events in Scripture that are very reasonably interpreted as indicating that not all lying is wrong. He does not qualify his explanations by indicating that they are only speculative. The discerning reader knows that he understands that his explanations are not necessarily true. Aquinas is depending upon a scholarly convention; otherwise, by his own criteria, he would be lying.


Supportive Principles within Aquinas for Conventional Falsehoods:

While I believe Aquinas' overly restrictive understanding of language led him to overstate a prohibition against speaking falsehoods, I believe he holds some positions that those of us who find his view of lying problematic might use to support the morality of speaking falsehoods in some situations.

Fiction and Acting

In explaining why figurative speech or hyperbole found in Scripture is not a lie, he states: "It is not a lie to do or say a thing figuratively: because every statement must be referred to the thing stated: and when a thing is done or said figuratively, it states what those to whom it is tendered understand it to signify." (ST II, 110:4) Though Aquinas does not directly address fiction and play-acting, what he says here may apply. Those in a play and those watching a play are aware that the dialogue and the actions of the play are not "true": they do not represent facts about reality. Thus, perhaps it is right to consider all such speech as "figurative."

In his commentary on Aristotle's de Interpretatione, Aquinas reports on Aristotle's understanding of the nature of rhetoric and poetry. Aristotle states that this speech is not "enunciative" speech, the kind of speech that is mean to convey truth or falsity. (1.7.2) This definition of rhetoric and poetry clearly shows that we do not subject some speech to the test of exact truth or falsity; we expect something else to be communicated by those forms of speech.

Another principle that can perhaps be extracted from these passages is that if the recipient of speech understands the words are not meant to convey factual truth, the agent is not lying in speech. If that principle is correct, I think perhaps all the above instances of fallacious speech may be justified. In all the above situations, if later the truth becomes known, accusations of wrongdoing would be unjust. The child should not rebuke the mother for assuring him that his unloving father loved him if he finds out he doesn't; the young athlete should not accuse the coach of wrongdoing if he strikes out; we do not hold the reassuring parent accountable as a liar; the wife should not accuse the husband of wrongdoing.

Aquinas also notes that we should not be troubled by the fact that the witness of the evangelists about some of the events of Christ's life differ. "That the words of certain people are variously reported in the Gospel and other sacred writings does not constitute a lie. Hence Augustine says (De Consens. Evang. ii): "He that has the wit to understand that in order to know the truth it is necessary to get at the sense, will conclude that he must not be the least troubled, no matter by what words that sense is expressed." (ST II- II, 109, 3: ad. 1). Again, those who are able to determine the "sense" behind the words will not object if the words are not an exact correspondence with fact.


Social Impact of Conventional Falsehoods

I believe the omnipresence of benign falsehoods in society indicate that they are virtually indispensable to harmonious social life. The fact that reasonable people do not object to such falsehoods indicates that they are not harmful. The fact that good people regularly tell such falsehoods indicates that they do not corrupt character.


Protective Falsehoods: Falsehoods Meant to Deter Evildoers

Protecting the Innocent and Maintaining a Just Society

The second category of falsehoods widely accepted in most cultures are those told to enemies. If language has more purposes than conveying the truth that one has in one's mind, perhaps another legitimate use of falsehood is to deter evildoers from taking the lives of the innocent. Unlike those who receive conventional falsehoods, evildoers are not pleased about being told falsehoods.

I think telling falsehoods might be the best way at times of protecting the truth; actually protecting the truth of justice. Telling a falsehood to a Nazi to deter him from killing Jews protects the Jews from unjust death and the Nazi from unjust killing is, possibly, a very good use of speech.

Spies and counteragents assume many false identities and utter many falsehoods to win the trust of the enemy; armies put out many false orders to confuse the enemy. There are even international rules of engagement concerning falsehoods in wartime. People defending the innocent tell falsehoods to evildoers who threaten the lives of the innocent are routinely considered to be heroes.

Those on the receiving ends of such deceiving falsehoods resent the fact that they are told falsehoods. Are their objections to not having been told the truth just? They object, not, one suspects, because they have a great respect for the truth and are offended because truth has not been told but because their evil plans are foiled.

Wrongdoers sacrifice their right to many goods. We often lock them up and deprive them of free movement, a freedom they have sacrificed because of their behavior. We fine them and deprive them of their money; we will even occasionally deprive them of their lives. Why should they have an absolute "right" to truth?

Are not evildoers wrong to expect truth from all whom they meet? Readers of fiction do not expect factual truth. Those telling and receiving conventional falsehoods do not expect factual truth. Perhaps evildoers are wrong to expect truth.

