Is there a Falsehood that isn’t a lie?

A few posts ago, I laid out the recent debate over Lila Rose’s “Live Action” sting operations and the question of their ethicality. Reactions range from “I’m pretty sure they’re wrong because lying is always wrong” to “they seem OK but I’m trying to reconcile them to Church teaching and I can’t figure out how” (where I stand and where Mark Shea stands), to “Of course they’re OK; why are you wasting time talking about this?” to “Anyone who thinks their wrong has an ill formed conscience and can’t understand the nuances of Catholic moral teaching.”


OK, so here’s what I’ve come up with, and I wanted to hash this out for an idea. The Catechism says “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” (2485). That’s hard to get around. People can only get around it with examples, but examples are not Magisterial declarations. That, as Mark Shea says, is what we have the Magisterium and the Catechism for.

At *best*, what Lila Rose is doing is justifiable evil, like self defense, as opposed to a virtuous or heroically virtuous act. Now, to be justifiable, the question is one of compulsion. As Mark Shea also points out, Lila Rose apparently has no authorization or credentials to be in this situation. People compare her to an undercover cop, but she’s not a cop.

At worst, it may be sinful, but I don’t think anyone thinks she intends sin by it, and if she does, that’s her business, but it is an important question because it concerns our potential material cooperation for profiting from her videos.

Now, here’s what I hit on: lying is intrinsically evil. Lying is an act of telling someone a falsehood in order to make them believe something that is not true (“lying to deceive”). There is both an act “telling a falsehood” and an intent (“to deceive”). For an act to be fully moral, according to Catholic teaching, the end, intention and means must all be moral or neutral.

Now. Let’s look at the act of stabbing someone with a knife. A surgeon may stab a person with a knife to perform surgery. A murderer may stab a person with a knife to kill him. A victim may stab an assailant with a knife in order to stop him. If the patient or the assailant dies, the surgeon or victim is not guilty of murder because no murderous intent was involved.

If a police officer undercover commits a crime, and the crime is authorized as part of the undercover operation, the officer is neither legally nor morally guilty (setting aside the issue of undercover work itself).

So, what about the act of telling falsehoods? Is every falsehood a lie? *THAT* is the salient question at stake in this debate, and the one which hardly anyone is addressing, and certainly not in the way I’m phrasing it.

Let’s consider some falsehoods, particularly the ones that have been used frequently in this discussion.

For example, what does a husband say to a question like, “Does this dress make me . . . ?” Hopefully, a husband and wife have an honest enough relationship that they can talk about such matters. Funny that wives can stereotypically criticize their husbands, but a husband can never say anything about his wife. That debate, however, really gets to the question of constructive criticism. “I like the other dress better” or something is a far more effective approach and does not involve lying.

Then there is the whole “Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny” thing. Now, I for one am very much looking foward to finding out that the Easter Bunny does exist. However, there really is no point in these falsehoods that parents tell children. They have more to do with Madison Avenue advertisers than anything else. More importantly, a lot of people grow up and abandon religion because they discard God with “Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny” as “lies my parents told me.” The whole reason the Catechism condemns lying so strongly, besides that God is truth and we should live the truth and speak the truth always, is that lying destroys relationships.

But Santa Claus is based upon the real Saint Nicholas. Now, here’s a key point. Stripping away the reindeer, North Pole, etc., is it a lie to tell children “Saint Nicholas gave you this present”?

Well, the whole tradition of St. Nicholas actually started as an equivalent of the modern day St. Vincent de Paul Society. In the middle ages, people would sneak past the homes of poor people and put money or gifts in their windows on the night of December 5 and say the gifts came from St. Nicholas. Is that a lie? No. It’s not entirely a falsehood, either, since St. Nicholas inspired them to give the gifts. That would be a kind of inversion of C. S. Lewis’s “sixpence none the richer” principle. If you ask someone to buy someone else a present for you, the present still comes from you. So it isn’t a lie to say “the present came from St. Nicholas,” if you’re doing it in honor of St. Nicholas.

Now, what about undercover police work? That gets into a second question, an ontological one, which I will raise in another post: is assuming a false identity a lie? For the time being, I”ll let the police go with the point that they are authorized by the government.

