Thursday, January 5, 2012

Smith, Tollefsen, and Pruss on lying

Last summer, theologian Janet E. Smith published an article in First Things defending the moral legitimacy, under certain circumstances, of telling falsehoods.  In September, Chris Tollefsen and Alex Pruss replied to Smith, and last month Smith responded to Tollefsen and Pruss.  I hate to disagree with Smith, whom I’ve long admired; and as longtime readers know, I’ve had my differences with Tollefsen.  But on this subject, I have to side with Tollefsen and Pruss -- though I also think that some of their arguments are weak, and that they are not entirely fair to Smith.

I have addressed the subject of lying at length in a number of earlier posts (which you can find here, here, here, here, and here), and it will be useful to summarize the main points before addressing the debate between Smith and her critics.  Following the classical natural law approach to ethics associated with Aquinas and other moralists in the Scholastic tradition, I have argued, on both philosophical and theological grounds, that:

1. Lying is always wrong, even if not always gravely so.

2. Broad mental reservations are not lies, and neither are obvious jokes nor polite expressions such as “You look nice today,” “I’m fine, thanks,” and the like, because the linguistic conventions governing these expressions entail that they are not generally intended to convey one’s actual thoughts and feelings in the first place, but function as mere pleasantries.  Certain kinds of stratagems in war, certain deceptive moves in games, etc. do not necessarily count as lies either.

3. What is essential to lying is deliberately speaking contrary to one’s true thoughts; whether the listener has a right to the truth is irrelevant.  

4. Hence it is wrong to lie even to the murderer who comes to your door demanding to know where to find his intended victim.  It is not wrong to refrain from telling him, or to speak evasively, or to use a broad mental reservation.  But if these ploys do not work, it would be wrong to lie to him.  Not gravely wrong, but still mildly wrong.

5. It is also wrong to lie in wartime.  That certain deceptive practices are justifiable in war does not show otherwise, because lying is not the same thing as deception.  Broad mental reservations, evasive speech, feints, etc. during wartime are fine, but deliberately speaking contrary to one’s true thoughts is always lying and thus always wrong.

6. It is also wrong to lie to children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, etc.  Not necessarily gravely wrong, but still wrong, and unwise too insofar as children who find that they’ve been lied to about these matters might reasonably wonder whether their parents have been lying to them about other matters too (religion, morality, etc.).

7. To the extent that Live Action’s methods in their sting operation against Planned Parenthood involved broad mental reservation, evasion, and the like, those methods may be defensible; to the extent that these methods involve actual lying, they were wrong (even if not gravely so) and should not be used. 

Please don’t bother commenting on these claims until you’ve read the posts in question, which deal with the stock objections at length.  I’m not going to rehash it all here.  The point is just to summarize my own approach to the issue in question before commenting on Smith, Tollefsen, and Pruss.  They cover a lot of ground in their exchange, but I will confine my remarks here to two issues: the teaching of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis lying, and the traditional natural law grounds for condemning lying as inherently immoral.

Catholic teaching

Tollefsen and Pruss give the impression that Smith is dissenting from official Catholic teaching on lying.  It is not clear whether they intend to give that impression, but such a charge would in any event be unjust.  Smith is no dissenter.  What the Church teaches is that lying is always wrong, and Smith, it seems to me, does not deny this.  What she defends is the claim that not all false assertion counts as lying, just as not all killing counts as murder and not all taking of another’s property counts as stealing.  (Certainly this is all her position commits her to, though I think she could have stated things a little more carefully at a couple of places in her reply to Tollefsen and Pruss.)  Smith appeals to the idea that for one’s false assertion to count as a lie, the person one is speaking to must have a right to the truth.  While I strongly disagree with her position, and while it has never gained a wide following among orthodox Catholic moral theologians, Smith is perfectly correct to hold that this minority view has historically been defended by some orthodox theologians and has not been condemned by the Church.

Consider this statement from Fr. Francis J. Connell’s Outlines of Moral Theology -- a typical pre-Vatican II manual of moral theology published in 1958 and carrying the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat:

A lie is a statement contrary to what a person believes to be true.  It may be in word, in writing, or in deed.  It is forbidden explicitly in Sacred Scripture, and also by the natural law.  Some theologians base their argument on the fact that the purpose of speech is to manifest what one believes to be true; and hence it is against the primary purpose of this faculty to tell a lie.  Other theologians argue that the primary purpose of the faculty of speech is to promote the welfare of mankind by mutual communication of ideas, so that a lie is wrong because it tends to disrupt the spirit of trust and confidence among human beings.  However, they say, when a person is unjustly trying to force me to reveal a truth which I have a right to conceal, I do not sin if I say something to the contrary.  In that event, I am telling a falsehood, but not a lie.  This opinion is truly probable, but those who accept it must be very careful not to abuse it. (p. 158)

Or consider Fr. Thomas Slater’s 1925 Manual of Moral Theology.  After arguing that lying is always and intrinsically wrong, even if done to save a life, Slater writes:

Some of the Greek Fathers held a different view from the above, and thought that lying was not wrong under all circumstances, but that it was occasionally allowable, like medicine, on account of inevitable necessity.  English moralists have very commonly held a similar opinion, that a lie is only told when what is false is said to one who has a right to the truth.  Some modern Catholic theologians have also adopted this opinion, which places the malice of lying in the denial of the truth to one who has a right to it.  (Vol. I, p. 292)

Slater goes on vigorously to criticize this view for failing to make the nature of this right clear, for construing lying in an implausibly narrow way, and for failing adequately to answer the arguments for the more traditional and stricter view.  I agree with his criticisms, and most of the manuals of the day also firmly reject the more lax view in favor of the stricter traditional view, according to which a listener’s right to the truth is irrelevant to whether something counts as a lie.  But the more lax position was a view that had a small number of defenders within the tradition, and Slater does not question the orthodoxy of those who hold it.  (Smith provides some other citations in support of her position in her reply to Tollefsen and Pruss.)

It is this minority theological opinion that seems to have influenced the original edition of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which stated:

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. (par. 2483)

Now the revised Catechism altered this passage, deleting the reference to a person’s right to know the truth.  And as I noted in an earlier post, apparently the change was made by then-Cardinal Ratzinger at the request of theologians concerned to maintain continuity with the more traditional view defended by the majority of orthodox theologians.  Since I think the minority view is not only wrong but seriously problematic from a theological point of view, I am glad the change was made.  But it is only fair to acknowledge that the fact that the less strict minority view made it into the first edition of the Catechism at all only lends support to Smith’s claim that the Church has not officially condemned that view, and regards it as at least defensible and within the bounds of orthodoxy.

(It is also a bit rich for Tollefsen to be citing Scripture and tradition against Smith.  After all, Tollefsen takes the view, not merely that capital punishment should not be used -- something a Catholic can certainly hold -- but that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral, a claim that not only has no support from Scripture and tradition but is manifestly in conflict with Scripture, tradition, and even the teaching of the current Catechism and of Pope John Paul II, which disfavors capital punishment but acknowledges that it can be legitimate at least in principle.  I’ve discussed Catholic teaching on capital punishment here, and Tollefsen’s views on the subject here, here, here, and here.) 

The “perverted faculty” argument 

As I’ve indicated, Smith’s defense of telling falsehoods under certain circumstances rests on an analogy with lawful killing and the lawful taking of another’s goods.  Aquinas and other traditional natural law theorists agree that not all killing counts as murder, because it is only the taking of the life of an innocent human being that is intrinsically wrong, and killing in self-defense, in a just war, and in executing those guilty of serious enough offenses involves taking the lives of people who are not innocent.  (See the articles and posts on capital punishment just linked to for more on this issue.)  They also agree that not all taking of another’s property without his consent counts as stealing, because the natural law does not in the first place give us so strong a right to our property that we can justly withhold it in all circumstances, including cases like those where a person lost in the woods will starve to death unless he takes some food from someone else’s cabin.  (See my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for more on this subject.)  Similarly, Smith argues, Aquinas and those influenced by his natural law approach to ethics should allow that not every case of deliberately telling a falsehood counts as a lie, since some people do not have a right to the truth from us.

The problem with Smith’s argument is that the cases of murder, stealing, and lying are simply not parallel in the way she supposes, certainly not from the point of view of the classical approach to natural law theory represented by Aquinas.  For Aquinas and the classical natural law tradition that informed the thinking of the Scholastic manualists, deliberately telling a falsehood is intrinsically immoral, whether or not the listener has a right to know the truth, because it involves acting contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties.  It is in this respect like contraception, or deliberately vomiting up a meal so that one can gorge oneself indefinitely.  Their argument is thus a species of what is known as a “perverted faculty” argument.  Murder and stealing do not involve the perversion of a faculty; they are immoral for other, more complex reasons.  Hence the analogy Smith needs in order to make her case does not hold.  (Smith also appeals to the difference between the prelapsarian and postlapsarian conditions of the human race, but I don’t think this is relevant.  Like contraception, deliberately telling a falsehood involves the perversion of a faculty as much after the Fall as before.)

“Perverted faculty” arguments are very widely misunderstood, and routinely dismissed on the basis of these misunderstandings.  This is no place for a full defense, but the basic idea can be spelled out fairly briefly.  Classical natural law theory presupposes certain elements of Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics, namely its essentialism and affirmation of the reality of immanent teleology.  The idea is that natural substances have essences, and that these essences entail certain ends toward which a substance is naturally directed.  In the case of living things, the realization of these ends will constitute the thing’s flourishing as the kind of thing it is.  So, for example, a tree will, by virtue of its essence, have a natural tendency to sink roots into the ground, to grow branches and leaves, and so forth; and to the extent it successfully does so, it will flourish as a tree, while if it fails to do so (e.g. if because of external factors or internal defects it is unable to sink roots very deeply into the soil) it will atrophy.  A squirrel, by virtue of its essence, will naturally tend to gather acorns, scamper up trees, and so forth; and to the extent it pursues these ends it will flourish qua squirrel, while to the extent it fails to do so (again, whether because of external circumstances or internal defects) it will not flourish.

For classical natural law theory, such natural teleology grounded in the essences of things entails an objective standard of goodness and badness.  A tree with strong roots and branches is to that extent a good tree, while a diseased tree with weak roots and withered branches is a bad one; a healthy squirrel which likes to scamper about and gather food is to that extent a good squirrel, while a squirrel which has through injury lost the ability to climb trees and because of genetic defect does not enjoy the taste of acorns is a bad one; and so forth.  So far this is not a moral sense of “good” versus “bad”; it is rather the sense operative when we describe something as a “good specimen” or “bad example” of a kind of thing.  But it is an entirely objective sense.  When we say that the healthy tree is a good tree and the diseased squirrel a bad squirrel, we are not expressing our own preferences but simply stating what follows, as a matter of objective fact, from the nature or essence of a tree or squirrel.  (There is no “fact/value distinction” from an A-T point of view; so-called “values” are built into the facts from the get go.)  Moreover, distinctively moral goodness or badness falls out as a special case of this more general sense.  Moral goodness or badness is just the kind of goodness or badness manifested by rational agents, who (unlike plants and animals) can freely choose whether or not to pursue what is good for them given their nature.  A rational agent who chooses to pursue the ends that his essence determines are good for him is to that extent morally good, while a rational agent who chooses to pursue that which is contrary to these ends is to that extent morally bad.  (For a more detailed treatment of the metaphysical foundations of classical natural law theory, see the first half of my article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” linked to above, or chapter 5 of Aquinas.)  

Now, the way this gets worked out so as to provide us with moral guidance on specific issues is complicated, and much depends on various concrete details of human nature and the physical, cultural, and historical circumstances in which human beings find themselves.  (I discuss the implications for private property and related issues in the article linked to, and the implications for sexual morality in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.)  But “perverted faculty” arguments for certain moral conclusions fall out as a natural consequence of the general principles already described.  The basic idea is that when some faculty F is natural to a rational agent A and by nature exists for the sake of some end E (and exists in A precisely so that A might pursue E), then it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for A to use F in a manner contrary to E.  For the good of a thing is determined by the end which it has by nature.  F exists for the sake of E, and agents like A naturally possess F precisely so that they might pursue E.  Hence (given the underlying metaphysics) it cannot possibly be good to use F for the sake of preventing the realization of E, or for the sake of an end which has an inherent tendency to frustrate the realization of E.  Hence (to cite the best-known applications of this reasoning) it cannot possibly be good to use our sexual faculties in a way that positively frustrates their procreative end.  And it cannot possibly be good to use our communicative faculties in a way that positively frustrates their truth-conveying end.

None of this entails that F cannot have more than one natural end, and neither does it entail that it cannot be good for us to use F for an end other than E.  For “different from E” and “other than E” do not entail “contrary to E.”  Hence there is nothing inherently wrong with married people having sex for the sake of expressing affection or merely because they feel like doing it, or with their sexually stimulating each other in various ways during foreplay, as long as they do not act in a way that positively frustrates the procreative end of the sexual act.  And there is nothing wrong with using our communicative faculties for all sorts of purposes other than conveying truth -- for entertainment, expressing one’s feelings, or what have you -- as long as this is not done in a way which is contrary to the truth-conveying end, as deliberate falsehood is.

Nor does any of this entail that we have to use F at all.  Hence it is legitimate for someone to refrain from sex for the sake of the priesthood or the religious life, or even just to avoid pregnancy; and it is legitimate to refrain from using one’s communicative faculties at all so as to avoid conveying a truth one does not want others to know.  Indeed, it can even be legitimate to destroy F if this is the only way to preserve the agent A, as when one has cancerous reproductive organs or vocal cords surgically removed.  But if one is going actually to use F, it cannot be good to use it in a manner contrary to the realization of E.

Nor does any of this entail that we cannot use F when we know its end won’t in fact be achieved; for in that case we are not using F for the sake of frustrating the realization of E, and we are not ourselves attempting to frustrate the realization of E in the course of using F.  To foresee that F’s end E won’t in fact be realized is not the same thing as using F in a way that will prevent E from being realized, any more than foreseeing that something will happen is the same as causing it to happen.  Hence there is nothing inherently wrong with sex during pregnancy, or during infertile periods, or with a sterile spouse, or after menopause.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with using broad mental reservations -- which do not actually convey falsehoods but merely express truth in an oblique way -- even though one knows that one’s listener will in fact probably draw the wrong conclusion.

