Lessons on Lying, or, How I Could Be Wrong Too.
Many years ago at my college there was amongst the dorm residents a passel of men who would play the game Risk regularly. Single games, as anyone who’s played before knows, can last for hours. Emotions run high…which is why I’ve had to give the thing up myself. So it was that friends were at it once again, in the thick of things, and as happens in the game, an alliance was struck in order to attack a common enemy. However, with said enemy reduced to a pulp, one of the friends broke the alliance and attacked. The injured party lost the game and his wits. He would not speak to the offending party anymore. He would avoid him in the hallways and refuse to be in the same room with him. When asked why, he simply said, “I can’t trust you. If you lied in this, what else will you lie about?”
One strains to see the logic in his position. Once a liar always a liar. This seems reasonable enough. The injured fellow was simply being prudent. But then one is struck by the fact that IT’S A GAME, and thus not real life, and that the point is that someone win, and, well you get the point.
The ridiculous idea that allowing for deception in a game will inevitably result in deceptions amongst the people he loves is exactly the bad thinking that I think creeps into this whole debate around Live Action, Lila Rose, lying, and the rest. Somehow the argument has come about that allowing for deception in this case will lead to horrid crimes, terrible equivocations, and, to use a phrase from Mark Shea, “vigilante chaos.” I think this is bunk, hyperbolic bunk to boot.
Though it seems to have been a great deal of time since the videos by Live Action were taken and released, and thus a long time since questions about their tactics have been brought up, for me this question of deception for the sake of a greater good is very fresh. Over the last couple of days it has been the hot topic amongst friends of different ages and backgrounds. It was even the topic of a homily this past weekend. For this reason, and because of my honest befuddlement at some of the things that Mark Shea writes, I throw my hat into the ring.
I could start by playing up my dedication to civil debate. I’m sorry, but if you the reader don’t understand that people can have honest disagreements about this issue and that this is not an agree-with-me-or-you’re-going-to-hell deal, then just stop reading now, go have a beer or two, and relax. Then come back and read. Better yet, go pray. Then read a good book (P.G. Wodehouse is a good start). Watch a comedy with a Canadian in it. Do something other than sitting in front of the computer to fume. Okay? Okay.
Alright, so to brass tacks: what is lying? We’ve got the definition from St. Augustine quoted in the Catechism 2482 “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” That helps. 2483 gives this in my English translation and from the Vatican website, “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.” I’ve emphasized this last phrase because, though it is in my edition, it is not in the revised edition of the Catechism. Neither is this language in the official Latin translation which reads “Mentiri est contra veritatem loqui vel agree ad inducendum in errorem.” Nothing there about “someone who has the right to know the truth.”
Why this was taken out, I don’t know. What does it mean? Well while some would like to say that we ought to simply ignore it, like the Wizard of Oz asking Dorothy to forget she saw the man behind the curtain, I think we ought at least note that there is a tradition that includes “the right to know the truth.” For starters it made the cut into the Catechism. That’s not something to shake a stick at. Second, telling the truth falls under the virtue of justice according to St. Thomas. Justice is about giving someone what is due to them. So asking the questions, “Is this information due you? Do you have the right to this information?” seems legitimate.
This then begs the questions, “Are all men due the truth at all times? If not, under what occasions or conditions is their right to know nullified? If so, what are the ramifications?”
Some argue that all men have the right to the truth at all times. This certainly seems to be the argument of St. Augustine and St. Thomas. However, I just have to note the following: both saints allow for astounding exceptions with regard to the patriarchs because, hey, they’re the patriarchs. Take Abraham, for instance. He told his wife Sara to tell everyone she was his sister so that he wouldn’t be killed in their attempt to get at her – foxy lady that she was. She complied, was taken in by the Pharaoh as one of his concubines, then released when the Pharaoh, plagued by disaster, discovered the truth about her. He cursed Abraham for the deception. Still, St. Augustine and St. Thomas say this was not a lie.
As to Abraham “when he said that Sara was his sister, he wished to hide the truth, not to tell a lie, for she is called his sister since she was the daughter of his father,” Augustine says (QQ. Super. Gen. xxvi; Contra Mend. x; Contra Faust. xxii). Wherefore Abraham himself said (Genesis 20:12): “She is truly my sister, the daughter of my father, and not the daughter of my mother,” being related to him on his father’s side. (ST IIa IIae, q.110, a.3)
Since Hebrew does not make distinctions between cousins and sisters, he was not “lying.” He only “wished to hide the truth.” Well, maybe. He also let his wife be taken in by another man. One could say that Abraham was just being clever. She was technically his “sister.” So he wasn’t speaking a falsehood, he was merely deceiving, leading the Egyptians to believe something that wasn’t true. But then couldn’t one argue that the Pharaoh had the right to know that she was another man’s wife …not to mention the fact that Sara had the right to be protected by her husband? But wait, there’s more.
