Live Action, lying, and natural law

Several people have asked me to comment on the Live Action controversy.  If you’re not familiar with it, Live Action is a pro-life organization founded by activist Lila Rose (pictured at left), which has carried out a number of amateur “sting” operations intended to expose employees of Planned Parenthood as complicit in providing abortions to minors without parental consent and willing to overlook statutory rape and sex trafficking.  Many conservative Catholics have applauded Live Action, but many others have been critical of their deceptive tactics.  I haven’t followed the story closely, and I am rather sick of the topic of lying given the four long posts I devoted to the subject not too long ago (here, here, here, and here).  But my position should be clear from those posts. 

Following the classical natural law approach to ethics associated with Aquinas and other moralists in the Scholastic tradition, I 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 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.).

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.

Now, as I say, I haven’t followed the Live Action story closely.  It might be that some aspects of the organization’s tactics are defensible.   I really don’t know enough about the details to say, but as I have noted before, classical natural law theory does not condemn in principle such potentially deceptive practices as the use of broad mental reservations, evasive speech, camouflage during war, and the like (though there may be questions about whether a private organization may take it upon itself to use tactics normally reserved to lawful public authorities).  However, to the extent that the organization’s tactics involved lying – not mere broad mental reservations, evasive speech, disguises and the like but actual lying – they were wrong.  Not gravely wrong, maybe, but still wrong.  That just follows straightforwardly from the principles of natural law theory and Catholic moral theology spelled out in the posts linked to above. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I find that I am incapable of stirring up the slightest outrage at Live Action’s actions.  Their error seems to me relatively minor, a regrettable but (given how much confusion there is about the issue of lying even among faithful Catholics) understandable lapse in judgment committed in the course of furthering a good end.  Planned Parenthood is an evil organization and deserves the trouble they’re now getting.  My heart is with Lila Rose.  Still, my head is with Augustine, Aquinas, and the Scholastic manualists.  We simply may not do evil that good may come, even if the sin is only venial.  (I am, of course, speaking only of the objective moral character of the actions in question.  I would never presume to judge the subjective culpability of Live Action's members.) 

I have been dismayed by the feebleness of some of the arguments I’ve seen put forward on both sides of this issue in the Catholic blogosphere, and by people I respect.  For example, in defending Live Action, Peter Kreeft appeals to our “intuitions,” and while he takes pains to try to avoid the subjectivism that naturally threatens to attend such an appeal, I don’t think he succeeds.  As I have argued before, appealing to intuition is simply bad philosophical methodology.  And as I argued here, it is especially unconvincing when deployed by Christian moralists in defense of lying.   For as Brandon Watson has noted, the specific intuitions Kreeft appeals to have varied even among conservative religious people of the sort Kreeft would presumably take to be the most sound in their moral sensibilities.  (It is also quite rich for Kreeft to accuse Live Action’s conservative Catholic critics of being “more Kantian than Aristotelian.”  As Kreeft well knows, Aquinas thought that it is always wrong to lie, even to save a life.  Indeed, Aristotle himself seems to have thought that lying is intrinsically wrong.  I think it can safely be said that Aquinas was more Aristotelian than Kantian, and I’m pretty sure Aristotle himself was too.)

Brandon also rightly takes Live Action defender John Zmirak to the woodshed for Zmirak’s ill-informed farrago of straw men, erroneous historical claims, and accusations of “legalism” – the kind of thing more typical of leftist dissident Catholics than of someone with Zmirak’s reputation for orthodoxy.  Zmirak has also written a follow-up piece and Brandon a further reply.  (Brandon has in fact written a series of posts on lying over the last week or so which you should check out, including discussions of Scotus’s and Cassian’s views on the subject.)

On the other side of the fence, Christopher Tollefsen criticizes Live Action on the grounds that it is “unloving” to “deceive” others, and it seems to me that he (like some other critics) somewhat melodramatically overstates the gravity of the organization’s error.  Since Tollefsen is a Catholic and self-described “natural law” theorist, some readers might think his position reflects traditional Catholic moral theology and classical natural law theory.  In fact it reflects neither (though in condemning all lying, it does overlap with them).  As Chris Kaczor objects in a reply to Tollefsen, Tollefsen blurs the distinction that traditional natural law theorists and Catholic moral theologians are careful to make between lying and deception.  (I discuss the distinction here.)  Lying is always wrong, but deception need not be.  Indeed, as Kaczor points out, to deceive another through the use of broad mental reservation, evasive speech, and other actions short of lying can in the view of traditional natural law theorists and moral theologians be precisely the “loving” thing to do when innocent life can be protected in no other way.

