The Problem of the Rash Vow, or “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!”

So a number of people have written me asking how I reconcile my endorsement of the obvious teaching of the Catechism that “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” with the case of Edward Snowden, who has done us all a favor by exposing the lies of this guy:

…about just how much Caesar is spying on you. (By the way, Clapper’s explanation that he answered Wyden in the “least untruthful manner” he could think of has to stand as some sort of monument at the bottomw of the cesspool of Orwellian BS our National Security State has come up with so far).

It’s an interesting question. Let’s prescind, for the sake of argument, from question about Snowden’s motivation and the various issues being bruited concerning Snowden’s own motivations, honesty, etc. Let assume, for the sake of argument that his honor is white as the driven snow(den) and that he is simply trying to get the truth out.

To disentangle him from current political passions, let’s take him out of his job for Leviathan and instead make him a fresh-faced systems analyst who just got hired by a rising Fortune 500 company that makes cheap, highly nutritious and tasty snacks. We’ll call it the Soylent Corporation. He signs on at a handsome salary, signs the standard Non-Disclosure Agreement and starts work. Then, late one night, while doing a cleanup of some hard drives, he stumbles on some super-secret information about just where the Soylent Company gets the ingredients for their tasty snack foods

The Church sez: “2410 Promises must be kept and contracts strictly observed to the extent that the commitments made in them are morally just. A significant part of economic and social life depends on the honoring of contracts between physical or moral persons – commercial contracts of purchase or sale, rental or labor contracts. All contracts must be agreed to and executed in good faith.”

A promise or a rash vow cannot, it seems to me, be binding if we discover after the fact that the terms of the agreement are immoral. If I, fresh-faced kid from Iowa eager to see the world, join the Army and promise to obey my superiors, it cannot be that this promise continues to be binding when I find myself under William Calley’s command at My Lai and ordered to shoot civilians. Similarly, a citizen who agrees to support the State cannot take that promise to mean that he is therefore morally bound, on pain of being a liar, to continue supporting the State if the State starts, say, rounding up and executing innocents or doing something else gravely immoral. When one party gravely violates the terms of a social contract, it cannot be that the other party continues to be bound by it. As the Nuremburg trials made clear “I was just following orders” is insufficient. An unjust law (or contract) is no law at all.

What seems to me to move this out of the realm of consequentialism is precisely that the promise is made in sincere good faith–but is made to somebody who is asking (as we discover later) to lie or to live a lie. We thought the Soylent Corporation was asking us not to reveal their 11 herbs and spices to Nabisco, not hide from the public the secret abbatoir where hobos and old people are chopped up and made into delicious chips. Such a “legal” promise seems to me to no more binding than an oath to the SS for the simple reason that we did not know what we were agreeing to since the people proposing the agreement lied to us. If “an unjust law is no law at all” I can’t see how an unjust contract is. Refusing to honor it seems to me to be not lying, but changing one’s mind in light of the now-revealed truth of the situation. Otherwise, I can’t see how anybody would ever be able to change their mind or opinion about anything without being declared a “liar” for repudiating or correcting what they used to think.


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  • Mark,

    I think you have addressed very well here the issue of whether Snowden was necessarily malfeasant in breaking his oath.

    However, I personally think there are other troubling elements to his defection that run afoul of moral requirements with respect to the truth. Particularly his lying to his supervisor and girlfriend about the reasons for and circumstances of his leaving. Unfortunately, these deceptions do not on the surface seem to have been absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, I would note that Snowden’s case is a world apart from other moral situations involving questions of truth-telling that have been discussed here in the past, and this must certainly be taken into account in evaluating his case.

    *Posted from 35,000 feet in the air.

    • chezami

      Fair enough. As I say, I’m not really trying to defend Snowden per se. Mostly his case just got me thinking about the nature of promises and vows and how binding they can be. I’ve been swamped with ediing a book this week and haven’t gotten into the granular details of exactly what Snowden did. My suspicion is that when you look at how the sausage of his decision was made, it will not be something I’d want to eat.

