A reader ponders more stuff about the whole lying controversy

A reader ponders more stuff about the whole lying controversy September 10, 2015

He writes:

I hope you won’t mind if I continue picking your brain, and please know that I expect no responses from you (especially if you feel the horse, in this case, has long been dead).

No sweat.

I read your reply to John Zmirak and agree that his critiques of your position are completely wrongheaded and unfair.  I also want to note that when I invoke the “Just War” comparison, I’m not trying to suggest that we should adopt a warfare mentality in opposing abortion.  What I’m grappling with, and in a broader sense am trying to understand about Catholic moral teaching, is how to delineate when it’s ok to do evil for good and when it’s not.

I think it’s important to distinguish “doing evil” from “sinning”.  It is, for instance, an evil to stab somebody and cut out a chunk of their living flesh.  But it was not a *sin* for my doctor to do so yesterday when she removed a precancerous mole.  I had to suffer an evil, but not a sin.  It would be better if I had not had to have a portion of my body cut out, but given the circumstances, it was necessary to suffer that evil in order to prevent a worse one.

Same with war.  It is always an evil and killing in it is always an evil, but it is not necessarily a sin.  That said, our problem is that, once you make that distinction, people eager to commit sin are all too easy to convince themselves that the sins they want to commit are not sins, but justifiable evils.  One way to measure this is how often they approach the evils they want to commit in the spirit of *getting* to commit them, rather than reluctantly *having* to commit them.

Just war theory is formulated *entirely* in the spirit that war is something we sometimes *have* to do, never as something we *get* to do.  So it is constructed to put up a  whole series of obstacles designed to make going to war extremely difficult to justify.  You have to fulfil *every* criterion (ius ad bellum) in order to have a just war.  And once you fulfil them, you have a second set of criteria (ius in bello) which say, “Even if you are justified in going to war, that does not mean you may therefore fight that war by any barbaric means necessary”.  The whole posture of the Church sets its face *against* war in the first place.  The whole posture of our bellicose age sets itself *toward* finding pretexts for war.

Because of this, lots of Catholics look at Just War theory as a series of legalistic hoops to jump through which, if they can (no matter how preposterously) meet the criteria, they *get* to go to war and they *get* to kill, lie and do whatever it takes to win.  It’s a mindset that is fundamentally alien to the mind of the Church, which sees the goal as the preservation, flourishing and *divinization* of human life as the goal, while the worldly mind sees “Getting away with as much slaughter and human degradation as possible while not quite being guilty of mortal sin” as the goal.

You seem to be arguing that we need to call evil things evil, even when those evil things are being done in an effort to bring about good.  I don’t disagree with that position.  However, you also seem to be arguing that, in the case of Live Action, it may be unwise to use evil acts (lying) even in an effort to bring about good (exposing Planned Parenthood).  That is, choosing to do evil or to tempt others into doing evil is not an ok strategy for the simple fact that you’re choosing to do evil.

Thomas would certainly say so.  His argument is that since lying is always a sin (and God *never* forces us to sin) there is (at least in theory, assuming adequate moral preparation, sufficient wits, etc.) some way to achieve one’s goal (i.e., saving human life) without having to lie.  Now, Thomas is not an idiot and recognizes that, as with the Egyptian midwives, not everybody has their wits about them or has given all that much thought to the matter in many cases, so we often get caught with our pants down and just lie because we can’t think of anything else to do when the Egyptians want us to kill the Israelite babies.  So he doesn’t spend any time faulting the midwives for actual sin.  He just says that their lie was “not meritorious”: it was not a good, but was simply the best they could do in their highly honorable attempt to save life.  The problem he (and I, and Augustine and the Catechism) have is that the apologists for the Noble Lie don’t say “It was the best they could do.”  They say it was noble, that lying is a good thing, that we should make the Noble Lie a permanent part of the prolife Christian toolkit and condemn those who reject this as fools who don’t know how vital lying is to the Christian life.  They say we should, in the end, recognize that Jesus blesses lying himself and was, in fact, a practitioner of the Noble Lie.  It is that cancer on Catholic moral theology I am warning against.

Just War seems to suggest that doing evil (taking human life) to bring about good (protecting the innocent) can be ok, but that we should always be aware that taking life is always evil.  The same can be said for self-defense.  If someone breaks into my house to cause harm to my family, it’s evil for me to take their life even if doing so is absolutely necessary.

Killing in war is, in Catholic theology, always a question of double effect.  You don’t *get* to kill in war.  You sometimes *have* to kill in war, because there is no less messy way of stopping an aggressor.  But if there were–if, for instance, war were fought with phasers and not with guns–the Church would absolutely *demand* that the phasers always be set on “stun” and never on “kill”.  In short, the goal is always to stop the aggressor and only accidently does it happen that in doing that, he may have to be killed.

This is why the argument, “We get to kill in war, so why don’t we get to torture?” is a total wash.  You don’t *get* to kill: you *have* to kill.  But once the aggressor is your captive, you don’t *get* to kill him.  You now have an obligation to treat him humanely with respect to his human dignity.  Therefore you cannot torture him either.

