In my recent post showing how Live Action has exposed Planned Parenthood clinics abetting child prostitution, we observed people working for Live Action acting undercover. That is, they were acting as though they were people that they weren’t really. A man posed as a pimp when he wasn’t actually a pimp, and a woman posed as a prostitute when she wasn’t really a prostitute. They did this because had they announced up front that they represent Live Action and they wanted to know how staff members would respond if they were confronted with child prostitution, they would either have been told to leave, or they could rest assured that the answer given would reflect the desire to present Planned Parenthood in the best possible light, and therefore may not have been correct. Live Action therefore intentionally led Planned Parenthood staff members to believe things that were not true in order to get the truth that they would otherwise not have uncovered.
Working undercover in this way is of course nothing new. Police detectives work undercover posing as potential buyers of illegal drugs, spies work undercover in order to obtain sensitive information from enemies and so on. Less controversial still are examples like the “mystery shopper” who is paid to go into a store and pose as an everyday customer in order to assess the level of customer service, or football players who “fake” a pass, pretending that they are going to pass the ball one way when in reality they are not going to hold onto the ball and run for the other end of the field.
In spite of the relatively widely accepted practice of going undercover in all sorts of different ways, some have raised an objection to Live Actions’s conduct in doing what they have done. A spokesman for Planned Parenthood raised the objection first, attacking Live Action for “lying.” However, criticisms have also come from sources much closer to home for Live Action, the group spearheaded by pro-life spokesperson Lila Rose, who is a Catholic (this becomes relevant later when we look at her recent critics).
Immanuel Kant* famously claimed that deceiving people is wrong under all circumstances, even when lying would save the lives of millions. In his essay “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,” Kant said:
Truthfulness in statements that one cannot avoid is a human being’s duty to everyone, however great the disadvantage to him or to another that may result from it… [I]f I falsify… I… do wrong in the most essential part of duty in general by such falsification… that is, I bring it about, as far as I can, that statements (declarations) in general are not believed, and so too that all rights which are based on contracts come to nothing and lose their force; and this is a wrong inflicted upon humanity generally… For [a lie] always harms another, even if not another individual, nevertheless humanity generally, inasmuch as it makes the source of right unusable.
The implications of this strong prohibition seem fairly implausible to most of us. From police stings to mystery shopping right through to the brave souls who hid Jews in their homes and lied to the Gestapo to save as many lives as possible, all such acts are branded as immoral from Kant’s point of view.
But Kant has modern friends too. Catholic philosopher Christopher Tollefsen has put his foot down on Kant’s side of the fence. Of Live Actions undercover operations, he says that they “represent a real and dangerous corruption of the pro-life movement itself by endangering the pro-life movement’s commitment to its ideals of love and truth.”
As Francis Beckwith notes, it is fairly difficult to maintain from a Christian point of view that intentionally misleading other people is always wrong. The prostitute Rahab of the city of Jericho deceived others by concealing Hebrew spies in her house, and yet Scripture has nothing but praise for her actions (Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25).
However, those Catholic voices that have spoken out against Live Action at very least have something on their side: The Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes a strict stance here. Dr Tollefsen, in replying to his Catholic critics, was able to point them directly to the source of teaching taken by Catholics to be authoritative, when it states:
2482 A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, … there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
2483 Lying is the most direct offence against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbour, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.
Not all lies are of equal seriousness, according to the Catechism, but all lying is immoral:
2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.
2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbour into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.
2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgement and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.
There appears to be no wiggle room: Yes, some lies are less serious than others when a range of factors – most relevantly including the intentions of the liar – are taken into account, but even with the best of intentions a lie (that is, saying something false with the intention of deceiving another) is a sin.
Gerard Nadal attempts to widen the narrow way created by the Catechism. Although he assures us that “I have no desire to get into debates over what constitutes a lie or not [sic],” he is no doubt certain that “I would lie through my teeth in order to preserve the Jews whom I would definitely shelter.” So how does he get around the very strict stance taken by the Church? He notes that in paragraph 2488, the catechism states clearly that you do not always have the duty to tell the truth. Sometimes you may withhold it. Fair enough point, but obviously this is not at issue here. What is at issue here is making statements or deliberately conveying claims that are false. And here is where Nadal’s manoeuvre comes into play. In the comments section where somebody points out that Live Actions conduct was indeed designed to lead people into error (i.e. believing false claims), he responds by saying: “the Church is talking about ‘moral error’ or ‘error in faith’ when it uses the word error.”
In other words, the claim is that when the Catechism defines a lie as a false statement designed to get lead a person into error, it is only referring to statements designed to get people to commit sin (i.e. to fall into moral error) or to believe a false theological teaching (an error of faith). But this is manifestly not what the Catechism is saying at all. Consider the statement about the consequences of lying: “It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgement and decision.” This quite obviously applies, not just to deception in regard to theology or morality, but to deception per se. What is more, Nadal’s attempt to swing the gate wide open on the Catechism definition of a lie has consequences that are arguably even more implausible than those of Kant’s stance. It would mean, for example, that if my intention was to lead people to Christianity and not into an error of faith, I could tell them false stories about me being an eyewitness to breathtaking miracles: resurrections from the dead, instantly regrown limbs, the immediate disappearance of cancerous tumours, and none of this would count as a lie. I could deliberately mislead people with sob stories about a sick daughter who needed money for an operation, thus prompting great deeds of charity from them in giving me money that I could pocket, and I could defensibly say that I am not a liar. To say that this is a stretch is to understate things radically.
For those who defend Live Action (as I do) and who also maintain adherence to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (as I do not), cognitive dissonance seems to me to be the only have, if it can be called as much. My solution is somewhat less taxing on the mind: The Catechism got it wrong.
* Initially this read “fellow Catholic Immanuel Kant.” Whoops, I momentarily got his church affiliation muddled with that of Rene Descartes, who was Catholic.
- Planned Pimphood
- Denial is not an option: Planned Parenthood and the sale of body parts
- Kant: There is no such thing as coincidental righteousness
- Does self sacrifice make a greater difference in godless universe?
- One reason why I’m not Catholic