Nor does anything said here entail that man-made devices are per se contrary to nature in the relevant sense.  The reason contraception is objectionable from a natural law point of view is not because it involves the use of drugs in the case of the birth control pill, or artifacts in the case of condoms.  The use of drugs to treat impotence, or of eyeglasses to improve vision, are not “unnatural” in the relevant sense, despite the means being artificial, because they do not involve using a faculty contrary to its natural end.  Indeed, these means restore or enhance the faculties’ power to realize their natural ends.  By contrast, the “withdrawal method,” though it does not involve the use of any artificial devices or drugs, is unnatural in the relevant sense, because it does involve using a faculty contrary to its end.

Nor is it any objection to “perverted faculty” arguments to point out that some people have very strong desires to use their faculties in a way contrary to what natural law theorists claim to be their natural ends, even if these desires have a biological basis.  That something has a biological basis doesn’t by itself make it “natural” in the relevant sense, since some biologically grounded traits are defects.  For instance, color blindness and Down syndrome have a genetic basis, but that hardly makes them “natural” in the relevant, A-T metaphysical sense.  By the same token, even if it turned out that homosexual attraction or a compulsion to lie had a genetic basis, that wouldn’t show that these desires are “natural” in the relevant sense.

Most objections to “perverted faculty” arguments rest on a failure to make distinctions like the ones just spelled out.  Another objection sometimes raised is that such arguments are objectionably “physicalistic” in that they purportedly reduce morality to brute physiology -- making sex (for instance) a matter merely of plumbing, the placement of fluids, and the like.  But the charge is unjust.  First of all, no one claims that “perverted faculty” arguments address the whole of morality, or even the most important part of every moral question.  For example, traditional natural law theorists typically regard the perversion of our communicative faculties involved in lying as in itself only venially sinful.  Gravely sinful lies involve elements beyond merely the perversion of a faculty.  (Here the listener’s right to the truth would be relevant.)

Second, even “perverted faculty” arguments themselves do not merely concern brute physiology in the first place.  In the case of sexual morality, the point is not just that female and male sexual organs fit together like lock and key, etc.  For we have psychological faculties as well as physiological ones.  Hence the male sexual passions are by nature woman-oriented, the female sexual passions are by nature man-oriented, the longing men and women naturally have for one another includes more than just a desire for sexual release but also a yearning for completion and companionship, and so on and so forth.  The “complementarity” of men and women is as relevant to the “perverted faculty” approach to sexual morality as it is to purportedly “deeper” approaches like personalism.  (Again, that some people’s sexual desires are not like this is irrelevant, just as the existence of three-legged dogs is irrelevant to the question of how many legs dogs have in their natural state.)  In the case of lying, it isn’t just the physiology of speech that is relevant; our spiritual nature as rational animals is even more important.  In general, for the traditional natural law theorist, it isn’t merely our physiological faculties that are perverted in lying and in sexual immorality, but our higher faculties as well.

Obviously there are various ways in which this position might be challenged.  But it seems to me that Smith’s objections to Aquinas’s condemnation of all deliberate falsehood do not address the crucial, “perverted faculty” approach to the issue that underlies his view and that of natural law thinkers influenced by him.  For one thing, Smith’s appeal to the “postlapsarian” condition of man is, as I have said, irrelevant.  Given the nature of the considerations the “perverted faculty” argument appeals to, the circumstances of human life after the Fall can no more make deliberate falsehood good than they can make contraception good.  And as I have also noted, the parallels she attempts to draw with murder and stealing do not hold up, because the wrongness of murder and stealing do not stem, as the inherent wrongness of lying does, from using a natural faculty in a manner contrary to its natural end.

For another thing, many of Smith’s objections are aimed at a straw man.  She points out that it is legitimate to use our communicative faculties for purposes “other than” conveying truth, as if this conflicted with Aquinas’s position.  But as I have indicated, defenders of the “perverted faculty” argument agree with her that this is legitimate.  It simply doesn’t follow that using our communicative faculties in a manner “contrary to” their truth-telling function is also legitimate.  Smith also insinuates that defensible practices like “dissimulation designed to smooth over awkward social situations,” “pretending to enjoy a meal that doesn’t please,” certain deceptions during wartime, and the like, are incompatible with Aquinas’s position, when in fact (and as I have also indicated) they are commonly regarded by traditional natural law theorists as legitimate exercises in broad mental reservation rather than lies.  In general, Smith fails to address the arguments of those moral theologians who refined Aquinas’s position over the centuries, and fails to draw careful distinctions of the sort that are common in their writings.

Unfortunately, though I agree with their main conclusion, the arguments of Tollefsen and Pruss are not much better.  As Smith rightly notes, their approach is “more Kantian than Thomistic,” grounded not in the classical natural law theory of Aquinas but in the so-called “new natural law theory” of Germain Grisez and John Finnis.  (Or at least Tollefsen’s is; I don’t know how far Pruss would go in the “new natural law” direction.)  Eschewing the A-T metaphysical foundation of traditional natural law theory, the “new natural lawyers” affirm the “fact/value distinction” and reject “perverted faculty” arguments.  But the arguments they would put in place of the traditional ones are, in my estimation, notable only for their pretentious obscurity and deviation from traditional natural law conclusions.  (Like Tollefsen, other “new natural lawyers” typically condemn capital punishment as always and intrinsically immoral; and their position on lying also tends to be more rigorist than that of traditional natural law theorists, ruling out certain kinds of broad mental reservation that some traditional natural law theorists would allow.)  But I have already criticized Tollefsen’s “new natural law” approach to the ethics of lying in an earlier post.  What I said then applies to his latest piece as well.

90 comments:

Brandon said...

I am not at all convinced that CCC 2483 was intended to put forward the Grotian qualification on lying; 2483 is not concerned with what counts as lying or not, but with how lying "offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord"; obviously the right to truth is relevant to this because violation of this right is one way in which lies are sins against one's neighbor. And since the CCC has already to this point been discussing the subject at some length, and in neither the discussion of truthfulness nor the prior paragraph gave any indication of any qualification, and by 2485 is back to talking as if there were no qualification, and since it gives here no indication here of what establishes the right to truth relevant to lying, which is the sine qua non of any real Grotian qualification, it never provided any complete means of defining lying, and reading it as a definition, I think, has always been a bit of wishful thinking on the part of people who wanted there to be more wiggle-room on the subject.

I confess I've found Smith's arguments on this subject increasingly baffling, to the point that I'm pretty much on the verge of giving up; the whole prelapsarian/postlapsarian thing just pops up apparently out of nowhere for no good reason, and her defenses of earlier arguments seem to make parts of those earlier arguments simply incomprehensible (I can't make any coherent sense of her discussions of the other purposes of speech, for instance, given the totality of things she's said about that point).

FrH said...

I have been hoping for some time that Dr. Feser would provide a response to Dr. Smith's arguments, especially because I share his dislike for Tollefson's method of reply.

Tony said...

Yeah, the very attempt to use a "prelapsarian" model to explain the Thomistic holding makes it clear that she didn't really grasp Thomas fully, at least not on that point (and possibly not on the whole issue of teleology, since that is the ground of the perverted faculty argument.) Which is really kind of odd coming from someone of her stature.

Why is it that people have to overstate their case so often? Smith overstates a perfectly legitimate position - that some defense of lying in extreme cases is consistent with the history of Christian thought as a minority position - with some useful ideas and then some clearly overblown reasoning, ad hoc arguments that amount to special pleading because of the conclusion she wants. But then Tollefsen and Pruss seem to overreact to Smith.

What strikes me most strongly is that Janet Smith's arguments are, (in the words of a highly trained philosopher friend) not principled in her use of the concepts. Yes, she argues using the concepts of truth, intention, signification, and so on. But she just seems to jumble them together any old way that will suit her desired outcome. But that's not what a principled philosopher does, as we see again and again in St. Thomas. Although Smith accepts that you can use signs and speech to do things other than state a proposition (as commands, questions, etc), she obliterates the equally important reality that _when_ you do use words and signs to communicate a proposition, you do so in order to convey to the other mind a holding about truth, and this in order to is not accidental to the human choice to state a proposition. She says:

He generally discovered the purpose of something by observing how it “operated”: operatio sequitur esse. We know the essence of something by observing what it does. Thus, we should determine the purpose of signification by observing what it does....
They enjoy being amused by exaggerations; they are grateful for falsehoods told to console and encourage them.


She is wrong here: it is only "consoling" to tell lies when the hearer thinks that the claim, the proposed consoling proposition, is true, at least partially, and thus the consolative object runs through supposed truth conveyed by the proposition. Conveying truth is the point of the faculty. There is no consolation to telling the consolee something that the consollee knows perfectly well is 100% balderdash.

In every case we use words or signs to propose a truth, we rely on the hearer having a built-in propensity to accept the proposition as true, unless we have seeded the event with precursor signs that what is coming is "story" or "joke" or "exaggeration" or something of the kind. The fact that we have that built-in propensity, and that we use it in order to move the mind of the hearer in a particular direction related to that truth, proves St. Thomas's point (as Dr. Feser has so excellently laid out.) The natural end of the faculty for speaking propositions is for conveying truth to another's mind, and that natural end is objective.

Paul said...

There are some other objections to the idea that deliberately telling falsehoods contrary to one’s true thoughts is always a lie:

(A) The Catechism says that "a lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving". So if there is some other intention than deceiving, it is not a lie. Specifically, wanting to deny someone information is a different intention than deceiving.

(B1) Suppose I've hidden some Jews in my house, and the Nazis come asking. It is possible that the circumstances are such that I have three choices about my reply: (1) tell them the Jews are hidden there, and cause the Jews to be taken away to their deaths; (2) remain silent, alert the Nazis suspicions, and cause the Jews to be found and taken away to their deaths; (3) say there are no Jews there, so that the Nazis go away. As far as I can tell, options (1) and (2) would make me formally complicit in the killing of innocents -- i.e. I would be a multi-murderer. It seems mind-boggling that it would be wrong to choose option (3). Must I be a multi-murderer rather than deliberately tell a falsehood?

(B2) In the circumstances of (B1), if I conclude that I must lead the Nazis to the hidden Jews (which is what happens if I don't choose the option of telling a deliberate falsehood), then I conclude that I must tell the Nazis something that they have no right to. But that logically contradicts the Catechism, which indicates that I don't have to pass on information to someone that they have no right to.

Gyan said...

Dr Feser,
What about speaking Truth in Love?
Truth may be spoken lovelessly, as to wound and that is no charity.

Similarly, a falsehood spoken in the spirit of love may be no lie. After all, it is not good for a person to be a murderer and thus we act in love to the murderer if we foil his attempt to murder.

FrH said...

Paul: "Specifically, wanting to deny someone information is a different intention than deceiving." And how do you intend to deny the information to the person who seeks i? By deceiving him. No one who is not pathological seeks the deceit as an end in itself; the proposition at stake is that lying is wrong even as an instrument to achieve a good end.

Dr. Feser dealt with the Jews in the basement in some of his prior posts, so I will content myself with saying that (1) you would be a murderer if you sought out the guards or if you told them because you wanted them to kill the Jews, but not otherwise and (2) situations where a lie could save someone's life did not arise for the first time in Germany in the 1930s; early Christians were well aware of them, and still held--the vast majority of them--to the belief that a lie (as commonly understood) is always wrong.

Tony said...

Paul, you need to read Feser's earlier posts. He deals with your point quite fully. In particular, you fail to mention as one of your options (4) telling something else to the Nazis that is not a lie but is not designed to inform them about the Jews: misdirection, deception, and broad mental reservations are permissible in some circumstances. Feser covered these in detail, and even refers to them in this posting.

Gyan, you can licitly withhold the truth from someone who will mis-use it, out of love. You can even use true statements to misdirect him from the truth he wants to a truth that you want him to have instead. These can be done in love.

But to use a statement that is a lie "out of love" is to deny that the faculty of telling truths is designed to convey your truth to him "out of love", and thus disrupts the whole foundation of the doctrine of virtue about truth. It cannot be love to intend to get him to believe something false on account of his trust in your declaration, because that is inherently a violation of the ordered relationship of trust we need to place in each other.

Both Paul and Gyan, if a lie is OK some of the time, then there is no possible way to account for the martyrs of the Church who went to their deaths telling the truth to Caesar instead of saying "ok, I will worship Jupiter" as a dissimulation. If it is OK to lie to save an innocent life, then it would have been fine for them to pretend to worship Jupiter while saying interiorly "this is only a pretense, I worship the one true God". The mass of martyrs were martyrs precisely because they adhered to truth more than to their own lives or those of their friends.

Maolsheachlann said...

But is there a contradiction in presenting a consequentialist critique of consequentialism?

Anonymous said...

Does it make the calculus different if it's your wife with the gun saying, "Is your girlfriend in the basement? I'm going to kill her."

Is the motivated reasoning different? Why?

Anonymous said...

Or she says, "Is your girlfriend in the basement? I'll kill both of you."

Do you 'martyr yourself for the principle?

Tony said...

Just at a guess, a previously banned troll is back, anonymously. Here's to hoping nobody bothers to answer.

Anonymous said...

Is it a mistake to take emotion out of the argument as though emotion is accidental?

We can talk about mathematics dispassionately (although some here might disagree :-) ) but why do we get so emotional talking about morality, ethics, politics and god?