In the same way, Thomas (and the Church) place such a premium on truth as the essential glue that holds all human society (not to mention the Faith) together that they reject the use of the Lie for the greater good just as they reject the use of murdering prisoners for the greater good.  They realize that once you give the Lie an inch, it will take a mile.  As James says, the tongue is a fire. Light just a little fire of lying and it won’t stay little in a society as full of tinder as ours is.  Once grant that you can lie for the Greater Good and every lie will be justified in the mind of the liar.  It’s an insane way for the apostles of a *faith* to proceed, for the first casualty of the Lie will be all faith.

My question is not about whether Just War directly applies to the abortion issue, it’s whether the principle that underlies Just War, self-defense, etc., can be applied to the abortion issue.  If it cannot, then I’m not clear on why.  That is, if it’s not a good idea to lie (to do evil) to expose Planned Parenthood (which is good), why is it ok to take human life (evil) to protect innocents or my family members (good)?

I think the problem turns on the word “okay”.  It’s an ambiguous word, that can mean “tragic, but necessary” or “fine and dandy”.  Killing in war is like amputation in medicine.  If your doctor comes to you and says, “We have to have your gangrenous leg off” a moral theologian would say in colloquial English that it is “okay” for him to do so because it is necessary to save your life–that is, he is not sinning.  But I highly doubt you would feel “okay” about it and, if you had to crawl through a sewer to avoid it and find some way to save your leg you would do it. It is *that* level of reluctance the Church has toward taking human life.  That’s why Just War is formulated to make it so incredibly hard to go to war and why Benedict has, in fact, raised the question of whether advances in warfare and the way in which whole civilization are now involved in warfare make it necessary to abandon the idea of Just War altogether.  The whole energy and animus of the Church is *away* not toward the use of warfare and violence.

In the same way, the problem with the debate about lying is that the apologists for lying are constantly seek for opportunities to lie, not proceeding from the basis of “how do we avoid this if at all possible” (in this, the mental posture is much like the discussion of torture over the past ten years, in which the question was not “How do we treat prisoners humanely and get our intel?” but “How much abuse can we heap on a prisoner without it quite technically counting as torture?”  The goal, in each instance, is not to pursue virtue, but to jailhouse lawyer our way out of quite getting caught sinning.  It always reminds me of the guy who quizzes his buddies at the gym about how sexually involved he can get with the secretary before it’s “technically adultery”.  The very fact he is asking the question shows the cancer is already present.

“But we are trying to save lives too!”  True, which is why St. Thomas doesn’t go hard on the Hebrew midwives and would likely not go hard on LA or CMP either.  But he would go *very* hard on people who try to make lying a positive good, just as he would go very hard on somebody who solved a hostage situation by shooting through the body of the hostage in order to kill her captor.  You cannot establish truth by murdering truthfulness.  The danger of the Noble Lie, as with all Faustian Bargains, is that in a conflict with Satan you cannot play by his rules because the House Always Wins.  The result of the embrace of the Noble Lie by the prolife movement will be some small culture war victories which thrill prolifers just enough to convince them that this needs to become a permanent tool in the toolkit: many will conclude-have concluded–that we need to make ourselves into more and more skilled liars, tricksters, and deceivers.  Planned Parenthood will not be drastically impacted in the long run, for the simple reason that the culture will not be impacted in the long run by such tactics.  What will impact that culture will be the long slow unglamorous work of conversion of hearts and minds and discipleship to Jesus Christ–the very thing made less and less likely when prolife Christians gain themselves a reputation as liars who will say and do anything to win.  Folly.

Again, I’m not critiquing your position, I’m genuinely trying to understand.  Your views carry much weight with me.

I understand.  And thank you for your intelligent and probing questions.  I would talk to a real moral theologian like Chris Tollefson about this.  I don’t even play one on the Internet, but since you asked what I thought, I felt bound to answer as  best I could.

God bless you!

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  • capaxdei

    The problem with distinguishing between “doing evil” and “sinning” is that they mean the same thing. If you’ve argued yourself to the point of saying you may sometimes do evil that good may result you need to go back and clean up your language.

    I too will defer to a moral theologian, but I’ll suggest distinguishing between evil acts and evil consequences. The fact that an act has evil consequences — that it causes the loss of some due good — doesn’t establish that the act itself is evil — that it is not in accord with God’s will.

    • chezami

      Like I say, I don’t even play a moral theologian on the internet. I think your distinction is better than mine, but I did the the best I could.

      • Eric

        “True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! In our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!”

        Perhaps it demonstrates my child-like mind, but Tolkien seems to present these issues in the most beautiful way. Who hasn’t been tempted as Borimir was in this scene? I tell myself, “Hey, I’m true-hearted. Hey, I just want to defend myself and my brethren. Hey, my cause is just. This display of strength is necessary. Hey, the power of the enemy is so effective. Why shouldn’t I use his own power against him? This evil is a gift. Ruthlessness is the only road to victory.” Ugh, wretch that I am. Have mercy on me Oh God!

