Test Driving my Thomism

In the debate on lying, one of the strongest objections raised (at least in our culture, though it appears not to have been the strongest one for St. Thomas) is the objection “If you can kill an enemy, why can’t you lie to him?”  I think that’s a very reasonable question.  Here’s what I make of Thomas.

When it comes to actions that harm others, the basic idea of the Church is “Try to limit the harm as much as possible.” So, in war, you don’t *get* to kill, you always kill because you have to and you try your best not to kill.

Just war theory is not a series of hoops you jump through and, if you do so, get a 007 and a hearty, “Kill away, my lad! You’ve earned it by passing all the Just War criteria.” Rather the idea is always that you may have to shoot somebody in order to stop them from harming somebody else, but if this can possibly be avoided, then you have to try to avoid it. Of course, on the battlefield, we are talking about chaos and mayhem as we try to live that out and the Church has nothing but pity for anybody thrust into that.

But for the sake of argument here, the basic principle can be illustrated with a more intimate example:

A thug comes into your store and pulls a gun on you. A customer in the store is packing heat and, unseen to the thug, draws a bead on him from behind the canned vegetables. The customer’s a good shot and has his choice of how he will aim at the guy. He could shoot the gun from his hand. He could fire in the air and tell him to drop it. He could do lots of things. But instead, the customer thinks, “I have always wanted to kill a man just to watch him die and this worthless piece of crap is gonna die.” So he shoots the bandit in the head.

The Church would argue that this was not a “proportional” or “ordinate” use of force. Before the civil law, your customer would undoubtedly be acquitted as “killing in self defense.” But morally, what he did was closer to murder, than self-defense, because it was unnecessary to kill the perp and he shot, not to defend himself, but because he proactively, rather than as a last resort, wanted to take human life.

So the idea is never that you “get” to kill. It is that you “have” to unfortunately kill and that, if you could possibly avoid it, you should.  If we had phasers instead of guns, the Church was say that they had to be set to “stun”.

That’s because always, the emphasis is on reluctance to harm the other, rather than proactive eagerness to harm the other, hiding behind a legal justification for doing so.

Okay. Now here’s where St. Thomas comes in with his weird, counter-intuitive logic. He raises exactly this objection and then answers it here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3110.htm#article3:

Objection 4. Further, one ought to choose the lesser evil in order to avoid the greater: even so a physician cuts off a limb, lest the whole body perish. Yet less harm is done by raising a false opinion in a person’s mind, than by someone slaying or being slain. Therefore a man may lawfully lie, to save another from committing murder, or another from being killed.

Reply to Objection 4. A lie is sinful not only because it injures one’s neighbor, but also on account of its inordinateness, as stated above in this Article. Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

The key word here is “inordinateness”. Basically, what Thomas is saying is that you can shoot at somebody without necessarily actively trying to kill them. Like the customer in my example, you can reluctantly shoot to only frighten or injure, or you can, in trying to stop them, unintentionally kill them–or you can go full max kill mode despite the fact that it is not necessary. In short, with killing there is, weirdly enough, the possibility that you are not *trying* to kill. So Thomas grants that those who are forced to kill in battle are doing so, not because they want to kill, but because they are merely trying to stop an aggressor. This is why, once the aggressor is stopped by an injury, you don’t “get” to finish him off with a bullet to the brain and are, in fact, obligated to care for his injuries if he is, for instance, taken prisoner.  The intention is not to kill, but to stop him.

But Thomas does not see how you can lie to somebody and not mean to lie to them. So he cannot conceive of how you can be proportional or ordinate in lying as you can in killing. You mean to stop an aggressor, not kill him (though you might, sadly, end up doing so).  But you either mean to lie or you don’t.

Weird, I know. But that is Thomas’ logic, as near as I can make out and, despite the weirdness, I don’t have a good argument against him. (He’s aggravating that way.)

I would be interested to hear from an actual Thomist if I have done justice to Thomas’ argument.  I think I have, but what do I know?

Wait till I get around to trying to articulate Thomas’ speculation that angels are more or less made of whipped air when they appear in bodily form.  Fun stuff!

