Fascinating Attempts at Justifications for Lying and/or Hostage Taking

in the comments here.

You can read them yourself. My apologies for losing my temper at what I regard as some extremely tortured attempts to justify evil. Mea culpa. The argument took a while to find its feet but has now settled into making the case that a) the family “probably knew something” and so it was okay to detain and question them. And, b) while we were doing that, we were therefore justified in employing a “ruse of war” to give the Iraqi guy we were after the *impression* that his family were being held hostage (by leaving a note that said, “If you want your family released, turn yourself in.”) Much dismissive “Stop hyperventilating, Shea. The cops do that all the time in this country” talk.

Me: I find it hard to believe the cops leave ransom notes behind in this country all the time. I have the funny notion that’s still hostage-taking.

“Well, okay. Maybe they don’t take hostages,” comes the reply. “But cunning deception is part of warfare. What if the Nazis came to your door and asked if you were hiding Jews, etc….”

Yes. Fine. Still, I find it a bit hard to draw a moral equivalence between protecting innocent non-combatant Jews from murderers and taking innocent non-combatants hostage. Call me crazy.

And beyond all this is the peculiar sight of Catholics strenuously arguing that directly lying is A-OK if the ends (catching the bad guy) justify the means.

The catechism says the following about lying:

2482 “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.”[280] The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”[281]

2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. 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. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.

2487 Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven. When it is impossible publicly to make reparation for a wrong, it must be made secretly. If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated, he must be given moral satisfaction in the name of charity. This duty of reparation also concerns offenses against another’s reputation. This reparation, moral and sometimes material, must be evaluated in terms of the extent of the damage inflicted. It obliges in conscience.


2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.[282]

2490 The secret of the sacrament of reconciliation is sacred, and cannot be violated under any pretext. “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason.”[283]

2491 Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. Even if not confided under the seal of secrecy, private information prejudicial to another is not to be divulged without a grave and proportionate reason.

2492 Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom.

I’m hearing from lots of hard-headed practical people that it’s ducky to lie and say the guy’s family is being taken hostage (when really it’s all just a normal intel exam) in order to achieve the greater good of catching the bad guy. So why is it not also okay to lie and say it’s just a normal intel exam when really they’re being taken hostage? If the ends justify the means, why not? And if they do, then why bother with Catholic morality at all? It seems to me we’re really saying “Catholic morality is a pleasant thought, but we are, of course, dispensed from it when it interferes with real world American policy needs.” It also seems to me we’re being asked to believe, “Americans will lie to Iraqi bad guys and tell them their family is being held hostage (when really they are just in for routine questioning) in pursuit of the greater good, but they would never lie to the press or us and say the family would have been released ‘in due course’.” That’s a leap of faith unjustified by broad experience with the species homo sapiens. I’m odd this way, but I find “ends justify the means” thinking corrupt and corrupting, even when Americans (who are, of course, exempt from original sin) do it. I tend to think that when you get used to lying to bad guys, you will also find it rather easy to lie to anybody else once you’ve decided that the greater good demands it.