Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Catholic Answers" gives the Wrong Answer

Jeff Mirus has written a rather balanced and quite conditional defense of Lying for "Catholic Answers" that's worth the read.  He gets the issue wrong, on the whole, but does so fairly and without animus.  And that's a step in the right direction on this issue.

A major mistake is when Mirus misleads his readers when he undercuts the moral authority of the Cathechism, but other than that he quite rightly recognizes that our attempts to justify lying by using the extreme scenario, "Is is right to lie to Nazis who are looking for the Jews you're harboring?" is mere pedantics and a cover for our own moral weakness.

Beyond that, there's one or two other errors in Mirus' piece that I'd like to deal with.

From the article: "In other words, we are obliged to tell the truth, and we are also obliged to keep secrets, but there are times when the only way to keep a secret is to lie." This is blatantly false. There is never a time when the only way to keep a secret is to lie.  Silence is always an option.  See Jesus before the High Priest, Who remained silent until pressed, and when forced to speak told the Truth, knowing it would cost Him torture, suffering and death.

If the Nazis show up and say, "Are you harboring Jews?" and you lie and say "No," do you really think they'll pass on without searching your house? If you remain silent or say (truthfully), "You have no business knowing that," they will perhaps shoot you and you will die a martyr, and they will perhaps find the Jews you're hiding (which they would have anyway), but which is more important, life and safety or Fidelity to the Truth? Fidelity is Faith and the Truth is God. Fidelity to the Truth is simply demonstrating Faith in God. Which is more important, keeping our lives secure or being faithful to the God Who made us, even in the face of suffering and death?

Now, when Mirus argues that lying to the Nazis is choosing the "lesser of two evils", his argument is confused, for refusing to lie to the Nazis is in no way a cooperation with the evil they intend to commit. "Not lying" is not the "greater of two evils".  But with this argument, he is at least admitting that telling a lie is an "evil" (a sin, though perhaps a minor one), and an "evil" that we do deliberately to avoid (in this scenario) a very bad consequence. This is exactly what happens. And in practical situations, almost everyone would do this without compunction. And, indeed, I'm certain God would forgive such a minor evil - he forgives all evils when we repent of them and turn to Him - particularly one committed to save the life of another.

But in practise we are never forced to choose the "lesser of two evils".  We can always opt to choose the good, even though this choice brings suffering and the cross along with it.

It may be that only a saint could be utterly truthful at all times - but the 8th Commandment does not simply apply to perjury (as Mirus would have it), it has vast implications that Christians have always recognized. We are called to bear witness to God. And God is Truth. And you simply cannot bear witness to Truth by means of a lie.

The problem is when this Nazi scenario is used to justify other forms of lying. Pretending to be a pimp in order to ensnare someone on a sting video is not the lesser of two evils. It is a choice that one is not forced to make, and it brings no glory to God, for it conveys the attitude, "I'll do whatever it takes, for the God I serve is not Truth but victory in a given situation."


Mark S. Abeln said...

Blah, this reminds me of “situational ethics,” a moral system developed by an Episcopalian priest who later converted to atheism and then killed himself. He did not believe in an objective moral law, but rather wanted to promote all sorts of moral evils.

One thing he loved doing was creating moral dilemmas where you had to choose one evil over the other. It was his intention to have you choose evil, which in itself is evil. The problem with these moral dilemmas is that they ignore the possibility of grace and freedom of action that goes beyond the bounds of the dilemma. If someone can hypothetically send me back to Nazi Germany in a moral dilemma, then I can hypothetically create an invincible robot army to wipe out the Nazi menace.

Those who propose moral dilemmas aren’t playing by the rules while they expect us to do so. My attitude is that we shouldn’t play that game.

A person becomes truthful if he practices telling the truth at all times, even in little things. Even in extreme circumstances, a virtuous man, with God’s grace, will know what to say when he is put into extraordinary circumstances.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Right, Mark.

And remember, Scripture assures us that God will never allow us to be tempted without providing a way out of the temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). The Word of God assures us - we are never forced to choose evil.

Mirus wants the Nazi scenario to read like this - our choice is either

1. Lie to the Nazis (an evil)


2. Lead them to the Jews (a greater evil)

In fact, our choice is either

1. Lie to the Nazis (an evil)


2. Remain silent or be evasive without deceiving.

Choosing #2 is not "leading them to the Jews"; it is in no way cooperating with the evil the Nazis are intending.

So if we choose #2, we are choosing a GOOD or at least a MORALLY NEUTRAL ACT. We are not choosing an evil.

If the Nazis push us out of the way, find the Jews and kill them, WITHOUT OUR DIRECTLY LEADING THEM TO THE JEWS OR COOPERATING WITH THIS ACT OF THEIRS, then the evil is not ours.

This is the proper way to view this scenario, despite Mirus' confusion or his attempt to twist it to his own end, which is an admittedly tepid and rather tentative justification of lying.

Benjamin. said...