Tollefsen is in fact a devotee of the “new natural law” school of thought, which has nothing to do with the centuries-old natural law tradition associated with Aquinas and other Scholastic moralists, but was invented by theologian Germain Grisez in the 1960s and later developed by legal theorist John Finnis.  (It is also represented by writers like Joseph Boyle, William May, Patrick Lee, and Robert P. George.)  The Grisez-Finnis approach to natural law (or “Grinnis” approach, to borrow David Oderberg’s coinage) begins with an affirmation of the Humean “fact/value distinction” – something Thomists and other Scholastics regard as the central, disastrous error of modern ethical theory – and aims to reconstruct natural law on a basis other than its traditional Aristotelian metaphysical foundation.  Hence, “new natural lawyers” are loath to appeal (as Aquinas and other Scholastic moralists do) to the intrinsic evil of positively frustrating the natural end of a natural faculty – such as the procreative end of our sexual faculties and the communicative end of speech – and they endorse the objections secular writers and theological liberals have directed at this “perverted faculty” approach.  (In fact these objections are aimed at crude straw men and oversimplifications of the traditional natural law position, and it is regrettable that “new natural lawyers” have seen fit to perpetuate such unjust criticisms.)

Sometimes the result is a novel defense of traditional moral conclusions – “new natural lawyers” have, to their credit, been staunch opponents of abortion and defenders of traditional sexual morality – though whether it is an improved defense is another question.  Anxious as they are about being perceived by liberals and secularists to be defenders of the “perverted faculty argument,” Grisez and Co. deploy arguments against contraceptive and homosexual acts which make no appeal to natural function, but which seem, as a result, merely obscure and convoluted.  We are told, for example, that the acts in question “instrumentalize” the body, “disintegrate the acting person,” or fall short of the “one-flesh unity” of marriage.  If this were just an eccentric way of talking about a failure to realize the natural ends of our sexual faculties, then the argument would be intelligible.  But given that “new natural lawyers” eschew talk of nature’s ends for us, it is hard to see precisely what the objection to the practices in question is supposed to be.

In the case of lying, Tollefsen bases his argument on an appeal to the “great good” of “unity” between one’s “inner self” and one’s “appearance in the world.”  If what Tollefsen meant were that lying directly frustrates the natural end of speech and other communicative behavior, and is thus (given the Scholastic account of the metaphysics of value) inherently bad in a way that merely refraining from communicating is not – which is Aquinas’s objection to lying – then it would be clear enough what the problem is supposed to be.  This would make it intelligible why “unity” between a person’s “appearance in the world” (i.e. his communicative acts) and his “inner self” (i.e. what he is really thinking) is a “great good.”  But since Tollefsen, like other “new natural lawyers,” rejects such “perverted faculty” arguments, we seem left, here as in the case of “Grinnis”-style arguments about sexual morality, with mere high-falutin’ jargon – which, though some apparently find it inspiring, does not provide an actual rational justification for natural law conclusions.

Of course, “new natural lawyers” do attempt to ground their overall approach in a theory of the “basic goods.”  To the theory’s critics, though, the list of basic goods (which varies somewhat from writer to writer) itself seems arbitrary, formulated precisely so as to guarantee that certain desired conclusions will be reached and certain others will be ruled out.  Since (unlike traditional natural law theory) the “new natural law” lacks a foundation in an independently motivated metaphysics of human nature, this charge is hard to rebut.  To be sure, in recent years some members of the “Grinnis” school have incorporated into their arguments concerning sex and abortion the notion that only sexual acts of the “reproductive type” can facilitate a “one-flesh union,” a critique of the “body-self dualism” they take to underlie liberal views on sexuality, and considerations about the biology of the fetus.  Needless to say, this sounds very much like the traditional natural law theorist’s position that our sexual faculties have a natural end, that human nature is properly understood in Aristotelian hylemorphic (rather than either Cartesian or materialist) terms, and that ethics must be grounded in part on facts about human biology.   Yet Grisez was supposed to have provided a way to formulate natural law theory without such “factual” and Scholastic metaphysical premises!   So what is going on here? 

