I was pleasantly surprised to see that quite a number of readers agreed with my critique of Live Action’s tactics last week. I was more or less expecting a nasty firestorm like last time. But though, as we shall discuss in a moment, there were a number of complaints, attempts at rebuttal, and flat-out bizarre ad hominems, a great percentage of people responded with variations on “This makes sense.”
The disagreements fell into various categories, some of them reasonable, some not. At the unreasonable end of the scale were things like “Jesus tempted people to commit murder too” arguments that took my breath away. Also pretty much crazy were the various attempts to simply ignore the possibility that I wrote what I wrote because I believe what I wrote. These boiled down to mysterious dichotomies like the reader who asked “Is it a ploy or his intellect?” I’m not quite sure what that means but I think it could mean “Is he cynically saying these outrageous things no sane person could believe to get attention and sell his books or is he one of these smart alec edjimacated people whom much learning hath made mad?”
In answer to the first half of the dichotomy, it appears to be only in the circles of combox conspiracy theorists that the notion “I know! I will say something guaranteed to enrage a large part of my audience! That will ensure they will buy my books!” seems like sound reasoning. In answer to the second part of the dichotomy, I don’t have much learning, just a respect for the actual teaching of the Church even when it gets in the way of taking moral shortcuts to strongly desired goals and away from greatly feared monsters.
Here’s the deal: incredible as it sounds, I wrote what I wrote because I believe what I wrote, not for some other nefarious purpose. The fact is, the Church says you cannot lie and you *especially* cannot lie in order to tempt somebody to do grave evil. It’s really that simple. That’s why I caution against Live Action’s tactics.
Now, as to more reasonable rebuttals of this basic position, there are several. But they virtually all boil down to consequentialist arguments. The stakes are high so anything goes! It’s not really lying because the goal is to expose the truth. It’s double effect. All of this is the same sort of thinking we saw in the torture debates and in rationales for nuking Japan and in all the excuse-making for consequentialist reasoning that always pops up (including, by the way, for abortion itself: “I seek the freedom and happiness of the mother. If the fetus unfortunately has to die in achieving that good end, it’s double effect. I wasn’t trying to kill a baby, but spare a woman the anguish of a responsibility she is not ready to bear.”). Basic scenario: We want to do something obviously wrong: in this case, lie and try to entice somebody to make themselves an accessory to murder so they can be made to look bad. But we want to do this wrong thing for some good end. So we focus on the good end and and try to simply ignore the fact that we are doing evil to achieve it. After that, it simply becomes a matter of coming up with more and more creative (and soon ridiculous) rationales for doing evil.
The most emotionally appealing rationale for doing evil in this particular case is the one I mentioned in my initial post: “These Planned Parenthood bastards are murderers so let’s nail them any way we can.” When I point out that tempting them to commit murder is wrong, the volcanic emotional response (which carefully avoids the reality of the numerous deeply conflicted Abby Johnsons, Carol Everetts, Sue Thayers and Bernard Nathansons out there and prefers to see PP staff as purely irredeemable monsters) is that it is outrageous to speak as though the person saying, “I want to murder my baby. Will you help me and make sure it’s dead” is tempting these butchering monsters. With that emotional vulcanism goes an impressive spray of rhetorical lava to the effect that I am a moral idiot who thinks fibbing is as or more serious than murder, or who would moronically turn the Jews over to the Nazis out of some brain-dead sense of prissy puritanical superiority or who thinks acting or writing fiction or Jesus telling parables is lying. The folks saying these things, who are obviously late to the discussion, should turn to the copious replies I have made to all these objections. Bottom line: Attention Dutch Jews! Your secret is safe with me, because I am not such a fool as to think the Nazis at the door will leave if I lie to them. I know the *real* trick to saving your lives is not to lie well, but to hide you well and then invite the Nazis in to search and offer them coffee and cheery smile, since search they shall.
What I want to focus on here is a couple of things germane to this discussion, which is, I repeat, not so much about lying as about the purpose of the lie, which is to tempt somebody to agree to mortal sin. That is really the nub of the problem. And there is no getting around that this is the tactic being used. To recap from the post a reader (with some training in moral theology, by the way) sent as he analyzed the transcript of the video:
She says (more than once) that the child’s father (1) told her to go get an abortion and (2) is paying for her to do so. Her being there is exploratory inasmuch as she’s “not 100% sure”. This latter one *could* be regarded as broad mental reservation, although I think circumstances are challenging for that. But the former is an out-and-out lie.
Consider this exchange (on page 13 of the transcript):
“Woman: ‘Cause I’m, like, just so scared of, like–
Dr. Santangelo: Sure, sure. Obviously, you know?
Woman: –having to be stuck with the responsibility. So would you make–but would you make sure that it, like– Dr. Santangelo: Yeah.