Is it wrong to leave emotion in the discussion. After all some say the experience of god is ecstatic. What is the point of always taking emotion out of it? We are emotional creature. Is that an accident. Some feel pure reason makes them 'feel' complete. Some don't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The dissent question is interesting. The word "lie" as ordinarily used simply does not mean anything like "to assert deceitfully contrary to one's mind to someone who has a right to the truth." Even Grotius doesn't think the word means that as ordinarily used--he is clear that he is introducing a special moral sense of the word. And almost everyone who thinks it's OK to assert deceitfully contrary to one's mind to those who don't have a right to the truth will straightforwardly formulate their doctrine by saying: "It's OK to lie to those who don't have a right to the truth." In this way, "to lie" is more like "to contracept" than like "to murder": even though the act is always wrong, the wrongness of the deed is not a part of the meaning of the word, and those who say "It's sometimes permissible to lie" are not asserting a contradiction.

Now suppose someone sincerely asserts: "Bucephalus was a horse", but on further questioning he says: "A horse is a particularly small breed of house-cat, bred for getting into mouse-holes." We would not say of this person that he believes that Bucephalus was a horse. We would, rather, say that the proposition which the person believes is the proposition that Bucephalus was a kind of house-cat, and that this person misunderstands what the word "horse" in English means.

The same may be true of those Catholics who say "Lying is always wrong", but who say something like: "A lie is a deceitful assertion contrary to one's mind to someone with a right to the truth." It seems plausible that they are misunderstanding what the word "lie" means, and they are instead assenting to a proposition different from the one the Church teaches. Of course, one assumes that their misunderstanding is innocent, and hence there is no question of disloyalty or formal heterodoxy. But nonetheless they do not believe the Church's proposition, though they believe that they believe the Church's proposition.

On the other hand, not all misunderstanding of the nature of something changes the meaning of the word. In the horse/cat example, the disparity is sufficiently great that attributing a different sense to the word "horse" as used by the mistaken speaker seems exactly right. But where the disparity is smaller, we don't want to say that the word is being used in a different sense. For instance, there are debates about what exactly counts as speaking contrary to mind (consider for instance the funny cases here), and those who stand on different sides of those debates probably aren't using "lie" in different senses--they are having a substantive disagreement about the nature of lying. So it's a hard question whether those who erroneously think (contrary to Grotius' own opinion) that Grotius' definition captures what the ordinary word "lie" means are (innocently) using the word "lie" in a different sense from the ordinary, or are having a substantive disagreement on what the word means. Since the posts you refer to, I've come to be more sympathetic to the second view. And on the second view, these Catholic thinkers have no disagreement with the Church on whether lying is ever wrong.

But I think they are still disagreeing with the Catechism, and that is unfortunate.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Dear Dr. Pruss:

I think you are correct that there is a confusion of terminology at work in the conversation on the morality of lying--at least two confusions as I see it, both centering on the term "lying" and its definition.

In Dr. Feser's post above, which is really excellent, he says, "What the Church teaches is that lying is always wrong...", which is correct in one sense and yet lacking in another.

Whether it's completely correct hinges first upon whether by "the Church" you indeed mean "the Church's *Magisterium*" or you mean something else, such as "the Church's theologians," or "the Church's common teaching."

For it is the *common teaching* that says that lying is always wrong. The "majority" view of theologians, so to speak, is that lying is always wrong. But the "minority" view of theologians through the history of the Church has been that lying is *not* always wrong (not always at least *venially* sinful).

It boils down in simplest terms to the legitimate debate in the Church as to whether all forms of lying are intrinsically evil. The second area of confusion is, as you point out, what the term "lying" really means to those who use it.

Where things tend to derail further is that for the last 20 years some Catholics have beceome way too simplistic in their view of the Catechism--the CCC has become too much a sort of "one-stop" shop for "Church teaching" but without due regard for the fact that the CCC contains non-magisterial "common teaching of Catholic theologians" as well as magisterial teaching.

As such, on topics of common teaching, it's not "unfortunate" to disagree with the Catechism. There's nothing wrong, obviously, with *agreeing* with the repeated common teaching on lying in the CCC, but there's nothing unfortunate about recognizing that teaching for what it is--the commonly held theological *opinion*. And for recognizing that the Magisterium tolerates other views on the subject.

God bless,

Deacon Jim Russell

Edward Feser said...

Hi Alex,

I agree that the Grotian view is semantically implausible. In that respect it's not like the view that not all killing counts as murder. I think most people would probably agree that it does not sound at all odd to say "I killed him in self-defense, so it was not murder" or "It was wartime and he had not surrendered, so it was not murder" or even "He was found guilty of murder himself and deserved his punishment, so the state's executing him was not murder." (Of course, that last example is bound to be more controversial. But even here I think people need to be talked into thinking that capital punishment counts as murder. I don't think that it strikes most people that way just as a matter of semantics). By contrast, "I deliberately told him a falsehood, but it was not a lie since he had no right to the truth" sounds like a real stretch. More plausible just to admit that one was lying and then try to argue that that was OK under the circumstances (though that position would clearly be at odds with Catholic teaching).

But to play devil's advocate, I think that things are different with the case of stealing. Take a claim like "I took food from his cabin without asking, but it wasn't stealing because I was starving." I think such a claim would be correct, and I assume you'd agree. But I also think that this case, unlike the case of killing, is semantically odd. It sounds like "stealing" is being used in some technical way that doesn't exactly correspond to ordinary usage. And that is in fact probably the case. Moreover, that is true of other terms in moral theology. (For example, in ordinary speech, "lust" means something like "strong sexual desire," but in moral theology it is used to refer to disordered sexual desire, specifically. "Sodomy" also has a technical meaning in moral theology that covers things ordinary speakers don't have in mind when they hear the term, and doesn't cover some things they do have in mind. And so forth. "Usury" is, notoriously, an even more complicated example.)

So, I don't think the semantic considerations actually take us that far. Plus, the fact that Smith's view does have a history as a minority view within orthodox moral theology is surely relevant. It seems to me that someone who takes the Grotian view could reasonably argue "This view has a history in orthodox moral theology and has not been condemned. It is even arguably reflected in the first version of the Catechism. That shows that the semantics of 'lie' in a technical, moral theology sense is itself a contested matter." (And that would affect whether those who take the view really do disagree with the later version of the Catechism.)

Of course, I agree with you on the substance. I think the Grotian view is a non-starter, and theologically has very bad implications. But what is at issue is whether it is heterodox, even objectively. And it seems to me that it is not.

Paul said...

FrH: "And how do you intend to deny the information to the person who seeks i? By deceiving him. No one who is not pathological seeks the deceit as an end in itself; the proposition at stake is that lying is wrong even as an instrument to achieve a good end."

The case in question is PRECISELY ANALOGOUS to a question that AQUINAS HAS ALREADY ANSWERED (ST II-II.Q64.A7). Just as the man who intends to defend himself is not guilty of intending to kill (though the death can be foreseen), so the man who intends to deny information is not guilty of intending to deceive (though the deception is foreseen). And without the intention to deceive there can be no lie.

Why Feser, Smith, Tollefsen, Pruss, etc don't seem to have been grappling with Aquinas's answer, I don't know. (Abbe Martinet pointed out this analogy back in the 19th century.)

Brandon said...

There is no analogy between the two cases; to say otherwise requires a misreading of the doctrine of double effect. Precisely the point of the self-defense case is that you aren't willing the death at all either as an end or as a means -- you are doing what you can to avoid it, but it just ends up being unavoidable through no fault of your own. Thus the only case where we would have any analogy is one in which you made no effort at all to deceive the Nazi, it just happens that through no fault of your own such deception was unavoidable. To be sure, you will not have lied in such a circumstance; but it's precisely the version of the case in which it would be impossible for you to say something false in the hope of getting something good out of their being deceived by the false statement; thus you couldn't be choosing to say the false thing in the hopes that it would save the Jews, because it could only be done by the deception of the Nazi (barring weird iterations in which you and the Nazi are already in cahoots to save Jews). If you are seriously contemplating saying something false in order to get something good from the other person's being mislead, you are unequivocally intending their deception, even if only as a means to a further end, and thus would be lying. And as double effect is not relevant to intrinsic evils, and the arguments are that lying is an intrinsic evil, this would get us back to the original problem.

Tony said...

Just as the man who intends to defend himself is not guilty of intending to kill (though the death can be foreseen), so the man who intends to deny information is not guilty of intending to deceive (though the deception is foreseen). And without the intention to deceive there can be no lie.

Paul, you have to state the other part of the reality: without saying something untrue (something that opposes what you hold in your mind), there can be no lie.

If you intend to "deny" someone information, you can do it by one of 3 ways: you can NOT FURNISH the information, or you can PROVIDE TRUE information in such a manner that he accepts something false, or you can GIVE FALSE information.

The first one denies information without doing anything else to the other person, it doesn't create anything false in the guy's mind, so it most properly bears the name "denying information" simply.

The second produces (and is intended to produce) in the guy a false notion, and so in addition to the guy walking away not knowing the truth, he walks away unaware that he doesn't know the truth because he thinks he has filled that data block with the information he was seeking, its just that the information he thinks you led him to is incorrect. But: you didn't use a false statement to produce this state of affairs, so it is a deception but not a lie. Although you intend that the guy not get the information, we shouldn't call this "denying information", for in addition to not providing the true information you ALSO intended to produce a false thought in him. This intent isn't covered by the concept "deny information", but it is covered by "deception."

The third one, to produce a false notion in the guy by simply telling him the false idea you want him to hold, a false statement represented as if you considered it true: that's a lie. Like the deception above, we don't call this "denying information" simply, because in addition to the intent to not furnish the true information, you ALSO have the intention to produce in him a false thought. But in addition to the deception, your intention is that he trust and rely on your false statement, so you have an additional intention beyond that of deception.

There is nothing wrong with the intention to deny information when the person will abuse that information and has no right to it to begin with. But lying has an additional intentions beyond "denying" the information. It is not the intention that the guy be without the true information that constitutes the moral problem, it is the intention that he harbor the false "information" and that you use a faculty designed to convey truth to achieve that, by saying something that is contrary to what you yourself hold.

Thus lying is not exactly analogous to Thomas's treatment of self defense, to Just as the man who intends to defend himself is not guilty of intending to kill (though the death can be foreseen),. What would be analogous is wanting him dead independently of his attacking, and using excessive means to "defend" yourself in order to make sure he is killed.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Ed,

I'd just like to say that I really appreciated this post of yours, which was very fair to all parties concerned - especially to Janet Smith, whose orthodoxy you defended, even though you regard her position as fundamentally flawed.

It seems to me that the crucial premise in this discussion of lying is that the purpose of the communicative faculty is for telling the truth, pure and simple. I think it is this premise which needs to be carefully examined. For example, one could argue that because all communication is social, the purpose of the faculty is to give one's interlocutor what is due to him/her, and that ordinarily, what is due is the truth, but in a few exceptional cases, it might not be. Just a thought.

radp said...

@Paul

I dont think that deception is the issue here. If the only wrong in lying were deception, you would be right. But the main problem with lying is the using of your faculties contrary to their natural purpose, i.e. that what makes lying wrong and therefore forbidden lies on the agent side and not on the patient side of the action.

BTW here is St. Augustines way of dealing with your hypothetical situation:

Paul: "Suppose I've hidden some Jews in my house, and the Nazis come asking....."

St. Augustine, On Lying: "23. This did a former Bishop of the Church of Thagasta, Firmus by name, and even more firm in will. For, when he was asked by command of the emperor, through officers sent by him, for a man who was taking refuge with him, and whom he kept in hiding with all possible care, he made answer to their questions, that he could neither tell a lie, nor betray a man; and when he had suffered so many torments of body, (for as yet emperors were not Christian,) he stood firm in his purpose."

As the old saying goes: Let body perish, but your soul will be saved.

radp said...

Here is the link to St. Augustines treates, if you are interested:

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1312.htm

radp said...

One further minor point: This does not affect the substance the article, which is excellent by the way, but I think it would be correct to say that the purpose of speech, or of vocal sounds generally, is not to convey the truth but to convey the state of ones mind. This implies, of course, that the purpose of speaking in the indicative mood is to convey what one believes to be true. To convey the truth is just a special case of the main purpose. But this definition accomodates also speech in the optative and imperative mood, and many other vocal phenomena.

radp said...

Sorry for my spelling:

"One further minor point: This does not affect the substance the of article, which is excellent by the way, but I think it would be morecorrect to say that the purpose of speech, or of vocal sounds generally, is not to convey the truth but to convey the state of ones mind.

Tony said...

Vincent, it is true that speech in general is wider than merely telling truths that you think in your own mind. Ed has pointed this out, and radp makes that point as well just above this. But of the many ways in which we use speech, including exclamations, telling jokes and stories, and doing plays, they all convey to the hearer something of the notion that resides in your own mind. When you give someone a command, the hearer needs to formulate in his mind the same notion about "to do" that you are expressing, so he needs to grasp the action word and the object word of the action with the same concepts that you have, for the command to be successful.

With something in the indicative mood (and without precursor signs telling the hearer "this is a story, or a joke"), the words you use convey something in your mind in order to convey a truth. It's one species of communicating, whereby the hearer's mind is conformed to the speaker's mind by the instrumentality of signs that are conformed to the speaker's mind. Whenever we use the indicative mood, we are also employing the natural, built-in responsive mechanism in the hearer to accept, to receive the statement as true. Thus in telling a direct falsehood the speaker intentionally uses signs that are not conformed to the speaker's mind, which is contrary to the nature of communication in general as well as contrary to the nature of indicative speech.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ed:

1. The stealing example is good. However, one difference is that on Aquinas' view, the person who takes food necessary for survival from someone who has too much does not satisfy the ordinary definition of stealing, which is something like: "Taking without permission the property of another." For Aquinas thinks that under circumstances like that, the food is not the property of the person who has too much. So the disagreement is actually about property, not about stealing.

2. You imagine someone saying: "That shows that the semantics of 'lie' in a technical, moral theology sense is itself a contested matter." But, first, it is a standard interpretive principle that the Church should be taken to use language in an ordinary sense, when the piece of language has an ordinary sense and the ordinary sense is not clearly contextually inappropriate. Besides, the idea that Scripture uses the word "lie" in some technical sense is really dubious, and surely the Church uses the word in the same sense as Scripture does. But, second, let's grant for the sake of argument the quoted claim. I don't think it affects anything I said. If you and I are right about what "lie" actually means, and if these thinkers are using the word in a different sense, then what one might want to say about this is:
a. Their position is in fact logically contradicted by Church teaching, but
b. It is not Church teaching that their position is logically contradicted by Church teaching.

