Sunday, October 16, 2011

Live Action, Defining a Lie and Bible Stories

It's about time I actually put down thoughts on the matter. Recently a conversation with a friend spurred me to want to read more, on each side of the issue.

For those not familiar, the debate basically concerns a sting operation Live Action did on a Planned Parenthood clinic. In said operation, two of their people entered said clinic dressed as a pimp and prostitute. It is clear as far as I am concerned that their stings have done some good in effect, but a question has arisen even among Catholic pro-lifers: did they tell a lie in the moral sense, that is, did they do something the Catholic tradition considers lying?

Before I continue further I ought to state my respect and admiration for what L.A. does. They go deeper and more proactively into what is, in actuality, a battle. As a man who (because he possesses a penis) is quite frankly too scared to get in the game on many fronts, I'm not going to sit here and say I think they should just back off of poor old Planned Parenthood, unless I think it direly necessary. And I don't, but I'll explain. Likewise, I should make it clear: I don't think that in any extreme deception-case, including the Live Action case, anyone will be going to hell for whatever deception they have committed. There's a big line between venial and mortal sin, and in my unprofessional opinion there's virtually no way, in any case, between their own views, right or wrong, and the situation's context, that L.A. crossed that line.

So why do we care? Because if we insist on being virtuous, that means examining ourselves even for the specks in our eyes if we ever hope to help heal the world. And if all boldfaced lies are wrong, then telling them--even in the service of the truths the pro-life movement offers--is also wrong, and a potential compromise to our witness. Now I won't be dealing here with the claims of certain people in the world that L.A.'s sting videos and even their official unedited versions are doctored. I don't much have the patience for that and, quite frankly, it may be a bit outside the scope of this blog. Maybe in the future.

Deception is not automatically lying. Visual deception, merely hiding something, is not telling a lie. Now it does muddy the waters some, and some extenuating circumstance does seem needed to justify it. But it's not the same, for the Catholic tradition, as uttering a boldfaced lie. Note that I will be focusing on verbal lying here; what exactly it means to "act" a lie seems a more malleable concept and in the Catholic tradition most "actions" that don't somehow equate to speech seem to get a free pass, even if deceptive, even from the more "conservative" side of the coin.

Definition: I tell a lie that is boldfaced if I state something with a high degree of clarity which is false. Thus a lie by innuendo, or a phrase commonly understood to be ambiguous, or an ambiguous phrase which is literally true, is not a lie.

E.g. checking the check-box next to "I have read and acknowledge the terms and conditions" on an internet form is hardly lying; someone correct me if I'm wrong, but its real culturally defined meaning is "I acknowledge your butt as legally covered by these terms and conditions," not "I have read with great care and concern each and every letter of these terms and conditions." Long story short: If the statement is such that a reasonable person might guess your employment of innuendo or ambiguity (even if you know they won't), the majority of Catholic theologians won't call that lying, even if they believe that what can be called a lie is always intrinsically wrong.

In the Catholic tradition the definition of a lie, in the sense that is a sin one may be culpable for, is one of two competing notions. The following definitions will help us explain. The word error as referred to here, will be taken to mean factual error. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, and let me know which thinker or authoritative source is saying it means moral error, so I can find out. The only ones I know of so far, for sure, for sure is the guy Tom who runs that Disputations blog and Steve Kellmeyer, though Dawn Eden took the opportunity to disagree with him in the comment box for his post which I shall reference later on.

Definition 1: I tell a boldfaced lie to person X in order to lead X into error.
Definition 2: I tell a boldfaced lie to person X, where X has a right to know the truth in order to lead X into error.

Now the weight of the Catholic tradition, including most authoritative speakers, seems to fall with Definition 1.  I also hold to Definition 1 but I have serious sympathies with Definition 2, and to give full disclosure I should prefer it; it would solve many problems for me about getting a coherent concept of "lie."

So I read and/or re-read some stuff. Including the following articles which I'll present as my highlights:

* Truth, Love and Live Action by Christopher Tollefsen (The Public Discourse)

Tollefsen suggests that Live Action's actions, ultimately, were not loving. By my reading he may be overstating his case on this one, though he raises the excellent question about whether having truth (facts) on the pro-life side is undermined by using tactics in which we speak untruth (against the facts). For my personal taste, philosophically speaking, Tollefsen didn't focus enough on the specific tactics but more on the general tactics of L.A.

* In Defense of Live Action by Christopher Kaczor (The Public Discourse)

Kaczor suggests that Tollefsen has overstated his case and offers not so much a defense of Live Action's specific actions, as a suggestion (which in my opinion is fully defensible) that not all deception is in and of itself lying and that we need not condemn their general tactics. Kaczor also offers the brilliant suggestion that Live Action phrase its statements as hypotheticals. Instead of saying what they did say, that they were involved in sex work, they could say "say I were X." Since the statement doesn't positively state a factual error or attempt to lead anyone into moral error, I'm not sure how it could fit the Catholic definition of lying. Whether they can still wear the pimp and prostitute costume is something I'll leave to the philosophers.