Woman: –it doesn’t survive?”
This isn’t a leading question. This is a lie. The “hypothetical” “it” here is not merely a “what if” abortion but an abortion that has been indicated to be sought and expected. (The boyfriend gave her money for it).
She’s saying, “This abortion that I want to have… will you make sure the baby is dead and not alive?”
Not a generic cover-all kind of scenario.
In fact, it’s the specificity that matters so much here from the moral point of view too. When speaking generically, an “ill intent” to sin wouldn’t necessarily be imputed to the abortionist – not just yet, anyway. But because of the proximity of the “would-be” act to the consideration, if I were spiritually counseling this guy, I’d say he’s guilty of choosing that object. To kill *this* baby.
And that is the core problem here. What the Live Action agent has done is ask someone to help them commit murder. It does not matter one iota that the person she is asking has committed murder before. It does not matter one iota that the person she is asking to commit murder does it for a living. What matters is that they have asked somebody to help them commit murder.
It does matter that the person she is is asking to help her commit murder is more likely to succumb to the temptation she is presenting, because it makes the sin of temptation even more grave than if they were likely to resist (just as knowingly offering a drink to a recovering alcoholic is more sinful because you know they are likely to lapse). One reader, in desperation to avoid this fact, attempted to argue that since “temptation is interior” therefore it is impossible for one human being to tempt another and the guilt is all with the person tempted, not the person tempting them. I’m sure, at other moments, the same reader has stern things to say about drug dealers, models who dress provocatively, and those priests who seduce children and are now plunging toward the seabed with millstones around their necks. But for the special purpose of coming up with excuses for this act of temptation, some people are willing to say almost anything.
Another favorite way to rationalize this is the Appeal to Authority. This usually boils down to appeals to undercover work done by uniformed authority figures on TV. How could a Catholic possibly question the moral authority of a uniformed authority figure on TV? Still and all, the Church does not appeal to the morally ambiguous actions of uniformed authority figures on TV. Nor does she set a lot of stock with phrases like “getting our hands dirty to get the job done”. Also, the Appeal to Last Best Hope Panic is unsound. This is the argument which proceeds, “We’ve been at this for 40 years and this is the only thing that works! Everything else is a waste of time and anybody who questions Live Action’s tactics is a prissy do-nothing coward who refuses to do a damn thing to save unborn babies! What else can we do?”
Um, actually, lots of things. The first thing we can do is take deep cleansing breaths, recollect ourselves, and then make a contrite apology to all the people doing zillions of fruitful and good works of prolife mercy out there who have been steadily and tirelessly fighting the battle for human life and who are responsible for saving millions of lives around the world for years and years and years. As I mentioned previously, apostolates like 40 Days for Life have done immense good in shutting down clinics in places like Seattle’s University District, as clear a testimony to the power of prayer as you could ask for. There are bazillions of Crisis Pregnancy Centers. There is Abby Johnson’s fine initiative to help clinic workers listen to the better angels of their natures and transition out of abortion work. There are, in fact, gobs of other approaches to the problem that do not, in the slightest, involve lying to anybody or tempting them to commit mortal sin. To dismiss them all and batten on this is our only hope is wildly irresponsible panic.
The irony of all this is that there is even plenty of work for Live Action if they would just drop these two tactics of lying and tempting to grave sin, because they are not only wrong, they are unnecessary. Exactly the same information could be obtained without lying and without asking anybody to agree to commit grave evil. The core of the problem is that this is the transaction being proposed by LA agents to PP workers: “I want to kill my baby. Will you help me?” That transaction is absolutely unnecessary in order to obtain the information being sought. It could be gained just as easily by asking, “I am pregnant, what do you offer to do for me?” No lie is told. No abortion sought. And the whole conversation could proceed as before. It really is that simple. Why not do that instead?
Contrary to the ridiculous conspiracy theory that I have some weird animus toward Live Action as an organization and want them to fail for some bizarre reason, the reality is that I badly want them to succeed. Murder Inc. needs to be brought down and exposure is one key compenent of that struggle. But not at the cost of embracing lies and temptation to grave sin. You shall not do evil that good may come of it and it shall not profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul. Live Action is so close to doing some really good things that it is easy to fall prey to the notion that serious moral corners can be cut–just this once. But the tragedy will be if, being this close, they succeed only in causing the prolife movement to embrace lies and temptation to grave evil as “core values” when it is absolutely unnecessary to do so.
Let Live Action instead abandon consequentialism as the Faustian Bargain it always is and pursue its noble ends by noble means. It can be done. It should be done. And since, as I believe, they are motivated by a desire to serve Jesus with integrity, I trust that it will be done.
Let us be friends.