(One might, but I am inclined to think (b) does not sufficiently take the CCC into account.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Paul says: "And without the intention to deceive there can be no lie."

1. In a typical case of deceptive lying, the intention is to deny information by means of of deceiving the person into believing a contradictory claim. For instance, take the case of the murderer at the door wondering if your friend, who is in your house, is in your house. If you merely deny the murderer the information, the murderer will search your house. Rather, you need to convince the murderer that he has the information, and you do this by giving false information. So deception is intended, since he who intends the end intends the means.

2. Interestingly, Aquinas does not think an intention to deceive is needed for a lie. Aquinas' example--the jocose "lie" that neither deceives nor is intended to do so--doesn't work, because jocose "lies" of this sort aren't assertions. But some people think that Aquinas is right not to have this condition in place. To see why one might think that, start with this line of thought. If deception is a necessary ingredient in lying, the deception cannot be merely accidentally connected with the content of the lie. (A ventriloquist might try to deceive someone as to where the sound is coming from--but that's not the sort of deception that makes for a lie, if deception is needed for a lie at all.) A natural formulation, then, is that a lie is a believed-false assertion with the intention to deceive someone into believing the content of the assertion. But there are cases of lies that don't fit this definition. For instance, suppose Sam is a young earth creationist, but is tired of how people think he is crazy for being a young earth creationist. A non-creationist asks Sam: "How old is the earth?" And Sam says: "It's billions of years old." Sam is not trying to deceive the non-creationist into thinking it's billions of years old. If anything, he'd rather that the non-creationist would come around to Sam's way of thinking. Rather, Sam is trying to deceive the non-creationist into believing a different false proposition, namely that Sam believes the earth is billions of years old. And yet clearly Sam is lying. Now, Sam is still trying to deceive, but about something else. This isn't a knock-down argument against a deception condition on lying, but I just want to note that both the Catholic tradition and the philosophy of language leave open the possibility of a stronger teaching than that in the CCC: not only are deceptive believed-false assertions wrong, but non-deceptive believed-false assertions are also wrong (or something like that--the "believed false" condition is tricky).

Tony said...

Interestingly, Aquinas does not think an intention to deceive is needed for a lie. Aquinas' example--the jocose "lie" that neither deceives nor is intended to do so--doesn't work, because jocose "lies" of this sort aren't assertions.

Dr. Pruss, I don't think I can agree with your characterization of St. Thomas here. The jocose lie is told with the intent to deceive at least for the moment. I think this comes through from the famous Thomistic example in which, when Thomas was a young student, his confreres told him there was something virtually impossible (was it a flying elephant? I can't remember for sure) outside. Thomas ran to the window to look, and his 'friends' all laughed at him. One asked "did you really think there was a [flying elephant]?" Thomas responded that he would prefer to believe in a [flying elephant] than that the prankster would tell a lie.

We all know the difference between a prank story told to deceive, where the deception is expected to last for a few seconds to a few hours, but will be revealed later as made-up; and joke story told in such a way that everyone right from the first moment knows that this is to be taken with a large grain of salt. We might not know precisely where the teller is stretching the truth at first, but we know _that_ there is some elasticity going on, and so we withhold judgment until the truth is finally revealed. The second approach is not a lie, not a jocose lie or any other. The first is the kind of jocose lie that St. Thomas says is a sin, is a violation of the obligation to speak truth.

It is well known that if someone asks you a yes or know question, and you answer "yeah" that you are signalling affirmative. Yet if you add to your "yeah" a roll of the eyes, a sigh, and a tone of exasperation, the "yeah" becomes sarcasm and instead you are signalling negation. Saying "yeah" in that way if the negation is what you actually hold in your own mind is not a lie. Yet if you and the hearer are well known to each other, and your whims of sarcasm are known, you can add to the sarcasm just a tiny hint of an additional note: "watch out", which is all that is needed for your friend to recognize the double-back byplay and realize that your "yeah" means yes, an affirmation.

To lie means to (a) use signs that are inconsistent with what you hold in your own mind, (b) in order to produce in the hearer a holding that is not in conformity with what you hold in your own mind.

Paul said...

Brandon: "Thus the only case where we would have any analogy is one in which you made no effort at all to deceive the Nazi"

Which is precisely what happens when I judge all the words I speak (or don't speak) to the Nazi by the criterion of whether or not I am revealing information to him that I must keep secret. So long as I focus on that, using no more lack of candor than is necessary, there is nothing left over to explain by any other intention.

Brandon: "If you are seriously contemplating saying something false in order to get something good from the other person's being mislead, you are unequivocally intending their deception"

You're implicitly assuming that the goal of misleading someone is the only possible explanation for saying something false. However, if I find I must say something false as the only way of concealing information from you, my motive simply isn't your deception -- even though it may happen. Concealing information and deception can be distinct goals.

(So this is still all precisely analogous to what Aquinas says about self-defense -- where self-defense and killing someone can be distinct goals, even though self-defense may foreseeably lead to the attacker's death.)

Paul said...

Tony: [About giving false information] "in addition to the intent to not furnish the true information, you ALSO have the intention to produce in him a false thought."

Similar to my reply above to Brandon, you're assuming that the intention is produce a false thought (i.e. deception). But an alternative, and distinct, motive for stating a falsehood is to conceal information.

Paul said...

radp: "BTW here is St. Augustines way of dealing with your hypothetical situation"

In the case I raised, silence when the Nazis came to the door asking if I was hiding Jews was not a satisfactory possibility, because it would raise the suspicions of the Nazis and lead to the Jews being found.

But in the story that Augustine relates about Firmus, it was possible for Firmus to remain silent without betraying the man taking refuge.

radp: "the main problem with lying is the using of your faculties contrary to their natural purpose"

I don't see what is unnatural about using my faculties to deny someone information that they have no right to.

radp said...

@Paul

"But in the story that Augustine relates about Firmus, it was possible for Firmus to remain silent without betraying the man taking refuge."

Its a hard case, alright.

You might try to answer the Nazi officer by saying: "If I hid them here, I wouldnt tell you." You told the truth and he will propably deceive himself in thinking that you answered in the negative.

"I don't see what is unnatural about using my faculties to deny someone information that they have no right to."

Me neither, but you do not merely deny someone information, what you do is: you speak contrary to your mind, with the purpose of deception, which is inherently wrong on the natural law point of view.

Now, you might say that lying was not your motive, but denying information. Nevertheless, if lying is inherently wrong, then it is even wrong to use it as a means to deny information.

radp said...

re the nazi case: On the other hand if standard nazi operation procedures prescribe that the home of someone whose actions betray a hostile attitude should be automatically searched, then the answer is non starter.

Nevertheless, not everyone on the ground operates according to the manual.

Ah, I dont know. As I said, its a hard case.

Paul said...

Alexander R Pruss: "In a typical case of deceptive lying, the intention is to deny information by means of of deceiving the person into believing a contradictory claim."

And that has the same problem that I've pointed out elsewhere. While what you point out is one of the possible cases, it does not exhaust all the possible motives for stating a falsehood: specifically, the motive may be to deny information, and not to deceive, even if the deception foreseeably happens.

radp said...

I dont think that such cases can be answered in general. There are to many circumstances. If you are really going never to lie, then is propably not a good idea to hide them in your home, if you can reasonably expect that you will by some officer at your doorstep. It also depends on where you live, on the climate, the weather, etc.. etc...

Brandon said...

Paul,

You say, "You're implicitly assuming that the goal of misleading someone is the only possible explanation for saying something false." However, I am assuming no such thing; obviously there are lots of situations I could say something false without the intention to deceive (for instance, when I say something false I mistakenly think true, or when I am describing a false position in order to refute it). What is relevant, however, depends on the case actually being discussed, not on the full spread of possibilities. The case at hand is the Nazi at the door scenario; the typical question raised by such a scenario is whether it is right to say something false that will mislead the Nazi into thinking that there are no Jews in the house. If you mean anything else, it is you who need to specify rather than assuming that other people could possibly know what you mean.

I can make no sense of the first paragraph of your response to me, but judging from your other comments, it sounds like you are confusing intention with motive. Motives, however, are only a component part of the intention of an act in moral theology, which consists of the whole actual disposition to the act -- not just what you are trying to do or the motives you have in trying to do it, but everything you deliberately or consensually do in trying to do it as well as any effects you hope will come about from it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Paul:

"While what you point out is one of the possible cases, it does not exhaust all the possible motives for stating a falsehood: specifically, the motive may be to deny information, and not to deceive, even if the deception foreseeably happens."

Right: There are all sorts of possible motives for asserting a falsehood. One might even assert a falsehood in order to get someone to believe the truth about the matter. (For instance, if your interlocutor is sure you're lying, you might assert the negation of the truth, in order to get your interlocutor to believe the truth.)

But in the kinds of cases that typically get discussed--murderer at the door types of cases--it is clear that one's plan of action depends on the murderer being deceived.

And in any case, with Aquinas I think it's wrong to assert known falsehoods even without an intention to deceive. But that goes beyond the Catechism (though it does not contradict it).

Paul said...

radp: "Now, you might say that lying was not your motive, but denying information. Nevertheless, if lying is inherently wrong, then it is even wrong to use it as a means to deny information."

I take lying as telling a falsehood with the intent to deceive. If I have some distinct good intent, it's not lying.

Think of the analogous case of self-defense: even though I kick you, punch you, and even foreseeably kill you, so long as my actions are strictly proportioned to the goal of self-defense, it is not my intention to harm you -- my goal is strictly self-defense.

Paul said...

Brandon: "it sounds like you are confusing intention with motive"

I certainly regret if my use of the word "motive" didn't help me get my point across. The difficulty is in trying to find the right form of words in order to allow people to see the point.

Brandon: "the typical question raised by such a scenario is whether it is right to say something false that will mislead the Nazi into thinking that there are no Jews in the house"

Right. And the problem when people pose the question in those words is that it all too easily, in a hidden way, skips past the genuine possibility of saying something false with the quite distinct intention of not revealing information.

Besides that, there's another significant point: if I say something false in order to conceal information, it's not the case that it works by misleading. For example, the Nazis would have to be remarkably stupid to suppose that every assurance of a lack of hidden Jews was in fact truthful. All they actually learn when given such false information is that you are not the kind of person who buckles immediately under pressure and betrays hidden Jews. They still don't know if (a) you are stating something correct, and are not hiding Jews or (b) you are stating something incorrect, and are hiding Jews. So, the only information they have genuinely learned is in fact truthful!

The act of misleading isn't accomplished just because false information has been stated -- it can only happen if the recipient of the false information decides to trust it for some good reason. Nazis, in the process of rounding up innocent people to kill, have no good reason to trust us to help them.

Janet Smith has recommended the book "Catholic Teaching about the Morality of Falsehood" by Rev. Dorszynski (pub. 1948). It has a wide-ranging look at the history and theology of this topic, and also comes to the conclusion the right to keep some information secret can permit the stating of falsehoods.

Paul said...

Alexander R. Pruss: "But in the kinds of cases that typically get discussed--murderer at the door types of cases--it is clear that one's plan of action depends on the murderer being deceived."

Stating a falsehood is always insufficient to mislead someone. The person I tell a falsehood to must additionally decide to trust what I say before they actually become mislead. So the question exists: was the misled person (who incorrectly decided to trust me) acting on some good reason to trust me? Did they rely on some morally good foundation?

In the cases of Nazis rounding up innocent people to kill, it is simply not rational for the Nazis to expect that everyone that talks to them can be trusted. Hence the reason that they are mislead is not they have been told a falsehood, but because they have irrationally decided to believe it.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Dr. Pruss--

I'm unclear about one thing, so I thought I would ask.

Do you agree with the proposition that the subject of whether lying is intrinsically evil is a subject of free debate/discussion among theologians (and by extension the faithful) because the Magisterium of the Church has not settled the question, or not?

Based on some of your comments here, I'm not sure of your stance.

Thanks.

Mr. Green said...

Prof. Feser: Their argument is thus a species of what is known as a “perverted faculty” argument.  Murder and stealing do not involve the perversion of a faculty

An objection to this occurred to me recently. Now not only is a frustrated exercise of some faculty perverse, but also the frustration of the exercise at all, e.g. sterilization is wrong because it prevents the proper exercise of a natural faculty, and furthermore it is wrong even when performed by somebody else, e.g. a government can never have the moral authority to sterilize someone. But one of man's obvious and fundamental faculties is to live and grow. Continuing to live is the natural result of unhindered human nature [at least until old age], so it seems that any frustration of this end must be immoral.

Note that this does not preclude killing in (self-)defence: it is wrong to cut off a healthy limb, but it is permissible if the limb is already frustrated in its natural, healthy operation (say by being so diseased that one's life is at risk). Similarly, it may be permissible to kill someone who is already frustrating his natural ends to a serious enough degree (e.g. by murdering you). Or indeed, for the state to execute someone whose continued life is a risk to the community — but it seems that if the state can deal with the criminal in some other way, such as by safely locking him up, then it must do so before executing him. Conversely, if this doesn't follow, then neither would it follow that it is wrong for the state to sterilize someone, and so on.

Brandon said...

Besides that, there's another significant point: if I say something false in order to conceal information, it's not the case that it works by misleading. For example, the Nazis would have to be remarkably stupid to suppose that every assurance of a lack of hidden Jews was in fact truthful.

But this is irrelevant to the question; when we are talking about how a thing 'works', we are talking about the success of further intended effects, and this already presupposes both the intended object of the action and the intention of the further effects. It's entirely possible to say something false with the intention to deceive even though you are fairly sure that it won't work in a given case and that the people in question won't be deceived. But it is not necessary to expect success in order to do something to deceive any more than it is necessary to expect to win the lottery in order to buy a ticket for that purpose; that would be to confuse prediction with intention. Winning the lottery is an end that is considered in deliberation and consented to: it's thus part of the usual intention of buying a lottery ticket that one intends winning as a hoped-for effect. The likelihood of it is not relevant; if it were morally wrong to buy tickets to win lotteries, it would not be an excuse to say that while you bought the ticket you didn't actually expect to win.

