Thursday 30 July 2015

The morality of lying

I'd been thinking quite a bit about lying and deception as a consequence of my previous posts referring to Aesopian Catholicism. But my thoughts were taken in a new direction as a result of the Planned Parenthood 'sting' and subsequent debate (particularly on Twitter) on the ethics of lying. In addition, I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of conclusions and exploration in philosophy and how that fits in with the dogmatic system of Catholicism. (Two recent articles which stuck in my mind in this area: one from Tom Stern on the complications of philosophy; one from Nick Cohen on the (putative) lack of intellectual honesty in Catholicism.)

In essence, the question around Planned Parenthood is whether is is right to lie in order to achieve a greater (and indeed great) good: the saving of lives. (I'm going to assume that lies (rather than deception) were uttered in the unmasking of Planned Parenthood's 'business practice' (ie harvesting and selling on body parts from unborn children).)

The straightforward (I'll justify this apparently counterintuitive claim of 'straightforwardness') response is that lying is always wrong and that it is never right to do a morally wrong action to achieve good consequences. As the relevant article in the Catholic Encyclopedia makes clear, this is 'the common and universally accepted teaching of the Catholic schools throughout the Middle Ages until recent times'. Whatever else may be said upon this subject, it needs to be held in mind that this rigourist opposition to lying is the vastly preponderant opinion of Catholic theology and philosophy: it is in that sense that, at least for a Catholic, the straightforward response is that lying is wrong and that if it is wrong, it is wrong even if a great good is achieved. (To accept that view is not to exclude welcoming the videos unmasking Planned Parenthood's practices: just as we might welcome a new born child into the world from an adulterous relationship, good fruit can come from an evil action.)

On the other hand, there is the sheer intuitive force of the possibility of averting a great evil and moreover the messiness of everyday life, particularly in a struggle against a great evil which has become institutionalised in the West. Even if we resist calling it a 'war' against abortion (and many wouldn't) surely the struggle against abortion has many of the characteristics of a war? And if it is like a war, then surely the full panoply of warfare needs to be brought into play, including espionage and dirty tricks? Although this is the less straightforward Catholic position, it does have its supporters and its plausible defences (I found Deacon Jim Russell's article and (especially) Professor Janet E. Smith's article particularly helpful from this side.)

The situation is that there is therefore disagreement on this issue, and no magisterial decision to settle the matter. As Smith summarises:

Christopher Kaczor argued in Public Discourse that it may be that the authoritative version of the Catechism decided to go with the more probable opinion”the one that a greater number of faithful theologians hold but one that is not settled doctrine. It would be wrong to label as dissenters those who continue to argue that the condemnation of lying does not rule out all false signification; theirs is simply the less probable view at this point. Indeed, the failure of the Catechism to condemn explicitly such practices as spying, sting operations, the deceptive missives and maneuvers of warfare, and research that involves deception suggests that the question remains open. 

Now this is worth emphasizing. There are some aspects of natural law which are settled by authoritative pronouncements from the Church: this is not, as far as I can see, one of them. If someone -however eminent intellectually- declares that the rigourist position is the natural law, then that is an argument waiting to be made, not simply the publication of an achieved result. So what is the ordinary Catholic to do in the face of such uncertainty?

I think it is here that the possibility of misapprehension -both among Catholics and outwith the Church- is most likely. 'Natural law' is not simply a code of laws which can be referred to: it is misleading to describe Catholic morality as deontological tout court. Natural law rests on a eudaimonistic ethics: what is good for human beings is their flourishing , the achievement of their full human potential especially in getting as close to God as possible after death in the Beatific Vision. What is good is what promotes beatitudo (happiness): Catholic morality is not simply a list of rules. (Rules exist. But their point is that they promote beatitudo.) It is for this reason that Aquinas that makes the First Precept of Natural Law rest on the identification of good:

Hence this is the first precept of law, that "good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided." All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man's good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

(STh IaIIae q.94 a.2 resp)

Moreover, as we move away from this First Precept (which really just bridges the 'is (good)'/ ought gap, the determination of what ought to be done becomes harder:

The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. Accordingly then in speculative matters truth is the same in all men, both as to principles and as to conclusions: although the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions. But in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles: and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all.

(STh IaIIae q.94 a.4, resp.)

