A Question about Lyin’ and Killin’

A reader writes:

I was hoping you could clear up this question for me. I don’t understand how the double effect can apply to justify killing, but not lying. Seems like all the same arguments that are applied to killing someone in self defense, or to protect another person, or death penalty, etc could be applied to lying. Why not?

I’m not a moral theologian, nor do I play one on the Internet, so I’m not sufficiently versed in these matters to give a good answer off the top of my head.  Happily, I know people (like Joe Grabowski) with actual training in moral theology.  So here’s his reply.

A good place to start here would be CCC 2263. It notes here that killing is always an intrinsic evil, and therefore even killing in self-defense is no exception to the universal proscription against murder. But there’s an important distinction in language here: murder is a moral act. By a moral act, we mean an act that involves the will choosing a particular object. There are other kinds of actions taking the life of a human being that cannot be called murder per se, such as suicide, killing in war, accidental manslaughter, etc. When someone kills in self-defense, we can truly speak of their not having committed murder because of the principle of double-effect. The principle of double-effect inserts another moral object into the equation, namely the object of self-preservation. This object is chosen immediately – that is, the self-preservation is not chosen as a more remote end than the object of killing the other, but it springs independently and spontaneously from the action itself. The evil result of the death of the victim that springs from the action is not chosen for itself or its own sake, but chosen through a permissive will as something which must unfortunately accompany the good object (self-preservation). Because the will is not responding to the death of the victim as the primary object, this act is not called murder. But it is significant to note that all it takes is a moral change in the disposition of the individual doing the act to change the nature of the moral action: suppose a surge of anger makes me just really WANT to kill that other person who is attacking me, and it’s a sinful kind of anger. Well, then, I very well may sin on the grounds of my intention and I might even change the moral object to be murder because I will that primarily (and not my own self-preservation).

Now, in the previous paragraph, I front-loaded some terminology which is necessary to the discussion: first, I spoke of two of the three sources (or fonts) or moral action: object and intention. The other is circumstances. The object is the “good” to which the will moves in the doing of an act (by “good” here we don’t mean something ethically good, but rather think of it as a good like we say of “goods in the marketplace” – its a ware for the purchase by the moral will). The intention corresponds to what I hope to achieve ultimately and encompasses the entire act and its foreseeable ends. Sometimes this intention comprises more than one moral object: I directly intend to save myself (object #1), but I also do intend to shoot the other person. It’s just that I primarily intend one and the other springs secondarily or consequently from the entirety of the action. Circumstances can be both approximate (the weather) and remote (my general upbringing) and also bear on the quality of moral action. [By the way, it is important to distinguish between moral act and mere action: the pulling of the trigger on a gun is an action, which is complete and circumstantial, involving one of several moral objects (or perhaps more than one) and a whole slew of intentions. It has no moral quality in itself any more than a condom in itself is “immoral.” You can put a condom on a pen without sin. It’s when it is used as a contraceptive for contraceptive purposes that it becomes sinful, because the act becomes part of the moral action of contraception.)

These definitions out of the way, it is now time to outline the principle of double-effect in its full definition. It entails four separate criteria:

  1. The act itself (object)      must be morally good or at least morally neutral/indifferent;
  2. The good effect/end is the      primary thing chosen (intention) and the evil is not chosen for      itself;
  3. The good effect must spring at      least as immediately from the action as the evil end, and must never be      mediated by the evil end (in other words, the evil end cannot be a means      to the end of the good effect) – and by “immediately” we mean in      terms of mediation by agency or material cause and not in terms of      quickness in time or another colloquial meaning;
  4. Finally, there must be a      proportionality to the good end achieved which satisfies the allowance of      the evil end; self-defense is proportional, but if I choose to shoot      someone to stop him from eating my pancakes (itself a good moral object,      stopping the assault on my property) it is disproportional.

Finally we can take all of this and consider the matter of lying. In lying, the object chosen is “the deliberate assertion of a falsehood with the will to deceive or lead someone to error [as to the truth].” This is my own composite definition but captures accurately the tradition and the poorly translated version of Augustine’s formula given in the Catechism. Now, to test lying for this principle, let’s take an exigency for case-study in which double-effect applies in other moral acts: self-defense. According to the above criteria: (#1) I could choose the object of self-preservation the same as I do with firing my weapon, theoretically – so this one is satisfied. (#2) I (again theoretically) can primarily desire/intend my self-preservation, so this one seems to be satisfied, too. Skipping over the third, (#4) it seems to go without saying that misleading someone as to the truth, say, of my identity, is proportionally less grave than allowing myself to be murdered, so this one is satisfied.

