Monday, November 15, 2010

What counts as a lie?

The standard view within Scholastic natural law theory is that lying is always at least mildly immoral. But (several readers have asked) what counts as a lie? A colleague in the elevator on the way to the office says “Hi, how are you?” You answer “Fine thanks, how about you?” even though you’ve got a headache, a rebellious teenage daughter, and financial problems. Have you just told a lie? While playing cards, you put on your best poker face, and while playing basketball you fake out a player on the other team. Since a lie needn’t be communicated in words, are these lies? What about wearing camouflage during wartime?

None of these counts as a lie, and none of them is immoral. As typically defined by natural law theorists, a lie is willful speech or other communicative behavior contrary to one’s mind. That is to say, one lies when one wills to communicate the message that P when what one really thinks is not-P. But there are two crucial things to note about this definition. First, what counts as “communicating the message that P” depends in part on convention and circumstance, because the significance of words and communicative gestures is determined by convention and can vary with circumstances. Second, lying is not the same thing as deception. One can lie without deceiving someone, and one can deceive someone without lying. With these points in mind, we can see that the examples above do not count as lies. Let’s consider them in order.

Language is conventional. “Cat” refers to cats, not inherently, but only given the conventions of English usage. But these conventions are complex. If someone asks where Tabby ran off to and I say “The cat is on the mat,” I will naturally be understood as asserting that there is a feline on a certain floor rug. But if I’m watching the original Ocean’s 11, point to the screen and say “That is one cool cat!” I will naturally be taken to be referring instead to (say) Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr. It would be silly for someone to say “You liar! That’s a man, not a cat!” because the conventions of English usage determine that under certain circumstances, “cat” can refer to a hipster rather than a feline. Fictional stories and jokes do not count as lies either, because circumstances make it clear that they are not intended to be taken to communicate what the speaker really thinks is true.

Similarly, given circumstances and the conventions of English usage, utterances like “Fine, thanks” are widely understood to be mere pleasantries, the sort of thing one will say out of politeness however one is actually feeling. In typical circumstances, they are simply not conventionally used to express a meaning like “I am completely free of anxiety, physical pain, or difficulty of any sort.” Hence it is as silly to classify them as “lies” as it is silly to count “There goes one cool cat!” as a lie. Utterances, facial expressions, gestures and other bodily movements which are used to mask one’s intentions in the context of a game are also not lies, precisely because everyone familiar with such games knows that in the context of the game they are not conventionally used to express one’s true thoughts in the first place. Hence, putting on a poker face or faking out an opponent are no more lies than “Fine, thanks” or “Sinatra is a cool cat” are.

Stratagems in war are similar. One may not lie during war, any more than one may lie to the murderer at the door. To fabricate stories about atrocities committed by one’s enemy, for example, is simply to lie, and no more justifiable than falsely accusing a fellow poker player of adultery simply as a way of rattling him. But the use of camouflage, feint attacks, moving troops and equipment around in a deceptive way, and the like, are like putting on a poker face or faking out an opposing player in a basketball game.

This brings us to deception, which, as noted earlier, is not the same as lying even though there is an obvious relationship between them. One typically intends to deceive when lying, but one can lie when one knows no one will be deceived. And one can deceive without telling a lie, for example, by speaking evasively or ambiguously, or by using a broad mental reservation. Suppose a murderer comes to your door looking for you, but does not know what you look like. He asks “Is the guy who lives here home right now?” You answer “Yes, he is. Wait here,” and then close the door and run out the back. You have deceived him, but you haven’t told a lie. And one indication that you haven’t is that if the murderer is quick-witted enough, he could figure out that by “he” you were (truthfully) referring to yourself.

Now, a mental reservation involves restricting the possible meanings of one’s words to some particular meaning that the speaker has in mind but does not explicitly indicate. A “strict mental reservation” involves restricting it in such a way that there is no way the listener could guess what it is you really mean. For example, when someone at work asks “Did you take my stapler?” and you answer “No,” meaning “No, not in the last hour (but I did take it two hours ago),” you’ve used a strict mental reservation. Obviously, a strict mental reservation is really just a kind of lie, because there is no way the average language user could figure out what you really mean.

