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

The Problem of the Rash Vow, or “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!” June 14, 2013

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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