Is it ever OK to lie?

Back in March, I wrote a post about the ethics of undercover journalism. The hook was the NPR sting but the background was the vigorous debate among prolifers about stings of various Planned Parenthood offices. That debate centered around undercover reporters exposing employees willing to break rules and laws in order to help an underage sex ring. Some defended the morality of the undercover journalism while others said that lying can’t be defended, even if it does expose wrongdoing.

Public Discourse ran a series of arguments and responses. (Here’s Christopher Tollefsen first, then Christopher Kaczor‘s response; Tollefsen again, and then Hadley Arkes‘s response; Tollefsen for a final time, Carson Holloway, and Bill Doino. The best pro-sting defense was by Peter Kreeft.)

I waited to cover the debate once it received mainstream coverage but gave up. One never knows how long to wait before criticizing folks for not covering something, such as this debate.

All of that to say that I was absolutely delighted to see that Religion News Service gave a thorough treatment to that debate in this new story “Spotlight on abortion activist makes some Catholics nervous.”

What advanced the story was the following news:

The telegenic 22-year-old will address the seventh annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday (April 27) in Washington, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell.

Rose, who converted to Catholicism two years ago, is founder and president of Live Action, which she calls “a new media pro-life organization.” The group has released dozens of covertly taped videos in which Rose and other activists pose as pimps or underage girls seeking abortions, birth control or exams from unwitting Planned Parenthood clinics.

Joseph Cella, a conservative political consultant who founded the prayer breakfast, called Rose a poster child for Jesus’ counsel that Christians be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

“Lila is one of the bright young leaders of the pro-life movement,” Cella said. “She is going to be around for a long time.”

Cella acknowledged, though, that Rose’s work has provoked a “family squabble” among conservative Christians.

In fact, the Live Action debate seems less an internecine spat than a university seminar, with philosophers and political scientists consumed by a clear-cut but complex question: Is it ever moral to lie?

I’ve been following these debates and this is an accurate description. From there, the reporter takes us through some of these debates. We hear from Rose about the purpose of her work (to “expose abuses and injustices against those who are defenseless.”). We learn that Planned Parenthood took action in response to the tapes. We learn that some “conservative Christians” rejoiced but that others didn’t. Princeton University’s Robert P. George said the videos are a form of lying which are always and everywhere wrong.

Other Catholic and evangelicals weigh in with their concerns as well. The story even gives some nice historical perspective:

Debating the morality of undercover work is actually an ancient Christian tradition, according to Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

St. Augustine tried to settle the argument back in the fourth century: He wanted to stop Christians from spying on rival sects to root out heresy.

Rose said that she has consulted with her spiritual director and other Catholics, who offered assurance that history is also rife with saints who used deception for worthy causes.

Take, for instance, the Hebrew midwives who lied to protect children from a murderous pharaoh, and priests who forged baptismal certificates to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher at Boston College, defends Rose and analogizes her work to that of a spy.

The article doesn’t resolve the issue, but it did a good job of summing up and excerpting some of the key arguments in the debate. It also makes me wonder if, after a year with an NPR sting and a prank phone call with a liberal activist impersonating a Koch brother in a call to the Wisconsin governor, any other groups are debating the ethics of such undercover work. And, of course, undercover reporting and its accompanying deception happen regularly in major media. I think it’s time the debate took place outside of the pro-life community, too.

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  • Jerry

    Mollie, the references you provided make this is the single most informative and interesting posting I’ve seen at GR and for that matter in at least 99.999% of anything I’ve read. It gives me hope that such an issue can be debated in reasonable way trying to understand what is the right action under varying circumstances. The extensive comments back and forth are worthy of inclusion in a graduate seminar on ethics but would be welcome at the high school level. So THANK YOU for posting this.

    I have one side note:

    When heading down the Nile River the enemies of St. Athanasius, not recognizing him, called out to the saint who was on another boat heading up river, “Do you know where Athanasius is?” St. Athanasius replied, “he’s not far off.” His enemies sped down river away from him. Deception is not lying and can be justified for a serious reason, such as saving someone’s life.

    I first read this basic concept as a story from the East as a teaching story. So there are definitively universal themes around this issue.

  • Jettboy

    “. . . and its accompanying deception happen regularly in major media.”