But a “broad mental reservation” is not a lie. It involves restricting one’s meaning in such a way that the average language user could figure out one’s true meaning, given the conventions of usage and the circumstances, even if he is not likely to do so. Natural law writers typically give as everyday examples a confessor, doctor, lawyer, or secretary answering “No” or “I don’t know” when asked about matters he or she is professionally obliged to keep secret. This is legitimate, because given the context – namely the professional relationship a confessor has to a penitent, a doctor to a patient, a lawyer to a client, or a secretary to an employer – such answers can be understood by any reasonable person to mean “No, I have nothing I can tell you given my obligations to the person you are asking me about.” An accused person can also plead “Not guilty” even if he is guilty, because under the circumstances, everyone knows that what is meant is “Whether or not I committed the crime, I am taking advantage of the right I am afforded under law to plead ‘not guilty.’”

This does not mean that anything goes. Obviously there are many circumstances in which it would be wrong to speak ambiguously, evasively, or with even a broad mental reservation. If someone has a right to the information he is asking from us, we should give it to him without beating around the bush. But if he does not have a right to it, or if some harm would result from our giving it to him then and there, though we may not lie to him, we may nevertheless avoid telling him what he wants to know, via one of the methods in question. As everywhere in human life, there will be borderline cases. But this is no more a problem for the natural law view of lying than it is for any other view.

To some people this all might seem like hair-splitting that is far removed from common sense. But though the jargon and distinctions are to some extent technical, the end result actually follows common sense very closely. The man on the street may not know from “mental reservations,” the “natural end of our communicative faculties,” and the like, but he does know the difference between a joke and a lie, he knows when someone is being evasive precisely so as to avoid lying, and he knows that someone known to have personal troubles who says “Fine, thanks” in the elevator is just being polite and is not a liar. The man on the street also knows that telling the murderer at the door “The guy you’re looking for is not here,” and telling children that Santa Claus is real, are lies. True, he will likely go on to say that they are “white lies,” but that is a different issue; whatever he thinks of the ethics of lying, he knows what a lie is. (In this connection, it is not the Scholastic, but rather those who propose redefinitions of lying like “A lie is a falsehood told to someone who has a right to the truth,” who are at odds with common sense, at least where the definition of what a lie is is concerned.)

There is also a theological consideration which Christian readers, at least, should keep in mind before dismissing the distinctions made above as so much Jesuitical pedantry. Consider the following biblical syllogism:

1. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2)

2. Jesus Christ is God (John 1:1), therefore

3. Jesus Christ cannot lie.

I submit that (3) is something every Christian should affirm. If we affirm it, though, we also have to consider that there were circumstances in which Christ spoke in a very indirect way (Matthew 13: 10-13) and also cases where he appears to have used a broad mental reservation (John 7:8; Matthew 9:24). It follows that there must be a middle ground between speaking the truth in a completely straightforward and unambiguous way on the one hand, and lying on the other. And that middle ground is just what the natural law theorist intends to clarify with the distinctions made above. For those Protestants insistent on having some biblical warrant for every aspect of Christian morality, there you have it.

Some Catholic readers might nevertheless object to what has been said, noting that there have been Catholic theologians who have defended the practice of deliberately telling falsehoods in cases like the “murderer at the door” example, on the grounds that the person spoken to in such a circumstance does not have a right to the truth. Sometimes this position is presented as a defense of lying under certain circumstances. But sometimes (and as I noted a moment ago) it is presented as an alternative way to define a “lie” – falsehoods like the one in question, it is suggested, shouldn’t count. Now it is true that there has been debate on this matter in the history of the Church, especially in early centuries. (See the article on lying in the Catholic Encyclopedia for an overview.) But as I noted in my previous post on this subject, there are such serious problems with proposals of this sort that Scholastic natural law theorists and orthodox theologians have for centuries now tended to reject them. The more “hard-line” view associated with Augustine and Aquinas has, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “generally been followed in the Western Church, and it has been defended as the common opinion by the Schoolmen and by modern divines.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on mental reservation sums up the now standard view, “according to the common Catholic teaching it is never allowable to tell a lie, not even to save human life.”

The Magisterium of the Church seems recently to have reaffirmed this position, at least by implication. As theologian Mark Latkovic has noted:

Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez has observed: “Although most Catholic theologians have considered the prohibition of lying a moral absolute, there is a lesser but significant school of thought holding that lying sometimes can be justified, particularly when it is a question of lying to an enemy, who has no right to the truth, in order to protect the innocent from harm” (“The Way of the Lord Jesus,” vol. 2, Franciscan Press, 1993, p. 406).