If you want to follow up, I’d recommend you talk to an actual Thomist.

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  • PNP, OP

    Here’s a question: are all evil acts necessarily sinful?

    Fr. Philip Neri OP

    • Andy, Bad Person

      No. They also have to be committed willfully and deliberately.

      • That sound more like the criterion for their being mortally sinful (committed under full knowledge and with deliberate consent).

        • Andy, Bad Person

          Sure, but I think very few people would claim that a truly ignorant person or someone being coerced has committed even a venial sin.

          • Colin Gormley

            Actually we would say they “do” commit a sin. The real question is what is the culpability or guilt for that sin.

    • kenofken

      Not if you self-identify as one of the good guys!

    • Stacy Forsythe

      Father, do you mean “Is someone always personally culpable before God”? In that case, I’d say certainly not. But all evil acts are offenses against God and the intended order of Creation, so it seems we should be horrified by each one even if circumstances prevent it from imperiling anyone’s soul. That, I think, is the reason why lying should always be avoided. God is Truth, and a deliberate lie is an offense against one of the building blocks of the Universe. To employ a fantastic analogy, remember the scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie where Gandalf ended the bickering at the Council of Elrond by beginning to recite the Ring-verse in the Black Speech? How the very air seemed to vibrate as though offended to carry such words? That’s what a lie is like in God’s universe.

  • kenofken

    Tommy never met an American…

  • Dave G.

    But didn’t Thomas support the use of the death penalty, which would always seem to be about actually killing someone? I don’t know, I’m asking. This is not some shot, it’s a real question.

    • capaxdei

      Yes, according to St. Thomas those in public authority — including soldiers in battle — can lawfully kill an evildoer.

      The key point, I think, is that St. Thomas distinguishes the act of killing from the act of self-defense. It’s a distinction that seems to work better in theory than in practice.

      • Stacy Forsythe

        Actually, a considerable number of real self-defense situations end with the assailant scared away or wounded and in an ambulance. It’s kinda hard to make a human being stop working if they’re resisting or moving around at all, even with a gun. (Of course, paradoxically, sometimes it’s unbelievably easy. It all depends on what parts get damaged. But we have a lot more nonessential parts than essential ones.)

        • capaxdei

          Yes, you’re right. I had in mind the case where the assailant ends up dead, and people try to figure out whether the act that killed him was self-defense or murder.

  • capaxdei

    I’m not an actual Thomist either, but I think St. Thomas is simply pointing out that morality doesn’t operate the way the objection assumes.That a means injures a neighbor less than another, morally licit means does not prove that the first means is morally licit.

  • Imp the Vladaler

    “If you can kill an enemy, why can you lie to him?”

    Well, if you can kill an enemy, can you rape him? Can you engage in consensual sodomy with him? No? Right, because some acts are evil.

    • Peter Mueller

      Killing isn’t always evil, but lying is always evil. There are commandments flatly prohibiting both. I think what the question was saying was, what is it about lying that puts it in the category of “always evil”, as opposed to “sometimes evil”, like killing?

      • Stacy Forsythe

        There is not a commandment that flatly prohibits killing. We often translate the fifth commandment as “Thou shalt not kill,” but considering that it’s part of a law code that defines a great many capital offenses, it cannot possibly mean “kill” in the broad sense. To be fair, the commandment against false witness isn’t itself as broad as “No lying,” either. But Mark (via St. Thomas) just gave one possible reason why lying is more universally evil than homicide — you can engage in self-defense or warfare without desiring anyone’s death, but you cannot engage in even life-saving lying without desiring someone’s deception.

        • Peter Mueller

          I agree, it’s easy to read the commandments too broadly. I have seen “thou shalt not kill” translated as “thou shalt not murder”, which is a little clearer.

          I’m still mulling over Mr. Shea’s explication of St. Thomas, which I like. Is it deception that is always sinful, though? I thought that it was permitted to deceive (by misdirection, withholding information, etc.) so long as we don’t lie; and it seems one would “mean” to deceive if one was doing that. Perhaps it would be better to say that lying is to deception as murder is to killing?

