Why Lying is Always Wrong


Lying, even for laudable reasons, is wrong.

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Christopher Kaczor and several others have been gracious enough to respond to my essay on the tactics of Live Action with a number of criticisms, many of which deserve a response. For convenience, we may divide the major objections into three sets.

The first set of criticisms calls into question whether the behaviors and utterances of the Live Action “actors” were really lies. First, some think a false assertion is a lie only when told to those with a right to the truth. Second, some think that the Live Action actors made, or perhaps could have made, no false assertions.

The second set of criticisms concerns whether it is always wrong to lie; many critics deny just this, for one or more of the following reasons.

  • One view would have it that lying is not wrong in war. A presupposition of this view, which is defended by Joseph Bottum, is that the pro-life movement is at war with Planned Parenthood and other purveyors of abortion.
  • A second view holds that sometimes lying is defensible by double-effect type reasoning: the harms of lying must, on this view, not be intended. With this objection we get to the heart of the ethical matter: what are the harms of lying, and are they essential to the intention of someone who deliberately lies or not?
  • A third view is that lying is permissible in order to save a human life; on this view, the prohibition on lying is simply not absolute.
  • A fourth criticism concerns my claim that to lie is to fail in love to those lied to; some misunderstand this as a claim that what I call for is “gentleness” towards wrongdoers, perhaps to the exclusion of punishment, but I trust my claim that truthful correction of wrongdoing is genuinely loving suffices to show that I do not hold that view. But others argue that to deceive is not as such unloving, and that the lies told to Planned Parenthood workers were in fact to their good.

The third set of criticisms, finally, concern the consequences of my view. Many critics have claimed that if it is always and everywhere wrong to lie, then such practices as undercover police (or journalistic) work, and some forms of espionage are also wrong.

The Live Action “Actors” Lied

Let us begin, then, with the first set of objections. Was there really no lying done in the Live Action “stings”? Christopher Kaczor cites an early, and subsequently amended, version of the Catholic Catechism which defines lying as not telling the truth to “someone who has the right to know the truth” (CCC 2483). The quoted phrase is omitted in subsequent versions and for good reason. Consider the following scenario: I spend $500 of family money on gambling. My wife has a right to know what happened to this money; my ten-year old son does not. The “right to know” view would have it that I only lie to my wife when I assert to both that I gave the money away to charity. This seems clearly wrong, and points us towards the Catechism’s amended definition: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” On this view, what is essential to a lie is that an agent assert, through speech or action, something he believes to be false; here is the nature of the lie, and thus here also is where the wrong must be found: not in a failure to respect an agent’s “right” to the truth.

But perhaps the Live Action agents did not actually make false assertions? A perusal of the transcripts suggests the implausibility of this view. In the Bronx Planned Parenthood Transcript, for example, the “pimp” says, “Now, also, so we’re involved in sex work, so we have some other girls that we manage and work with that they’re going to need testing as well.” While these seem like straightforward lies, some have suggested that “sex work” here is ambiguous, and that the actors mean something like “work that will end the sex trade.” I can only say that this view strains credulity.

Others have claimed that Live Action did, or could, work only with “hypotheticals”: “what would you say if…” sorts of questions. But consider again the Catechism’s definition of a lie, which suggests that one can lie in action as well as in speech, by using one’s actions—including, presumably, one’s personal presentation—against the truth, in order to lead someone into error. And this too the Live Action “actors” surely did: they were dressed and acted as pimps and prostitutes, not because this was how they usually dressed or acted, but precisely to convey information to the Planned Parenthood workers about what they were, information that they also conveyed in speech: “we’re involved in sex work.” So, it is not the case that they worked only in hypothetical questions, and it is unclear whether, in practice, a hypotheticals-only approach would, in fact, serve their ends.

So I believe we should conclude without doubt that the “actors” in the Live Action videos did indeed lie. This obviously raises the next crucial question: were they wrong to do so?

Lying is Always Wrong

As a preliminary point, those who think, for intellectual or religious reasons, that the theological and philosophical tradition of Western Christianity has evidential value should be much more impressed with the agreement between Augustine, Aquinas, the Council of Trent, and the updated Catechism, all of whom hold that the norm against lying is absolute, than with the secondary tradition which admittedly also exists within Christianity that holds that lying is occasionally permitted. Catholics in particular have very good reason for taking the updated Catechism’s view to be normative for them: “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” (CCC 2485). This judgment reaffirms a claim from the Catechism of the Council of Trent: “In a word, lies of every sort are prohibited.” But we seek here some further understanding of why this unequivocal condemnation might be entirely reasonable.