These two ways of thinking are reflected in the editorial process involving paragraph 2483 of the Catechism, which was revised for the book’s second edition. The earlier (1994) edition stated that to lie is “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has a right to know the truth” (2483, emphasis added). This definition, reflecting what Grisez calls the “lesser but significant school of thought,” stems from the teaching of the 17th-century Protestant writer Hugo Grotius.

After the publication of the Catechism, many Catholic scholars wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) about this paragraph. They asked for rectification of the text, which had abandoned centuries of Catholic teaching by accepting the position of Grotius. Fortunately, the paragraph was revised; the 1997 edition eliminates the words “who has a right to know the truth” (see also 2484).

The obvious implication is that the Church does not wish officially to move away from the traditional theological position that whether the listener has a right to the truth is irrelevant to whether something counts as a lie.


  1. I am looking forward to a storm of comments on this one now :-)

  2. Congrats on posting comment #1, John! You win!

    Mind you, I don't know what you win. But you win! ;-)

  3. Ed, I was shocked when I first read the Catechism on lying, and very, very much relieved at the second edition's adjustment of the treatment.

    I looked online at 3 different dictionaries for definition of "lie". All three put the FIRST definition as using a falsehood to deceive. Only secondary definitions allow for a broader sense to include deceptions that don't involve actual falsehoods. It is clear that the common sense of the term includes the falseness of the sign/word used. And this is important to the overall point, because only unambiguous words / signs can be said to be false simply - an ambiguous expression is just ambiguous, not false. So deceiving with ambiguity is not what is meant by the term "lie" as that term is used in common speech.

  4. A lie is a communication with the intent to deceive in order to unjustifiably harm the one deceived or to escape a justifiable sanction against oneself. Note that the intent to deceive is the critical part of a lie and not falsehood per se (one may lie with the truth, which is why one takes an oath in court to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth lest one deceive by omission).

  5. We should also be careful about the Catholic Encyclopedia article, which is sometimes strict and sometimes loose in its use of terms. For instance, it mentions Chrysostom in the context of allowing lying (although it doesn't strictly say that he did), but Chrysostom's deception (which he is defending) consisted of deliberately not saying something that resulted in a close friend being misled (to his own benefit) -- and, indeed, Chrysostom at one point in the work argues that it was only a deception in a loose sense. Likewise, the Cassian reference occurs in a dialogue where different characters are arguing back and forth, and so, while it's probably right to give Cassian as an example, there's more ambiguity than it suggests.

    One of the things I think is interesting is that you run into problems even if you do hold that lying can be consistent with natural law; if one were to assume that it was, that would kick it to casuistic theory, which among other things does allow you to survey the major moral theologians on the subject and build probable cases from their opinions. But the only casuistic theory that would let you identify an act as prudent on such slim pickings as we find in this case (which would have to be classified as 'tenuiter probabilis', i.e., allowing a supporting argument, but only a tenuous one) is laxism, which, of course, is rejected by the Church as being, well, lax.

  6. The case of lies told in war is still intriguing to me. Concocting stories about atrocities that never happened is an instance of lying that's ruled out morally. I still wonder about lying to one's enemies about where one's troops will be positioned or something similar -- lying in the sense of communicating to the enemy a false proposition concerning where one's troops will be positioned (not leaving behind a map with misleading troop positions marked on it or something else that could be described as deceptive but not lying). I don't think such cases can be defined other than as lies, and so I think if we're committed to the idea that lying is immoral to help the hidden Jew, then lying is immoral to give one's side an advantage in war. In fact that conforms nicely to traditional conceptions of the place of honor in how warfare is to be conducted. I would like to know what military commanders think about this issue today.

  7. I've found Fr. Austin Fagothey's book "Right and Reason" to be extremely helpful over this whole issue, and paired with your examples, things seem a whole lot clearer now.

  8. @John: I am *not* looking forward to a storm of comments on this one. LOL!

    But I think I may have to agree with Dr. F here now that I think about it. I liked the theological argument. Only thing I think of after reading is that we may need a more comprehensive account of the "whys", viz. why it is okay to deceive in some cases, how one duty can "override" another, how interpersonal relationships and contexts determine the morality of a specific action, etc. These seem to be more fundamental issues though..

