Are We Lying to Ourselves About Lying?

Are We Lying to Ourselves About Lying? February 19, 2011

When the Live Action sting was released, I confess that I didn’t watch it. I only skimmed over articles that mentioned it. I know Planned Parenthood, I know their tactics, I know the terrible things that go on there, and quite frankly I just felt like I couldn’t face it anymore. The subject matter, of course, doesn’t help. We live in Las Vegas, the sex capital of the world, and sex trafficking is booming. I have a gorgeous little five-year-old with long legs and blond hair and I already spend many hours of my days sick with worry over her. We lock the windows from the inside in her bedroom…twice. I pile chairs in front of our front door at night, because if someone is breaking in I want to hear them coming. I’ve looked at the national sex offender registry, even though in principle I am opposed to such a thing, and found that we are surrounded, literally, by sexual predators. A few years ago a videotape was found in the desert not far from our apartment of a two-year-old being repeatedly and horrifically sexually assaulted. When they found the child, she was nearly six and had been living with sexual assault all that time. I have a two-year-old.

Life here is different than in other places. At the playground, the mothers stand. They hover. They scan the faces of adults and watch their interactions with children. If they see a man who appears not to have a child, the mothers begin to get tense. They start shadowing their children. When they lose sight of them, even for an instant, they panic. We panic. And if a child finally runs up to that man, crying “look, Dad!” we all slouch in relief. If a child never runs up to that man, we take our children and leave. Playtime is cut short because, well, who knows who is watching and what they are thinking?

It may have been cowardly to avoid watching those clips. It probably was. But when the whispers started surfacing around the blogosphere…Lila is lyingLive Action is morally indefensible…I got angry. Really angry. I read Dr. Nadal’s blog post on it and had to stop myself from shouting out in anger. After all, say my beautiful, innocent Sienna were taken from us and thrust into the nightmare of the sex trade. Say she were drugged up and forced to pleasure men. Say she spent years of her life, all the years she could remember, in fact, being forced to take drugs and used for pleasure like she were nothing more than a blow-up doll. My little girl. The baby I carried in my body, our first-born. The child I check on ten times a night just to make sure she’s sleeping soundly. Say she got pregnant, and her pimp took her to Planned Parenthood for an abortion, and upon seeing that this child is a drugged-up victim of the illegal sex trade, the office worker in a federally funded business said…what? “Stop right now, leave the kid, we’re calling the police? You’re a despicable man, and we are going to take a stand, right here, and protect women as we’ve claimed to all these years?” No. Instead, she said, “waist up.”

And the only people who are standing up to protect those children who Planned Parenthood has obviously come into contact with before given the swift and unperturbed nature of the replies, those children who are someone’s children, are now being vilified for lying.

You can understand my outrage. I’ll repeat here my initial comments in the comment box of Dr. Nadal’s post.

Dr. Nadal,

Thanks again for a clear-headed post. I agree. I’d take it one step farther, actually, and say that even if they were lying, well, it’s a lie in defense of lives! I’d want someone to lie for my child if it were her life at risk. I’d want someone to lie for me if it were my life at risk! The overscrupulosity is astounding here.

I’m not in favor of “the ends justify the means,” although that is in fact what I’m saying here. I don’t think there’s a principle that can be applied everywhere, across the board, which is why I think everyone is having such kittens over this. No analogy quite fits this situation. So why don’t we just judge it individually and see what we come up with?

Ask those who quibble with Lila this: would you lie to save a teenage girl from being drugged up and forced to pleasure men for the rest of her life? Would you lie to save the life of an unborn child? If the answers are no, well, then there’s something seriously wrong with those people.

In fact, they are choosing to keep their own souls scrupulously clean at the expense of someone else’s life, and in this situation, possibly even someone else’s soul. Jesus took on all our sins to save our souls. Oughtn’t we be willing to take on one small sin to save someone else?

Lila, to my mind, is somewhat like a modern-day Schindler. He lied within his own organization to save Jews. Would the Jews rise up in indignation against him because he lied? I think not.

Neither should we. Lila is a hero.

I wrote that late at night, and then went to bed feeling vaguely disturbed. There was something about what I said that was…wrong, somehow, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. When I woke up the next morning I immediately started going back over that comment in my head. I felt no more peace about it than I had the night before. After the usual morning tasks I went to the computer and checked the follow-up comments on the post. Moral theology is not my strong suit, and I was pretty confused by all the arguments and comparisons flying around. Then something Mark Shea said caught my attention.

It is extremely dangerous for Catholics to embrace the One Ring in order to destroy Sauron.

Aaaah. Finally, someone was speaking my language. Now it suddenly became clear just what sort of danger this posed. If it was a lie, we were playing with fire. Bad fire. While Boromir is one of the Ogre’s favorite character in The Lord of the Rings, he’s my least favorite. I’d like to stay as far from his fate as possible. If it wasn’t a lie…it was very, very close to a lie. Close enough that inquiry into the nature of what Live Action did is warranted. 