Another one is surprise parties and surprise gifts. I don’t understand what there is to lie about, and I definitely know why it’s wrong. Think about every TV show about a surprise party, where the character goes around totally depressed because everyone seems to have forgotten his or her birthday, just to find out at the end of the day they’re planning a surprise party. It’s just stupid. Why ruin a person’s birthday and make him or her depressed just for an hour or two of partying? A man tells his wife “I have to work late.” We can see why that’s wrong if he’s lying about going to the bar or going out with his mistress. But if he’s buying her an anniversary present, why lie about it? Why not say, “I have to run some errands after work pertaining to a surprise for you” or “pertaining to our anniversary”? Why does it have to be a lie??

Most of these are examples of telling a falsehood in order to deceive. The deception seems innocent enough, and it’s probably not mortally sinful, but it’s still a lie. However, the Church also teaches in the Catechism that a seemingly venial “white lie” can become mortal if its unintended consequences are severe: if the wife, for example, suspects her husband of lying and thinks he’s cheating on her, or if the person with the surpriese party gets horribly depressed about the birthday.

So, what about telling a falsehood for a good?

Let’s get to the big bugaboo that everyone raises. The Nazis are at your door, asking if you’re hiding Jews, and you’re hiding Jews. Oh, no!
Now, what I’ve always heard is you’re supposed to say something like, “There are no Jews here (for you to kill)” or “I am not hiding any Jews” because they’re not hidden; they’re sitting in the upstairs bedroom.
I heard a great homily on EWTN once where an African bishop said to always tell the truth, because if you always tell the Truth, Jesus will protect you, and he talked about some fugitives who were fleeing soldiers. He claimed it was a true story. They hid under a bushel of hay. The soldiers asked the farmer where they were. The farmer said “under the hay.” The soldiers beat the farmer and said, “How dare you lie to us, Old Man!” Then they left. The fugitives got out and said, “Why did you tell them the truth?”
“I knew they wouldn’t believe me. . . . ‘The Truth will set you free!'”

That’s heroic virtue. I realize why some may not have the faith to be so blatantly honest, but I think that plan works. In any case, silence or obfuscation is always better than a lie. However, I don’t think a person who lies in that situation is necessarily sinning, either. The person *is* putting himself at risk of less protection of God by not doing the most virtuous thing.

“What about when X hid from Y by disguising himself as a Z?”
Well, it depends upon what he did. Often, in fiction, when people disguise themselves (as Henry V in Shakespeare’s play disguises himself as a common soldier in a hood), they never explicitly lie. Henry identifies himself as a fellow soldier (which is true), and he talks to the soldiers as one of them. He refers to the king in the third person, but he never says he *isn’t* the King.

In theory, there could be an example of a falsehood that is told with good intent, with the intent of the recipient’s betterment, which bears no chance of causing long term pain. Sometimes, parents tell children falsehoods to protect them from greater traumas or to get them to do something good. If the consequences are not bad, and the intention is not to deceive or lie, then is that even a lie?

Then there’s Obi Wan Kenobi’s “in a manner of speaking.” On the day Darth Vader comes to exist, Anakin Skywalker ceases to exist. Therefore, Darth Vader “betrays and murders” Anakin Skywalker. Again, if the gift is given in the name of St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas gives the gift, just as if a charity check is written by a millionaire in my name, it comes “from me.” Or what about when the Church says, “Fr. X has been sent away on a sabbatical for health reasons” and the “health reasons” are that he’s been shipped off for some transgression? Technically, his “health” is involved, though it may be his spiritual or psychological health.

So, a lie is always to be condemned, but I don’t know if every falsehood is necessarily a lie: the intention to deceive must be there for it to constitute a lie, and if the intention is to bring out a bigger truth or to bring a good, then is it really a lie? That is not the same as consequentialism any more than self defense, since I’m emphasizing that the falsehood must be one that will not cause negative consequences, either. It should ideally involve representing the truth “in a manner of speaking” or leaving out some key fact or speaking the truth with the expectation that the other person will *think* you’re lying. In some ways, it can be more manipulative than a real lie, but it’s technically a truthful statement in some way, while also false, or the falsehood is extremely minor.

That ought to pave the way for the ontological question about assumed identities.


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