  9. I have been pondering a lot upon the whole Santa Claus issue that this grew out of, and I hope people don't mind me coming back to it. It's not that I can justify lying but I can't help feeling that there is some spiritual value in the Santa Claus story. Lydia McGrew, in the comments section when you cross-posted it on What's Wrong with the World, said that Santa Claus was dangerous because he made children think the whole business of religion was "fuzzy-minded" and anti-rational. Well, I think as children grow up most of them realise that Santa Claus's existence is simply not our sort of existence-- he exists as an imaginary being. And this might be a sort of mental training to understand how we exist vis-a-vis God, since our existence is a shadowy version of God's essential Being.

  10. Anonymous, I seriously doubt that there is ANY instance in which modern commanders actually tell the enemy anything directly about such things as where the troops are, what weaponry they have, what the order of battle will be, etc. No, what they might do (for a deception operation) is arrange misleading evidence to indicate and suggest a false location etc. This misleading evidence is always ambiguous, because the enemy never knows for sure whether it was "for real", or planted precisely to be misleading. Since it is not constituted of direct statements about position etc, it is always indirect and circumstantial evidence at best. But indirect and circumstantial evidence is, by its nature, ambiguous: it is ALWAYS open to the interpretation that "this evidence was planted, they constructed it rather than left it here accidentally (that's the critical deception), and they don't really expect to be at THIS location at THAT time" which would be true.

    I suppose that if a commander wanted to he could directly tell the enemy where he is going, but then the enemy would probably not believe the statement so what would be the point?

    There is an area of honor in military situations that has been insufficiently examined under NL theory, (as far as I know): the question of when you may "take advantage" of the enemy when he is down and out or unsuspecting, and when you are obliged to back off or give them warning. In France of 1300, where chivalry waxed strong, a knight might have felt obliged to wait for a fallen opponent to get back on his feet (or even on his horse) before continuing the fight. But today that seems idiotic: if the point is to use violence upon your opponent to the point where he ceases to oppose you, you're much more effective in following up on your initial successful effort of knocking him down by continuing the effort until he is dead, disabled, or yields in surrender. None of this "no hitting when the guy is down" stuff.

    In modern terms, the moral question comes out in questions about surprise attacks on soldiers completely unaware that they might be in danger, for example. If your outlying base gets word that war has begun before THEIR outlying base does, is it wrong for your base to open fire on their base before they even know they are at war? This can really happen in submarine warfare.

  11. If I understand the arguments so far, deception is permitted in a contrived scenario where neither lying or deceiving would lead to outcomes that would conflict with some other duty (protecting another's life).
    But one can deceive and not lie in a malicious way which we would not condone so why is one OK and the other not?
    Presumably because we have to take into context our beliefs about how our words will be taken by the listener and whether they have a right to be deceived or not but isn't this the same sort of reasoning as to why we shouldn't lie in the first place?
    I think one has to either perform some kind of battle of conflicting duties on the spot or have a hard line on no lying and no deception. Middle ground seems untidy.

  12. Thank you Dr. Feser for yet another fantastic post on lying. I have been following the posting and the comm. box on all of these lying posts and you have clarified I think all the major issues raised. I think there would be scope to go further in explaining the fine details of 'how this would work in real life', but that is the case with all moral philosophy.

    It seemed to me that a lot of what people were worried about was the real world application. However, it always seems to me that without firm ideas about morality (rigid as some put it, or 'jesuitical' as other put it (please God they won't continue posting)) then there is no way for us to proceed morally. Morality would have to be 'up to us', based on what 'we feel' about such an such action given the circumstances.

    (A side rant about consequentialism: It is important that people should realise that the term 'consequentialism' was concocted as a term of abuse precisely because it was an immoral, moral theory. (Anyone who can ask the theoretical question 'Would X be better off dead?' is not worthy of moral consideration) That doesn't mean that consequences have no place in moral law, but they are not the deciding factors. If a 'good consequence' such as 'the Nazi goes away without the Jew' can justify an immoral action, then any immoral action is permitted if it has 'good consequences', and that is plainly absurd nonsense and not a moral theory at all).

