Fig Leaves and Falsehoods

Morality Right and Wrong by Janet E. Smith -
The exposé of Planned Parenthood engineered by Live Action has not only disclosed some illegal and immoral operations of Planned Parenthood, it has also revealed sharp divergences in the pro-life movement and Catholic community about what counts as lying. Pro-lifers are, of course, thrilled that more of the evildoing of Planned Parenthood has been brought before the public, leading many legislators to vote to cease government funding of the organization. But some ask: By utilizing actors posing as pimps and prostitutes and falsely claiming to employ fourteen- and fifteen-year-old sex workers who need abortions and gynecological services, did Live Action use an evil means to a good end?

The answers vary. For instance, Christopher Tollefsen wrote in the online journal Public Discourse that intentionally telling falsehoods to anyone is immoral. He holds that people faced with such challenges as protecting Jews from Nazis should resist them by means other than falsehood and volunteer to die with any Jews captured. Peter Kreeft, writing for, countered with the claim that all decent human beings intuitively know that it is moral to tell falsehoods to protect the lives of the innocent from those threatening serious evil.

Why such differences? Isn’t there a clear Catholic teaching on the matter? Isn’t lying intrinsically wrong, a manifest violation of the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness? Those who argue that the Catholic Church has a clear and settled teaching on the matter point to the final and authoritative version of The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” But the first version of the Catechism qualified its condemnation of lying by defining lying as leading someone into error “who has the right to know the truth.” The clear implication was that it may be right on occasion to speak falsehoods to those who do not have the right to know the truth.

Some argue that the removal of the qualifier from the final edition indicates that the first edition was wrong, but that is not the only possible interpretation. In Laetemur Magnopere, the Apostolic Letter accompanying the authoritative edition, Pope John Paul II never indicated that the earlier version was in error. Rather, the changes “allow for a better expression of the Catechism’s contents regarding the deposit of the Catholic faith,” and the new version “faithfully repeats the doctrinal content which I officially presented to the Church and to the world in December 1992.” No changes in doctrine took place between the first and final editions.

The doctrinal unity between the two editions of the Catechism is that all lying is wrong. The diversity is in whether all deliberate and voluntary acts of false assertion are immoral. Christopher Kaczor argued in Public Discourse that it may be that the authoritative version of the Catechism decided to go with the more probable opinion—the one that a greater number of faithful theologians hold but one that is not settled doctrine. It would be wrong to label as dissenters those who continue to argue that the condemnation of lying does not rule out all false signification; theirs is simply the less probable view at this point. Indeed, the failure of the Catechism to condemn explicitly such practices as spying, sting operations, the deceptive missives and maneuvers of warfare, and research that involves deception suggests that the question remains open.

What about Scripture?
Doesn’t Scripture clearly condemn false signification? Certainly there are many passages that condemn lying, but no clear definition of lying is given. Indeed, there are many stories in Scripture where lying is at least countenanced, if not endorsed: The midwives lie to Pharaoh about why they failed to kill the Hebrew babies. Nathan expects David to believe a made-up story. Jesus himself, after telling his apostles he is not going up to the festival, in fact goes. Those who condemn all false signification find various ways to interpret these passages. They are not wrong, of course, to try to find an interpretation that corresponds with their views, but if some falsehoods are justified, no interpretation is needed and the straightforward meaning stands. Indeed, perhaps God is signaling that on occasion—in particular the occasion of protecting the innocent—we are right to engage in false signification.

The most daunting obstacle to those who defend some false signification is the fact that both Augustine and Aquinas condemned all false (and even misleading) signification. Yet, a close examination of Aquinas’ reasons, which are largely the same as Augustine’s, may lead some—as it has led me—to reject both the reasons and the conclusions.

Aquinas’ evaluation of lying is rooted in his Aristotelian metaphysics, specifically in his view that every thing and every action has a purpose. Aquinas’ moral theory depends upon things having natures given to them by God; to violate those natures is to do wrong. For instance, Aquinas holds that fornication, homosexual acts, and masturbation are wrong because they violate the end or purpose of sexual intercourse.

Speech and communication fall under the same analysis. Enunciative signification is some action or some speech—any means of communication—that attempts to assert a truth about reality. Aquinas holds that the purpose of all enunciative signification is to convey the concepts in one’s mind.

Aquinas’ analysis of the purpose of signification rests on his larger understanding of the meaning of truth. He holds that everything that exists in the world is a word of God, an expression of what is in the divine mind. Thus when we are thinking about reality we are forming concepts in our minds of the speech that God has truthfully uttered in creation, and when we communicate by word or deed, we are obliged to seek to make our speech true to God’s speech.

Thus, in keeping with his understanding of the truth, Aquinas concludes that to signal by speech or by deed anything contrary to what one holds to be true is to violate the purpose of signification. As he puts it in his analysis of lying in the Summa Theologica: “For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind.”