Just one more issue, this one perhaps more applicable; Santa Clause.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, Santa Claus is real. He is St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who died in the Fourth Century.

Does he really bring gifts to children at Christmas? No, but he is used to illustrate the Greatest Gift - the unearned mystery of grace in the form of the Son of God. His role in modern pop culture is therefore fictional - and fiction, like fairy tales, is important for children. And, indeed, when the lessons learned by Santa Claus can no longer be applied to a particular child at a given age, the child asks, "Is Santa real?" and the adult admits he is a myth - as far as the Yuletide character goes (he is real historically and the truth he reveals about Christmas is very real).

I, personally, think Santa Claus can be a way of illustrating the magic of Christmas; and myths and fairy tales told to an audience of limited capacity for the sake of illustrating truth is hardly "telling a falsehood in order to deceive".

Sherry said...

Just prior to reading this, I had read about a new research study from the University of Zurich entitled, "Sometimes Cheating is Allowed". According to the researcher,"appropriateness, collegiality, and fear influence dishonesty in young people" . She concludes that "people's behavior represents a 'productive processing' of everyday school life". Further, "the empirical results reveal the virtue 'honesty' to be an ambivalent mode of behavior in young people that depends on the situation, context, and the individual".

I guess we have devolved to the point of "productive processing" to decide whether or not the person with whom we are interacting is worthy of hearing the truth.

Your post was a blessed relief!

Benjamin. said...

But isn't there any intention to deceive the child in telling of Santa Claus?

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, the function of a myth, like that of fiction, is to reveal a deeper truth through a surface falsehood. Thus conveying a falsehood can happen without an intent to deceive.

If the pop-culture Santa Claus were a falsehood told merely to deceive, then there would be no element of the truth of Christmas revealed in the myth. On the contrary, however, Santa Claus is, in fact, the way of making Jesus Christ accessable to very young minds. Once they are old enough, the myth can be jettisoned for the truth beneath.

I know certain Christians object to Santa, and in fact if Santa were merely a lie, told to distract from Christmas, they would be right to object. Perhaps that is how he functions for many secularists.

Compare, for example, the Easter Bunny. What truth about Easter does a giant bunny that lays eggs reveal? Nothing, as far as I can see. Thus, we never pushed the Easter Bunny on our kids, but we did do the Santa thing - because our intention was not to deceive but to instruct.

This is why Catholics are comfortable with interpreting the Bible in ways that are sometimes non-literal. If the creation account in Genesis, for example, is not literally true, but a "myth" (so to speak - I use the term "myth" not as a falsehood, but as a story that conveys truth without being literally true) - if the creation account in Genesis is meant to convey the utter dependence of all existence on God, to convey His sovereignty, and to convey His goodness, then we're OK with those truth being revealed in a story that is not true "to the letter", while many fundamentalist Protestants aren't.

And I hope I'm not stepping on your toes with that comparison, since you may be a literalist for all I know. But the point is the same - a myth or "story" that is not literally true can be used to convey something profoundly true. The purpose, then, is not deception, but revelation.

Kevin O'Brien said...

To answer your question above more succinctly, there is no ultimate intent to deceive with Santa Claus. The deception that is present is superficial and of the nature of fiction; it is not so much "deception" as a vehicle made for young minds to convey them to a truth they cannot yet grasp directly.

In a way, all theology is the same thing - a kind of analogy toward the reality of God. We play with terms and representations to grow in our understanding of God, Who can never in this life be understood fully and directly. We need a vehicle to approach God as children need Santa Claus - not so that we may be deceived, but so that we may be enlightened.

Kevin O'Brien said...

And thanks, Sherry! Glad to know this blog can help.

Benjamin. said...


So when is Sharing with Stanford coming, and where to?

Kevin O'Brien said...

It's coming to an internet near you! When? I'll know that before the end of the month and will announce it here!

Joe K said...

I remember thinking about this topic when it came to the fore during the "Live Action" videos about a year ago. Specifically,

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in para 2483 that...

"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. "

If to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error, then what about speaking against the truth to lead someone AWAY from error? Is that a ligitimate use of falsehood?

Kevin O'Brien said...

Joe K., aside from fiction or drama, in which the audience is led to the truth by willingly suspending disbelief (there being no deception even as a means to an end) or myths told to children (as in the examples above), how can a lie lead a person to the truth?

If you are arguing (as I assume you are) that the actors in the sting videos are leading their victims to the truth by deceiving them (a stretch), then even if that is the case, the lie is being used as a means to an end, and as the Catechism also makes quite clear in paragraph 1753 ...

"A good intention (for example, that of helping one's neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means."

The phrase "lead someone into error" therefore covers even "proximate ends" or "means" to an ultimate end.

It is never proper to speak a known falsehood in order to lead someone into error, even with the best intentions, or even as a dishonest means to an honest end. Of course we all do this, we are all guilty of this "direct offense against the truth", but it's a sin nonetheless.

Kevin O'Brien said...

There's really only one final word on this subject -