The answer, in my view, is that the project of the “new natural lawyers” is inherently deeply unstable.  The point of the theory from its inception has been to provide an alternative philosophical foundation for Catholic moral teaching, especially concerning sexuality.  But it is very difficult – I would say impossible – to defend traditional sexual morality without treating biological facts as normative.  And that requires attributing to biological phenomena essences in virtue of which they point inherently to certain ends; that is to say, it requires attributing to them something like Aristotelian formal and final causes.  Hence references to “acts of the reproductive type,” to “the language of the body,” and the like keep finding their way into the arguments of “new natural lawyers” – language which seems at best metaphorical and at worst unintelligible unless understood as a roundabout way of referring to the formal and final causes of biological phenomena.  Yet writers like Grisez and Finnis, officially committed as they are to the Humean “fact/value distinction,” have for decades been badmouthing traditional Scholastic natural law theorists for committing the so-called “naturalistic fallacy” in grounding ethics in Aristotelian metaphysics.  The attempt of the “new natural lawyers” to square this circle – to smuggle in a bit of disguised Aristotelianism after all, under the Humean radar – results in obscurantism and incoherence. 

The results of the “Grinnis” approach are in some cases not only obscure, but decidedly untraditional.  For example, “new natural lawyers” often hold, not only that it is better not to impose the death penalty (something many Catholic moralists have held over the centuries, Pope John Paul II being the most famous example), but that the death penalty is always and intrinsically immoral – a claim that is simply incompatible with biblical revelation, traditional Catholic moral teaching, and traditional natural law theory.  (Tollefsen and I debated this issue several years ago when we were co-bloggers at the now defunct Right Reason group blog.  You can find his statement of his position here and my reply here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.)

Tollefsen’s conflation of lying and deception is of a piece with his conflation of intentional killing and murder.  And just as the latter conflation implies a kind of quasi-pacifism – Grisez and Co. hold that it is wrong even in a defensive war ever to intend to kill attacking enemy soldiers (one may in their view at most foresee and allow their deaths as an unintended side-effect) – so too the former conflation implies a radical restriction on “practices of undercover work, espionage work, and other forms of journalistic, police, and governmental work,” as Tollefsen acknowledges in a reply to Kaczor.  Tollefsen does not elaborate, but it seems likely that he would have to condemn as “unloving” many deceptive practices that do not involve lying and which have been considered justifiable by traditional natural law theorists and Catholic moralists.  (In fairness to Tollefsen, he does tell us in another follow-up article that he thinks that certain methods employed by police in infiltrating gangs and busting drug dealers can be justifiable.  He does not tell us, though, whether all of the kinds of broad mental reservation and evasion allowed by traditional natural law theory are sufficiently “loving” or conducive to the “unity” of the “inner self” with one’s “appearance in the world.”)

Hence, though the “new natural law” position is commonly regarded as conservative (and in some of its applications is conservative), it leads in other cases to what Tollefsen has called “liberal and progressive” outcomes, and certainly to outcomes that depart from traditional Catholic and natural law teaching.  My own view is that these outcomes and the novel premises they are based on are philosophically and theologically highly dubious – and pastorally unwise too, leading as they do (in the ethics of killing and deception, as we have seen here, but in other areas too) to a kind of otherworldly rigorism.   One of the great achievements of the Scholastics was to provide an Aristotelian corrective to the Platonic austerity of earlier writers, leading moral theology in a more sober, humane, and realistic direction.  It is no surprise that the “new natural lawyers,” in abandoning an Aristotelian metaphysics of human nature, have in some respects returned to something like the rigorism of the earlier writers.  In any event, it is important to emphasize that their novel conclusions are applications of Grisezism rather than of Thomism, traditional natural law theory, or traditional Catholic moral theology. 

[For criticism of the “Grinnis” school from the point of view of traditional natural law theory, see: chapter 5 of my Aquinas; David Oderberg’s paper “The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Law”; the first edition of Ralph McInerny’s Ethica Thomistica and chapter 9 of his Aquinas on Human Action; Anthony Lisska’s Aquinas’s Theory of Natural Law; Henry Veatch’s “Natural Law and the ‘Is’-‘Ought’ Question,” in Swimming Against the Current in Contemporary Philosophy; and Russell Hitinger’s A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory.  Chapter 5 of Aquinas also contains a general defense of traditional natural law theory; and for a defense of the traditional natural law approach to sexual morality in particular, see chapter 4 of my The Last Superstition.]

In summary, then: First, to the extent that Live Action’s methods involve broad mental reservation, evasion, and the like, those methods may be morally defensible (though there are questions about whether Live Action usurped the prerogatives of lawful public authority, which I have not considered).  Second, to the extent that these methods involve actual lying, they are wrong and should not be used.  Third, it seems to me that Live Action’s resort to lies was probably only venially sinful rather than gravely so.  Fourth, the remedy to the woolly thinking exhibited by some commentators on both sides of this intra-Catholic debate is to return to the clarity, rigor, and sober realism of the Scholastic tradition of natural law ethics and moral theology
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