The first objection was, to recall, that lying is permissible in war. In fact, the authorities mentioned in the previous paragraph did not hold this: Aquinas, for example, condemned lying in war, but he allowed that military feints might be carried out. In a military context, it is assumed (as it is in poker, and in the theater) that what is done will not always have the significance it otherwise might, since soldiers have good reason for preventing the enemy from inferring from what they do what their true plans are. Thus no false assertion is made by the feint. But if lying is always and everywhere wrong, these possibilities do not serve as counterexamples: they are not themselves lies.

More importantly here, however, it is crucial to point out that the pro-life movement is not, in any but the most distantly metaphorical sense, “at war” with Planned Parenthood. To take such a claim strictly would raise unsolvable problems in terms of just war thought: who, for example, is the legitimate authority that has tasked Lila Rose with this work? And it would justify untenable conclusions, for if anything is justified in war, it is the use of arms. Yet the pro-life movement has, rightly in my view, converged on an understanding that the use of arms to stop abortion is not right: it provides a counter-witness to the value of life; it constitutes an unjustified attack on our nation’s overall legal structure; and it is unlikely either to bring peace or to result in a proportionate balance of benefits over harms. The appeal to war is thus a non-starter.

Perhaps, as some suggest, lying could be justified via double effect? As I noted, this question gets us to the heart of the matter, for double effect reasoning is appropriate when there is a moral principle forbidding the intentional bringing about of some harm. Some actions, which bring about that kind of harm nevertheless can be justified because the harm is not intended, but merely foreseen. Thus, assuming that the taking of human life is a harm, and that it is always wrong to intend that harm, nevertheless, many moralists defend some actions which result in death, because the death is not intended.

Now: what are the harms of lying? To answer this question we must understand something of the goodness of truthful communication, for it is that goodness that is, presumably, absent in lying. And that goodness is, I shall suggest, multiple.

In truthful communication, persons disclose, or reveal, reality in two dimensions. Consider the common case of being asked by a stranger for directions. He does not know how to get to a theater, and you provide him directions: you tell him where to go. In this example, your honest communication reveals to him the way the world is, to his benefit. Without such revelation, the truth would be unavailable to our stranger, as would all the other goods that would be available by means of the truth, such as the stranger’s getting to the theater in time to meet his friends and enjoy the show.

But truthful communication also discloses something personal: in affirming that things are this way, not that, not only do you reveal the world to the stranger, but you reveal yourself as well: this, not that, is how you take things to be. When the stranger hears the directions, he does not just hear words; because of the personal dimension of communication, he hears you. And this disclosure’s personal nature is responsible for a well-known aspect of such small gestures of kindness to a stranger as providing accurate directions: to disclose oneself to another through honest communication is a primordial act of the creation of a community, a community which, in this case, is short-lived, but no less real for that.

It is this disclosing aspect of language that has made speech such a natural analogue, in the work of John Paul II, to the self-giving by which spouses enter into marital communion with one another—hence his image of the “language of the body.” And perhaps we can even work backwards from the mutual giving of selves in the body, which characterizes marital union, to the wrong of lying, by way of the following analogy.

Imagine the sexual receptivity of a wife towards her husband that conceals an attitude that is other than one of self-donation; such a concealment would be both a mutilation of the relationship as physically embodied in the union, and of the spouse whose actions are at odds with her inner thoughts and attitudes. More concretely, consider a spouse who fantasizes during marital intercourse about another, or thinks only of his or her own pleasure in the act, or who wishes he was unmarried. Such a spouse is damaging the relationship, but also damaging him or herself by dividing his or her self into the physical (but only illusory) giver of self, and the inner lover of self.

This is indeed quite similar to the wrong of lying. In a lie, a person divides his or her self, making her outer person to say one thing, while her “inner” self believes something else. “Inner” and “outer” are somewhat, but only somewhat, metaphorical here. One’s full self is not, in fact, disclosed just by one’s physical being in the world; it remains for one to communicate much of who and what one is to others in acts and words. When that disclosure is truthful, inner and outer are brought into harmony; when dishonest, inner and outer are sundered.

Could this division be anything but a harm to a person? We show in many ways the value of being able to present a “true face” to the world, as when we rebel at restrictions on freedom of expression, or resent an ideological pressure that prevents us from speaking freely, or when, because of our desire not to harm, we succumb to pressure and say what someone else wants to hear. We respect those who are what they seem, and who speak straightforwardly and with candor: we admire their integrity, precisely that which we see damaged in one who cannot, or will not, speak his mind.

So here is the initial harm of the lie: it divides the inner and outer self, damaging the agent’s integrity; and integrity is a great good. (I expand on this argument in my article in the American Journal of Jurisprudence Lying: The Integrity Approach.”)