And in fact, as I keep telling people, we don't have to speculate wildly about what happens when decent people are faced with Nazi at the door scenarios; decent people were faced with Nazi at the door scenarios, and we have records of how they handled it. Some remained silent, some told the truth with mental reservation or in a misleading way, and some lied. There was no magical disaster for the first two groups; the Nazis didn't expect real cooperation, anyway, and weren't in every case willing to stick their necks out very far to make a scene if nothing definite came up immediately. But in cases where there was a lie, although no Nazi would have been misled by the mere statement, there were plenty who were misled by the combination of context and the apparent sincerity of the statement and its apparent confirmation on provisional check.

I have never been able to find a full copy of Dorszynski, but from what I've seen of it as referrred to and occasionally quoted by others, I wouldn't be impressed; it looks like both (1) Dorszynski's history of Catholic teaching on the subject is out of date (which is not unusual; older histories usually are anachronistic in reading discussions of deception broadly speaking as if they were concerned with deceptions that meet the narrower Augustinian conception of lies); and (2) the argument, even if it did go through, actually ends up being fairly limited and difficult to extend consistently to anyone who doesn't have exceptional authorization in light of the common good (like national secrets or lawyer-client confidentiality). If it can't be easily extended beyond such fields, it leaves it as a matter of dispensation, and what can be dispensed and when and why and how much is a massively trickier topic. But as I have not had a chance to read the argument in full, it's possible that there's more to it; I just wouldn't regard it as having much antecedent probability.

Mr. Green said...

  And it cannot possibly be good to use our communicative faculties in a way that positively frustrates their truth-conveying end.

Sure, but that's the easy part. Given that definition, the conclusion trivially follows. But what's the argument for truth-conveying being the natural end of our faculty of communication? From the very name, the end would seem to be "communication", but communication of a lie is still communicating. It is not obvious why our linguistic faculty is not simply for articulating ideas linguistically, for expressing thoughts. Whether those thoughts are true or false, fictional or non-fictional, seems to be quite a separate question.

I get the sense that the reasoning goes like this: if you are hiding Jews in your house, then you are thinking something like, "That there are no Jews in my house is incorrect", so to communicate part of that thought but leave out the "is not correct" part is to fail to express what was in your mind, and thus frustrate communication. But speech is not telepathy — it is always incomplete and inaccurate, but it is communication none the less. Now this hardly shows that lying is ever permissible; only that its wrongness cannot lie in the nature of communication per se.

Brandon said...

But what's the argument for truth-conveying being the natural end of our faculty of communication?

Our faculty of communication is reason itself; and truth is the natural end of reason. When people deny this, admittedly the argument becomes more complicated. But in this context I don't think any of the major participants denies it.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: if a lie is OK some of the time, then there is no possible way to account for the martyrs of the Church […] The mass of martyrs were martyrs precisely because they adhered to truth more than to their own lives or those of their friends.

It is easily accounted for by noting the meaning of "martyr", namely, "witness". It is not that they "adhered" to the truth, but that they proclaimed it, that they publically demonstrated in a strong and noteworthy way not only that they accepted a certain truth, but what it was and its value. All saints adhere to the truth, but not all saints are martyrs.

Tony said...

Similar to my reply above to Brandon, you're assuming that the intention is produce a false thought (i.e. deception). But an alternative, and distinct, motive for stating a falsehood is to conceal information.

Paul, you are trying to cover by "conceal" more than the notion actual covers.

A speaker can intend to "not divulge" information without intending to deceive. He can intend that the hearer fail to formulate and adhere to the truth in his own mind, because he simply lacks data. Not providing the data leaves the hearer with a gap in his knowledge, but this does nothing to imply the hearer is in error, holds an untruth. Not divulging the truth is not ordered to causing the hearer to hold to an untruth. A person can start out ignorant, and remain in ignorance after hearing the non-answer, and still not be in error about the matter.

Or a speaker can intend to deceive - that the hearer formulate a specific false notion in his mind and adhere to it as true. But it is impossible for a person to intend the latter, intend that the hearer adhere to an untruth, without ALSO intending to not successfully and unambiguously communicate the truth. Therefore, intending to deceive includes within it the intention to not reveal the truth. Anyone who sets out to deceive automatically is in the category of "intending to not reveal the truth". (In using the term "deceive" we normally do not convey that the speaker spoke a falsehood, because generically it is possible to deceive when telling truths artfully. Therefore, in the above, presume that the speaker may have been stating true statements.)

Finally, a speaker, in addition to hoping and intending to provide a circumstance in which the hearer adheres to an untruth, may do so by stating a specific proposition that unambiguously means something contrary to the truth he holds in his own mind. In addition, then, to the intention that the hearer be deceived, (which automatically includes the intention to not reveal the truth) this speaker intends that the hearer adhere to the proper unambiguous meaning of his words, which meaning is opposed to what he holds himself. This speaker lies. The liar, then, by definition, intends not to reveal the truth, intends that the hearer hold an untruth, and that the hearer come to that untruth by grasping and adhering to a directly stated untruth the speaker declares as true.

A speaker cannot intend to "conceal information" other than by one of the 3 above: If he conceals it by merely withholding data, he is silent about the matter and leaves the hearer in no worse state than before: neither in knowledge nor in error, merely in ignorance. The hearer has not been injured by "trusting" in the speaker because the speaker has not spoken on the matter.

If the "concealer" does the second, he deceives the hearer. If he uses ambiguous language that is (on the one hand) consistent with the truth he holds, and (on the other) is also consistent with a different idea that the hearer is likely to jump at first, the speaker is likely to succeed in the deception. This manner of concealing the truth not only leaves the hearer ignorant, but in error. The intention is that the hearer fall into error, but that "falling into" error is on account of the hearer not paying close enough attention to what the speaker says: the error is his own doing. The cause of the error is the hearer.

Tony said...

If the speaker uses a lie, the intention is not simply to "not divulge" the truth, but to be the actual cause of the hearer being in error about the matter. The liar not only wants ignorance, but untruth in the hearer. And he not only intends that the hearer _come to_ an untruth, but that the speaker is the cause of the untruth being adhered to. The speaker uses language falsely, wrongly: he uses a structure of communication designed to mold the hearer's mind to conform to the speaker's mind by using words that conform to the speaker's mind, and instead uses words that oppose his own mind to create in the hearer adherence to a proposition that is false. This is to misuse language.

It is not the case that the "intention" in the latter scenario can be called "intent to conceal information" simply. Formally, when you "conceal" information the searcher remains in ignorance about it: he doesn't know. Nothing about "concealing" includes the notion of error, as if to conceal something automatically means to make someone else think they know something that they don't know. It doesn't.

What you are doing is pretending that the attempt to conceal with a lie is SIMPLY concealing, but what it is really is an intent to conceal AND an intent to cover up the ignorance with a false notion, so that the hearer imagines that this data block is filled, so that he need search no more. The liar intends both the concealing AND the latter deception, and intends to actually be the cause of the error.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

As I see it, the likes of Aquinas and Augustine are simply inconsistent on this issue.

The same rationale expressed regarding the right and natural use of communication/speech could also be applied to the right and natural use of the *hands*, for example, which were not "naturally" intended for meting out physical violence, but nonetheless are permitted to do so under certain conditions--Aquinas, for example, permitted the striking of one's child or one's slave as a means of discipline and formation.

I see that as quite inconsistent. How can his view against spoken falsehood under most any circumstances be reconciled with his permitting corporal punishment, capital punishment, and use of (even lethal) force employed in self-defense?

Mr. Green said...

Brandon: Our faculty of communication is reason itself; and truth is the natural end of reason. When people deny this, admittedly the argument becomes more complicated. But in this context I don't think any of the major participants denies it.

Well, I'm only a very minor participant, but there has to be a bit more to it than that. (Besides communication's having to be more than reason itself — certainly in non-telepathic beings — because it involves a representational medium… but that perhaps isn't relevant to this point, so we can gloss over it.) Certainly it seems to me that Smith rejects the notion that "enunciative signification" can be construed this narrow way. But truth is "relative" or "limited" in the sense that we can reason about a set of ideas in isolation. For example, we can reason about the story of Napier's sending the message "peccavi" when he took Sindh (we can understand the pun, etc.) without reasoning whether the story is factual or not. And obviously I can communicate that story to you without specifying whether I think it true or not, or even whether I know one way or the other. Hence the traditional oath to tell "the truth and the whole truth", because a partial truth can be as bad as a lie. And it's impossible ever to communicate everything that is in one's mind, so there must be something else going on.

I guess you might respond that when in court, one is swearing to tell the "whole" of what is relevant to the case; and thus likewise, either you tell the killer at the door "all" of what is pertinent to his question, or else (preferably) you tell him nothing at all. But this rules out even broad mental reservations, because they are nothing other than leaving out some relevant detail that the killer would want to know. So again I am left with the impression that there is something else going on that has not been addressed.

Brandon said...

Deacon Jim Russell,

Since "the likes of Aquinas and Augustine" is quite literally dozens of saints, both fully canonized and beatified, who have some variation of the same view, it's a fairly serious thing to claim simple inconsistency. Saints, even brilliant saints, can be inconsistency, but we should not go about claiming that a large number of saints recognized for their brilliance in moral theology are guilty of an inconsistency any child could avoid. Or at the very least, coming to such a conclusion should lead us to ask if perhaps we're missing something.

The same rationale expressed regarding the right and natural use of communication/speech could also be applied to the right and natural use of the *hands*, for example, which were not "naturally" intended for meting out physical violence

In fact it's not exactly the same rationale; since communication in the sense required for lying to be possible is an act of reason itself, it has to be consistent with the natural end of reason, which is truth; but communication is something to which truth itself will always be directly and immediately relevant -- communications, like rational judgments, can be true or false just by being what they are. Our use of our hands also has to be consistent with truth itself as the natural end of reason; but truth in itself is obviously not of direct relevance to how you use your hands unless you are using your hands to communicate or say something in a broad sense (by typing or sign language, for instance).

So there are really only three ways this argument can work. Either (1) it is wrong or at least arbitrary to claim that reason's natural end really is truth; or (2) there are no natural ends directly relevant to moral reasoning in this way (i.e., such that deliberate inconsistency with them is morally wrong); or (3) truth as reason's natural end is itself not the kind of natural end that is directly relevant to moral reasoning. None of these seem viable; (3) seems ad hoc, (2) seems inconsistent with certain things that the Magisterium has been very clear about, and (1) seems hard to defend without getting into very dubious views. You sound like you're advocating something like (3); but certainly neither Augustine nor Aquinas concieve of the relevant natural ends in the way your argument would require, and thus it can't be used to convict them of an inconsistency.

Brandon said...

And obviously I can communicate that story to you without specifying whether I think it true or not, or even whether I know one way or the other. Hence the traditional oath to tell "the truth and the whole truth", because a partial truth can be as bad as a lie. And it's impossible ever to communicate everything that is in one's mind, so there must be something else going on.

But all these are clearly irrelevant to the sort of case at hand, which deals with direct inconsistency with the natural end of reason. (Any of the talk of perverted faculty arguments wouldn't be relevant otherwise.) Neither of these kinds of cases involve direct inconsistencies; indeed, as stated they don't involve any inconsistency. It's not inconsistent with reason being oriented to truth only to tell truth that's truly relevant to the situation, or (as has been noted by commenters above) only to tell a truth to those who have a right to that truth. And it would not even be directly inconsistent with truth to say something false since there are contexts (e.g., laying out a false position in order to refute it) that are clearly consistent with reason being ordered to truth in all its actions in which I could say something false. The only question one can possibly have here is whether it is inconsistent with reason being ordered to truth for reason deliberately to engage in an act of false communication with precisely the spreading of falsehood as an end in view.

Although everyone keeps getting away from larger context, this is actually one advantage of the way Aquinas approaches the subject (despite obscurities in other aspects of his approach): he doesn't dive into lying straightway, but starts with the virtue of truthfulness, which, is of course, the virtue of reason acting well in its order to truth. Saying something false with the intention to deceive is wrong because it is simply inconsistent with the virtue of truthfulness, which in turn is a virtue because reason is naturally ordered to truth in communication as in everything else.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Brandon--you wrote:

****Since "the likes of Aquinas and Augustine" is quite literally dozens of saints,(...)it's a fairly serious thing to claim simple inconsistency. ...*****

But that's been the debate for 2000 years--a rigorous view and a less rigorous view. The best of bishops, theologians, and saints have not all agreed, nor has the Magisterium settled the issue, which is why we're free to continue the conversation. But I do get your point, in that the "common teaching" of A/A must be dealt with respectfully.

You also wrote:
****but truth in itself is obviously not of direct relevance to how you use your hands unless you are using your hands to communicate or say something in a broad sense (by typing or sign language, for instance). *****

I would disagree with this assertion, most notably in light of the work of Pope John Paul II (Theology of the Body). Truth in itself is just as directly relevant to what my actions "speak" as it is to what my words do. Our bodies are just as ordered to truth as our minds, and I'm not sure that the "direct/indirect" distinction you're suggesting sufficiently explains what I'm calling "inconsistency."

I would suggest that corporal punishment is as much a form of "communication" as "speech" is--and possibly more emphatic (certainly more fundamental). Aquinas seems to focus on the "fear" aspect of its use by one possessing the necessary "jurisdiction" over another, but he finds it permissible to use force to "communicate" correction when, apparently, words are not sufficient to the task.

It's basically the same inconsistency others have observed for months regarding this issue--we can use all necessary "nonverbal" force in response to an unjust aggressor, but not the "verbal force" of spoken falsehood?

Mr. Green said...

Maolsheachlann: But is there a contradiction in presenting a consequentialist critique of consequentialism?