Before I dive into the differing points of view I’ve been offered in the past twenty-four hours, I just want to say that these sorts of debates make me incredibly proud to be a Catholic. Overscrupulosity is a sin, yes, but I no longer see this as overscrupulosity. This is a community of faithful who are so concerned about following the teachings of the Bible and of the Church that they will take what is an undeniable victory for our side and immediately begin probing the methods used to ensure that they are morally sound. Rather than being angry at people’s focus being shifted from the victory of Live Action to their methods, we should be proud to belong to a people who do not take sin lightly, no matter how small the sin. I take that as evidence that we are on the right side.

The first person I called was my mom. She’s got a head for these sorts of moral dilemmas and always manages to put it in simple terms that grasp the big picture. I wasn’t disappointed this time. Although she was happy with the results that Live Action managed to obtain, she did agree that they obtained those results through directly lying to the Planned Parenthood workers. She said, “The problem with using tactics like lying is that, ultimately, you’re denying that God is powerful enough to end abortion using morally licit means.” I found myself nodding along in agreement. This is true, I thought. Surely there must be another way. Surely God doesn’t call us to lie.

Of course, I had not yet delved into the topic of whether or not it actually was a lie. I got to that when I called my father-in-law, the Ever-Teacher. I called him because his mind works in ways no one else’s mind ever has. I mean that truly. He sees things others don’t, in ways they don’t, and I wanted a perspective on this that hadn’t already been hashed out in blogs and comment boxes across the internet.

He didn’t disappoint either. He agreed with me that this was such a fine point that care and caution were essential. “This is the head of a needle,” he said, and I agree. Our conversation centered around the nature of entrapment generally. He has real issues with it because, in his words, “When you make a plan to trap someone, you cease to see them as a person. They become an object instead of a human being, and then you are not loving that human being as you are called to. Instead you are treating them as an object.” I hadn’t thought of that, of course, but I think it’s a valid concern and one that I have not seen raised.

Insofar as this relates to the sting operation that Live Action set up, though, I don’t believe Live Action ever, for one moment, tried to use these people as objects. I believe, to the depths of my soul, that Live Action would have been delighted if even one of those office workers had tossed them out or called the police. None of the questions they asked were leading questions; they presented the workers with a scenario and the workers made all the suggestions. More to the point, though, the Live Action crew is doing what they are doing for the sake of the Planned Parenthood workers as much as they are for the sake of the unborn. This is no sting operation meant to punish the guilty; this is a sting operation meant to bring the truth to light for the sake of all who are involved.

The Ever-Teacher and I also discussed Odysseus a little bit. He brought up the scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus, having just been dropped off in Ithaka by the Phaiakians, lies to Athena in disguise. Athena then praises him for his cunning, because in this case the lie was not intended to hurt or lead someone into error, but to protect himself. The Ever-Teacher compared this lie with the example being tossed around of protecting the Jews during the Holocaust. I, for one, would tell the Nazis that there were no Jews there. After all, the Nazi’s full question would be, “Do you have any Jews here for us to take, torture, and kill?.” Even if they didn’t state that last part, that would clearly be their intention. My response would be, “No, I have no Jews here.” Because indeed I would have no Jews for them to torture and kill. Not only is it permissible for me to say this, it is a moral imperative to save someone’s life by the use of mental reservation. I think this section of the Cathechism supports that choice wholeheartedly: 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. 

Some people have compared this easy acceptance of lying with the Muslim idea of lying in defense of sacred truth. I don’t believe this is a fair comparison. If the Inquisition was at my door, asking if there was a Protestant in my house, I would deny it just the same. Truth is truth. Good is good.


Moreover, I think the comparison of lying to protect the Jews is a poor one in this situation. I compared Lila to Schindler above; that comparison is more apt, but still not quite right. Much better is the comparison of Lila to an undercover agent or a spy. After reading this article, which my wise and wonderful godparents sent to me, I believe that comparison is not only good but that it also clarifies exactly why what Lila did cannot be considered a lie. I am not going to summarize the article because I would urge you all to go read it. It is clear and thoughtful, and never dismissive of the serious danger this situation approaches. But I will take from it the defense given of this type of covert action.

In his second response Aquinas states: “A man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him. Now we are not always bound to do this, since even in the Sacred Doctrine many things have to be concealed, especially from unbelievers, lest they deride it according to Matthew 7:6: ‘Give not that which is holy to dogs’. Wherefore, much more ought the plan of campaign be hidden from the enemy…such like concealment is what is meant by an ambush that may be lawfully employed in a just war.”

Aquinas goes on to say: “Nor can these ambushes be properly called deceptions, nor are they contrary to justice or to a well-ordered will.”

I’m going to turn to Mark Shea here, not because I want to pick a fight with him but because I have immense respect for him and in this discussion, his objections have seemed to me to be the most clearly stated.

Fourth, comparisons of Lila Rose’s sting to war or police work break down because, well, this is not war or police work.  It’s not war because you are not authorized to spray your local Planned Parenthood center with machine gun fire, shoot bazookas into the offices of their national headquarters, or bomb the government institutions that fund them.  You are a citizen.  So are they.  Your government has not declared war on them.  No troops have been drafted to fight them.

