Is Lying Ever Justified?


A new book powerfully examines the most important questions surrounding lying and argues that to assert falsely is to commit an act of self-induced practical schizophrenia.

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In a series of explosive videos, The Center for Medical Progress has exposed the abuses, lawbreaking, and corruption of Planned Parenthood, including the selling of fetal body parts and the alteration of abortion procedures so as not to crush fetal body parts for sale. Similar undercover work by Live Action stimulated an extended debate in the pages of Public Discourse and elsewhere over the question: Is lying ever justified?

Christopher O. Tollefsen, who first initiated the conversation in Public Discourse, has now published Lying and Christian Ethics, a terrific book defending the absolutist view that it is never morally acceptable to lie, no matter the circumstances. Tollefsen has caused me to seriously reconsider my own earlier stated position on these issues, and for that I am grateful.

Lying and Personal Integrity

Tollefsen sets out the Christian case against lying—understood as assertion contrary to belief— as found in Augustine and in Aquinas. Augustine provided a forceful denunciation of all false assertion with the intention of deception for any reason as incompatible with love for God who is the Truth. The bishop of Hippo also anticipated and responded to numerous objections raised against the absolutist view. Tollefsen’s summary of Augustine’s views systematizes the great African saint’s thought in a powerful and persuasive way. In Tollefesen’s reformulation, Thomas Aquinas provides an even more philosophically rigorous case against lying as a violation of the basic human goods of personal integrity and sociality.

And so Tollefsen’s argument ultimately is a philosophical one applicable to all humans, not just a uniquely Christian argument. The heart of Tollefsen’s philosophical case against false assertion is that it always violates the basic human goods of truth, religion, sociality, and integrity. Often, Tollefsen rightly points out, false assertion is also an act of injustice in which those with a right to the truth are deprived of what was their due. While many intrinsically evil acts are violations of justice, not all intrinsically evil acts are wrong for this reason. So, lies to those who do not deserve the truth would not be contrary to justice, but still would be wrong as undermining the goods of truth, religion, sociality, and integrity.

Tollefsen argues that to love the truth wholly and unconditionally is to set oneself against falsehood wholly and unconditionally. But to lie is to fail to shun falsehood in all respects. To lie is to act, therefore, against the good of truth. If God is Truth, then the good of religion is also involved. “All truth,” writes Tollefsen, “is both of God, as a source, and like God, as an image.” So love for God gives rise to love for the truth which comes from God, and abhorrence of falsehood. Tollefsen also offers a case that lying is an act against the social good inasmuch as it undermines the potential for community. All truthful communication is an act of love inasmuch as love consists in a union between lover and beloved. In truthful communication, a unity comes into existence between the mind of the communicator and the mind of the interlocutor. To lie is to reject the union that could have existed in truthful communication, and therefore at least partially to reject the social good that could have been instantiated in truthful assertion.

Perhaps the most powerful part of Tollefsen’s case against false assertion is his account of the good of personal integrity, an inner harmony in a person’s judgments, choices, and actions. An agent with personal integrity judges that something is the case or ought to be done, chooses in accordance with that judgment, carries out that choice in a completed human action, and experiences emotions in accordance with prior judgment, choice, and action. Personal integrity consists in an inner unity of the person in the practical order of judgment, choice, action, and emotion.

Tollefsen argues that personal integrity so understood—to be authentic, consistent, and harmonious with oneself—is a basic good, valuable in itself as an aspect of human fulfillment. By contrast, cognitive dissonance, weakness of will, double-mindedness, and inner discord characterize the person lacking personal integrity. Although personal integrity is intrinsically and not just instrumentally valuable, this good has profound social consequences. Simply put, social harmony cannot exist without personal integrity. If people lack personal integrity, they will not be able to cooperate in the social order. Agents divided within themselves cannot be harmoniously united with other people.

Tollefsen argues persuasively and powerfully that false assertion violates the good of personal integrity. The one who asserts falsely has a judgment that something is the case (I have lived in Princeton) but chooses to communicate in a way that contradicts that judgment by asserting, “I have never lived in Princeton.” To assert falsely is to commit an act of self-induced practical schizophrenia. The one who asserts falsely intentionally creates a lack of harmony between the inner believing self and the outer communicating self. Thus, the one who asserts falsely intentionally damages the good of personal integrity. If it is intrinsically evil to act against basic human goods, then false assertion should never be the means chosen even to secure important social or political goods or to avoid evils, including death.

Tollefsen’s reflections on the good of personal integrity merit rereading and serious consideration. He is surely right that human action cannot be properly understood simply in terms of the effects that take place outside the agent. To assert falsely undermines something important in in the one who communicates falsely.

What is Lying?

But let’s take a step back. Lying and Christian Ethics begins by addressing the question, “What is lying?” In the Catholic tradition, we find at least three prominent definitions.

St. Thomas Aquinas’s definition covers the broadest number of cases, defining a lie as any assertion contrary to the mind. St. Augustine, in his two great works against lying, Contra mendacium and De mendacio, includes the intention of deception in addition to false assertion. Covering still fewer cases is the definition first proposed by Hugo Grotius and found in the work of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic theologians. It is this third definition that is found in the first (but not the authoritative revised) edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.”