        • Cas

          How many lives could have been saved, Boromir’s included, if the Council of Elrond had not been stacked with milquetoast cowards who lacked the will to do what was necessary, unlike Real Men such as Boromir? It’s easy to hide behind abstract principles when it’s not your city and your people that stand between Mordor and civilization.

          (All joking aside, I really like Tolkien’s portrayal of Boromir as a tragic figure, and that, in spite of everything he did, he died a hero.)

    • Cas

      It’s been a while since I had any formal theological instruction, but I believe that “evil” can further classified into at least two categories: natural evil and moral evil. A natural evil includes things such as natural disasters, disease, and the amputation which Mark mentioned: all things that bring about human suffering, but none of which are caused by a moral agent — that is, a person who brings these things about by their actions. There is no sin involved here. Moral evils — that is, sin — are human acts.

      I’m no moral theologian either, and beyond this point is where things start to get fuzzy and my understanding breaks down, so I’m going to quite while I’m not too far behind. 🙂

    • Linebyline

      I think the issue is with the distinction between “an evil” and “a moral evil” which is what most people mean when they use the word “evil” in everyday speech. Like Cas said, there’s also “natural evil,” but in my experience we don’t usually use the word “evil” to talk about that.

      Evil acts vs. evil consequences is also an important distinction, of course. It is the basis for double-effect (which, while not the be-all-end-all, is very important to much of our moral reasoning).

      • Moral evils are acts that we commit against the order of nature or against God’s will. All moral evils can, in theory, be avoided; though it is often easier in the moment, it is never necessary to commit moral evil.

        Natural (or ontological) evils are events that we suffer, sometimes as a result of our actions, and sometimes just as a result of living life in a fallen world. Some natural evils are inevitable and impossible to avoid.

        One of the major problems with 21st century American culture is that we generally consider avoiding natural evil to be absolutely imperative, and moral evil a small price to pay to avoid (if only momentarily) natural evil. This is exactly backwards from all ethical thought from ancient times till at least the Enlightenment, and also contrary to reality: some natural evils (e.g., hunger, pain, death) are inevitable and impossible to avoid.

  • Makes sense to me; sometimes it may be absolutely essential to do a small wrong to prevent a larger one, but it should never be a first resort, or something you seek out.

    • capaxdei

      No. No. It is *never* right to do wrong! That’s what “wrong” means.

  • Cas

    Bravo, Mark, well said. Nothing really new here that you haven’t said previously, but it is a tricky issue for me to wrap my head around and really understand, and repetition helps me learn; I assent with my will and agree with what you say about lying for a greater good (which is simply what Church teaching says), but I don’t understand it well enough yet on an intellectual level to explain as eloquently as you.

  • Mike Petrik

    An excellent explication that will likely not fully satisfy either side to this debate:

    • ManyMoreSpices

      It seems that while it may be possible to construct a hypothetical situation in which lying is the only option that will prevent a catastrophic evil, these scenarios end up being fanciful. Fanciful to the point that they cannot be analogized usefully to any situation that 99.999999% of us will ever encounter. For the remaining 0.000001% of us, when you do find yourself facing actual Nazis who are looking for the actual Jews you are secreting, and who will accept your lie without checking, sure: lie. I don’t think you’re going to Hell for that. As for the rest of you: don’t lie.

      • Mike Petrik

        The hypotheticals explored in the essay are not proposed as boundaries for some sort of exception to a rule, but are instead proposed to test the rule itself. If the rule is found wanting then the heavy lifting must be done to explore and define appropriate boundaries, which may or may not yield the percentages you assume. Personally, I have no settled view as to whether the rule is morally deficient or, if so, what the boundaries of its exceptions might look like. Accordingly, I am envious of the easy confidence displayed by our host blogger and many of his expert commenters.

  • Chris

    I like your post and don’t normally comment. I often place my imagination in outlier situations such as what would I do if, say, someone willfully hurt one of my two baby girls. It is possible that I would pummel the attacker to within an inch of his life and likely cripple him. In this case, I fully recognize that I am divorcing myself from reason and violating my conscience, and thus the will of God — and further, that my act is truly evil. I would probably receive secular accolades for teaching the attacker a lesson and preventing future incidents. Still, I accept as a Christian that this is a violation of God’s universal truth (natural law), and that even the attacker is made in the image of God. I am no proportionalist. If anyone one element — the intention, the result, or the circumstances — is evil, it is evil.

    That said, as a career military guy whose been places, I am having trouble justifying jus ad bello in any recent war (maybe because I know that there is no good end once we jump into it). WW2 maybe, but we would need to talk jus in bello later. With ISIS last year I was excited to jump right in to exact punishment, but failed to calculate (again) the impact, and it led to a moral crisis within my conscience. Now I’m repenting.

    Clearly, I’ve got some figuring out to do… Thanks for the help on getting that started.