          But then again, might it not be said that as the soldier engages in self-defense without intent to kill, so a person may engage in deception without intent to lie? And as the soldier may be pushed to kill in trying to stop an agressor, so someone may be pushed to lie to do the same? In other words, there might be a situation where lying was not an inordinate response?

          Either way, it seems like Live Action is in the wrong, as they went into the clinics with the full intent to lie, not just to deceive.

    • chezami

      Good point. Though I expect average defender of lying will simply say, “How *dare* you claim I would rape somebody!” just as readers yesterday were saying” How *dare* you suggest I would renounce Jesus?” Not everybody can follow a logical argument.

    • obpoet

      It seems that in this case both acts are evil: killing (shooting) and lying. If the intent is the same (preventing harm to another), its hard to see how either is not justified, and perhaps lying better because it preserves the life of all parties, even the evil party.

  • wlinden

    I kept hoping that you would do a “It seems that waterboarding is not torture…”

  • Mark, I think the answer comes from the fact that, for Thomas, a lie is in its species a special kind of action which is very ‘close’ to the agent: a lie is speaking a falsehood and asserting it as true while fully knowing it to be false. This is a very immediate kind of act. That another is actually deceived belongs, says Thomas, to the “perfection” of the act of lying but not to its genus per se.

    The problem with attempting a double-effect argument with regard to lying is that this immediacy between the mind and utterance is very difficult to interject other object-ends into which will flow at least as immediately from the act – and that the good end flow not less immediately from the act than the evil end is a requirement for double-effect.

  • Jose Tomas

    Hello Mark,

    It seems that you gave up discussing this issue at http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/pope-francis-and-lying-to-save-life. That’s ok.

    If you don’t have an argument against this weird notion from Aquinas, perhaps you could consider (and refute, if you think it is the case) this article from Dr. Janet Smith, in which she explains why Thomas was wrong in this case:

    “(…) The mistake that Aquinas makes (and those words do stick in my throat!)
    is that he analyzes the question of lying with a prelapsarian
    understanding of the purpose of signification—an understanding that
    presumes the innocence of man before the Fall. (…)”

    Here’s the link: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/fig-leaves-and-falsehoods.

    You could also analyze (and refute) this article from Dr. Jeffrey Mirus: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/is-lying-ever-right, in which, in which he provides a broad view of the history of this discussion.

    • Jose, I recommend very highly looking up the able refutation of Prof. Janet Smith’s arguments by Thomas Petri, O.P. and Michael Wahl, in the journal “Nova et Vetera” (Vol 10, No. 2, 2012). Their article is entitled “Live Action and Planned Parenthood: A New Test Case for Lying”. These two excellent Thomists point out that Smith first misreads Thomas and then proceeds to dismantle him on the basis of premises which he’d never allow in the first place.

      • Jose Tomas

        Thank you Joseph. Unfortunately, it seems that your recommendation is only in print, am I correct? Not living in the US, I am afraid I will not have access to it.

        God bless.

        • Jose, you can access it through an online account with the journal, or if you go through the server of a local library (in all likelihood).

    • chezami

      My apologies for needing to sleep, work and live. Since you are so into “head I win/tails you lose” hostility be sure to complain, when I do write again, that I waste all my time arguing about this. When I stop, tell me I’m running away.

      Meanwhile: http://branemrys.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-smith-on-aquinas-on-lying.html


    • capaxdei

      Has anyone else taken up the “prelapsarian purpose of signification” banner waved by Dr. Smith? It’s always struck me as pure fancy.

      • Scott W.

        I believe Dr. Feser did. In any case, one can simply ask that if speech changed because of the Fall and therefore lying is sometimes acceptable, then can’t one propose that the marital act changed because the Fall and therefore (gasp! Dr. Smith) contraception is sometimes acceptable?

    • Peter

      Janet Smith says St Thomas was wrong? Oh good, that settles it then! A few popular Catholic writers pull some dubious reasoning out to defend what is clearly contrary to the Catholic faith, AND what passes for their ‘reasoning’ has been clearly and authoritatively rebutted. Many much more qualified and respected thinkers have spoken clearly against this lying-for-Jesus rot. Let’s stop the pretense that it has anything at all to do with being Catholic.