Tollefsen correctly notes that, over the centuries, the majority of Catholic theologians have not endorsed the Grotian definition. But Tollefsen overstates his case a bit when he asserts that “the Catholic tradition is against the Grotian definition” of lying. The history of Catholic theological opinion is rich both in terms of how a lie is defined and in terms of whether false assertion is considered always intrinsically evil. It is precisely this diversity of opinion—even among canonized saints!—that has led to the controversies about the tactics of The Center for Medical Progress and Live Action. The historical sections of Lying and Christian Ethics would have been strengthened considerably by an engagement with perhaps the most detailed treatment of lying in the Catholic tradition, Gregor Müller’s magisterial Die Wahrhaftigkeitspflicht und Die Problematik der Lüge.

Such quibbles aside, Tollefsen’s views on these topics are in general historically credible. In any case, Tollefsen’s philosophical case for the proposition “assertion contrary to belief is ethically impermissible” does not depend on how lying has been defined by various theologians, nor upon any particular definition of what constitutes a lie. Whatever the theological history, and however we define the term “lie,” we can always raise the philosophical question, “is false assertion ethically impermissible?”

Although Tollefsen ultimately rejects their conclusions, he provides an extended consideration of the Christian case for lying as found in the writings of Cassian, Bonhoeffer, and Niebuhr. Tollefsen is not attempting to provide a systematic overview of all the major Christian views of what a lie is and whether lying is intrinsically evil. Still, this section could have been strengthened if Tollefsen had also analyzed the arguments of St. Clement of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, St. Hilary, St. John Climacus, and others who defended false assertions in various contexts. It may well be that the representatives treated by Tollefsen provide the most powerful Christian case against the view that false assertion is always wrong, but a further engagement with the Catholic sources could have made this chapter even stronger. Still, Tollefsen is to be commended for considering at such length, and without straw-man caricature, the Christian case against his view.

Surprisingly, a central Christian argument against false assertion is unmentioned in Tollefsen’s otherwise admirably thorough book. If false assertion is permissible in order to save innocent human life, then the actions of innumerable martyrs are deeply problematic. Many of them could have avoided death by false assertions such such as, “I am not a Christian” or “I recognize Henry VIII as the head of the Church in England.” Given the duty to preserve and protect innocent lives (including our own), if false assertion is not wrong, these Christian martyrs seemingly acted wrongly in not choosing permissible means to avoid both their own deaths and another’s sin in committing murder.

Personal Integrity and Double Effect

One might wonder whether undermining the good of personal integrity is intrinsically evil. We permit—indeed, we view as heroically generous—the donation of a kidney in order to save another’s life. In kidney donation, the agent intentionally chooses a personal disintegration of well-being, a lack of natural organic integrity, at the physical level. In order to save another’s life or our own, may we not also choose a personal disintegration of our well-being at a psychological level?

But the removal of a kidney is not an intentional undermining of the good of health. The removal of a single kidney for donation is permissible because the good of health, adequate bodily function, is maintained. Removal of the entire liver or healthy heart would not be permissible, since this removal undermines the good of health. In a similar way, false assertion undermines the good of personal integrity, which is intentionally damaged in false assertion rather than suffering damage as a side-effect.

Appealing to double effect reasoning, some people defend lying as akin to killing in self-defense. However, Tollefsen correctly points out that “killing” is not as such a properly described moral act. Killing is a term that can properly describe a variety of ethically diverse acts: first-degree murder, negligent homicide, accidental manslaughter, as well as unknowing and unwilling causing of death. By contrast, false assertion is an intentional human action, rather than simply a physical event such as killing. Unlike killing, false assertion, that is, assertion contrary to the mind, is always a human action and can never be done entirely by accident. We cannot come to a moral judgment about the rightness or wrongness of an act unless that act is properly described, described not just as a physical event but as human action.

What about intentionally dying to save another’s life (say, throwing oneself on a grenade, submitting to crucifixion by Roman soldiers, etc)? Such actions undoubtedly undermine the good of life, yet Christians praise such self-sacrificial love of the other.

These cases are not properly described as intentional killing. The soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his friends is not choosing to kill himself as a means to saving his friends. Rather, he foresees and accepts his own death because he intends to protect his friends from the blast. Similarly, when Christ submits himself to crucifixion by Roman soldiers, he is allowing himself to suffer death as a side-effect of living in perfect love for all human beings and in perfect obedience to the Father.

On Tollefsen’s view, perfect love for all human beings and perfect obedience to the Father also enjoin us to never assert falsely. Lying and Christian Ethics provides a powerful case for the thesis that false assertion violates the goods of personal integrity (love of self), sociality (love of neighbor), religion and truth (both pertaining to obedience to and love of God). Readers inclined to think lying is sometimes justified owe it to themselves to read this book.

Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, 2nd edition (2015) and The Gospel of Happiness (2015).

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