I think telling falsehoods to evildoers is a way of honoring the truth. To give the truth to someone who is going to use the truth to kill innocent people is somewhat like giving a gun to someone who is going to kill an innocent person. We wouldn't do so even if it was the potential murderer's own gun. Evildoers do not always have a right even to what is their own, let alone to what is a common good.

But some will rightly say that not giving evildoers the truth is different from speaking a falsehood. If evildoers can be deterred from evil without any falsehoods being told, surely that is preferable. But if the best way to deter them from doing evil is to tell them a falsehood I believe it would be possible to do so without violating the purpose of enunciative speech. I think falsehoods (as in the case of conventional falsehoods) sometimes are the best way of conveying the truth. I think telling falsehoods might be the best way at times of protecting the truth; actually protecting the truth of justice. Telling a falsehood to a Nazi to deter him from killing Jews protects the Jews from unjust death and the Nazi from unjust killing is, possibly, a very good use of speech.

The Impact on Social Cohesion of Deceiving Falsehoods

Some will argue that if we establish that it is not a violation of the purpose of enunciative speech to tell falsehoods to evildoers, nonetheless we ought not to do so since it would be so corrosive to public order. Who could believe anyone? Yet, I am not at all sure there would be more telling of falsehoods than there is now. We are already immersed in conventional falsehoods. We already have policeman, journalists, spies and military regularly using falsehoods to get information. I believe most good people confronted with someone like a Nazi determined to kill Jews would tell a falsehood about the whereabouts of Jews. I don't think practice would change much. The position I am arguing for is in fact reflects the way people have always used speech.

In fact, society would greatly change were people to come to believe that all falsehoods are lies and thus always wrong. We would be without some of the protective work of policemen, journalists, spies and the military. Evildoers would have a much easier time accomplishing their ends. I believe an argument can be made that it is unjust to tell the truth to evildoers because it is unjust to social order. This position, of course, presupposes that no inviolable purpose of language is being violated. Personally, I would find it much preferable to live in a society in which falsehoods are told to evildoers by the proper agents for moral reasons. I believe that it is or could be a greater guarantor of order and harmony than the prohibition of all falsehoods could produce. I would like evildoers to believe that others may be lying to them to thwart their evil deeds.


Supportive Principles Within Aquinas for Protective Falsehoods

Morality of deception

Aquinas disapproves of all deception that involves false speech but does approve of "hiding our purpose or meaning" from our enemies. In respect to ambushes in wartime he states: "a soldier has to learn ...the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy's knowledge." (ST II-II, 40:3). He further concludes: "Nor can these ambushes be properly called deceptions, nor are they contrary to justice or to a well- ordered will. For a man would have an inordinate will if he were unwilling that others should hide anything from him." It is not easy to understand why Aquinas thinks ambushes are not deceptions. I believe it is because deceptions involve presenting something other than the truth that is in one's mind whereas ambushes largely involve hiding, though they also may involve leading the enemy to think that one is not where one is; one supposes that could be done without engaging in deception in Aquinas' technical sense. Leaving one's equipment at one site and being at another does not, I believe, mean having one thing on one's mind and conveying another. One does cause the enemy to have a false opinion but not by misleading signification of what is on one's mind.

Aquinas holds that hiding in the bushes to spring an attack on one's enemy is not immoral because one does not need to disclose all of his purposes to others. Here Aquinas identifies "enemies" as those to whom we do not need to disclose all of our purposes. Perhaps we can articulate the principle: "We are permitted to mislead our enemies."

He also tells us that we cannot expect that others will not, on occasion, be hiding things from us. Perhaps we can articulate the principle: "We cannot always expect full disclosure from others." I think especially evildoers should not expect full disclosure and even truth from others.


I think telling falsehoods might be the best way at times of protecting the truth; actually protecting the truth of justice. Telling a falsehood to a Nazi to deter him from killing Jews protects the Jews from unjust death and the Nazi from unjust killing is, possibly, a very good use of speech.

Correspondence between Mental Truth and Spoken Word

As has been noted, central to Aquinas' understanding of the purpose of speech and what constitutes a lie is that there should be a correspondence between what is on one's mind and what one says. I believe that my challenges retain more than a little of the truth of that understanding and that sometimes the truth that one is attempting to convey is best conveyed by falsehoods. When one is trying to be kind to a host, complimenting the host on the meal conveys the truth of the gratitude in one's heart; when one is attempting to bolster a child's confidence, the phrase "I know you can do it" serves to convey that a coach knows confidence is essential to performance. Even the telling of falsehoods to enemies such as Nazis, conveys the truth that one does not believe the innocent should be killed. I have heard from many who said they would feel that they were violating a very true and deep part of themselves if they failed to try to deter Nazis by telling a falsehood.