I guess it's fine if you're using a reductio. But if you're referring to point 6, "…unwise too insofar as children who find that they’ve been lied to about these matters might reasonably wonder whether their parents have been lying to them about other matters too", then I think it's not a good point to make. Not only is it as consequentialist as the killer-at-the-door argument, but it's not even very plausible. (I suppose it's not impossible, but I've never seen it happen, and I'll see any hypothetical traumatized sceptic and raise you a hypothetical child who is just as traumatized into abandoning his faith by seeing it as too uptight to allow something trivial like the Easter Bunny.)

Also, I assume the lie about Santa Claus would be to tell your children that he doesn't exist, seeing as St. Nick is of course a real person.

[Word Verification: "Plato", who suggests the Chrysostomesque permissibility of lying to someone for his own good.]

Brandon said...

But that's been the debate for 2000 years--a rigorous view and a less rigorous view.

You are equivocating. No one of any significance has claimed that there is a 'simple inconsistency' in the broadly Augustinian view, which is what you had claimed.

(You are also exaggerating the extent of the debate. What has actually been the case is that the 'rigorous' view has been the overwhelmingly dominant view in the Catholic West for a millenium and a half. Prior to that in the West, and in the East after that, the discussions are somewhat more ambiguous, and tend not to focus on lying as such but deception generally, because they don't make use of the precisions of Augustine. And in the West, after the Reformation under the influence of Protestant jurisprudence people began advocating a view that became perhaps a majority view among Calvinists, at least common among Anglicans, and a very small minority view among Catholics. Let's not make this into a Fight of the Ages thing, when it is not.)

I would disagree with this assertion, most notably in light of the work of Pope John Paul II (Theology of the Body). Truth in itself is just as directly relevant to what my actions "speak" as it is to what my words do. Our bodies are just as ordered to truth as our minds, and I'm not sure that the "direct/indirect" distinction you're suggesting sufficiently explains what I'm calling "inconsistency."

But of course our bodies are ordered truth -- when they are communicative, as I said. If you really have read JPII on this subject you know that this is precisely the point of his discussions: sex, for instance, is a communicative act, not just a physical act, of the body. And that's why contraception is wrong (although, since the argument has to negotiate some differences between words and sex, it takes some work to establish): it's in a sense lying with the body.

But you weren't talking about any of this in your original comment but about violence not being a natural end of the hands. If you want to talk about these things as communicative, feel free. I'd be interesting in an argument that spanking children or the like is (allowing for the translation into a different medium) essentially lying to your children with your hands. This doesn't sound plausible, but it would be an interesting parallel if you could establish it. But it's also a parallel you haven't actually established. Likewise, I'd be interested in your arguments that, given the analogy between words and the body, contraception should be admissible whenever others are lacking a particular right; but this, which would be exactly similar kind of parallel, would also have to be established.

Mr. Green said...

Deacon Jim Russell: It's basically the same inconsistency others have observed for months regarding this issue--we can use all necessary "nonverbal" force in response to an unjust aggressor, but not the "verbal force" of spoken falsehood?

I don't think it's right to view lying as "verbal force" comparable to physical force like that. The common instinct is to view lying as "lesser" than, say, killing someone, so if it's acceptable to kill the Nazi at the door (and it might be), then a fortiori it is (or might be) acceptable to lie to him. But clearly our instincts are simply not reliable in this way. Presumably most of us suffer the intuition that adultery is "lesser" than killing a thousand innocents, and yet that would not justify it (which I think most people, or most of us here, would agree). That's not inconsistent, it's just an acknowledgement that our gut instincts are only approximately reliable, and even then only under "normal" circumstances. Killers-at-the-door is not an everyday experience, and we should no more expect our common sense to apply in such a case than we should expect "common sense" to apply at the event horizon of a black hole.

Tony said...

I would suggest that corporal punishment is as much a form of "communication" as "speech" is--and possibly more emphatic (certainly more fundamental). Aquinas seems to focus on the "fear" aspect of its use by one possessing the necessary "jurisdiction" over another, but he finds it permissible to use force to "communicate" correction when, apparently, words are not sufficient to the task.

Deacon Jim, you've got that backwards. Although corporal punishment does communicate, that's not what it does PRIMARILY, and that's not what it is primarily ordered to, that's not what determines "what it is". The principal reason for punishment is to redress justice. Because it is "about" justice, it quite naturally communicates to the criminal a number of things related to justice: (1) you have unjustly harmed the common good; (2) you have to pay for that; (3) the suffering you undergo is a consequence of your own action. But these communicated realities are simply the natural tag-along aspects of punishing to redress justice, they do not constitute a formal "message" without which the punishment fails to be real. We don't choose to punish primarily in order to communicate these things.

If spanking were perfectly analogous to using words to communicate, then the only way of "lying" with spanking would be to spank not because the kid did something wrong, but when he did nothing wrong. Then you would be "lying" with the spanking because you would be communicating "you did something wrong" when he hadn't.

The sex act is a form of communicating because the act _is_ a communion of persons. You can't get away from it being a communion without ripping its whole nature apart. But not ALL actions with the body are fundamentally forms of communication, so that communicating determines the "what it is" of the act. It's just ridiculous to suppose that. (If you kill someone, are you "communicating" that "I don't like you"? )

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Brandon—you wrote:
****You are equivocating. No one of any significance has claimed that there is a 'simple inconsistency' in the broadly Augustinian view, which is what you had claimed. ****

Can’t argue with you here—I’m no one of any significance, and I’m the one who said it’s “simply inconsistent”. ;-)The “inconsistency” I’m suggesting is this—it’s inconsistent to hold the use of speech to one standard relative to truth and the use of the body to what I believe to be a lesser standard, relative to what we are “naturally” ordered to. Perhaps no one *has* historically argued in this manner, but I think it’s worthy of consideration. The appeal to Augustine and (particularly) Aquinas is that a lie is an “unnatural end” to the purpose of speech, right?

*****(You are also exaggerating the extent of the debate. What has actually been the case is that the 'rigorous' view has been the overwhelmingly dominant view in the Catholic West for a millenium and a half. *****
The point is that there *has* been debate and the debate *continues*. The “common teaching” is by all means the “safe” bet, but the truth is that we are free to form our consciences according to a more—or a less—rigorous view when it comes to all so-called “lying” is intrinsically evil.

****But of course our bodies are ordered truth -- when they are communicative, as I said. If you really have read JPII on this subject you know that this is precisely the point of his discussions: sex, for instance, is a communicative act, not just a physical act, of the body. And that's why contraception is wrong (although, since the argument has to negotiate some differences between words and sex, it takes some work to establish): it's in a sense lying with the body.****

Yes, indeed, but the use of force upon another *person* is indeed a “communicative” physical act as is marital relations. That’s why I mention TOB. Spanking is a personal act, as is lying, as is self-defense. They’re necessarily communicative because they all involve *interpersonal* action.

****Likewise, I'd be interested in your arguments that, given the analogy between words and the body, contraception should be admissible whenever others are lacking a particular right; but this, which would be exactly similar kind of parallel, would also have to be established.****

Well, the Church *does* actually permit the use of (nonabortifacient) contraception in post-rape situations, precisely because there is an unjust aggressor involved and because the act in question is decidedly non-marital. Preventing conception post-rape is morally permissible, or so our bishops tell us. And this is precisely the kind of practical parallel that I think is compelling, insofar as, while it’s commonly understood that “Church teaching” is that all contraception is intrinsically evil, the truth is that at least *one* form of what we dub “contraception” is permissible. In these cases, the “lie” that contraception communicates in the marital context is used to communicate a form of “truth” to limit the extent of harm done to the victim by the rapist.

I think this approach could be developed to explain why some verbal “lies” are forms of discretion used to protect truth from those who have no right to it.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Tony--you wrote:

***If spanking were perfectly analogous to using words to communicate, then the only way of "lying" with spanking would be to spank not because the kid did something wrong, but when he did nothing wrong. Then you would be "lying" with the spanking because you would be communicating "you did something wrong" when he hadn't. ****

Tony, you're actually quite right here, but I want to acknowledge that my recent comments re communication are indeed a spinoff of the original thought I had regarding lying being outside speech's "natural" end (truth) and the comparison of this to the "natural" end of the use of our hands etc. In any case, I like what you're saying re "spanking" as communication, but the initial comparison I was making was between the use of "verbal" force (lying) and "nonverbal" force (such as spanking, self-defense etc) against persons. So, it's in this sense that a "spank" and a "lie" are somewhat comparable. Is the infliction of physical pain "intended" by the spanker? and other questions could be asked in order to compare the verbal violence of a lie and the physical violence of a "spank".

The CCC speaks of lying as a form of "violence" in fact....

Mr. Green said...

Brandon: But all these are clearly irrelevant to the sort of case at hand, which deals with direct inconsistency with the natural end of reason.

Hm, are you saying something like: speaking necessarily involves reasoning, and once reason is pulled into the picture, one has to respect its natural end, so "truth seeking" becomes necessarily a component of speaking? That makes some sense to me, but I don't think it gets us far enough without begging the question. I cannot use my hands to strangle you without employing reason, but murdering you isn't wrong because it conveys a falsehood in some sense. Frustrating my speech, say by deliberately mumbling or slurring my words, defeats its end and is in some sense contrary to truth insofar as I have prevented myself from truly communicating some thought, but that is different from lying.

And it would not even be directly inconsistent with truth to say something false since there are contexts (e.g., laying out a false position in order to refute it) that are clearly consistent with reason being ordered to truth in all its actions in which I could say something false.

I wouldn't have counted those as saying something false. If I say, "Did you hear the joke about…" or "Some people try to defend the erroneous view that…" then I am stating truths (what follows is truly a joke or erroneous). Even if the qualification is implicit,, as in contexts such as, "A man walks into a bar…" or "Article 3, Objection 1: It seems that…", if I expect my audience to understand the context, then I am still saying something that is actually true.

It's not inconsistent with reason being oriented to truth only to tell truth that's truly relevant to the situation

Yes. But any lie can be viewed as a partial truth. If you say, "There are no Jews here" you have effectively composed an extemporaneous work of fiction in your mind that you are relating to the Nazi at the door — just omitting the introductory "Did you hear the fictional story about my twin in a parallel universe?" One might argue that that introductory detail is not "relevant" (say by resorting to the idea that the Nazi has no right to demand the true story from you in this instance, or whatever your alternative theory is). That doesn't work in the Thomistic view, but then it seems that all broad mental reservations are simply variations on this trick. They rely on some possible surrounding context that would make the statement true… if only the hearer knew or guessed that context. If the hearer can be expected to understand that context, then there is no reservation; and if he can't, then it's effectively a lie.

joescannura said...

Do all appendages have a natural end? Like say a hand, foot, finger, etc.

If they don't, why?

Gyan said...

Tony,
About martyrs:
If martyrs lied to save their lives, they would not be a witness to the truth to the pagans and thus their martyrdom that conveyed truth to the pagans was an act of love towards the pagans.

Had they lied and saved their lives, they would be failing in the love towards the pagans.

As to the relation of trust: if someone is threatening me, it is hardly a relation of trust.

"on account of his trust in your declaration"
This had been said before: a Nazi or a murderer is coercive. We are not volunteering declarations but are getting coerced. There is no expectation of trust in this relationship.

Brandon said...

Hm, are you saying something like: speaking necessarily involves reasoning, and once reason is pulled into the picture, one has to respect its natural end, so "truth seeking" becomes necessarily a component of speaking?

The relation between speaking and reasoning is, I think, somewhat stronger than just that speaking involves reasoning. (I do think it's hard to convince people of this, though; most people have a conception of verbal communication like Saruman in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. For them it's a device, a machine, for achieving whatever ends we decide to give it; the notion that speech is even an imperfect expression of who we ourselves are as rational creatures is foreign to the way most people think about speaking these days.)

Truth is also not usually the only relevant end, and it's not always the one most relevant to moral evaluation. But it is a necessary one; it is one of the avoidable ends against which any rational act is measured, because reason has to have it to be acting rationally.

But any lie can be viewed as a partial truth.

'Can be viewed' is one operative element here; it is a long way from this to 'is reasonably viewed given the actual circumstances'. Lying is a partial truth only in the sense that it is a false statement, and false statements can in the right context be treated as part of a whole truth. It doesn't necessarily mean that it is always functioning as such.

But focusing on its character as a false statement is in any case an incomplete view of lying; lying doesn't occur automatically with false statements but when false statements are spoken because they are false for the purpose of communicating the false to someone else so that the false might be believed. When we look at the full picture, broad mental reservations start looking very different from this, although some will be closer to lying than others. (Saying broad mental reservation is permissible, of course, doesn't necessarily mean that it's safely and clearly right, only that it's not necessarily or in itself wrong. Some broad mental reservations are more dubious or risky from the perspective of truth as an end than others. This is one reason why it's difficult to talk about them at the general level.)

But your reasoning is exactly why strict mental reservation (of which your scenario is a very good example) is not regarded as having the leeway broad mental reservation does, and why positions treating strict mental reservation as permissible were condemned in the extended casuistical disputes that arose when people started worrying about the implications of Azpilcueta's position for precisely the reason you note.

Tony said...

Deacon Jim, whenever you tell a lie, you are using words to get the hearer to accept, to formulate and adhere to in his mind, a particular (false) proposition. You cannot achieve this end without using the fact that words are intended to convey thoughts.

But that's only half of what's going on. Words are ordered to convey thoughts precisely because they are created (under convention) to represent what you have in your own mind. That is, words are ordered to convey what is in your mind to the hearer's mind. That's the natural object of speaking as propositions.

Lies are not comparable to using violence against an aggressor. When you use force against an aggressor, you are not taking something (either a part of you, or an instrument of yours) that has a natural purpose, and turning it to an opposite purpose. Your arms, your feet, your shovel or gun, do not have a natural purpose that is opposed to using force. Arms and feet are neutral about using force. About the only thing I would agree to being an unnatural use in such a case would be to lure an aggressor into a church for a parley and then using the church setting to kill him, that WOULD be using the church in a manner contrary to its purpose. But of course that scenario also involves actual lying as a critical part.

Tony said...