  • Kevin Welp

    I don’t think you’re ever justified in pulling a gun on someone unless your intent is to kill them. I would never encourage lowering the threshold for brandishing/using deadly force.

    • Stacy Forsythe

      You have to be *willing* to kill/destroy anyone or anything you point a gun at. But you can still *intend*, even at that point, to do only what is necessary to stop aggression. If you are satisfied with an outcome in which the assailant remains alive, then your intent was not to kill as such.

      • Franz Kelly

        Not true. If you are not willing to accept a dead man from your actions, you have no right to shoot someone. Use lethal force, expect a lethal result.
        If lethal force can be used in non life threatening circumstances, you have lowered the requirement for its use. You have opened the window for people being killed who didn’t deserve to be.

        Now, if you shoot to kill someone and merely imobilize him to the point where he isn’t a threat, you are not to walk over and put one in the back of his head.

        Yes, as was said above, war is different. There, killing isn’t always the objective of shooting someone.

  • Kevin Welp

    That said, things are entirely different in war. War has rules. In war, wounding a man may require two men to remove him, therefore, it is more effective.

    In war, it is doubtful that your enemy is psychotic. This dictates things like the type of ammo you’re permitted to use. The military uses full metal jackets designed to merely punch a hole.
    By contrast, self defense and hunting ammo mushrooms or fragments entering the body and is designed to maximize hydrostatic shock and KILL quickly and humanely.

  • Another thought, re: Thomas’s use of the word “inordinateness.” Thomas is working with a teleological understanding of speech act here, and that’s key. You could understand this as “disorderedness” if that’s better (see above in the first article – he relates the matter to the virtue of truth, not insignificantly). When he says he stated the case of inordinateness above in the same article, he’s referring to this statement: “it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind.”

    Lying, for Thomas, is evil sua generis: it comes of asserting what is known to be false, and that the person is deceived is secondary. Lying doesn’t allow the same kind of dual-endedness (or “double effect”) as killing precisely because of this interiority to the act, in my opinion.

  • D.T. McCameron

    Mr. Shea, in your hypothetical example of the bandit and the bloodthirsty customer, you stated that the bandit had a gun pointed at someone.

    Excepting the fantastic “shoot the gun out of his hand” and the horrific “bullet to the head”, wouldn’t most of the other cases give the bandit an opportunity to slay (or at least hurt) whoever he had at gunpoint before he was felled by the customer? There is in reality a very small window for a gunshot to instantly kill a person; the Good Shot’s best shot still might not instantly disable the assailant.

    Not to argue with your assessment of the customer’s intentions, they were certainly murderous, and he ought to be prosecuted for it. Simply, I suppose, to question the practicality of the use of less-than-lethal force in a situation where an innocent’s life is in danger.

    I mean to say that less-than-lethal means are doubtless the moral and appropriate choice at any point in the robbery up until the one where he points the gun at somebody, wherein I would suggest that, seeking the defense of innocent life which is in imminent danger, the ordinate and proportional expenditure of violence ought to be maximal, up until such a point as phasers with stun settings (or similar devices) allow aggressors to be subdued instantly (utterly preventing them the opportunity to inflict harm).

    • Mary Welp

      If you seek less than lethal means, why are you using a gun?
      Shooting a gun out of someone’s hand is for TV. If you miss and kill the burggler, you’d better hope that your life was threatened because you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

      I think everyone should take a gun safety course.

    • chezami

      I think you are overthinking my illustration. Mostly what I’m trying to get at is that the moral obligation is always to try to limit harm. It you had a phaser instead of a pistol, set in on stun.

  • DIYPoststructuralism

    So. I don’t really get this.
    Let’s say the “good shot” has a moral crisis and does not act at all.
    Another customer takes a hammer off the shelf and brandishes it as a gun, shouting, “I’ve got a gun! Drop your weapon”
    Would the Thomist be compelled to say, “No she doesn’t, it’s just a hammer.” ?