Life and Truth

Published Date: February 15, 2011 | Topics: Philosophy

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By Robert George

The on-line journal Public Discourse, under the brilliant editorship of Ryan Anderson, has become a key site for people interested in the rigorous analysis of contemporary disputes about ethics and morally-charged questions of law and public policy.  Its editorial policy is unabashedly and unambiguously pro-life, but it provides a forum for the airing of disagreements within the pro-life family.

Over the past week, Public Discourse has published an important exchange of opinions between two leading pro-life philosophers—Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor—on the legitimacy of lying in the fight against grave injustices, such as the taking of innocent human life.  Rick Garnett has already called attention to this debate.  Its occasion is the “sting” operation carried out by pro-life activist Lila Rose and her organization Live Action, which has profoundly damaged the credibility and reputation of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, by exposing the willingness of some of its employees to aid and abet those whom they were led to believe were involved in the sex trafficking of underage girls.

Tollefsen and Kaczor agree that Planned Parenthood is a deeply malicious organization that should, by all legitimate means, be vigorously opposed by everyone who recognizes the humanity, dignity, and right to life of the child in the womb.  The question in dispute between them is whether lying is a legitimate means.  Tollefsen, in line with the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, argues that lying is always and everywhere wrong, and may never be resorted to, even as a means of preventing wrongful killing and other grave injustices.  His account of the moral wrongness of lying focuses on its damage to the integrity of the liar and to the relationship (the communio) of the liar and the person to whom the lie is directed—damage that is unavoidably done whether one’s lying is in a good cause or a bad one.  Kaczor appeals to a counter tradition, one associated with Cassian and St. John Chrysostom, that maintains that there are narrow circumstances in which lying (to those who have “no right to be told the truth”) is permissible as a means of frustrating the efforts of a grave wrongdoer to achieve his evil objectives.

The blogosphere is now filled with people weighing in on the competing sides.  Catholic blogs, in particular, seem to be occupied with the question.  As has been pointed out by people on both sides, the original draft of the Catholic Catechism contained language leaving room for the Cassian/Chrysostom position; but that language was removed in the final official version.  The firm teaching of the magisterium, reconfirmed in the Catechism, is that lying is intrinsically immoral and is therefore impermissible even as a means of preventing grave injustices and other evils.  I don’t see how it is possible to avoid the conclusion that this teaching requires of Catholics the submission of intellect and will that is known as “religious assent.”

Even apart from the invocation of religious authority, it seems to me that Tollefsen (with whom I am co-author of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life) is correct that lying is intrinsically wrong.  So the only way I can think of to defend Live Action’s tactics is to argue that the utterances and actions of those who represented themselves as sex traffickers and prostitutes were not lies.  My sense is that Rick is inclined to defend Live Action’s tactics in precisely this way.  I don’t think it can possibly work when it comes to the utterances of the Live Action team.  They stated things they knew to be false precisely with a view to persuading the Planned Parenthood workers that they were true.  That’s just what a lie is.  And their utterances were not made in a context of social conventions that could render a statement one knows to be false something other than a lie:  such as when someone invites a friend out for a “quiet meal” on his birthday, only to deliver him to a big surprise party in his honor.  Could Live Action have pulled off the sting without making false utterances?

I think the answer to that is probably yes.  And that takes us to the next question.  What about deceptions that do not involve false utterances?  Some are plainly wrong.  Others, however, seem pretty clearly not to be.  Tollefsen points out that Aquinas, while condemning lying even in justified wars, held that military feints are not necessarily lies and can be morally permissible. Getting to just what it is that distinguishes the two is, I predict, where this debate is heading—and that, I believe, is just where it should head.  Getting greater clarity on the issue would be valuable to all who wish to use every legitimate means, while avoiding every illegitimate one, in working to defend human rights, protect the common good, and fight grave injustices such as abortion.

Catholics certainly, but non-Catholic pro-lifers, too, should reject lying even in the greatest of good causes.  What we fight for is just and true, and truth—in its unparalleled splendor and luminosity—is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.  It is the truth about the precious life of the child in the womb, and about the consequences of abortion for women and men, and the effects of abortion on families, on the medical profession, and on society more broadly, that will ultimately enable us to build a culture of life—a culture in which, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus prayed, “every child will be protected by law and welcomed in life.”

Professor Tollefsen is, I believe, profoundly right that we must not permit our cause to be sullied by lying.  We must not abandon faith in the power of truth to transform those who oppose us in the great struggle over the protection of human life in all stages and conditions.  We must not forfeit our standing in the debate as the tellers of truth

Does this place us at a disadvantage in the struggle?  Someone will say:  the entire edifice of abortion is built on a foundation of lies—lies about the the biological status of the human being developing in the womb (“a mere clump of undifferentiated tissue, no different than a mole or a fingernail”); lies about the number of maternal deaths from illegal abortions prior to Roe v. Wade; lies about the so-called “medical necessity” of partial-birth abortions; and on and on.  Why should we deny ourselves the use of weapons that many on the other side wield freely?  Do we not deeply disadvantage our cause and, in that way, sin against its unborn victims by refusing to lie?  Are we “keeping our hands clean” at the price of putting off the day when outfits like Planned Parenthood will be dumped onto the ash heap of history?

I understand the impatience; indeed, I share it.  The edifice of abortion is indeed built on a foundation of lies.  And in working to protect the victims of abortion, it is frustrating to hold ourselves to standards that so many on the other side freely disregard.  But there are no moral shortcuts to victory in this struggle.  A culture of life can only be built on a foundation of truth.  Lying may produce short term victories, but it will, in the end, frustrate our long term objective.  Respect for life—like respect for every other great human good and every other high moral principle—depends on love of truth.  Our efforts in the cause of life and every other worthy goal will, in the end, prove to be self-defeating if they undermine love of truth.

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