  • Will

    Snowden is no hero.

  • Imp the Vladaler

    Agree 100% with what you’ve written here, but I’d also note something obvious: lying and promise-breaking are not the same. (This is actually one of my pet peeves: we say that people – particularly politicians – “lie” when we can’t show that they told us something knowing that it was false. Did Bush lie about WMDs in Iraq? Probably not.). They’re different offenses and therefore need to be analyzed… differently. It’s possible to break a promise without ever telling a lie. So the easy “gotcha” game just doesn’t work.

    I also think you’re slightly confusing two issues, although you are on the right track. Disobeying a superior’s order to kill civilians is not dependent on whether you’re a “fresh-faced kid from Iowa” or a grizzled war veteran from Brooklyn. Sounds to me like the Catechism is saying that even if you enter a contract with your eyes open, knowing that it’s going to involve something immoral, you don’t have to honor that promise for the sake of keeping your word. And that’s why promise-breaking is not universally condemned the way that lying is. It’s not immoral to break a promise to act immorally.

  • John

    I don’t think that Snowden’s sudden urge to expose these facts is a stand for truth. First of all, the comments I have seen in print lack context. Whether that is the fault of the journalists or Snowden, I don’t know. Nevertheless, the fact that he has told The Hong Kong government about operations not related to the original leak, leads me to think he is serving is own purposes, whatever they might be, and not providing a public service to the American People.

    There is a real public interest in keeping Classified information from the public. Not the least of which is maintaining the functionality of systems and operations that the American taxpayer has already paid for, and would cost the American taxpayer much more to replace (if that is even possible). Snowden violated the agreement he made with the government by first leaking that information, and by continuing to provide information to a foreign government. Additionally he has put himself jeopardy of giving up additional information should the Chinese government decide to take him into custody as a spy and interrogate him.

    • Ghosty

      Actually, he didn’t tell the Chinese anything that wasn’t in his initial leak to Greenwald. The domestic spying got the top news here in the U.S., but part of that leak involved revealing the spying the U.S. does worldwide. The Hong Kong media was simply more interested in the implications this had for them, and so they focused on that aspect in their reporting and interview.

      The stuff about the international hacking and spying was published by the Guardian on Friday or Saturday, before Snowden’s identity was even revealed publically.

      Peace and God bless!

      • Pavel Chichikov

        You know what he’s told the Chinese? How?

        All they would have to do is threaten to expel and or extradite him.

        • Ghosty

          Obviously I’m referring to what has been put in print, as that is what John was referring to.

    • Pavel Chichikov

      His Peking goose is cooked.

  • Matt G

    I think you’re right, Mark. The difference that you seem to be getting at is the fact that lying needs to be intentional, whether deliberate, or by gross intellectual negligence. In other words, one can be complicit in a lie either by reporting things that are untrue, or by irresponsibly remaining ignorant of facts (think of the mob stooge testifying that he didn’t know that there was extortion going on because nobody told him).

    As others have pointed out, the application of this principal to Snowden may or may not be accurate, but it is definitely the difference between whistleblowing and the other debates about lying that have been debated on this blog.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    Having had some acquaintance with that world, I think he’s a ******* traitor, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one. Most of us probably have no idea how angry at him some people are, and how justified they are. And they will not forget.

    Go on from there about government surveillance.

    • Imp the Vladaler

      Why, exactly, is their anger justified?

      Allow me to save you some time: don’t tell us that Snowden has in his brain or in his possession information that puts anyone’s life at risk unless you know it to be true. You are free to speculate that he might, but only assert it if you are certain.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    I’ve seen the irreparable damage blabbermouths can do, and the wreckage they leave behind them.

    Nor would I trust anything he says to be the truth.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    The Chinese will squeeze him dry, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

    Brute pressure is not even necessary – all they have to do is threaten him with expulsion.

    • said she

      Expulsion, even just from the building where he currently hides. Leave him on the street for an hour or so, and he’s a goner.

      Do you think he didn’t foresee that?