About martyrs:
If martyrs lied to save their lives, they would not be a witness to the truth to the pagans and thus their martyrdom that conveyed truth to the pagans was an act of love towards the pagans.


Very true. And if they had lied (as some did), they would have committed the sin of lying for which they would require confession and absolution to be forgiven.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Tony--

Here is a question worth asking and considering:

Is it a good thing or a bad thing for an unjust aggressor to erroneously believe that there is actually *no* potential victim hiding in your basement when there really *is* a victim there?

In such a scenario, shouldn't every person on the planet accept the idea that it's *better* for unjust aggressors to believe error when truth will cost someone else his life?

And, if another person is in a position to affect the outcome of the aggressor's belief, the person will pursue some course that makes it more likely the aggressor believes error rather than pursuing a course that brings the aggressor closer to truth.

So, doesn't every person of good will who stands between an unjust aggressor and his victim at least at some level *intend* to aid in the deception of the aggressor such that the aggressor embraces an erroneous view?

If so, can you please explain where the minimally venial "malice" is located in cases in which someone speaks falsehood with the intention of deceiving an unjust aggressor into error regarding the location of a victim?

If we can agree on a "location" for the malice itself, objectively speaking, we might be closer to agreeing that all lying is intrinsically evil.

Gyan said...

Truth for Christians is not an impersonal thing but a person, Jesus.

So, we are truthful if we are being true to Jesus i.e. acting in love towards God and our neighbor.

Our neighbor includes both the victim in the basement and the Nazi at the door. Equally we strive to save the victim's life and prevent the Nazi from becoming an actual murderer (though he already has murder in his heart). The question to which I don't know the answer is does that make a difference, actually committing murder?

Anonymous said...

Gyan - of course more than a few right-wing Catholics were quite fond of the Nazis

www.nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm

Plus in occupied France they enthusiastically rounded up the Jews who were thus transported to the death camps.

Daniel A. Duran said...

What if you have to either tell the truth or lie without resorting to mental reservation or equivocation? It seems wrong to suggest that we ought to tell the truth to a serial killer/rapist as where his next victim is located at. I concede that lying is a venial sin but if you tell the truth you will allow a far greater crime to take place; murder and rape.
It seems false that in this sort of situation you must tell the truth. Thoughts?

Tony said...

Deacon Jim, you are asking questions from the wrong end of the telescope.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing for an unjust aggressor to erroneously believe that there is actually *no* potential victim hiding in your basement when there really *is* a victim there?

It is a bad thing for the unjust agressor to believe as true what is untrue. Error IS a form of evil, it is the evil of being mentally out of step with reality. (When this evil is our own doing, it is also a form of self-imposed insanity, another level of evil.) In addition to being an evil for the aggressor to believe an untruth, it is an ADDITIONAL evil for the aggressor to will to do something immoral. These are 2 real evils. The first one is not a moral evil, the second one is, but they are both evils.

If the unjust aggressor is going to use your information for evil, you don't have to give it to him. You can be silent, then you are not giving him information (or disinformation). You can deceive him with the truth artfully presented, so that his evil condition (holding an untruth) is his own doing. You can also convert him from the unjust aggression, and turn him away from evil. You can do this through persuasion, example, sacrifice, and so on.

ALL of these are moral actions. The fact that he will do something evil with the truth doesn't mean you can do something evil to prevent that. This is a general moral principle, that applies to LOTS MORE cases than just lying: do not do evil that good may come of it.

The malice of the lie isn't located specifically in the intent that the aggressor be deceived. It lies in willfully misusing speech to cause his error, willfully misappropriating the faculty for conveying what you hold in your own mind and using it instead for misrepresenting what you hold in your own mind.

What you do or don't want the guy to do with the data is irrelevant to that.

Tony said...

What if you have to either tell the truth or lie without resorting to mental reservation or equivocation? It seems wrong to suggest that we ought to tell the truth to a serial killer/rapist as where his next victim is located at. I concede that lying is a venial sin but if you tell the truth you will allow a far greater crime to take place; murder and rape.

D Duran, these are all false choice situations. How can "don't tell him anything" be taken off the table? It can't.

But forget that for a minute: why is it that you are some kind of passive information bank here? This guy is serial killer, for crying out loud. GO AFTER HIM, DAMMIT. Kill him, if you must. Rip his arms off, break his kneecap, throw ink in his eyes, stick his hand down the toaster, carve his gizzards with the kitchen knife. I mean, jeepers, people, what kind of humans are you?

OK, so he might kill you. And? What't the problem, your fellow innocent human being isn't worth your taking a risk or two? If he won't take silence, and you can't deceive him, and you can't convert him (did you try? How did you know you can't?), then take him on and see if God will give you the strength of lions. He might, you know.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Tony et al.--

As soon as time permits I'll try to reply fully to your last note to me, but in the meantime, can you address this question:

Why is it morally permissible to frustrate the primary natural purpose/end of sexual relations--conception--via post-rape contraception, but it's not morally permissible to frustrate the primary natural purpose/end of *speech*--truth-telling--as a defense against an unjust aggressor?

Tony said...

via post-rape contraception

I am not always up on the medical jargon, but my understanding is that "post-rape contraception" so-called, at least in part acts by preventing the implantation of an already fertilized egg, so it is not really acting to prevent conception, but to prevent the new person from developing. That isn't morally acceptable.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Tony--you said: "....it is not really acting to prevent conception, but to prevent the new person from developing. That isn't morally acceptable."

It's morally acceptable to use *non-abortifacient* contraceptive measures post-rape--(e.g., spermicides)--during the typical window of time that elapses between coitus and conception. In such cases, it's definitely a contraceptive--not abortifacient--action. So, in this example, we have an unjust aggressor perverting the inherent meaning of sexual relations in such a way that one *can* employ an action--contraception--which is viewed as intrinsically evil when employed in marital relations.

Thus there are examples of moral acts which are permissible in situations in which an unjust aggressor turns nature, truth, and the individual and common good "inside out" so to speak.

With contraception, it becomes morally laudable to prevent a rapist from conceiving a child with his victim. Because the rapist so twists the meaning of the act as to make its natural end--conception--something that is *not* a good that must be embrace.

Likewise, with the use of speech or actions in the context of communication which is already "disorderd" because the communication involves an unjust aggressor who will use truth for evil, it would seem that speaking falsehood, while contrary to the natural "end" of speeech (which is ordered to truth), would be just as morally permissible as is the use of contraception in post-rape situations.

Its permissibility would rest in the fact that the communication is already "disordered" by the unjust aggressor who does *not* seek the common or individual good.

Tony said...

Huh, I was thinking "plan B" type drugs, not spermicides. I have no knowledge of them. For the moment I will take your word for it that they don't present any danger to a conceived embryo.

The act that must be moral for you to do is the act that YOU do, not the act that someone else does. If someone else does some act A whose innate purpose is X, but doing that act A was wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong for you to now block X result. You are not doing act A. You presumably would have blocked act A if you could have, and then the offender wouldn't have done that immoral act A. Since you are not the one doing act A, your blocking X result is not violating the innate norms of your own chosen act.

That's moral problem of your interference with normative nature of a natural act of your own, an act defeating the natural meaning of your OWN act. It is the internal contradiction that is the problem. Since some other person isn't making your act that has that natural meaning, his attempt to defeat its purpose isn't an internal contradiction in him, it is an external one.

Likewise, with the use of speech or actions in the context of communication which is already "disorderd" because the communication involves an unjust aggressor who will use truth for evil,

No, your speech to the unjust aggressor is not internally disordered on account of something HE does (or, as you put it, something he WILL do, in the future): his act is external to your act. Your act is your own, and its morality is determined by the usual 3 criteria: the nature of the act itself, your purpose, and the circumstances. All 3 have to be rectified to have a good moral act. Whatever the circumstances are, they cannot make moral an act whose own nature is an internal disruption of the natural meaning of the faculty used.

You can speak to the aggressor without disordered speech. You can tell him stories, you can sing him a song, you can convert him to Buddhism (well, assuming you believed Buddhism is true) all without disorder. What he does with your speech after you are done is up to him, it doesn't disorder YOUR act thereby. Nothing in his activity can corrupt your act, unless you formally cooperate with his intention, or unless you mediately materially cooperate without due cause. If you don't tell a lie, your not saying something cannot be cooperation with him at all, so his action does vitiate your (non)action.

If, on the other hand, you tell him a lie, your act is vitiated all by itself even apart from his intention. Suppose, just for a moment, that this whole operation is a sting set up by some agency, they never had any intention of actually killing the person you are trying to protect. They don't actually INTEND to harm anyone. You, thinking they do and that you "have to" tell them something, tell a lie. Your act is disordered, and the disorder stands in the contradiction between using speech, a faculty made to convey the thought in your mind, to instead convey the opposite. This disorder exists even though they have no intent to harm anyone.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Tony--I'd be interested to know your thought regarding this question: If the natural end of speech is "truth," is there a comparable natural-law expression regarding what the natural end of "truth" is?

Tony said...

I would say, rather, that the natural end of speech is conveying your thought. Words are signs of thoughts.

What is the "natural end" of conveying your thought? Dunno off hand. The good in some sense, but it need not be more determinate than that, just "good". All sorts of goods can be the end of conveying your thought, both private goods and common goods, I don't know that it has a fixed, specific "natural end."

Deacon Jim Russell said...

So, if the natural end of speech is the "conveyance of thought," what can be said about conveying thoughts that are decidedly *not* good--when one speaks, quite truthfully, of his hatred for another person, for example (or forms of what we'd call "verbal abuse")? Is such use of speech within keeping of the "natural end" of speech, assuming it truthfully conveys one's thoughts?

I'm curious about these aspects because it seems to me that the question rests more on the fundamental relationship between speech and truth, rather than speech and "thought."

Tony said...

Deacon Jim,

There are plenty of sins of thought, including consenting to malice in your heart, even if you never express that thought in word or deed.

In addition, there are plenty of sins of speech where the evil doesn't rest in whether your words conveyed the truth at all, but the fact that you chose to convey it. For example, if you hold a military secret, blurting it out at a conference with a neutral party might be a very wrong act: you had a responsibility to keep it secret. Likewise, a priest's revealing someone's confessed sins is a sin of speech, but not in the least because of a failure of coordination between what he signifies in words and what he holds in his mind.

In general, there are times when our moral duty is silence, and to speak then is a sin. There are times when our moral duty is not silence, but silence is probably better for society and thus more prudent, like when the wife asks "does this dress make me look fat?" There are times when a deceptive truth is more prudent, like when you are asked by an unjust aggressor where his innocent victim is, or when an acquaintance asks "do you like me," and you can't stand him. To tell the truth in that case is not an offence against the NATURE of speech, it is an offense against other aspects of the common good than that. If you tell a deceptive truth intending to deceive someone who has an absolute right to the truth from you, your evil is in failing to intend to successfully communicate the truth, not in the failure to speak truly in whatever words you use. There are lots of different _kinds_ of failing in the social duties that surround truth than merely telling a falsehood.

Mr. Green said...

Brandon: When we look at the full picture, broad mental reservations start looking very different from this, although some will be closer to lying than others.

They all look about the same to me, though — anyone have some good examples? Misunderstandings aside (and language is always fuzzy in the sense that one can never guarantee perfect interpretation), either you say something that you believe the hearer will understand in the sense you mean, or not. I don't see how any mental reservation avoids being an attempt to mislead someone; maybe to a greater or lesser degree, but that only makes it a greater or lesser lie.



Tony: You can deceive him with the truth artfully presented, so that his evil condition (holding an untruth) is his own doing.

But technically, there is no such thing as "truth presented" — despite the bizarre modern attempt to view statements as true or false, statements represent ideas, and it is the ideas that are true [to reality] or not. And an idea presented artfully or otherwise is deceptive if you intend the hearer to interpret it as something false. That's why I can't see how reservations, false trails, military strategies, etc., are all not simply forms of lying. All communication communicates some idea or thought (unless it fails as communication altogether), and either the idea so received is deceptive or not. If the deception is intentional, then it's a lie. I don't see room for anything else.

Tony said...

statements represent ideas, and it is the ideas that are true [to reality] or not.

No. Words represent ideas, but sometimes a single word (or phrase) represents more than one idea, it is ambiguous. Take the printed word

invalid

If you ask a nurse which syllable gets the stress, she will say the first. If you ask a mathematician, he will say the second. But they are the same printed word: each has a different meaning in mind.

Suppose you send a letter to a friend, and you know that your postman is likely to read it (illegally and immorally, but there it is), and you insert a phrase that is ambiguous, that you know your friend will interpret as X, and (with high likelihood) the mailman will interpret as Y. Suppose X is true. You are intending to communicate X to your friend, and you succeed: you used a phrase that does mean X, X is the truth in your own mind. You are aware that the mailman, who has no right to know X, will probably walk away thinking Y, but that's his look-out and not yours. You have not successfully communicated X to him, because he had no right to know and you didn't intend for him to get that information. Your letter isn't a LIE to the mailman.

Coming closer to the bone of contention: if the unjust aggressor asks for the location of the innocent victim you are protecting, and you artfully tell him something that is true but not germane, and distracts him from the truth he is seeking, you are not lying to him. If you (working artfully) arrange to have the victim step out of the house at 3pm and step back in, and the aggressor comes by at 9pm, you say: "he left at 3:00 and hasn't come home this evening." This is true. You are perfectly fine with the aggressor holding this truth. You (ALSO, in addition to the truth that you want him to hold and that you told him) want him to assume that the truth you told him bears on something that you didn't tell him: that he didn't come home in the afternoon either. But if he does think that, he doesn't think that because you told him to think that, he does it because of his own error, his assumption that you wanted to give more information than the information ACTUALLY contained in your statement. But you didn't want to give any implied information about the afternoon, you want that information hidden. Nothing is immoral about not wanting to give information that he doesn't have a right to, and he is in error for thinking that you should, and do, intend to convey that information. You present him with an opportunity for him to fool himself. Your words truly convey the thought in your mind, and don't convey more than the thought that you intend to convey.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: Words represent ideas, but sometimes a single word (or phrase) represents more than one idea, it is ambiguous.