    And yet to hear from the critics of these fine conservatives, its as if the “major media” never did this. They learned from the “best” and so to say what they are doing isn’t Journalism and what the MSM reporters did is Journalism doesn’t cut it for those who don’t see a difference other than the political reasons. Shows like 60 minutes only proved that what is good for the goose . . .

  • bob smietana

    Every year reporters at Gannett papers have to sign a statement, saying we’ll abide by this ethics policy:

    Here’s how it begins:

    Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way
    - We will dedicate ourselves to reporting the news accurately, thoroughly and in context.
    -We will be honest in the way we gather, report and present news.
    -We will be persistent in the pursuit of the whole story.
    -We will keep our word.
    -We will hold factual information in opinion columns and editorials to the same standards of accuracy as news stories.
    -We will seek to gain sufficient understanding of the communities, individuals and stories we cover to provide an informed account of activities.

    We’re required to be honest in our dealings with people. And we’re required to get the whole story – as much as humanly possible — and not just the parts that make our subjects look bad.

  • jh

    Question for JOURNALISTs. I keep asking this but never get an answer. It is an interesting moral question. But why is this only examined in cases like above

    EVERY day Christian Police DEA agents FBI agents etc have to lie and deceive as a legitimate part of their work. Think Sting operations for example under cover work. Yet despite this and that there are countless police chaplains they are never interviewed or quoted.

    One does not have to get to the typical hypo one hears “Would you lie to the Nazis to save Jews in your house”. We got the police example where Christians face it everyday. Yet I never see that obvious angle covered. Why?

  • kristy

    Thanks, Bob, for posting the Gannett statement. It helps my perspective by knowing what ethical standards are ‘out there’ in the media. Do you know if it’s pretty standard practice to have to sign this kind of statement in journalism circles?

  • Mollie


    Of course the REASON why we have that ethics policy is because of some major ethics violations in how one paper obtained information for a big expose back in 2003.

    Here is more on that story.

  • Parker

    I’ve always been ok with the undercover journalism, as long as you’re willing to show the failed results.

    I’d be ok with the Planned Parenthood sting, and the prank call on Governor Walker from the person pretending to be Mr. Koch AS LONG AS they the Planned Parenthood Sting was willing to air their results if they turned out the opposite way, and as long as the prank caller would have played the phone call if the Governor had acted differently.

    It reminds me of the Dateline undercover journalism on NASCAR a few years ago. I would have been ok with this too, if they had run the report of negative results too.

  • Harold

    And, of course, undercover reporting and its accompanying deception happen regularly in major media

    Does it? I hear commentators say this, but the evidence doesn’t really support it. Yes, there is hidden camera stories that you see where they set up a hidden camera and then see how people will react. But those set-ups aren’t usually designed to provoke a reaction. Then there are the “Catch a Predator” situations, also rare, where journalists work with the police. But those situations are highly controversial inside the media.

    The Planned Parenthood and NPR stings are something quite different. They are done by activists who are intentionally lying about their agenda in order to provoke a reaction, all without editorial oversight. They aren’t just recording what it happening, but creating a false drama in order to tape the reaction they hope to occur because it furthers their agenda. That’s not journalism or even good documentary work. That’s just deception and gonzo-activism.

    While Lila Rose may get invite to Catholic Prayer Breakfasts and Pro-life rallies, she isn’t going to be celebrated for her “journalism” but instead her activism.

  • Harold

    EVERY day Christian Police DEA agents FBI agents etc have to lie and deceive as a legitimate part of their work. Think Sting operations for example under cover work. Yet despite this and that there are countless police chaplains they are never interviewed or quoted.

    Lying to catch a drug lord is different from lying to catch a receptionist give the wrong information or catch a fundraiser with no editorial control be nice to Muslims. Lila Rose didn’t prevent any abortions or save anyone, which is at the crux of the moral questioning inside the pro-life movement which has had to wrestle with these issues before.

  • bob smietana

    Hi Mollie:

    The Chiquita fiasco happened because a reporter lied about how he obtained voice mail tapes and broke the law and ignored the instructions from a Gannett lawyer. It shows why the ethics policy matters.

  • Mollie


    Right! And I think part of the settlement was the annual ethics training and what not.

  • Dave

    I can only address this question in terms of empathy with involved parties. I feel intense resentment of the conservative NPR/PP stings. But I was a staunch supporter of liberal faux home-seekers testing the racial discrimination of realtors back in the 1970s. It’s a function of whose ox is gored.