      • Pavel Chichikov

        I have no idea who he is or what his motives may have been, or what his relationship to the Chinese might be. I don’t know how intelligent he is, how sophisticated or naive, how mentally well put together.

        But I doubt very strongly that he is a free agent now. I think he is not so much in hiding as being hidden.

        • Imp the Vladaler

          If it turns out that he resurfaces as a free man in a country that won’t extradite, will you admit to error?

          And why are you so certain that he will wilt under pressure?

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      Now, ten days after you posted this piece of rubbish, do you feel stupid, or do you have an excuse for your intellectual arrogance and folly?

      • Pavel Chichikov

        How do you come by your knowledge of what transpired between Snowden and the Chinese?

  • Jessica Harvey

    Isn’t there also a larger problem here in that an individual is taking it upon himself to decide what should be made public and what shouldn’t? What about if that fresh-faced kid from Iowa decides that the movement of troops during a war should be made public so that the soldier’s families know what their kids are facing? Or, someone comes across intelligence regarding a terrorist attack and decides to make it public so that the public are safe – even if it foils the capture of the terrorist? In some ways, it the problem of protestantism in a secular world. Protestants essentially rely on their own judgment, and as Catholics we rely on 1. tradition, 2. scripture, 3. Pope/Magisterium. These are things outside of ourselves because we don’t believe in subjectivism. While we might be grateful that we know – Snowden is essentially a traitor to his country.

    • I think the MUCH larger problem is that we are fighting a war in such a way that the public knowledge of our troop movements can endanger the lives of the troops.

      It’s a far cry from a *massive public buildup on the Saudi Border* while *conducting fake radar images flying scouting runs over Iraq* while *ordering the Navy to keep station in the Persian gulf three carrier groups*. By the time Operation Desert Storm started, MOST of the Iraqi gun emplacements found in Kuwait were either pointed out to sea or anti-aircraft guns pointed straight up.

      And I can’t believe that my sense of “every President in my life has been worse than the one before” has gotten to the point where I count George Bush Sr. as one of the *good guys*.

      • Public knowledge of troop movements always can endanger the lives of the troops. It’s generally true.

        • It can’t if you are actually using your troops within the framework of Augustinian Just War- because your troops are moral enough not to invade in revenge.

          • I strongly suggest a consultation with someone you trust that has domain knowledge. You are speaking nonsense again. Go talk to a soldier offline and you will get a chapter and verse education on why you are mistaken.

            • Unless it is chapter and verse from _City_of_God_ rather than the modernist _US Army Manual_, I’m not terribly interested in more justification of the unjust offensive preemptive war. The real mistake was going to Iraq at all.

              Public knowledge of troop movements was used in the first gulf war to great advantage. We all saw it, back in the early 1990s, but there was a REASON why we stopped at the border of Kuwait and didn’t follow and invade Iraq back then. Ignoring that reason 10 years later in 2003 was a really bad mistake, one that Pope John Paul II warned against.

              You only have to keep things secret if you are doing them wrong.

              But that isn’t even the first use. The Warpipers of Scotland are legendary for using the tactic of mixing false and true troop movements to confuse the enemy; it helps of course that bagpipe music in the Highlands echos quite a bit.

              • I leave you to the task of finding a military expert you can trust. I cannot let pass without comment your misuse of the religious term modernist. For that I recommend a theologian. In charity, one simply does not toss accusations of heresy at a category of books without bothering to read them. A particular book published by the US Army may or may not be heretical. I do not know so I do not prejudge. But for all of them to be modernist would be a stinging indictment of the work of America’s military Archdiocese who would have to be stunningly incompetent at best for all US Army manuals to be modernist. I rise to their defense and ask you to target more carefully.

                • America’s Military Archdiocese *doesn’t write secular manuals*, and has no authority whatsoever over the military in the United States, it’s an association of chaplains, not an arm of government.

