St. Augustine wrote the first extensive treatise on lying (De Mendacio). In it he cites the case of a holy bishop, Firmus of Thagasta, who wished to protect a man who had sought refuge with him. The bishop was so careful of the truth that, rather than lying to the imperial officers who pursued the fugitive, he told them frankly that he would not reveal the man’s location. Firmus maintained this resolve even under torture, with the result that he was eventually brought before the emperor himself. But the emperor was so impressed with the bishop’s virtue that he both praised the bishop and pardoned the fugitive.Augustine tells this story to provide a saintly witness for his argument that lying is always morally wrong, regardless of the circumstances, and to note that God is perfectly capable of extricating from trouble those who stand fast in the truth. His treatise has been widely cited ever since, and his viewpoint was endorsed by no less saintly a scholar than Thomas Aquinas. In the monumental Summa Theologiae, Thomas states the same position: “Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says” (II:110:3). But Augustine and Aquinas were both aware that even many good Christians disagreed with them. In fact, it seems likely that most people throughout history have held that not all falsehoods are morally evil. The issue has been debated intensely by moral theologians for well over 1500 years.
Can a Lie Ever Be Necessary?
What Is a Lie?
Refined Definitions and ExceptionsSome moralists have argued that we are obliged to state the strict truth no matter what the consequences, on the principle that the end does not justify the means. Unfortunately, this makes a presumption that most thinkers would not admit: that the only reason to shy away from the truth is fear of unpleasant consequences. In the case of the murderous thugs, however, most people believe they would be complicit in a grave evil if they were to reveal the location of the intended victim, and it is worth noting that they could be charged as accomplices under most legal systems. Other moralists, as we have seen, argue that we are not strictly obliged to speak the truth, but we must not speak falsely. We may, for example, try to change the subject, keep silence, or openly refuse to answer. But in many cases this also would be likely to betray the innocent, and even very moral onlookers might well ask—somewhat contemptuously—whether this was the best we could do. To address this critical problem more effectively, a great many moralists have tried either to tweak the definition or to suggest grounds for exceptions. For example, some proponents of the first definition have argued that a person is not really speaking against his own mind if his conscience instructs him to say something false (for example, to save an innocent person). This is internally consistent, and we must certainly follow our conscience, but it also weakens the obvious meaning of “speaking against one’s mind” and, in any case, the explanation does not provide any principle by which properly to form the conscience. Therefore, its very subjectivity renders it morally unhelpful. Regardless of definition, many others have suggested that the immorality of lying admits of exceptions. These argue, for example, that one is not obligated to tell the truth to an enemy, or that political leaders may speak falsely for reasons of state. Such exceptions may be permitted by the principle of double effect: Just as one can morally kill to defend someone’s life, so one can morally lie for a similar reason. The deception (or killing) is a secondary effect of a legitimate action. But with killing there is more at work than double effect. It is not moral to kill anyone whose existence threatens our own lives (consider the case of abortion to save the life of the mother, or cannibalism in a life raft). Rather, the one killed must somehow have the character of an unjust aggressor. Thus we commonly define murder as the taking of an “innocent” life (that is, the right to life has not been forfeited) and we distinguish murder sharply from mere killing. If the same is true of lying, the solution is not so much a matter of exception as of definition. The difficulty of conceptualizing the perfect definition has caused many over the centuries to insist on the existence of the necessary lie. Such a lie arises from a conflict between justice and veracity when the exercise of both virtues is demanded by the selfsame moral situation. In other words, we are obliged to tell the truth, and we are also obliged to keep secrets, but there are times when the only way to keep a secret is to lie. Both keeping secrets and speaking truthfully are included under all standard expositions of the natural law and the eighth commandment. When our obligation to protect a secret conflicts with our obligation to tell the truth, the result is a necessary lie—necessary not because it helps us to avoid some potential pain but because it is the only way to preserve justice. On this reading, a very particular exception to the rule exists when there are conflicting moral requirements. We may—indeed, we must—deceive the thugs because it is the lesser of two evils.
A Promising Lead?I referred earlier to the difficulty of conceptualizing a perfect definition of lying that might reveal a solution to our dilemma. The magisterium of the Church has not endorsed any such definition, but it recently came very close to taking a small step in that direction. Over the past hundred years there has been a growing movement among moral theologians to tweak the definition of lying as follows: “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.” This very sentence, in fact, is taken from the initial edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2483, 1994 edition). When the Catechism was first published in French in 1994, and translated into other languages from the French, it contained the sentence quoted above, and so there was some speculation that the Holy See had finally decided to throw at least a modicum of magisterial weight behind this solution to our dilemma. This very precise definition, with its inclusion of the right to know, enables us to handle lying and falsehood in a manner very similar to the way we handle murder and killing. Through a person’s intention to use particular knowledge for an evil end, that person would presumably forfeit his right to know. Thus it would be morally acceptable to speak a falsehood to the murderous thugs. But we would no more call this “lying” than we would call an act of self-defense “murder.” Alas, the matter is not so easily resolved. For, as it turns out, when the official Latin text of the Catechism was released in 1997 after a process of revision, the right to know was dropped. The operative sentence now reads simply: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” Of course, the Catechism is intended as a basic compendium of Catholic doctrine, assembled with due ecclesiastical care, and not as a collection of definitive infallible pronouncements permanently settling every question on every topic it covers. In other words, the change in definition does not mean the original formulation was wrong. But it does mean that the editors of the Catechism were not prepared to endorse it in an official Catholic reference work.
Our IntentionsIn the end, then, the current Catechism does not directly address our problem. Still, after all the consultation which preceded the few changes that were made, the Catechismrepresents a considerable weight of ecclesiastical opinion on the side of a definition which incorporates both objective reality and human intentionality: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (a citation from Augustine), and “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” (CCC 2482, 2483). Perhaps the very emphasis on the intention to deceive in this definition suggests another possible line of thought. For, when we speak falsely to our murderous thugs, we may at least question whether our intention is to deceive. Presumably, that intention—if it exists consciously at all—is very secondary. What we primarily intend is to prevent them from doing evil. It would satisfy a well-formed conscience, I think, to permit the speaking of falsehood when it is the only means we can think of to prevent someone from committing an immoral act. But if so, it is hard to reach such a conclusion only by denying the intention to deceive. There must be something more than that, for we could also say that when we lied to our boss last Wednesday, our intention was not to deceive but to save our skin. Clearly this is just one more possibility for exploration, and so far all the possibilities in history have not led to a formal doctrinal development to settle the matter. It remains the case that, despite our instincts, we don’t quite know how to justify deceiving our proverbial thugs, or telling jokes that involve deception, or doing undercover police work, or engaging in military counter-intelligence activities during wartime. Happily, the Church’s imprecision on this question does not seem to have led to a great heresy or to widespread and dangerous confusion. Perhaps the reason is simple: For most of us, the moral challenge is to find the courage to tell the truth instead of “spinning” it for petty purposes. Our most common problem is not deciding grave questions of life and death but purifying our own questionable intentions. So while lying is a fascinating subject, we are wise to remember the kinds of cases which make it so are very different from the ones we ourselves typically face. If we ask whether Augustine and Aquinas were right in condemning all falsehoods, we may well choose to answer in the negative. But if we ask whether they were right in condemning our own weak and typical lies, only one answer is possible. On these lies, every saint agrees. Written By Jeffrey A. Mirus