Accordingly, Aquinas has zero tolerance for false signification, even to save an innocent life. According to his principles, it would be wrong to say to a Nazi seeking to kill Jews hiding in an attic: “There are no Jews in the attic.” He also maintained that it was wrong to cause someone to have a false opinion by telling the truth. Thus I believe that it would violate Aquinas’ principles to use true speech to mislead Nazis. Someone who had no Jews in his attic, but who answers the door of his neighbor’s house where Jews in fact are hidden, cannot morally say, “There are no Jews in my house,” since he would be leading the Nazi to think falsely about reality. Similarly, a soldier can hide in the bushes to ambush his enemy, but he cannot place his empty tent strategically to deceive the enemy about his whereabouts, for that would be to lead another to think falsely about reality.

This rigorous view extends to the social uses of falsehood as well. Aquinas condemns all false representations of reality, including saying something false for the sake of amusement, ruling out what is known as a “jocose lie.” The same holds for dissimulation designed to smooth over awkward social situations or designed to calm the immature or deranged. This does not mean that Aquinas holds that all false significations are mortal sins. Lying to the Nazi at the door, exaggerating a story for entertainment, and pretending to enjoy a meal that does not please all fall under the category of a venial sin. Nonetheless, by his way of thinking all false signification is a sin, and as such can never be employed.

Aquinas’ rigorism about uttering falsehoods is certainly cogent, but hard to reconcile with some of his other positions. Aquinas (and the Church) approve of killing someone for the sake of protecting innocent life as well as commandeering or destroying the property of another to protect other goods. Thus the question: Why shouldn’t Aquinas (and the Church) permit false signification uttered in order to protect innocent life and other important goods?

Can the defense of some false signification be squared with the traditional absolute prohibition of lying?
A close consideration of the analogy with the use of lethal force and the taking of property should help us see that the absolute prohibition can be retained. Neither Aquinas nor the Church understands the use of lethal force in defense of innocent life to be an “exception” to the prohibition of murder. Nor does the taking or destroying of property belonging to another when necessary to avert some great evil function as an “exception” to the prohibition of theft. Murder is the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being. Theft is taking something against the reasonable will of the owner, and a reasonable owner would approve of taking property to protect important goods. Therefore, properly stated, although killing and the taking of property are sometimes morally permissible, the norms against murder and theft remain absolute, without exception. Similarly, I believe that the telling of some falsehoods and other forms of false signification are compatible with the absolute prohibition of lying.

The mistake that Aquinas makes (and those words do stick in my throat!) is that he analyzes the question of lying with a prelapsarian understanding of the purpose of signification—an understanding that presumes the innocence of man before the Fall. He does not make this same mistake in respect to the protection of life and property: He realizes that behavior in reference to human life and property is necessarily different in the postlapsarian world. Before the Fall, man has no need to use force against another, nor need he destroy another’s property (or even possess property). But after the Fall, innocent life is often threatened, and property owners are often absent or unreasonable. Thus new forms of behavior are permissible given new realities, behavior directed towards defending human life and protecting other important goods.

Perhaps, then, the same holds for our words and other communicative actions. Before the Fall, there would have been no reason to engage in false signification. Before the Fall, all communication, all interaction was between innocent and trustworthy human beings. After the Fall, however, all communication is between human beings damaged by sin. Now, language must serve many other purposes besides the conveyance of the concepts on our minds. We need to correct, console, encourage, and deter one another. These actions need not involve falsehoods, but they are a use of language that differs from the fundamental purpose of communicating truth. Indeed, in the postlapsarian world honest communication is a true challenge even among those who trust each other. We find ourselves dissimulating with trustworthy human beings to avoid offending, confusing, or harming them or allowing them to harm themselves or others.

I believe that after the Fall, as is the case with words of consolation and encouragement, certain falsehoods uttered in certain circumstances can be fitting and morally licit uses of language. Certainly, just as in the postlapsarian world we must show great respect for life and property, so too must we continue to show great respect for the truth. We certainly must try to achieve goods without killing or destroying property, and the same holds for our efforts to promote goods without engaging in false signification. But just as destruction of life and property is now sometimes necessary and thus moral for the protection of what is good, false signification is sometimes necessary for the protection of life, property, and even truth itself. Uttering a falsehood to deceive a Nazi in order to save a Jew seems to be just such a case.

I believe that sound reasoning supports the notion that the preservation of harmony, justice, and truth in a postlapsarian world requires a great deal of judicious false signification, from false missives in warfare to the consolation of children and the mentally deranged. In a certain sense, our dissimulations serve as fig leaves, protecting and hiding what others need not know, and in some cases should not know. The use of false signification preserves justice and harmony.

Aquinas and most others who condemn all false signification do so not only because it violates the purpose of signification but also because truth is something we owe our neighbor. We owe them truth for two reasons: 1) Human beings cannot make good decisions unless we know the truth about reality, and 2) we cannot live harmoniously together without trust. False signification, by this way of thinking, violates just relations between members of society.