  13. Clouseau: "Does your dog bite?"
    Man Next to Dog: "No."
    Clouseau attempts to pet dog and is bitten.
    Clouseau: "I thought your dog did not bite?"
    Man Next to Dog: "That is not my dog."

  14. On a practical note, if you can be clever or remain silent you should do so rather than lie. But if you must lie to protect an innocent person then do so. However, do not insist that your lie is not a lie in order to justify your actions.

    It is far better to acknowledge your fault and try to do better in the future, than to pretend that you have not sinned.

    "Love covers a multitude of sins." (1Pe 4:8)

  15. Hi Ed,

    Thanks for your post. You wrote: "As typically defined by natural law theorists, a lie is willful speech or other communicative behavior contrary to one's mind. That is to say, one lies when one wills to communicate the message that P when what one really thinks is not-P."

    I refer you to . Section 1.2 (The deceptive documents) describes how phony documents were used to fool the Nazis during World War II into thinking that the Allies were planning on invading Greece. On 9 July 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily. The Nazis remained convinced for two more weeks that the main attacks would be in Sardinia and Greece, and kept forces out of action there till it was too late.

    Was this operation a case of lying? And was it immoral?

  16. VJ

    Fundamentally, isn't the adage that 'war is hell' pretty much a catch-all for all wartime events. That Geneva conventions, no torture, minimize civilian casualties get followed at all amazes me.

    But that is no answer for your question.

  17. @Maolsheachlann:

    I agree about Santa Claus. I am sure my parents talked to me about Santa Claus when I was small. Conceivably at one point I 'believed' in Santa Claus; I recall no time at which I was consciously undeceived.

    I recall something in C. S. Lewis's "That Hideous Strength" in which the rationalist McPhee is debunking the idea that the bear (I forget its name) 'loved' Ivy - relating the bears attractions to comfort, liking having its fleabites itched, etc. Lewis there - wisely, I think - says something like this: McPhee is setting up a distinction between physical attraction and spiritual love and trying to decide on which side the bear's behaviour belongs. But, suggests Lewis, no such distinction applies to the bear. The bear's being is 'below' such distinctions.

    I think such a concept has helped me - don't know how accurate it might be! - in a number of ways, dealing, for instance, with concepts of biological evolution in its relationship to spirituality.

    And I suggest that, for at least many families, mythological conceptions, like Santa Claus, fall into this category. I do not suppose my parents ever expected me to believe in Santa Claus on the same plane that I believed in, say, the danger of crossing the street in the midst of traffic. I was not reared with any religious ideas, but, if I had been, I suppose they would likewise have easily been clear about the difference between believing in God and believing in Santa Claus.

    My wife and I never spoke about Santa Claus to our children - not, I think, for any reasons having to do with lying, but more or less because I was rather a McPhee-ish rationalist myself at the time.

    Perhaps I have mellowed since :-)


  18. Jonathan said,

    But one can deceive and not lie in a malicious way which we would not condone so why is one OK and the other not?

    The answer is that it isn't, necessarily; while lying is intrinsically disordered, not all forms of deceiving are, but it does not follow that every form of deception is moral. You can do even entirely ordinary things in a malicious way, so the fact that you can deceive in a malicious way doesn't tell us anything about whether deception is immoral by its very nature. Deception is a very broad category that covers a great many things, and they are different enough that the reasons for saying that lying is intrinsically disordered don't carry over to everything else the word 'deception' applies to.

  19. Thanks for that, John. Incidentally I was reading the intellectual biography section of your blog earlier...very interesting!

  20. @Maolsheachlann:

    Intellectual biography??!! I deny any pretensions to intellection whatever! I am like the bear - living at the gut level :-)

  21. Vincent, in my opinion Operation Mincemeat does not constitute a set of lies. Planting false ID, false love letters, and false jeweler's receipt constitute the material from which a lie could be created, by saying: "These documents represent reality." Until that is said, the entire effort is exactly like that an author goes through in creating a fiction story: the more fully developed the background is, the better the story. But then, the author never tries to tell the reader "and by the way, this story is all true".

    Or, alternatively, the entire effort is like building an imagination picture. When you build up picture for yourself of a blue sky with a few clouds, and an early morning sun, and waves gently rushing at the beach - that phantasm is neither "true" nor "false" because it is merely a picture, it does not assert anything. What would be false would be to assert the claim "this phantasm represents a real place and time." Until someone asserts that the story is real, nothing has happened that can be a lie. Unless the Allies were idiotic enough to put a document in that attested to all the others being real, they didn't assert the validity of the 'story' documents.

