What counts as a lie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2)

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

3. Jesus Christ cannot lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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