Sure, I glossed over a lot of detail there.

You have not successfully communicated X to him, because he had no right to know and you didn't intend for him to get that information. Your letter isn't a LIE to the mailman.

I don't buy that. If I were unaware of the postman's snooping, then there is no intent and thus no moral responsibility one way or the other. But in your example I do know, and thus I cannot avoid communicating something to him, if I choose to go ahead and communicate at all. (I could decide not to write to my friend, of course, or to write to him in a secret code that the postman can't understand at all; either case is the moral equivalent of keeping silent.) If I expect the postman to interpret my letter as meaning "X" (just as I expect my friend to), then that's fine; I have communicated truthfully. But if I expect the postman to interpret the meaning as "Y", then what I am doing is in fact communicating "Y" to the postman. The fact that my choice of words conveniently can (and expectedly will) be interpreted by my friend as meaning "X" is irrelevant: it may be a neat trick that I have manage to communicate two different messages using the same words, but since I deliberately conveyed to the postman a thought I did not hold true, I have lied.



you say: "he left at 3:00 and hasn't come home this evening." This is true.

Again, I think we need to distinguish between the utterance (which has a meaning) and the thought (which has truth). Often we can drop the middle term because it's not relevant, but here I think it is. The words as given can be interpreted multiple ways, some of which are true [to reality or to one's mind] and some of which are not. But one of the points I was making above is that this is always the case. Many utterances may have only a single obvious interpretation, given a certain time and place and language, etc., etc., but communication depends on the interpretation that the listener is expected to have.
I don't even need to arrange for the victim to step out; I can say simply, "he's not in". After all, he isn't in… the oven. He isn't in… hock. He isn't in… vulnerable. If that were the criterion, then it would be possible to lie only with words that had no interpretation at all that could be true — which leaves a pretty open field.

But if he does think that, he doesn't think that because you told him to think that, he does it because of his own error, his assumption that you wanted to give more information than the information ACTUALLY contained in your statement. But you didn't want to give any implied information about the afternoon, you want that information hidden.

If the killer asks where John Smith is, and I reply, "He's not here and never has been", referring to Humphrey Bogart — well, that's the killer's fault for assuming that I wished to tell him something relevant to his question, right? It's true that Bogart has never been near my house. And if he persists, I can say, "I don't know John Smith, the person you are looking for, and would lead you straight to him if I could." Which is Frenobulexian for "You're a horrible man, go away!" It's the killer's own error if he assumes I was speaking to him in English.

Tony said...

Mr. Green, you are equating my proposal with strict mental reservation. I assure you that generally moralists do not similarly equate them, even the ones that think my deception examples are wrong actions.

All speech uses convention. Language IS a set of conventions. There are so many conventions in play, and so many fine tunings of convention, that it is difficult to speak precisely about the matter. When you say "Which is Frenobulexian for 'You're a horrible man, go away!' ", you are of course invoking a (fictitious) conventional application that is wholly unsuitable (to the purpose of conveying anything you hold in your mind) given the circumstances, and thus it is wholly unreasonable that you should use this Frenobulexian phrase that sounds just like another language that means nothing like what think.

It is one thing to say and successfully communicate something true in the language (i.e. in the set of conventions) you share with the hearer) without saying anything about what you don't wish to communicate, and another thing entirely to use a set of conventions you DON'T share with the hearer (and you know you don't share it) to say something, because in that case the inappropriate convention does not allow you to convey anything that you think. When the very same phrase that conveys NOTHING of what you think is also the same set of sounds that have a meaning in a shared language (a shared set of conventions) that is contrary to your thought, what is happening is that your Freno phrasing conveys no thought of yours and your (simultaneous) English phrasing conveys falsehood. That's a lie.

When (as in my example) you say something true and hope for the aggressor to deceive himself, you are relying on not merely multiple possible meanings, but actually on multiple levels of meaning. There is a primary meaning of "he has not come back this evening", and that primary meaning is TRUE FULL STOP. It is not partly true and partly false, for example. In addition to the primary meaning, the totality of the expression and the larger context carry a secondary, implicit connotation: that (a) "this evening" is after 3pm, and so when I say "this evening" I am sort of referring to the whole period after 3pm, and/or (b) if I had meant to distinguish this afternoon (after 3pm) from 'this evening' I would have spoken about each period separately.

It cannot be denied that with respect to these implicit secondary connotations, my phrasing does not express my mind. The claim, for moral use of this sort of broad mental reservation, is this: you have to stick to the truth in your primary meaning, but you can (for adequate reason) depart from the truth in secondary meanings that are ALSO conveyed in your phrasing.

In some cases, perhaps there is no clear preference for which of the 2 meanings constitutes the primary meaning - conventions can be blurry and indistinct at times, language changes, and during the change there can be disagreement about which meaning comes first. But by and large we communicate successfully, and this means that by and large we know primary meanings pretty well.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: I assure you that generally moralists do not similarly equate them, even the ones that think my deception examples are wrong actions.

Right, but I do not see how the distinction is sufficiently well-grounded; there is a difference of degree, not kind, so my conclusion is that there is a difference of lesser and worse lies, rather than not being lies at all.

you are of course invoking a (fictitious) conventional application that is wholly unsuitable (to the purpose of conveying anything you hold in your mind) given the circumstances, and thus it is wholly unreasonable that you should use this Frenobulexian phrase

Yes! And it is partially unreasonable to use a phrase that is partially unsuitable given the circumstances. That is, we all know perfectly well that saying, "He hasn't returned this evening" (because technically he returned at 5:59pm) is not what the killer means or is asking about. The only difference from the Frenobulexian case is that there he was completely deceived whereas in this case he was "almost" not deceived. But that cannot stop it from being a lie any more than if the killer's victim almost survives it makes him not guilty of murder.

your Freno phrasing conveys no thought of yours and your (simultaneous) English phrasing conveys falsehood. That's a lie.

This doesn't convince me. The made-up language does express a thought of mine, albeit highly contrived; conversely "he hasn't returned this evening" also expresses a falsehood. It can express a truth as well, obviously: there are two [and more] ways to interpret that sentence. But again we know — or at least, expect — that the killer isn't going to interpret in the true way, which of course is the whole point of phrasing it like that.

[cont…]

Mr. Green said...

[continued]
Tony: [You rely on] on multiple levels of meaning. There is a primary meaning of "he has not come back this evening", and that primary meaning is TRUE FULL STOP. It is not partly true and partly false, for example.

I think this is what our disagreement boils down to. I don't accept this layering. Yes, there are different interpretations, but I don't think there is this fixed hierarchy of levels. There are only levels that are nearer or closer to the context at hand, and as you said, "Language IS a set of conventions", where anything and everything might (or might not!) figure into the relevant context. There is no magical difference between some squiggles that are printed in a dictionary somewhere or a gesture that you make with your face. Either somebody gets the meaning you wished to convey, or he doesn't. The vast and interwoven complex of formalities and informalities that make up communication in any given case cannot themselves be the determining factor in whether some utterance is a lie. The synonym of a lie cannot be the truth. The only thing that can be relevant is what conventions and inferences you expect your listener to apply, and on those grounds, "broad" reservations seem to drop out of the picture.


In some cases, perhaps there is no clear preference for which of the 2 meanings constitutes the primary meaning - conventions can be blurry and indistinct at times, language changes, and during the change there can be disagreement about which meaning comes first. But by and large we communicate successfully, and this means that by and large we know primary meanings pretty well.

"Pretty well", or "well enough"? In most circumstances, precision is not really necessary, so it's easy to get around everyday life with lots of miscommunication going on and not notice — if we could all project our thoughts on a screen to compare them, we'd probably be surprised at just how much variation there is in the interpretation of "agreed" meanings. Rather than label interpretations as primary, secondary, etc., I would say that some interpretations are more to be expected than others. I expect physicists to interpret certain sounds and symbols differently from grocers, and I expect Russians to interpret differently from Frenchman, etc., and Russian physicists who are shopping in a French grocery are yet another set of expectations. Indeed, "English" is just a vast set of expectations established over time though design and habit.

To say there are "secondary" or implicit interpretations is only to say that in different circumstances, someone would interpret the same sounds/squiggles differently. But only the actual circumstances are relevant to the morality of my actual acts, and so only the interpretation that is expected here and now can determine whether I am lying.

Tony said...

Rather than label interpretations as primary, secondary, etc., I would say that some interpretations are more to be expected than others. I expect physicists to interpret certain sounds and symbols differently from grocers, and I expect Russians to interpret differently from Frenchman, etc., and Russian physicists who are shopping in a French grocery are yet another set of expectations.

I agree in part: If I say "nine" here in the US, most people will jump to one meaning, but if I say the same sounds in Germany, they are going to jump to a completely different meaning. That we agree on, the conventions have to incorporate the situation, context, and conditions in order to BE one distinct set of conventions at all. That's why using Freno (which nobody here in the US knows) to answer the murderer is just plain unsuited to every element of the communicative realm.

On the other hand, everyone knows and recognizes in some cases primary versus secondary meanings - within contexts. Half of all word plays and puns would be impossible without there being a priority that is generally recognized. For example, the word "evening" cannot take on the broad, indistinct, fuzzy meaning that might be understood to include late afternoon in certain contexts unless it already had a more specific, more determinate meaning to begin with, a meaning that the broad meaning rests on, is "in relation to". And so secondary meanings that rest on other meanings clearly include priority.

I would suggest that a statement that is true in a secondary sense but false full stop in the primary sense cannot be accounted in the same status (lie or not a lie) as the reverse, a statement true in the primary and false in one (or more) of the secondary senses. I DON'T think that a statement needs to be true in both the primary and ALL of the secondary senses to avoid a charge of its being a lie, because a statement can be capable of many secondary senses, with varying degrees of likelihood of being considered, and degrees of coherence with my thought. It is too much to expect a person to have to parse through all of the possible senses and all of the potentially accepted meanings to be considered to "tell the truth".

I would say that some interpretations are more to be expected than others.

True, but insufficient. Take Ed's example in the more recent thread, of St. Athanasius misleading the soldiers. St. A has the rowers say "he is close to you". The soldiers cannot leap to the idea "close but not so close as to just lay hands on him right here" without first knowing full well what "he is close to you" means in its OWN right. The meaning they leap to is a meaning they consider AFTER they get the primary meaning that he is close. Now, there was no general convention, an idiom, in Egyptian or Greek speech that the phrase "He is close to you" actually stands for a different meaning like "he is so darn close you need look no further". There was no idiom like that. So the words did NOT have a language convention that meant something different than their primary meaning taken at face value, literally.

What you are saying is that idioms have the same bearing on our usage as withheld potential information has in a context and situation. You are saying that with St. A, the rowers using the phrase "he is close to you" without adding more information could not have legitimately said that unless it was also true that "he is not here", as if the words were as it were an idiom. But it is not clear why they need to volunteer more information than they actually gave to people who have no right to the truth - there is no _convention_ in favor of that. It is not clear why giving part of the truth of necessity involves giving all of the truth, when the hearer isn't entitled to ANY of the truth.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: That we agree on, the conventions have to incorporate the situation, context, and conditions in order to BE one distinct set of conventions at all. That's why using Freno (which nobody here in the US knows) to answer the murderer is just plain unsuited to every element of the communicative realm.

Agreed.



On the other hand, everyone knows and recognizes in some cases primary versus secondary meanings - within contexts. Half of all word plays and puns would be impossible without there being a priority that is generally recognized. […] And so secondary meanings that rest on other meanings clearly include priority.

Well, sometimes a pun rests on using the "secondary" or "atypical" meaning for a word where the "primary" meaning would be expected. But a joke can work just as well by setting it up so that the secondary meaning is expected until you hit the punchline and find out it was the "primary" meaning. Which is primary or secondary is just an accident of history, and will differ for different people. I don't see how that can be morally relevant (unless we know or require people to understand the etymology and development of the languages they speak).

Now, there was no general convention, an idiom, in Egyptian or Greek speech that the phrase "He is close to you" actually stands for a different meaning like "he is so darn close you need look no further". There was no idiom like that. So the words did NOT have a language convention that meant something different than their primary meaning taken at face value, literally.

I argue that the context provides essential additional meaning to the bare words (as it always must), so the "literal" meaning is not relevant enough. If I run up to the bus stop and ask you, "Did I miss the bus?" there is nothing in the "literal" meaning of the words that prevents them referring to the next bus. But common sense knows from the context that I mean the bus that is due at approximately this time. If you say, "No" because I haven't missed the bus that's due in another 55 minutes, I think it's clear you've told a lie (and/or a joke, depending on how you play it, of course).

onelasttime said...

Misuse of "communicative faculties" seems far too broad in its application to be a useful criterion for immorality. For example, if I recite a sentence in the company of no other, I am not even communicating, although I'm using my communicative faculties.

Jeff said...

What I want to say is:

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the civilized and Christian nature of this piece and the whole discussion.

Thank you for treating Janet Smith with respect and love even though you are convinced she is seriously wrong.

Thank you for a full and honest and fair presentation of the position of the "minority opinion" on this question.

Thank you for the full and beautiful exposition of your own understanding of the truth of the matter.

Thank you, Ed Feser. And God bless you. I'll say a Hail Mary for you right now.

James said...

Hence it is wrong to lie even to the murderer who comes to your door demanding to know where to find his intended victim. It is not wrong to refrain from telling him, or to speak evasively, or to use a broad mental reservation. But if these ploys do not work, it would be wrong to lie to him. Not gravely wrong, but still mildly wrong.
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I find this idea perverse in the extreme. There is no offence to the God or to the Divine Goodness to seek to protect one's life or the lives of loved one from a murderer by "lying" to him. His intent is evil, and one is trying to thwart evil. The intent behind the "lie" is obviously good. God is neither stupid nor a pedant nor a moralist.

Scott W. said...

I find this idea perverse in the extreme

Then it is a good thing we don't worship James.

Seriously, please review Dr. Feser's comments about reduced/limited culpability when under duress.