  22. Thanks professor Feser - this post went some way to clarifying a lot of the issues I had trouble with, especially the "social lying" matter.

    But I still have one little problem. You mention that answering "No" can be understood as not a lie in cases where the respondent has an obligation to an employer, a penitent, etc.

    Doesn't the person answering the door have an obligation to the innocent person hiding in the house? Or lets just take the strongest case and say the person hiding is one's brother or spouse.

    Is my obligation to my brother or my spouse really less than a secretary's to his/her employer? And in the context, saying "No" to the murderer at the door can be understood by any "man on the street" as justified by the obligation, couldn't it?

    On the other hand, I think you're right that we all acknowledge that the "No" in that case is a lie. It just is. However, I think if someone asked a secretary whether her boss was laundering money for the mob, and she said "No" when she knew the boss was doing so, we would (rightly) see that as a lie too, right?

    I.e., it would be different if the secretary said "I can't answer that," or "I plead the fifth" - but if she could just straight up say "No," and justify that because of an obligation, I don't see how that obligation makes this "No" not a lie while my "No" to protect my brother is a lie.

    I'm sure I'm confusing something something here. What is it?

  23. Thanks, Tony and Vincent, for comments on the issue of lying in war. I think we can lay to the side all cases of deception in war and focus on lying by looking at straightforward, if outdated, cases such as a meeting in which two commanders vow to meet in combat at a specific location the following day, but in agreeing to this, one of them lies. He either is buying time for his troops to escape because he thinks that's their only chance of survival, or what might be morally worse, he intends on moving his troops somewhere other than the field of battle he told the other side's commander about so as to execute a surprise attack (he would have to be positioned so as to really not be at the field of battle he said he was going to be at, in order for him to have lied). I only know about this stuff from movies, but I think the mindset of traditional military men would have seen this as a despicable lie, even if it turned out well for the liar strategically. Of course Machiavelli and Machiavellians would praise it. Basically I think the "lying is intrinsically wrong" view, which I think I accept in principle if not always in my own actions (clay feet), is committed to being against lies like this told in wartime.

  24. Hello Anon,

    The reason "No" in that case isn't a lie isn't merely that you have a special obligation to the person in question. It is rather because given the liguistic conventions surrounding such relationships, a reasonable listener could take "No" to mean "I cannot reveal what I know." It's that specific linguistic convention which makes "No" a mental reservation rather than a lie. (Of course, if someone persisted and said "Don't speak with a mental reservation, just tell me straight out -- do you know such-and-such, whether or not you have an obligation not to talk about it?" In that case there would seem to be no opportunity to use such a mental reservation.)

    The murderer at the door case is different. There is no special linguistic convention governing relationships between potential victims and those hiding them, because there is no such everyday practice (the way there is an everyday practice of being someone's lawyer, priest, secretary, or whatever). It's an exceptional case.

    Here's an interesting wrinkle, though. Writers on this subject also typcially give "No" as an answer to "Is so and so home?" as a legitimate mental reservation, given that in that context it is known often to mean "He isn't taking visitors right now" or "He isn't taking calls right now."

    So, suppose the murderer came to the door and you said "He isn't here" knowing that the murderer could reasonably take that as meaning "He isn't taking visitors" even if he could (and hopefully will) take it instead as meaning "He really isn't here." Then it seems we've have a legitimate mental reservation rather than a lie.

    Still, suppose the murderer went on to say "Are you speaking with a mental reservation? Tell me straight out, is he just not taking visitors or is he literally not here?" Then you'd be stuck.

  25. Anon and Tony,

    War and spying raise fascinating issues of their own, on which much has been written. Maybe I'll get to that sometime, but no time now!

  26. @Ed Feser:

    The reason "No" in that case isn't a lie isn't merely that you have a special obligation to the person in question. It is rather because given the liguistic conventions surrounding such relationships, a reasonable listener could take "No" to mean "I cannot reveal what I know." It's that specific linguistic convention which makes "No" a mental reservation rather than a lie. (Of course, if someone persisted and said "Don't speak with a mental reservation, just tell me straight out -- do you know such-and-such, whether or not you have an obligation not to talk about it?" In that case there would seem to be no opportunity to use such a mental reservation.)