* Why Live Action Did Right and we Should All Know That by Peter Kreeft (

Kreeft appeals strongly to intuition in this article. I must say I wanted to agree, intuitively. I didn't, but I wanted to. Those who know me well enough know I don't consider my intuition to be at all infallible. However, I felt that (intentionally or no) some of the language Kreeft used insinuated that I and others in disagreement with him had broken moral intuitions, which put me off more than his general method of argument did. Kreeft made the claim that "[p]hysical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin," which I'm pretty sure is false in Catholic moral tradition, though the two are clearly related. As far as I know Kreeft has yet to write anything along more "logical" lines that might help convince someone like myself who takes the other position and isn't convinced by this piece; I hope he does.

* Fig Leaves and Falsehoods by Janet Smith (First Things)

Here Smith suggests that Thomas Aquinas's prohibition on lying is based on a faulty exception to his general rule that things not permitted pre-Fall (as in Adam and Eve) may be permitted exceptions post-Fall. She offers a number of examples from cases like lying (e.g. stealing and killing) which have examples of exception post-Fall which she believes may justify (by analogy) exceptions to what would have been a pre-Fall prohibition on lying.

* The Case Against False Assertions by Tollefsen and Alexander Pruss (First Things)

This was essentially Pruss and Tollefsen attempting to correct Smith on her argument about Aquinas's prohibitions.

I also read some other stuff on CatholicVote that basically followed on Kreeft's heels and that, quite frankly, I didn't find too much worthy of noting beyond that. One last thing worthy of note might be Edward Feser's blog post Live Action, Lying, and Natural Law, which probably most adequately represents my position on the matter. I got a lot more heated about the argument itself than I can ever remember getting about Live Action's actions in and of themselves.

There are of course some Biblical considerations. Hat tip to Steve Kellmeyer in his blog post "A Rose by Any Other Name" for pointing out what is, in my opinion, the best one. There are a few Biblical examples of
"praiseworthy" lying I will be considering here.

1. First is the example of the midwives in Egypt, who refused to kill boys on delivery at the command of the government. While the Lord clearly rewarded them, the text explicitly says they were rewarded for choosing God over Egypt. Unless someone's got some exegesis showing otherwise, I'm not ready to accept that God was directly praising their lying.

2. Second is the example of Rahab, who hid Hebrew spies with material vaguely on/in her roof, and lied to soldiers about where they were, saying they had gone out. This one seems more convincing. There's not enough evidence for me to conclude that God directly praised the act of lying here, though the spies did bestow protection on Rahab as a result, which was apparently theirs to give. But given that of the spies was being called praiseworthy, Rahab could perhaps have said something like "the spies have left my house," since being on or in the roof could hardly be considered being in her house, without lying. I'm not going to consider myself competent to exegete whether she was being praised for lying directly. This example bugs me more than the midwives as a person who holds Definition 1, if only because in this story it's a bit more plausible that Rahab is praised for lying.

3. The third example, which Kellmeyer introduced me to, was Nathan the prophet's story to King David. God sends Nathan to King David to convict him of what he has done in essentially murdering Uriah so that he might claim his wife, who he has slept with, without complication. To be honest, reading the story in its "plain interpretation," I'm not convinced Nathan intended the story to be taken literally. But King David certainly took it that way, at least for a couple of seconds, and that gives me more pause than anything else here; if a prophet of God can lie to make a point, than can't a modern, quite possibly prophetic organization, do the same? Of course, whether Nathan really meant the story literally is a matter for exegesis beyond this post. But it's more fun and tests the waters more to assume he did.

Now for the sake of argument I will assume Definition 2 of lying. In this circumstance we have still one major consideration about L.A.'s actions. Given the allowance for their deception given that the Planned Parenthood employees have no right to know what's up, do they still act outside of the authority which is proper to exercise such deception? I am tempted to believe "no," in which case they would under Definition 2 be fine, perhaps mostly because our current government could not step in to do similar work with similar ends because it has clearly decided that either its founding document (the Constitution) or its interpretive body of persons, is not really interested in upholding life for all. The other major consideration, and this seems more problematic under Definition 2 (which as you recall adds the qualifier that person X has a right to know the truth), is whether proactive stings on a pro-choice organization disqualify the boldfaced deception from being a lie the same way that, say, a Nazi at the door and a Jew in the basement could.

In the long run I come down on the "safe" side, that it is never okay to lie and that Live Action did something erroneous, though they were not culpable of sin. I do, however, believe that they could safely clear themselves of the charge of lying, at least as our current "safe" side advocates define it, with one or two modifications in specific tactic. I assent thus to the conclusion that appears the current teaching of the Church, that a lie told falling under Definition 1 is a lie in the moral sense. I want to accept Definition 2; it would eliminate anything that seems Biblically or intuitively problematic about Definition 1 (the Nazi example, Rahab and Nathan, or Kreeft's more extreme example.) But regardless of what level of assent the safe teaching requires (I'm not good enough on theology of authority to say; opinions seem to be variable), it is not infallible and neither am I, and I look forward to the ongoing resolution of this open question.

Last note: I am struck by how many people particularly on the more rigorous and less permissive side identify as Thomists. I suspect this is not a coincidence.

I invite any of the other keyboard theologians, or any readers, to add their thoughts.

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