                  As for moral relativism and secularism and modernism being errors, may I suggest:


                  • The archdiocese absolutely monitors the statements of the military and works to influence it away from heresy. Within the past year it took an unusually public step of condemning a training material for its religious mistakes (the course condemned Catholic extremists as being fit for terrorist watch). That you do not notice what they do does not mean that they are doing nothing. Again, it is not Catholic to condemn a category of books without bothering to read them. The Archdiocese reads them. You do not, rejecting it all a priori. This is as the rejection of the tax collectors as a class in Jesus’ time. Do not follow the Pharisees. You judge after you read or listen and condemn only what is condemnable.

                    • What legal remedy does the archdiocese have to prevent heresy in the statements of the Military?

                      I actually have read them. I’ve read a lot more than you know. And yes, I’d much rather have 4th century Just War Theory than 21st century Just War Theory. Invasion is always unjust. Pope John Paul II warned President George W Bush that invading Iraq *would be unjust*.

                      And if I’m going to reject a class for heresy- it would be those practicing Usury first. But you should have known that.

                    • Go talk to them to learn details of how things work. You would trust them better anyhow so why use me as a middle man?

                    • They are a middle man in and of themselves- that’s the entire purpose. But you’re the one putting forth the idea that a man trying to be just in an unjust war is to be derided for being just.

                    • Your characterization of my position is false and defamatory. Your conception of an Archdiocese of the Catholic Church is profoundly mistaken. I am actually worried much more about the latter. Go check your assumptions about the Church with someone you consider trustworthy. You still admit that there are others you could consult with, don’t you?

                    • I went here to see if they had *anything* on their website about this governmental power you claim they have to review, censor, and grant Nihil Obstat to US Army publications:

                      I was particularly interested in Just War theory, and found absolutely nothing on that subject, so I widened my search to all sorts of other phrases, such as Nihil Obstat and imprimatur and Endorse.

                      Through that all, the only thing I found that even came close, was the DD2088 form which is used to endorse a priest to become a military chaplain.

                      I found NO suggestion whatsoever that the Archdiocese has any program in place to review or correct the assumptions and logic of the Pentagon, except where it directly applies to Church Teaching- and since modernist theories of warfare are extremely removed from Church Teaching, I don’t see your point.

                    • Good luck on that planet you are on. When you are willing to actually address what I said, we can talk further. What you claim I said is not what I wrote. You have done this repeatedly. To work to influence is not the same as the particular legal process of a nihil obstat. The latter is a tiny subset of the former. Even governmental power is a subset, though larger, of working to influence. Influence comes from relationships, many of which are never documented on an org chart. When the padre who saved Gen Generic’s marriage when he was a captain calls and asks for a minor adjustment on a form or an instruction manual, do you really think that his plea will fall unheeded or will ever hit a website?

                      The greatest influence the Archdiocese has is in the ordinary process of conscience formation, a process of decades. The legal power empowering the Archdiocese needs to be no more than the power to petition for a redress of grievances, a vital part of the bill of rights (first amendment). If these efforts, which are decades old, have had no effect, we might as well fold up shop as a Church. I do not believe that is the case.

                    • “When the padre who saved Gen Generic’s marriage when he was a captain calls and asks for a minor adjustment on a form or an instruction manual, do you really think that his plea will fall unheeded or will ever hit a website?”

                      When the Obama Administration calls and offers Gen. Generic an honorable discharge vs complying with the change, do you really think the padre has any influence whatsoever? Especially since they can just replace the Catholic Gen Generic with the Atheist Gen Rand who will *gladly* make the change?

                    • Really far afield from your original position that all military manuals in the US are modernist, aren’t you? Now you are outraged that sometimes the Archdiocese doesn’t win an individual fight. Well you are right there, which was my original point, that you need to read and apply discernment to individual works to determine on a case by case basis whether they are modernist or not and not condemn a category without examination. Thank you for coming around.

                    • “Really far afield from your original position that all military manuals in the US are modernist, aren’t you? ”

                      Not a bit. Pretty much by definition, all US Government laws and customs are “modernist”, in that they have made a break with the older monarchies and older traditions. My original “modernist” comment was in comparing US Military Just War rules of combat to St. Augustine of Hippo’s Just War rules of combat- comparing the relatively “modern” US Army Manual, written and edited over the last 200 years, with _City of God_ which has been translated but specifically *not* edited since it arrived in Rome after the fall of Hippo to the Vandals in 430 A. D.

