I vividly remember having a conversation about ethics in high school. It concerned the morality and/or immorality of lying “for a good cause.” As usual in ethical debates, we drew the extreme situation in order to exercise and test the validity of the axioms we were claiming. In this case, we brought up the case of hiding Jews during WWII. If a Gestapo officer were to come into your house and ask you whether or not there were Jews in the house, can you say no if the answer is yes?
This sort of debate resurfaced in a the recent case when members of Live Action, a prolife group, impersonated false identities to uncover real reactions and advice from Planned Parenthood. Peter Kreeft wrote an article in response to this situation, defending the deeds of Live Action, and thereby defending the possibility and reality of lying not being immoral. I don’t intend to discuss the specifics of this ethical situation, but instead focus on the Catholic Church’s perspective on lying. In particular, I want to consider the definition of lying.
The Universal Immorality of Lying
Before diving into the varied and nuanced definitions of what it means to lie (even though it seems awfully obvious), I want to make it clear what the Church, via the Catechism, says about the morality of lying.
“By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” (2485).
“…behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying…” (1753).
Lying is “intrinsically disordered.” Therefore, however, we decide lying is to be defined, no good purpose or positive intentions can make it right. We then get to the real sticking point: Is the definition of lying simply the act of not telling the truth, or is there something other implied? For example, is it lying if you don’t tell the truth to someone who “doesn’t deserve to know the truth?”
Two Definition and Their Issues
It seems obvious that in general use, the term “lying” simply refers to a statement of intentional falsity. If this is how the CCC defines it, then one can never lie, since the act of lying, as defined by the Church, is always disordered. For now, let me call the common everyday-use definition of lying “falsehood-telling.” We will discuss whether or not these two terms are one in the same; but for now, it will be helpful to distinguish between them.
It is important to note, when discussing the definition of the term lying that the CCC switched its definition from one edition to the next. Most online commentators choose the version that best fits their argument. Here’s the first definition:
“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” (CCC 2483).
This feels like the definition that I learned informally in discussing ethics. However, this definition was changed to read:
“To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” (CCC 2438).
Absent from this is a distinction made concerning the person to whom the lie is being spoken. In version 1, lying is contingent upon to whom you speak the falsehood. This is not the case in version 2. Of course, in version 2 (the present version) we still get the rather vague phrase “to lead someone into error.” I’ll deal with this at the end.
Why the Switch? Is the First Null?
My first question is, “Why the switch?” Was it because the first version is in fact completely incorrect and false? On the one hand, I want to say yes: that would be why they “corrected” their mistake. On the other hand, I want to say no: I’m not sure it would have made it into the first edition if it were flat-out wrong. So the first question leads to a second: “Is the first version now completely null?”
Perhaps they changed the definition because it could be used too easily to defend some wrong things. For example, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we could make the claim that no has a right to know the truth. At the very least, with this earlier definition of lying, it may be easy to justify lying to anyone that might seem not-so-pious. And what about the Christian-libertarian who says it’s alright to lie to the IRS since they don’t have a right to know the truth, since the truth in this case would concern our private monies.
So one mode of explanation is to say that the first version, while not incorrect, is just too prone to misuse. Or perhaps it simply isn’t correct. But was it correct while it was in print? And what if a 3rd version nullifies the 2nd version? I guess where I’m going with this is to say that perhaps none of the CCC’s statements, in any edition, are incorrect; but those in high places have a right and duty to make sure things are worded in such a way as to avoid misuse. This, of course, doesn’t completely explain the complete removal, from version 1 to 2, of the importance of to whom one is lying.
The Necessity of Second Part
Before deliberating on the meaning of the second part of the definition – “in order to lead someone into error” – let me take a moment to discuss its necessity in the CCC’s definition. I write this in response to an article I read that said that the CCC is saying that all lying is the same as falsehood-telling, since the second part of this definition isn’t really defining the act of lying so as much as dealing with a separate ethical issue, that of the intention; and since good intentions can never redeem an intrinsically immoral act, then lying for good intentions, or not intending to lead one into error, is still lying, and therefore always wrong. But I think this is a rather silly reading of the second version of the definition in the CCC.
Let me state it again: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” (CCC 2438). Basically, the arguer I was referring to above sees the proper definition as only the beginning of the statement: “To lie it to speak or act against the truth,” while the second part is concerned only with the intention of the act. There are two, somewhat obvious, problems with this.
First, this is not what is stated. The meaning of the sentence above, from a grammatical standpoint, is that the second part of the sentence is necessary; it is part of the very definition of lying. Let me use an analogy: If I were define “double-dribbling” in basketball, I may say something like, “Double-dribbling is when the player begins to dribble the ball again after having come to a complete stop.” The phrase “again after having come to a complete stop” is completely necessary to the definition; it is actually false without it. If I were to use the logic of the above arguer, I would say that double dribbling is “when a place begins to dribble the ball.” And this is obvious false.