But is it always a violation of justice in a postlapsarian world to deprive some people of the truth?
Does everyone have the right to truth? Evildoers sacrifice many of their rights. For instance, we deprive prisoners of their freedom of movement. When the community is under attack and resources are needed, private property can be taken to defend life and property. And, of course, the person poised to murder forfeits his right to life, which is why a policeman can fire his weapon with the intent to kill. Why, therefore, should we imagine that everyone enjoys an inviolable right to truth in all communications? Isn’t giving the truth to a Nazi like returning a loaded weapon to a madman? Does he have any right to the truth?

Another argument against false signification is that it is destructive of the integrity and virtue of the agent. Certainly a sign that an activity is immoral is that those who engage in it are corrupted by it. I don’t believe that those who have used false signification to protect the innocent have become corrupted thereby. In fact, I think they grow in virtue. I think those in recusant England, both lay and clergy, who engaged in false signification grew in their faith and virtue; I think those who provided false passports to Jews grew in holiness; I think soldiers who outwit the enemy and policemen who capture criminals through clever false signification are good and admirable, much as soldiers who kill the enemy and destroy the property of the enemy. These are just actions and help the agent grow in justice rather than in vice. Indeed, I believe most who failed to attempt to deter Nazis by false signification would suffer terribly from a sense that they have violated some deeply good part of their being. Some would hardly be able to live with themselves if they remained silent when a false statement would have served to save the innocent.

My disagreement with Aquinas is true to the Aristotelian principles we share. Again, the error I believe he made was not in using the purpose of communication to determine the morality of false signification but in failing to see that the purpose of signification in the postlapsarian world could not remain entirely the same as that in the prelapsarian world. Indeed, I believe the above analysis corresponds to Aquinas’ methodology for determining the nature or purpose of something. He generally discovered the purpose of something by observing how it “operated”: operatio sequitur esse. We know the essence of something by observing what it does. Thus, we should determine the purpose of signification by observing what it does. As argued above, in this postlapsarian world, people, saints and sinners, in every place and culture, use signification for purposes other than conveying the concepts they hold in their mind. What culture doesn’t permit spying, police sting operations, and research programs involving deception, let alone jocose lies and social courtesies involving falsehood? Catholics are generally proud that many priests in the Vatican gave false passports to Jews. Should we revise our evaluation of that action?

Moreover, Aquinas recognized that there are purposes to speech other than asserting truth, such as asking questions and giving commands. Even some speech that appears enunciative, is not. For instance, actors make assertions to an audience who knows they are not attempting to directly convey the truth about reality. In this postlapsarian world, our “audiences”—spouses, children, guests, strangers, enemies, and so on—know that our signification has other purposes than directly conveying the truth. Context, “audience,” makes all the difference in the world. Saying “I’m fine” in response to the greeting “How are you?” signifies virtually nothing and is heard as a generic pleasantry. By contrast, the same response to the same query from a worried and concerned spouse or psychiatrist could be a serious lie. In a postlapsarian world, people know very well not to expect the truth in many situations and in fact are not asking for the truth with many of their questions. They enjoy being amused by exaggerations; they are grateful for falsehoods told to console and encourage them. In wartime enemies do not expect the truth from one another. The Nazi seeking to kill innocent Jews should not expect truth.

Some argue that the principles I articulate are too difficult to apply and too open to abuse. The fact that moral reasoning can be difficult does not render it impossible or unnecessary. Consider the Catholic Church’s teaching on stealing: It says it is not theft to take another’s property “if,” as the Catechism says, “consent [of the owner] can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods.” Surely it takes some discernment to determine when consent can be presumed. Consider as well how much discernment is necessary to determine how much force to use in self-defense and when self-defense is truly warranted. Yes, it will on occasion be difficult to determine when it is moral to tell falsehoods, of what kind, and to whom, but the difficulty of acting upon moral principles does not negate their truth.

So does the above analysis justify the practices of Live Action? Not necessarily. Establishing the morality of some false signification does not in itself justify their action; other matters of principle are involved, such as who has the authority to frustrate or counter the actions of evildoers. There is also the need to scrutinize the specifics of each instance. At this point I am not prepared to do the full analysis needed; rather, I simply want to show that a strong case can be made, using natural law principles and affirming the absolute condemnation of lying, that not all false signification is wrong.

It is with trepidation and, I hope, with due humility that I disagree with Aquinas and go on record as defending a practice that many moralists I respect think always wrong. Nonetheless, I also respect the practices of cultures, the intuitions of nearly everyone, and what seems to me to be sound reasoning about the postlapsarian nature of signification. Much is at stake here: not only the morality of behavior in which most of us engage daily (the “jocose lie” and so forth), but also the morality of telling lies to protect innocent life. We scholars and philosophers owe it to our fellow men and women to get this straight.

HT: First Things


  1. Margaret says:

    If lying is required to avoid prevent someone from dying., or a horror to take place, or in order to avoid unpleasant things from taking place, or a chain of crimes to occur, then it is moral, it is in the interest of doing a good deed. Why dissect everything to the philosophic view and go, over and over the words and you look for high meaning and you do not see the plain truth. Maybe I can not be one outspoken writer or philosopher but I am a Christian and i strongly believe I am following God will in my daily work.