But, as the example of the stranger in need of directions indicated, truth in self-disclosure just is the primordial means by which we establish community with another; and the forming of community—the entering into communion—with others just is what it means to love another (thus, naturally enough, as there are many forms of communion, there are many forms of love, and not all are equally appropriate to each person). But this too is damaged in the lie. The essential disclosure of persons to other persons that brings them into a unity is impossible on the foundation of dishonest communication. That communication does not disclose; it seeks to conceal.

There is thus a very strong connection between the virtue of honesty and both the integrity of the self and the unity of persons in love, and a very strong connection between dishonesty—lies—and disharmony of the self and disharmony with others. Of course, the specific truths that are communicated often can play a further role in the building up of community with others, because those truths are, as again the example of the lost stranger showed, essential to the pursuit of many other goods. Yet some truths are not essential in these ways, and yet others could be harmful, so there is no obligation to say all that one knows to be true. Such a duty is not implied by an obligation never to lie.

We now have the resources to make quick work of the central objections to the claim that it is always wrong to lie. Against the claim that double effect reasoning could play a role, for example, we see the following difference between lying and using lethal force: intending death is not intrinsic to the use of force and thus can be accepted as a side effect, but the division of the self that just is the destruction of one’s integrity is intrinsic to the telling of a lie. This harm just is part of what anyone who sets himself to assert what he does not believe to be true intends.

We thus see also why the prohibition on lying is absolute: the goods of integrity and community are fundamental goods, and in themselves, they are nothing but goods, for human persons. In themselves, they thus give us only reason to pursue and promote them for ourselves and others. Things would be different if integrity or community were good only in some respects, but not in others; we would then have reason to seek them, and reason to avoid or prevent them; but just in themselves, they are goods. Action directed at the destruction of one of these goods would thus be, as such, nothing but harmful to persons, and thus wrong. And the prohibition against lying gives witness to this. In speech and action, these goods are never to be intentionally damaged, and as we have seen, a lie always involves such intentional damage.

Of course, most lies are not just intentional damagings of the liar’s integrity, but damagings for the sake of some further good. Yet, since the damage just as such gives no reason to carry out the lie, such a choice could only be justified if the good sought were a greater good than the harm caused by the lie. Such an idea is at the heart of the reasoning of those who believe it permissible to lie to save a life. The good of life must be greater than the good of personal integrity on such an account.

Yet we have no reason to think such weighing is possible; by what measure is there more good in life than integrity? And if that is how the scales come down, than ought not a man to foreswear his faith, or abandon the truth, to save his life? Yet if the weighing is not possible, then the conclusion is clear: there can be no “exceptions” to the norm against intentionally lying, even for serious reasons.

Finally, I believe I have shown why all lies are unloving. It is not because they are not sufficiently gentle, or because they cause hurt feelings, or lose jobs. It is because they are incompatible in the deepest way with a will towards communion with others, which must always be founded on truth, both generally speaking (for falsehood does indeed bring with it many pernicious consequences for a community), and, more specifically, the truth of persons. I have no doubt that the actions of Lila Rose and her Live Action colleagues are ultimately motivated by love; but in utilizing lies and deceit, they have built on a treacherous foundation, thus threatening the entire construction.

Many of our Current Practices are Wrong, Too

The truth that all lies are wrong and that they must all be avoided is hard, no less for polities than for individuals. And this brings us to the final set of objections, which I will here address only briefly. Those objections concerned the practices of undercover work, espionage work, and other forms of journalistic, police, and governmental work that might require lying. Some have expressed surprise that these practices should be called into question; yet Augustine felt it necessary to address the morality of lying precisely in order to stop the practice of Christians infiltrating heretical sects for the defense of the faith; so questioning the legitimacy of undercover work is a very old part of the Christian tradition (I have argued against such work in a philosophical vein in my book Biomedical Research and Beyond: Expanding the Ethics of Inquiry).

The position I have argued for here could not easily be adhered to. And a firm commitment, by any person, or any group, to avoid all lies would inevitably have radical consequences. For there is no doubt that we are surrounded by lies, by deceit, by dishonesty and that each one of us drinks of this cup too often, even in a day’s work. We would lose what we might take to be essential tools of daily life, both personally and politically, were lies taken away from us.

Yet these are only consequences of my view, they are not themselves arguments, and anyone who believes, as members of the great Abrahamic religions do, that the Father of Lies is at the root of much evil, must make a constant struggle not to let their commitment to truth become obscured by the demands of the fallen world. That we have become conformed in our social practice to lies as an essential part of the defense of the realm, and for the protection of citizens, just as in our personal lives, is a fact; indeed, this conformity is, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, the very demand which evil and violence make upon us: “obedience to lies and daily participation in lies.” But this participation is neither an inevitability, nor, in my view, a reflection of what is genuinely demanded by truth and love.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.

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