Jacob the liar. His very name means “usurper.” Jacob lied – and I mean lied – to his father Isaac in order to steal from him the blessing meant for Esau. It didn’t matter that Esau gave it up, it wasn’t his to give up because it still belonged to Isaac, and it was his right to dispense it as he desired. Jacob simply told his blind father that, yes, he was Esau. What do St. Augustine and St. Thomas have to say to this? It’s not a lie either.
Jacob’s assertion that he was Esau, Isaac’s first-born, was spoken in a mystical sense, because, to wit, the latter’s birthright was due to him by right: and he made use of this mode of speech being moved by the spirit of prophecy, in order to signify a mystery, namely, that the younger people, i.e. the Gentiles, should supplant the first-born, i.e. the Jews.
Aaaaah, the mystical sense. My point here is not that Abraham and Jacob were horrible persons or that St. Augustine and St. Thomas are dolts – yikes. No, my point is simply that what makes up a lie is not always so easy to detect. I mean that it is not always so simple to say that such and such a person has a right to know the truth about “x,” or that telling a falsehood is always a lie.
Which brings me, then, to the situation with Live Action and their operation against Planned Parenthood. Let me be clear about what my argument is not. It is not that we can lie to Planned Parenthood because they’re sinners. I get paragraph 1753 of the Catechism which says that “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.” I also get 2485 that “by its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” My argument is not that an “ends justifies the means.” I too am concerned with the Pandora’s box that could be opened if we’re to start making such equivocations. Everyone got that? This is not a consequentialist argument.
My argument is that what Live Action did was not lying. My argument is that the workers at Planned Parenthood don’t have a right to know my real name. Their own policies admit total confidentiality. They presume and experience a lot of fake names from people looking just for information about embarrassing and personal topics. In other words, Live Action was not depriving them of anything which they deem necessary to their work. They don’t even think they have a right to real names. Anyway, Live Action was seeking from them nothing but information, which is what someone coming in for a consultation wants.
I will go further and say that the workers at Planned Parenthood don’t have a right to know that my occupation is not pimping but pro-life work. I say this not because they’re sinners and so don’t deserve the truth. I say this because, again, it’s not necessary to the service they provide to know my true identity. They don’t require it of potential clients and as no official documents are signed there is no expectation their part that the identities given are accurate. So why should Live Action proffer it when doing so would get in the way of getting the information they want and which Planned Parenthood says they exist to provide?
Let’s review the definition of lying. According to the Catechism “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error.” The point of the Live Action operation was to get employees to admit to practices that are commonplace. Nothing was spoken “in order to lead into error.” No one was being asked to adhere to an erroneous faith or ideology or practice. No employee was invited to extend any sort of response they were not comfortable making. Planned Parenthood recognizes that the point of the conversation is not to who I say I am, but rather what services they can provide.
Do they have a right to have their conversations about illegal activity kept from the public which is, through tax dollars, funding them? No I don’t think they have that right either.
At this point let me address what may be Mr. Mark Shea’s response to my argument thus far. Mr. Shea is a well respected author and has been commenting quite a bit on this issue. I suppose it could be considered unfair to take his reactions to reader comments as responses to my argument, but I don’t pretend to be the only person coming up with similar arguments. Here’s what he writes:
To be sure, some folk are trying to figure out a way to say that lying isn’t really lying when you lie to bad people for Jesus. Various stabs have been made at saying that since it’s not a lie to deflect, mislead, or evade when the Nazis show up looking for the Jews, it’s also not a lie to walk up to somebody you deem to be doing evil, and give a false name, occupation and purpose. According to this theory, you aren’t “leading people into error” (i.e. you aren’t lying to make money, gain power, take vengeance or teach a false conclusion like “Satan is God” but are instead trying to show that PP is evil and stop sex trafficking), so it’s not lying. But this is as persuasive as saying it’s not lying to falsely claim you were miraculously healed of cancer in order to lead a gullible occultist out of his error and to the ultimate good end: Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life. Good ends don’t make lies into “not-lies” just because we are trying to do a good thing by lying.
Again, my point here is not ends-justifies-means. I’m not saying, “It’s not a lie because Live Action loves the baby Jesus.” The point is that Planned Parenthood doesn’t require that I give them my real name, occupation, or purpose to get from them their list of services. By “leading people into error” I don’t mean what Mr. Shea means. My argument is not that it’s not lying because they’re not leading them to error, because they’re not trying to make money, because they love the baby Jesus. The argument is that Live Action is not leading the employees to do or say or believe anything they don’t want to. A confidential consult does not require complete honesty about identity. They know this.