[Here I do not mean to be advancing some form of the practice of "mental reservation". I do not believe that what justifies one telling conventional or protective falsehoods is that one reserves a part of the sentence that would make one's statement true.]


Replies to some likely objections

Language Before The Fall

Some might argue that before the Fall there would have been no need for the various kinds of speech designated above. All speech would have conveyed a true correspondence between thing, concept, and word. They would argue that the Fall does not change the purpose of speech; that all above forms of speech are accommodations to a fallen world and are bad accommodations. I would agree that all enunciative speech before the Fall would have been completely true; there would have been no falsehoods nor any reason to utter falsehoods before the Fall. But I think enunciative speech may have acquired new purposes after the Fall. I suspect all sorts of things had one purpose before the Fall and others after; the skins of animals warmed mankind, the properties of plants heal him, and speech permits him to communicate in many different ways. Let us note that before the Fall there was no need for a right to property; it is a right made necessary by the Fall.

Scripture and Falsehood

Because Aquinas understands all falsehoods to be lies and lies to be intrinsically evil, he must explain how some events in scripture that appear to involve God approving of falsehoods can be interpreted otherwise. If not all falsehoods are lies, then some of those passages will not need what appears to me to be a somewhat forced interpretations. For instance, about the Hebrew midwives lying to the king about why they did not kill Hebrew male babies, Aquinas says: "The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which later led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): "And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses." (ST II-II, 110:3: ad 3) While this is not an impossible interpretation, it is driven by the need to absolve God from rewarding lies; there is nothing in the text that would otherwise lead a reader to understand that God disapproved of the behavior of the midwives. Given the categories laid out above, the midwives were telling a protective falsehood to evildoers; in my view they deserved to be rewarded and I believe that this is a reasonable interpretation of scripture.


Clarification:

My position is consistent with the claim that it is intrinsically wrong to lie if lying is properly understood. I believe lying is a violation of the primary purpose of enunciative speech; the conveyance of the truth that one knows to those who deserve to know the truth. No matter what the foreseeable consequences, it is wrong to do evil even should great harm come from not doing the evil or great good come from doing the evil. That, I believe, is incontrovertibly the teaching of the Church.

I believe the Church has no settled teaching (though a very strong tradition) on telling the falsehoods that I label as conventional falsehoods and the telling of falsehoods that I label as protective falsehoods. This essay is offered for consideration in the on going effort to settle the debate.


Difficulty of Application

Some argue that the principles I articulate are too difficult to apply and too open to abuse. The subtleties of moral reasoning and decision making can be difficult but this does not make them untrue. Consider the Church's teaching on stealing: the seventh commandment forbids theft; that is, usurping another's property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one's disposal and use the property of others" (CCC 2408). This teaching is surely difficult to apply and open to abuse but it is the truth.

In fact, I do not think it terribly difficult to distinguish these types of behaviour, though there are always situations that are ambiguous and, of course, evil people will try to exploit such distinctions for their evil purposes.

  1. Unjust Falsehoods or Lies: falsehoods told to those who deserve to know the truth; this violates the primary purpose of language and destroys the trust needed for social cohesion. These are truly lies and intrinsically wrong.

  2. Conventional Falsehoods: falsehoods told to encourage, support, etc. are morally good in many social settings. A good test of the morality of the act is whether or not a reasonable person would object to being the recipient of such falsehoods.

  3. Protective Falsehoods: falsehoods told to deter evildoers from doing evil. We often laud as heroes individuals who tell such falsehoods.

Again, it is with considerable trepidation that I make this challenge to Aquinas. I know that there are other formidable arguments to defend the view that the telling of all falsehoods is wrong. My hope is that others will carefully consider the reasons why Aquinas and others condemn all falsehoods and determine if those reasons are in fact good reasons.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Janet E. Smith. "Lying: a Metaphysical Issue before a Moral Issue." Catholic Vote (February 24, 2011).

Offered with permission of the author, Janet Smith.

THE AUTHOR

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, Beginning Apologetics 5: How to Answer Tough Moral Questions–Abortion, Contraception, Euthanasia, Test-Tube Babies, Cloning, & Sexual Ethics, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. She has published many articles on ethical and bioethics issues. She has taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas. Prof. Smith has received the Haggar Teaching Award from the University of Dallas, the Prolife Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas, and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. Over a million copies of her talk, "Contraception: Why Not" have been distributed. Visit Janet Smith's web page here. See Janet Smith's audio tapes and writing here. Janet Smith is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Smith




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