What Aquinas calls 'ratio practica' is the virtue of prudentia (Gk: phronesis). In order to discern the content of natural law, it is therefore necessary to cultivate this virtue of practical wisdom, particularly when engaging in detailed practical decisions. So the key point to note here -unlike those that would reduce Catholic moral teaching to a sort of almanac or ethical slot machine- is that to follow natural law properly, you have to cultivate (practical) wisdom. And it is for that reason that Catholicism and philosophy fit together so well: both Socrates, Aquinas and the ordinary Catholic in the pew are on a quest for the wisdom to live well.

It's worth stopping here and noting that, although I've been expressing myself in terms that are derived from the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition, there is absolutely no necessity to follow that precise path: the Church has -even at the height of neo-Thomism- resisted imposing a particular philosophical system. On the other hand, the broad pattern is perfectly familiar and irresistibly biblical: pursue sanctification and open yourself to the transforming wisdom of God. Natural law is not something external to us: it is simply the expression of our fulfilled human nature.

So, again, what is the ordinary Catholic to do in the face of such uncertainty? In ordinary terms. examine your conscience. Some of us are more intelligent and more knowledgeable and with more authority in this area than others. If you can follow their reasonings, do your best. Be patient. (Do you really now have to come to a a decision? Do you have to express an opinion?) There is an absolute certainty that there are many views on this. Note that. Note also that there is considerable weight on one side rather than the other. If you intuitively find yourself disagreeing with the 'common opinion of the Schools', ask yourself why? (Assume that saints may well have noticed something you haven't.) Is the stratagem -in the long run- likely to be effective? (Even if this or that official of Planned Parenthood went, even if Planned Parenthood went, would abortion stop?) What is the cost to the souls of those involved? (How far would you in such deceit? What are the costs to the souls of those in the UK undercover police operations?)

On the other hand, if you support the 'common opinion', how would you answer Smith's article on the need, forgotten (here) by Aquinas, to differentiate between pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian ethics? Given the intellectual's tendency to pride and avoidance of action, are you become intangled in academic pleasures ? Is your practical wisdom 'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought'? Look at the videos. Think about the realities and numbers of killed children. Is this restrained attempt to reveal an inconvenient truth to a society that has grown deaf really a distortion of the end of communication?

And wherever you are on this spectrum, pray, Pray for wisdom, pray for charity, pray for all those born and unborn involved. Open yourself to God's wisdom.

Where will that take you? I'm not sure. We need to admit that more often. As ever, I thought Counter Cultural father hits the right general note on this. I was also glad to be reminded of Newman on 'Lying and Equivocation', not least because of the following:

Casuistry is a noble science, but it is one to which I am led, neither by my abilities nor my turn of mind. Independently, then, of the difficulties of the subject, and the necessity, before forming an opinion, of knowing more of the arguments of theologians upon it than I do, I am very unwilling to say a word here on the subject of Lying and Equivocation. But I consider myself bound to speak; and therefore, in this strait, I can do nothing better, even for my own relief, than submit myself, and what I shall say, to the judgment of the Church, and to the consent, so far as in this matter there be a consent, of the Schola Theologorum.

A rhetorical flourish, no doubt, but not simply one: one of the problems of modern academia and apologetics is a lack of modesty. We all have to establish brands; we all have to have a line. (And that complacent indecisiveness is no doubt mine. Well, indeed: it is difficult to avoid sin even when trying to.)

If I had to walk into a classroom tomorrow and speak about this, I would say something like the above, but I would put forward the sort of defence of the common opinion of the Schools adopted by Ed Feser. (Here for example is his reply to Smith's paper. But now, as I read it, I find aspects I would pick at...) But in doing that, I would compare myself with David Daleiden, and find myself not a little ashamed of my detachment.

There's something else that's been buzzing in my mind recently: Melzer's defence of esoteric thought as being necessary to get readers to do philosophy themselves -it can't be done for them. That Catholicism shortcircuits this individual engagement with truth, goodness and beauty is something that I have never found in the Church. Certainly, there is no royal road to a conclusion in this particular case. Indeed, it is the absolute, fundamental seriousness of the Catholic pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty that really takes it beyond the chatter of much modern academia, let alone whatever noises emerge from social media.

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