    And in such a case, I presume, a priest, say, asked about something he had heard in Confession, could only reply something like "I am not able to answer that" - or even simply be silent - if a conventional socially-understood "no" was rejected.

    Would that be right?


  27. JJ, another answer the priest can give is "you know that even if I did have an answer to that question, I could not tell you." Here, what he has said is ABSOLUTELY true, and yet he refrains from even indicating whether has has the information you're looking for.

    The good Lord does tell us to use our wits in being pure as the driven snow, but wily as serpents.

    So, suppose the murderer came to the door and you said "He isn't here" knowing that the murderer could reasonably take that as meaning "He isn't taking visitors"

    Ed, doesn't the "he isn't here" depend on being a social convention: You are answering the question "is he here to be seen by callers like me?", and the correct answer is, "No, not to callers like you". The convention structures both the question and the answer so that the answer is responsive. With the murderer, he is not asking something like the conventional "is he home to callers like me".

    On W4 I propose another attempt at broad mental reservation: "No, he isn't here" because one of the meanings of "here" is right here within the vicinity of a few feet, and he isn't that close. I am not confident this works either, because which conventional meaning of "here" is already set when the murderer asks if the guy is "here".

  28. "No, he isn't here" because one of the meanings of "here" is right here within the vicinity of a few feet, and he isn't that close. I am not confident this works either, because which conventional meaning of "here" is already set when the murderer asks if the guy is "here".

    Or as President Clinton said, "I was not alone with that woman"

  29. “What has happened to me has been the very
    reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of
    dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until
    he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
    As a child I was faced with a phenomenon
    requiring explanation.  I hung up at the
    end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full
    stocking.  I had done nothing to produce
    the things that filled it.  I had not
    worked for them, or made them or helped to make them.  I had not even been good - far from it.
    And the explanation was that a certain
    being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . .
    .  What we believed was that a certain
    benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe
    it still.  I have merely extended the
    Then I only wondered who put the toys in
    the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the
    room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great
    planet in the void.
    Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few
    dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and
    the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present
    so big that it only went halfway into the stocking.  Now I am delighted and astonished every
    morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and
    then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of
    myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa
    Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.”  G.K. Chesterton

  30. @Martin:

    That is lovely - thanks so much for posting it!


  31. I will attempt to post some thoughts here- excuse the bad grammar and spelling. and no doubt the bad logic

    as cool cat is to sammy davis junior so santa claus is to christian charity

    reindeer, red suits and sleighs are accident. that gifts pass through parents hands is no more important than bread the priest hands

    as I grew up I understand see attached to be more then any excuse for my parents to give gifts I understood he was a symbol and thus more than not less than an imaginary man with a beard.

    catholic readers please remember thats nicolasis alice and real. that the media cannot get it right is no more important than then getting the pope wrong...or jesus.

  32. @Martin:

    Thanks again. I am sure that "Santa Claus" can be taught to children in a lying fashion; I am equally clear that it is not normally so and need not be. I think a certain amount of anti-Santa-Claus stuff is simply Puritanism disguised as Catholicism.


  33. Dr. Fesser has maintained, our so I understand, that teaching your children there is a Santa claus is lieing to them thus I'm trying to make a case for Santa.

  34. Is espionage a legitimate profession? Undercover cops? James O'Keefe posing as a pimp to ACORN agents?

    These all seem to involve lies about one's identity.

  35. Oh, nevermind. I see you waved that off earlier for another day.

  36. The pope's recent comments about admissibility of contraception are quite to the point here. As far as I understand, Natural Law condemns lying and contraception on the same grounds - as perversions of respective faculties. Perhaps dr. Feser would find time to comment on this one.

  37. Apparently, such previously held infallible positions are reversible whenever they want to do so.

    Is Luther still excommunicated, 'cuz the New Catechism would decidedly place him as a non-Catholic who demonstrated faith and conviction of conscience seeming to be of a kind worthy of salvation.

    Natural Law is whatever they say it is in Rome this year.

  38. Jimmy Akin made a good response to concerns about the Popes comments. In part, the answer is that public musing of a Pope is not magisterial teaching.