The third criterion is where we have our hang-up, and it is on the grounds of this criterion that I would dismiss the application of double-effect in instances of the act of lying.

In the case of physical self-defense, it is not unimportant to the situation that there are physical realities involved. My bullet will actually stop something which is actually (that is to say, kinetically) happening, and all of this springs relatively simultaneously from the one action of, say, pulling a trigger. The moment I move my will to choose my preservation by means of firing my gun, a process is underway at which in every instant there are two effects springing from the same undertaken action: my desired object of self-preservation rides along withe bullet, as it were, while so does the indirectly-willed harm to my attacker. His being hurt, when it happens, is also not chosen for itself, but is stemming not more immediately from the action than my chosen act of self-preservation is springing at the same time: I am (as it were) in the act of being protected, and it is hurting him as a kind of consequence.

Lying is a violation against the truth. In the case of lying, we’re dealing with, in a way, a whole other universe of morality. We’re dealing with the unique and complicated matter of human communication, and of sins against the truth. The way in which such acts “work” relative to their ends is spider-webbed and convoluted (much more than the rather easy “physical” morality questions of, say, violence or sex). In fact, lying – by its nature – takes up up onto a higher level of moral consideration, one which some moral theologians would say is involved in all other moral acts of a simpler nature such as killing. Because even when I kill someone, there’s a whole process of moral dispositions and psychology involved primarily that can merit its own consideration even before the trigger is pulled. Lying situates almost entirely in that more primary sphere. In fact, the complexity of the discussion is given evidence even by the definition in the catechism itself, which has a circular definition: “speaking falsehood with a will to deceive” – does this refer to the intentional will of the second font of morality, or the primary action of will in motivating toward a good?

In any event, when I speak a falsehood with the intention to deceive, I have accomplished the moral object immediately: in the moment the words are leaving my mind to be spoken by my mouth. In the normal cases of lying, I have (potentially) sinned literally more quickly than the speed of a bullet, and before the other person hears – and even regardless of whether they ever hear it – so long as I have spoken with the will to deceive, I have performed this intrinsically evil act. As I see it, this immediacy, this directness to the action, which is born of the unique contours of the speech act (or really of all human communicative/semiotic acts, even sign-language or winking), is ineluctable: the evil end must spring primarily from the act in every instance, because the evil resides in the will to deceive. The moral act of lying is, remember, as all “acts” relate to “actions,” morally prior to the fuller “action” of actual communication either achieved or aborted, depending on the case. The truth is immediate to us, and my enunciation of falsehood that will deceive is a sin against this – the “truth.’ While lying is also a personal sin and harms another (with a very real violence, indeed sometimes a terrible ‘spiritual’ violence) still the primary violation of lying is that it attacks the Truth that is in our hearts and in our minds. Paradoxical though it may seem, in a case of self-defense, it probably would be better to shoot someone than to lie to them (not to mention probably a much more reliable way of defending yourself!).

Finally, it is important to remember positive obligations in all this. Double-effect works because the goods chosen usually relate to a positive obligation of ours: we have a positive obligation to life, and to our own life especially. We serve this when we choose as we do to allow another’s attack spring back upon themselves. And we serve this obligation immediately because of its nearness to us: he is harmed more ‘remotely,’ as it were. But with lying, whereas we also have a positive obligation to the truth, this violation of this positive obligation is closer to us even than the good end of saving ourselves (if that end even be achievable through lying). It becomes a case of an evil facilitating a good, which is problematic always.

My final take: double-effect won’t work with lying precisely because lying associates to such a unique category of human action as communication and to such a unique quality as “truth” on the obligatory side. As Christ revealed Himself as “The Word,” we know there’s something terribly and humblingly immanent about Truth; and this is not the least part of what we’re dealing with in these discussions. It should actually be something of a consolation to us that these moral situations involving truth don’t seem to allow of much “mediation”, because that signifies to us the immediate way in which the Truth is in us and present to us, and also the tremendous and awesome power that our ability to communicate (verbally and otherwise) represents.

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