The second argument pointing out the necessity of the second part of the definition is simply the fact that CCC chose to write it in. If to lie were simply “to speak or act against the truth” then that’s all that would be written. The second part would not be so closely connected, in a grammatical and meaning sense, to the first part.
Vagueness of Second Part of Definition
Of course, this does nothing to begin to plump the ambiguous depths of the phrase “in order to lead someone into error.” What does this mean? Let me try to tie this definition and phrase back to the Nazi-Jews situation. If I were hiding Jews from the Nazis, and a Gestapo asked me if I had Jews in my house, and I said no, obviously I would be speaking against the truth – but would I be leading someone into error?
On the one hand, yes: I am leading him into error, simply by making him think something that is contrary to the truth. But on the other hand, by saving the Jews, I would be consequently, even if incidentally, possibly saving the Gestapo from doing something very wrong to the Jews, like killing them or sending them to concentration camps. From this perspective, I would not be leading him into error; in fact, I would be preventing an error. But is this simply semantic nonsense? I don’t know.
In a certain way, the term “lead someone into error” can be a more easily abused phrase. If I lie in order to make a person feel better, am I leading them into error? If I lie in order to make someone do something right – i.e. “Don’t perform an abortion, or else you will die before the age of 50” – am I leading them into error? I don’t see the secondary definition clearing up any of the ambiguity of the first one. Perhaps the second version was intended to open up more exceptions rather than stem the tide, and not because Catholics like ethical loopholes, but simply because the issue is not so black-and-white.
Perhaps the second part of the statement simply means something like “intending a person to believe the untruth.” If you consciously lie in hopes of making the person believe the untruth, then you are lying. Perhaps it’s as simple as this. I don’t know. But then all falsehood-telling would be lying and therefore wrong, no matter the intent.
Kreeft brings up numerous interesting points. One of the most arresting, and I think persuasive, is the fact that the person hiding the Jews has a second and more important ethical claim: his promise to keep the Jews safe. On the one hand, this makes much sense. Even if telling a falsehood to the Gestapo would be lying, if I told them the truth, I would be forfeiting a higher ethical call, that of protecting those God has put in my care.
While I like this, it does potentially make the situation more opaque. Can this same logic let me outright kill people, in the name of keeping the Jews safe? Where is the line that I can’t cross? While the issues in this logic are real, I don’t think the argument should be discarded because of them. Real-life ethics is complex, and many attempts to simplify it often oversimplify and thereby misconstrue it.
There is something deep inside of me that rebels against a model of morality that disallows me to lie to the Gestapo to save the Jews. I grant that this is an emotional appeal. However, it feels rooted in my beliefs in the sanctity of life. This is no argument on its own. I have two possibilities that explain this feeling: a) The model is flawed. b) My gut feeling is wrong. I think that our ethical gut-feelings tend to be correct, especially when they are developed correctly. But, of course, our emotional reactions can be incorrect, sometime because of our fallen nature, sometimes for others reasons. For example, when Osama was killed, people rejoiced in his death; people wished him to be in hell. Both are decidedly disordered; in some ways, the latter is the most un-Christian thing to ever wish upon anyone, including Satan. So the “gut” is an important, but most definitely not the paramount, mode of judgment.
But still, a world where you can’t lie to the Gestapo to save a family of Jews? This doesn’t jive with so much other Christian feeling in me. I feel like Ivan Karamazov when I say this rather dramatic line (that I’m not sure I mean): Perhaps I reject a God, even if He is real and in charge, who has a system of ethics such as this.
Final Thoughts / Using the Definition Correctly
I’ll end by returning to the definition discussion, and cautioning our use of throwing around the world “lying” – at least in terms of Catholic ethical thought. Because the CCC doesn’t simply define the immoral act of lying as “telling a falsehood,” because it uses an additional phrase (albeit different phrases at different times), we can’t simply refer to all cases of falsehood-telling as lying. When we do, the case is already settled: the Church definitively states that all lying is always wrong. What we need to do is decide whether a specific instance of falsehood-telling also fulfills the more specific and nuanced definition of lying in the CCC.
For example, we shouldn’t ask the question, “Can a person lie to the Gestapo about hiding Jews?” This is morally settled. No. What we should ask is, “If a person tells a falsehood to the Gestapo about hiding Jews, is this lying, according to the Church’s ethical teaching?” If so, then it’s wrong. If not, then it might not be. You may disagree with my use of falsehood-telling, and say it’s one and same as lying. On the one hand, yes; but only in the usual sense of the term. When the CCC defines lying, it adds a phrase intentionally, and so it adds a level to the sin of lying beyond simple falsehood-telling. When we speak of ethics and grave matter, it is important to be specific.