I disagree with Mark here. He is assuming that war can only occur within the context of government action, which is not true. This is a war as much as any we’ve seen in recent decades. Just because our government will not stand up and protect innocent civilians does not mean that we are not in a war for their lives. It may be a mostly spiritual war, but there are real consequences. Those who participate in 40 Days for Life are real warriors. They don’t carry machine guns, but they batter the gates of heaven with their prayers. My godparents, who run a crisis pregnancy center, who have given their money, their time, and their very lives to the cause of saving babies, mothers and father from the horrors of abortion are warriors. This is war. I cannot believe that St. Thomas would see the blood of 50,000,000 children running down the face of our country and say to those of us who stand against their murder, “You must not use wartime tactics to save these children. They may be dying in droves, but because the government has not declared war, those tactics are not justified.”

There is another reason, though, that I believe what Lila did is justified as a wartime tactic. Mark goes on to say:

So, for instance comparisons of Lila’s tactic with ruses in war ignore the fact that ruses in war presuppose spying by the enemy.  That is, they presuppose the attempt by an enemy to gain access to information to which he has no right.  Depriving the enemy of information to which he has no right is not the same thing as lying, just as my refusal to share with you the contents of my last confession is not a violation of your rights.  Lying is, as it were, aggressive. 

That is certainly one facet of ruses in war. Another facet is to gain information to which we have a right. For example, as human beings we had the right to know what was happening during the Holocaust. Many spies were employed and ruses undertaken to discover exactly what the Nazis were doing. The Nazis would have said we had no right to that information, but of course we did! They were committing genocide! Millions upon millions of people were being slaughtered. We had to know. We had to aggressively lie in order to get this information so that we could stop the slaughter.

Does the public have any less right to know what Planned Parenthood is actually doing? Does the public have any less right to know that they are not, as they claim, “protecting the rights and reproductive health of women” but are in fact hurting women, keeping them in places of abuse and degradation, ignoring the laws of our country to further their own ends, and committing genocide? Of course we have the right to know that information. A mother should know, before she sends her daughter to Planned Parenthood for contraception or an abortion in the name of choice, that these same people are in fact actively ignoring the enslavement of girls in the sex trade. That they are not in the business of choice and reproductive health, because if they were they would get these girls out. They would send them to a hospital for a full examination of their almost certainly irreparably damaged reproductive organs instead of doing a quickie abortion and blithely saying, “waist up.” They would help give them a life in which these girls had even one free choice.

Many people are saying that in this situation, we must choose the lesser of two evils, and that Lila chose the lesser of two evils by choosing to construct a falsehood in defense of life.The Ogre pointed out that that is actually the wrong way to look at it. And this is part of what I’ve been trying to get at: can we dismiss the notion that lying is univocally wrong? If it is the case that we can lie and have it not be even a venial sin, or, to avoid muddying the waters, if we can conceal the truth even by what we say and have it not be a lie because we are using mental reservation, then Lila’s actions can be explored not in the context of the lesser of two evils, but rather in the context of the greater of two goods.

Lila was faced with two goods: do not use a ruse, but go into Planned Parenthood and…what? Ask them outright if they helped pimps get abortions for enslaved, underage sex workers (which Lila likely already knew to be true)? Potentially, likely, she would see no result. Or employ an elaborate ruse, go into Planned Parenthood and ask them point-blank (not leading) questions? And still potentially get no result?

She chose the second good because she saw it as the higher of two goods. The one that could, in the end, achieve the most good. And it did.

There was still one person’s opinion, though, that I needed. I called my dad because, of everyone I know, he doesn’t get caught up in debates and endless splitting of hairs. He just knows.  

At first he was a little bit stunned by my question because he hadn’t even considered the idea that she was lying. The more we talked about it, though, the more he began to say that he didn’t see it as a sin, and he couldn’t imagine God condemning her for lying anymore than he could imagine God condemning Schindler for lying. In the end, he said that he had to come down on the side of Live Action.

I feel the same way. Reading this article by Peter Kreeft only made me feel even more sure of my position. This paragraph particularly struck me:

Though God let our theological ignorance run wild, He left our moral knowledge pretty much intact (though of course weakened, so that it is easily twisted by our will to rationalize our sins).
These instinctive intuitions and judgments are not infallible, of course, and logic can often reveal our errors. This is what Socrates did, and four cheers for his doing it. But any argument that begins by contradicting our moral common sense is almost certainly going to be wrong.

I think this is why my first instinct was to leap to the conclusion that this criticism of Live Action is ludicrous.

I’m not saying that we should all just go with our gut reactions and ignore reason. It was actually the swiftness of my gut reaction that made me reconsider the issue, and I agree that these sorts of tactics need to be scrutinized and used in line with and according to a proper understanding of justice. But after careful examination, I am convinced that what Live Action did does not fall under the definition of lying. I believe that it is a ruse, such as one would employ in a war. And I believe that this is not just a war, but is indeed the most just of wars, and Lila is one of our greatest heroes.

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