  39. And....I recall an orthodox catholic philosopher, not Dr Fesser, who is quite firm that condoms are not always evil. I think he's wrong but he's not a liberal fruitcake

  40. Martin:

    I believe you might be referring to Dr Michael Liccione. He is a very orthodox Catholic philosopher, but he has indeed mounted an argument that anticipates what the Pope seems to be reported as saying (note the media-filtered qualifications on my part).

  41. Martin

    I see you are a vet and glean that you are a conservative Catholic. What do you think of paragraph 2418 of the catechism that says it is a sin to spend money on animals as long as there are poor people.

    I can tell you what I think, but that would be waaaay off topic.

    2418 gets at teachings that will clearly not stand up to scrutiny.

  42. 2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.

    I'd like to hear the answer to just thinkings question from someone too.

  43. Hi,

    Just an additional question or comment. Did the Church not rule against strict mental reservation in the early 17th century? As a strict mental reservation was an attempt at getting around an outright lie, it then makes sense that such a decision also rules out outright lying. Of course, I may have misunderstood the matter, but if this did happen in an authoritative manner (and perhaps it did not), there really should have been no need to pay any heed at all to that small tradition which considers lying to someone who has no right to the truth in order to prevent an evil as morally permissible.

    It would be great if you or someone else could enlighten me about this.

  44. I believe you might be referring to Dr Michael Liccione. He is a very orthodox Catholic philosopher, but he has indeed mounted an argument that anticipates what the Pope seems to be reported as saying (note the media-filtered qualifications on my part).

    Yes, thanks, I was just unwilling to name drop without double checking. I recall him getting a lot of heat for his opinion.

    2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.

    I would love to wax on about this but have only time for a passing remark. I am humbled that my profecssion should be singled out for this honor but it is not clear to me how excess spending on animals is different than excess spending on philosophy books (!), or perhaps ever bigger HDTV's.

  45. It's too bad these discussions on lying occurred before Wikileaks recently gave us some examples of governments lying to their citizens for what was in the minds of those governments the greater good. And there are some other questionable acts disclosed by Wikileaks besides lying, like Hillary Clinton's directive to US workers to steal the credit card information of high ranking UN officials.

  46. I don't think Peter Kreeft read your post!

  47. I'd be interested to see a response to Kreeft because I think I agree with him

  48. Frankly, I don't understand ProfessorKreeft's response. If he weren't the man he is I would have passed over it as thoughtless.

  49. Apparently Mark Shea has trouble understanding Dr. Kreeft too

  50. After re-reading Dr. Feser's post here, I guess I can see how Kreeft was pretty sloppy in defining his term of a lie. This Nazi thing just continues to perplex me....

  51. Again, here is a Thomistic and biblical post calling to mind the Egyptian midwives and replying to Dr. Kreeft directly.

  52. A venial sin is not to be taken lightly. Even an unrepented venial sin can take you the Hell.

    A fellow who already has lyied to a Nazi-at-the-door and then read this post should repent, do penitence, sincerelly promess to God not to do that again, and, if there's still time, to repair the wrong-doing by calling back the Nazis.

    The nazi-at-the-door scenario is rare but not as rare as the subtle theologian who thinks on a good mental reservation before replying to a murder.

  53. "A venial sin is not to be taken lightly. Even an unrepented venial sin can take you the Hell."

    No one goes to hell merely for venial sins, even if they're unrepented venial sins (unless I'm very badly mistaken about this, but I'm quite sure I'm not).

  54. Could one argue in the context of police stings and setups (e.g. in organised crime cases) that as the criminals understand that the police are going to try and infiltrate their gangs to bring them down, the police operatives are justified in lying as to their intent?

  55. Lying violates the principle of double effect because the good obtained is via an evil act. That much I get. However, by the same token, wouldn't killing soldiers of an invading army (unjust war) be violating the principle of double effect as well?

    The best I can do is to construe the invading soldier as someone who had committed and is committing unjust acts and thus we are authorized in wartime to kill in the mode of justice. However, doesn't defense of self and others play a role? The distinction here seems to be that I am perverting the faculty of speech when lying but no perversion occurs during wartime. What of corrupting another's faculties (as war is bound to do through injury)? Is that, again, to be understood in the context of justice where the (physical) corruption of the perpetrator is punishment? Seems problematic and inadequate, thus understood.