Another Triumph for Liars for the Greater Good

Another Triumph for Liars for the Greater Good September 27, 2012

Hadn’t heard about fact that “the CIA …carried out sham vaccinations in order to get DNA samples and locate bin Laden’s family in Pakistan.  By exploiting the trust we have in doctors, even just this once, even intending not to get caught, the CIA broke the system, and now, 160,000 children are not being vaccinated for polio.”

That’s the thing about lying: it destroys trust, even when you do it for really good reasons.  And when you do that, you can wind up achieving the opposite of your goals.  That’s why the Church says it is intrinsically immoral.  It would be good if Catholics got their moral instruction from the teaching of the Church and not from the normal consequentialist sources that dominate discourse at our tribal watering holes in American culture.

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  • Mike

    So does the church view under cover work or lies necessary in such work inn law enforcement as inherently wrong? I ask with some personal interest in that! Or what of those who lied to the Nazi’s about hiding Jews etc…

    Thank you

    • You must be new to this debate.

  • That’s the thing about lying: it destroys trust, even when you do it for really good reasons. And when you do that, you can wind up achieving the opposite of your goals.

    Is this, for Catholics, a contestable thesis? I can well imagine an argument that could demonstrate convincingly that “lying for the greater good” benefits societies (had it not been for the masterful lies of Operation Bodyguard, for example, D-Day might have failed) but that the Church would hold that it was wrong despite the consequences.

    • John Frederick Tagliaferro

      There was no lying whatsoever involved in Operation Bodygaurd.

      Next please?

      • John Frederick Tagliaferro

        To be precise, OB involved allowing the enemy to deceive himself. Britain and the US were not obligated to identify that the tanks were inflatable, or that the manpower making up the British Fourth existed only in peoples’ minds. Putting on radio plays and other theatrics across military channels isn’t lying, even if military channels are not the ordinary venue for radio plays and other theatrics. Everyone involved, on both ends of that traffic, were aware they were engaging in make-believe.

        I was even assured by one of the double-agents that while he made great use of mental reservation, he never once lied to his German handlers.

  • Hi, Mark–please help me understand whether your position on this subject might have changed some:

    As late as 1967, the New Catholic Encyclopedia article on lying made it clear that the teaching that all lying was intrinsically immoral was indeed the “common teaching” of Catholic theologians.

    Indeed, this long-held view of the *majority* of Catholic theologians is what is found in the Catechism itself which contains not only magisterial teaching but also some common teaching of Catholic theologians.

    Are you aware of anything that has happened in the last 45 years to “elevate” this teaching on lying *beyond* its status as the common teaching of Catholic theologians?

    If not, then the teaching remains the subject of legitimate debate among theologians and faithful Catholics, right? That is, faithful Catholics may have properly formed consciences and *still* accept the moral legitimacy of certain forms of undercover work and other deceptions, right?

    God bless you,

    Deacon JR

    • No. Mark’s not pointing to any ex cathedra declaration of the intrinsic immorality of all lying, he’s just doing what Mark Shea does best: loudly, cleverly, often hilariously and sometimes obnoxiously, pointing to the best arguments that the church has thrown up on the subject and rubbing everyone’s noses in the fact that the arguments haven’t been answered in any non-consequentialist way.

      • ivan_the_mad

        “the fact that the arguments haven’t been answered in any non-consequentialist way” Every now and again I read a comment that puts into words something I’ve felt intuitively but haven’t yet defined. This is one of those times. Thanks.

    • Mark Shea


      I have, as you know, not changed my views at all. They are the same as Augustine’s, the same as Aquinas’, the same as the overwhelming bulk of the Catholic moral tradition, and the same as the Catechism’s:

      2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.

      Should I cut and paste that a hundred times? How about a dozen links to the same passage in Aquinas, where he answers in the affirmative the question of whether lying is always a sin.

      You have, for more than a year, engaged in sophistries, threats, and obsessive behavior on this question, attempting to find some way to lawyer your way out of the obvious teaching of the Church here or shut me down for stating it. I took you at your word that you would stop. You have now broken your word. So you are gone. Don’t come back.

      • Richard Johnson

        Not to pile on, but…

        2482 “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.”280 The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”281

        2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

        2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

        2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. the deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. the culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

        2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.

  • victor

    It’s like Biden said at the convention: “Those kids with polio are dead, and Al Qaeda is alive!” (that’s a paraphrase).

  • I’m definitely all about unity and avoiding unnecessary division, but if anyone’s got a strong, non-consequentialist argument for lying to the Nazis, I would love, love, love to hear it. Because I very much want to lie to Nazis, but all I can see is that so far people who take that position keep getting their philosophical rear ends handed to them.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      This! Just like the torture debate, I would love to hear some good, non-consequentialist arguments for lying. Why? Because I really, really, really, want to. Just like I would want to slowly remove the fingernails of someone who had kidnapped my daughter to find out where she is.

      But those (non-consequentialist) arguments don’t exist. They’re barren, and once again I have to be a Christians that’s forced to take the difficult road. You would think that Jesus told us we had to suffer just like He did, and not that the path would be all wine and roses.

    • SpasticHedgehog

      Jon, are you having run ins with Nazis up there?

      • Die Nazis! Die Nazis sind überall!

  • Had to laugh when I saw this:

    That’s why the Church says it is intrinsically immoral.

    No. If this were so, it would be a consequentialist argument: lying results in unwanted and unintended consequences, therefore it is intrinsically evil.

    Rather, the backfires and backlashes and back- … uh, how about back-bungles … all these rotten consequences arise predictably because an evil tree bears evil fruit. It is because lying is intrinsically disordered and evil that bad things happen in consequence. And it is because lying is intrinsically disordered that the Church teaches that it is so.

    I figure that’s probably what you meant, but as one writer to another I feel obliged to point out where your words mismatch your meaning. (Such a heavy burden, indulging my nit-pickiness!)

  • Ted Seeber

    I saw this story and don’t understand. Why couldn’t we have done *exactly* the same spy job with REAL polio vaccinations and reasonable sharps disposal?

    • I know. It doesn’t matter, though, in any case, since they’d never trust a US sponsored vaccination again (or any vaccination that smells of being US sponsored) even if it had been genuine.

  • Aaron Minix

    I have an honest, non-gotcha question.
    I have read that the Vatican printed and distributed fake baptismal certificates for Jews in Italy who were threatened with deportation during WW II, as the authorities would not deport Jews who had been baptized.
    1. Is this exactly what happened?
    2. Was this wrong?
    Again, this is an honest question. I am not a Catholic, but I am seriously considering converting to the Church. I’m not trying to be provocative but this question came to me since reading this post earlier.

    • Mark Shea
    • Ted Seeber

      Marc is correct. But it is only half the story. Archbishop Roncalli of Turkey, who would later become Pope John XXIII of Vatican II fame, issued fake bapismal certificates and even Vatican travel papers to Jews. This is a big negative to traditionalist anti-semitic schismatic Catholics, of course, and is used as part of the evidence for sedevacantism.

      • Hezekiah Garrett

        Shouldn’t it be a big negative to lovers of truth? Shouldn’t the man who is gonna be pope some day be wise as a serpent, even as he is simple as a dove? Shouldn’t he have been able to find some other way?

        The fact that antisemites hang their hat on it too shouldn’t matter.