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.
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