                      That is, after all, what modernism is- preferring the new to the old specifically because it is new.

                      “Now you are outraged that sometimes the Archdiocese doesn’t win an individual fight. ”

                      Outraged? No. Just amazed that somebody thinks the Church has *any* influence over US Army manuals, let alone enough to prevent them from using more modern versions of Just Warfare Theory than Augustine of Hippo.

                    • “Not a bit”


                    • Are you the type who *must have the last word*? If so, I just blew it for you.

                      Funny how I just reiterated my original post.

                    • Ha ha.

    • chezami

      Snowden is, so far as I can tell, only a traitor to his government. It remains to be seen whether he is a traitor to his country. At present, all I know for certain is that our government is a traitor to our country.

  • I love the last line from the Daily Show Clip: “Nobody is saying that you broke any laws, just that it’s a little bit weird that you didn’t have to”

  • Joe Carter

    Thanks for the clarification, Mark. I agree with your perspective but I don’t think it applies to Snowden. If he had quit the day he realized that he was not able to keep his oath, then he would have morally justifed. But to keep working for the company in order to steal (and it was a clear case of theft) information that was not his to take muddies the waters and makes it appear that his intent was to deceive.

    There is also some question about whether he took the job for the sole intention of using it to “expose” the government for his political purposes.

    Personally, I don’t think we know enough to make him either a hero or a villain But what we do know sure doesn’t make him look good in the light of Christian morality.

    • Robert

      I agree. The philosophical gymnastics used to justify Snowden’s actions are a little disconcerting to me. I don’t necessarily like the NSA program, but the immoral way Snowden’s has acted should not be applauded, imnsho.

      • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

        What rubbish. We have just established that you cannot be loyal to someone who is out to do evil. The company Snowden worked for was violating any amount of amendments and laws. Therefore Joe Carter’s bellyaching about ” keep working for the company in order to steal” is collaborationist bullshit. You might as well say that you should resign from a mafia-controlled company, but that you are a bad citizen if you hang around to get the evidence that proves its racketeering. I am sure there are many people who would be glad of this sort of morality – though, thanks to the activity of the Italian police forces, many of them are at present in jail.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    In one opinion I’ve seen the Chinese wish he’d go somewhere else. It’s an opinion.

  • Zippy

    Every single good faith commitment to do X carries with it the qualifier “to the extent that X is morally licit in the particular circumstances.” A commitment creates a moral obligation; but a moral obligation to do evil is self contradictory. It is therefore literally impossible to make a morally binding commitment to do evil.

  • Bob_the_other

    Not keeping a promise that one cannot keep in good conscience is a different thing to lying. Thomas Aquinas endorses by quotation Peter Comestor’s view that Jephtah was foolish to make his vow and wicked to keep it (ST II-II, 88, a. 3, ad 2). Nor do I think he is necessarily obliged simply to quit as opposed to working to bring down/embarrass the government. Nor do I see what form of theft he has committed. Whose was the information that he stole? Who has been harmed?

  • Robert

    I can see a case if the action in question, making food out of people, is immoral. While it is distasteful and more intrusive than I like, what part of the NSA program is immoral?

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      How about the violation of practically every item in the first ten amendments of the US constitution,for a start?

  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    Actually, the “only following orders” defense was never presented at Nuremberg, the defendants all either trying to prove their innocence, offering matters in mitigation, blaming the dead (Neurath said that Himmler and Hitler must have had conferences on mass murder late at night, when he, Neurath, slept), or else (as in the case of Frick, a competent lawyer who knew full well he could not come through any kind of decent trial) effectively if not actually conceding their guilt. The only person who spoke in those terms was Hoess, the camp commander at Auschwitz, who was present not as a defendant but as a witness, though he was subsequently tried and hanged in another trial.