Live Action was not asking employees to do anything but their jobs, what they advertise themselves to be. Nothing was designed to convince them to believe in anything or sign up for anything they did not want to. No question was rigged to make them leave the clinic and join the “right side.” There was no attempt to allure them into doing anything they don’t already do. So no, the argument is not that it’s okay to lie because Live Action is trying to do a good thing. The point is that they’re not lying because they’re not trying to lead anyone into error about anything they have a right to know.
I fail to see why this is so very different from an undercover cop doing the work that saves and protects millions of people from horrid crimes. Does the pederast have the right to know that the child he is trying to seduce via internet is not actually a child but a cop? There seems to be very little objection to what the police do in their work. So why is what Live Action did immoral? Again, Mr. Shea addresses this argument too,
Fourth, comparisons of Lila Rose’s sting to war or police work break down because, well, this is not war or police work. It’s not war because you are not authorized to spray your local Planned Parenthood center with machine gun fire, shoot bazookas into the offices of their national headquarters, or bomb the government institutions that fund them. You are a citizen. So are they. Your government has not declared war on them. No troops have been drafted to fight them. If you do take it upon yourself to shoot one of them, you will rightly and properly be arrested, charged with murder in the first degree, and jailed. Do not mistake metaphor for reality. For the same reason, comparisons with the cops don’t fly. The state had a right to arrest, detain, try and even execute Lee Harvey Oswald. That doesn’t mean that Jack Ruby does.
When did we jump from keeping my real identity from Planned Parenthood to grainy, black-and-white films of assassinations and lounge owners with revolvers? What disturbs me about Mr. Shea’s reactions is his regular habit of saying that if we can withhold our identity – he says lie – to Planned Parenthood then that means we can go around and shoot people we consider sinners. “Vigilante chaos.” But Mr. Shea is begging the question. He makes his leap because he has already presumed that we agree that what Live Action did was a lie and thus intrinsically evil. Thus goes the rest of his argument repeated time and again: once one intrinsic evil is allow for, then all hell will break loose. Granted, he’s probably responding to readers who are saying it’s okay to engage in an intrinsic evil. But this whole time he just seems to assume we agree with him that it’s a lie.
Again, for the record, I agree with him that intrinsic evils are not to be toyed with no matter the warm fuzzies we feel. But what if, just what if what Live Action did is not a lie because a) the employees are not being lead into error and b) because they don’t have a right to my identity if my only desire is that they answer my questions in as honest and professional a manner as possible, a service for which they themselves admit one doesn’t have to provide one’s true identity? Mr. Shea makes the grand leap to shooting people through vigilantism because he has already presumed he’s correct about the nature of the act.
Despite his insistence on using vigorous language, no one is talking here about arresting, detaining, trying, or executing anyone. Those are specific actions deputed to police officers. So, yes, Mr. Shea is right that if Live Action tried to do any of those things they would be arrested immediately, which is why they’re not doing those things. They are doing something very legal, namely asking Planned Parenthood staff for information regarding a particular situation. They do not have a right to the true identity of the inquisitors and neither are they being led into error. What’s the problem?
The facts are that Planned Parenthood murders people – which is horrifically legal right now – and it also aides and abets in the trafficking of minors – which is illegal – and systematically covers up statutory rape – also illegal – while regularly instructing vulnerable and adolescent citizens how to get around the laws voted on by the citizenry – illegal as well. The state does not enforce these laws against Planned Parenthood. Reason? Planned Parenthood has a lot of money, some of it our tax money, which is then used to lobby law makers and enforcers. Why is it so outrageous to suggest that citizens take matters into their own hands by safe and legal activity involving withholding their identities from criminals in order to have the criminal admit what they normally do? Isn’t this EXACTLY what undercover cops do? Isn’t this what the state should be doing to enforce its own laws? Is it lying simply because Live Action is a private organization and is not the state?
Like Mr. Shea and Mr. Richart, whom the former quotes regarding the article by Dr. Peter Kreeft that I so enjoyed, I believe the central question here is whether or not Live Action lied. The rest is, to borrow Mr. Richart’s phrase, “essentially irrelevant.” When I see that the Catechism used the phrase, “someone who has the right to know,” when I see that the Vatican website still uses the phrase, when I see that a lie includes the intention to lead someone “into error,” when I see that Abraham merely hid the truth instead of lying and that Jacob prophesied, when I see all these things then I am inclined to believe that Live Action didn’t lie. Period. Of course, I could be wrong too.
Who’s up for a game of Risk?