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Lying

LYING

An act contrary to truthfulness, or the virtue of veracity, consisting in the communication to another of a judgment that is not in accord with what the one who communicates thinks to be true.

Nature. In its most common and explicit form, lying involves either spoken or written words; but it is possible to lie in using other forms of communication, for example, in gestures or in actions that involve a pretension to distinguished qualities which a person does not possess. The communication of something other than what one holds to be true is essential to lying, although what is said need not be contrary to objective truth. A lie differs from an erroneous statement. It can exist even though what is said happens to be in accord with fact; on the other hand, despite objective error, a communication is not a lie unless the speaker is aware that what he says is false.

It has been disputed whether the intention to deceive is essential to a lie. Actual deception, of course, is not, since this is the effect of lying rather than the act itself. But as to the intention, some Scotists have taken St. Augustine's words (De mend. 4) "with a will to deceive" as equally essential to lying as the other part of his statement, "the enunciation of something false." Judged in its immediate context, as well as in that of his other writings, St. Augustine's statement is a restricted affirmation about harmful lying rather than a definition of lying in general. St. Thomas clearly taught that the will to deceive was not essential to lying (Summa theologiae 2a2ae,110.1), and Scotus appears to have been in accord with this view. Some Scotists, however, claiming the authority of St. Augustine, taught that the intent to deceive is of the essence of lying rather than a property of it. Almost all theologians, nevertheless, follow St. Thomas in his interpertation of St. Augustine upon this point, and affirm that a deliberately false utterance is the essence of a lie, but that the intention to deceive belongs to the perfection of lying, not to its essence.

If deception or the intent to deceive is not essential to lying, there can be a lie that deceives no one, and that is told without an intention to deceive. On the other hand, deception can occur where no lie is actually told. For example, a person could tell a truth with sufficient clarity to avoid making a false statement and sufficient ambiguity and evasiveness to avoid revealing a truth which he wants to keep hidden. The hearer might misinterpret what is said and so be deceived, yet the speaker has not lied (see mental reservation).

Kinds of Lying. From the point of view of the virtuous "mean," formally constitutive of truthfulness, lying is opposed to truthfulness by excess or defect. Excess consists in boasting, or in the willful exaggeration of a truth. Defect occurs in disparagement or "irony."

The more important division of the lie is based upon its effect, or the motive of the one who lies. Least among lies is that which is told in jest or for the purpose of amusement (mendacium iocosum ). If a story is obviously fiction, then there is no lie, since the literary genre of a story requires only internal consistency, not conformity to reality. But if illusion is allowed to substitute for reality, or if a story leaves a reader confusing fact with fiction, there has been a violation of truthfulness.

A more serious offense against truthfulness is the lie whose author intends some useful good, and to achieve it is willing to speak falsely. Useful and harmless according to strict justice, the so-called "officious" lie (mendacium officiosum ) is intended to gain some good or to protect oneself or others from harm. The motive in this case could be commendable from a moral point of view. This would mitigate the malice of the act, but if a lie is intrinsically evil, it cannot become a good act, however virtuous its motive, for the end cannot justify the means. The most malicious kind of lie is that which is directly and explicitly intended to do harm to another. This is the "pernicious" lie (mendacium perniciosum ).

Moral Evaluation

The morality of lying can be considered either from the point of view of authority, or from that of rational argument. In surveying the opinion of moral authorities, profane and sacred, account must be taken of the fact that different authorities, in condemning the lie, may have had in mind some specific form of lying, and not the lie in general.

Plato and Aristotle. Plato, in the Republic, appears to have regarded lying as a socially subversive practice when indulged in by private citizens, but that the privilege of lying for the public good should be accorded to rulers (Republic, 388). Aristotle, on the other hand, declared that falsehood was of its own nature (intrinsically?) bad and reprehensible (Eth. Nic. 4.7).

The Scriptures. The sinfulness of lying is attested to in a number of passages in Sacred Scripture: in the OT, Prv 6.12, 17; Ps 5.7; Sir 7.13; Wis 1.11; in the NT, Eph4.25; Col 3.9. The scriptual evidence, however, is not satisfactory, because it is not clear that what is condemned is the lie as such, i.e., as unqualified by the malice of injustice. In some cases, at least, the sacred writer must have had in mind only the pernicious lie, since the degree of malice he attributes to it is far greater than traditional doctrine and common sense would allow for a lie that intends or causes no harm. For example: "You destroy all who speak falsehood; the bloodthirsty and the deceitful the Lord abhors" (Ps 5.7). And: "A lying mouth destroys the soul" (Wis 1.11). Thus the ambiguity of the Scriptures upon this matter has left room for debate both in patristic and in modern times.

In Patristic and Scholastic Times. In the patristic age, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. John Chrysostom in the East, and St. Hilary and Cassian in the West seem to have held (but not without some ambiguity) that in certain exceptional cases a lie was justifiable. St. Augustine held to the stricter view that a lie is intrinsically evil. In this he was followed by SS. Thomas Aquinas, Raymond of Peñafort, and Antoninus, as well as by Scotus, Cajetan, Suárez, John of St. Thomas, and by all but a few modern Catholic theologians.

Moral Gravity. Although Christian tradition has, in the main, held firmly to the conviction that a lie is intrinsically evil, the judgment of moralists is relatively lenient with regard to the degree of malice inherent in the lie. The common teaching is that a lie, deliberately told, is per se no more than venially sinful. It is damaging in some degree to man's social good, but it does not strike at the very existence of that good, as do theft, adultery, and murder. However, circumstances might involve the violation of virtues other than truthfulness in a particular lie. For example, the pernicious lie violates justice and charity as well as truthfulness, and for that reason is a grave sin when the damage done or attempted is notable. Similarly, a lie could be a mortal sin because it causes serious scandal, or because it is contrary to faith or to the virtue of religion (see perjury), or because, in serious matter, it violates another's strict right to be informed of the truth.

Modern Controversy. Dissatisfied with the theory and the use of mental reservations in order to conceal the truth in difficult cases, some authors have accepted the admissibility of an intentionally false statement whenever the hearer has not a strict right in justice to know the truth. For them the malice of lying is not the violation of a personal obligation to veracity, but a violation of a strict right on the part of another to be informed of a particular truth. H. Grotius and S. Pufendorf, among Protestant thinkers, as well as some Catholics have maintained that in a case of necessity a false statement, falsiloquium, may be without moral fault. The falsiloquium is for them a "psychological" rather than a "moral" lie, and the latter they continue to reprobate along with all other Christian thinkers. Since the strict obligation not to lie does not depend upon the strict right of another to know a truth but upon one's nature as a rational social being, theologians generally have rejected the distinction between psychological and moral lies as unfounded in sound moral theory, at least if it is made to rest upon the hearer's right to be accurately informed.

Others, acknowledging the obligation to speak the truth, if one speaks at alland this independently of any right on the part of the one to whom a statement is madenevertheless point out that a person obliged to speak only the truth may also be under an obligation to conceal a truth, and this latter obligation may in some cases be more urgent and more sacred than the former. If we suppose a case in which the truth, or evasion, or silence, would bring harm upon a neighbor, the obligation in charity to prevent this, they say, would take precedence over the obligation in veracity, and the latter would be suspended and cease for the time being to bind.

However, this theory provides escape from moral perplexity only when a strict obligation exists to conceal the truth; it does nothing to enable an individual to protect his privacy against prying or intrusive people, a thing that most of those who defend lying in certain circumstances would like to do. But the more important objection to it is that it cannot be adopted without abandoning the traditional doctrine that a lie is intrinsically evil, so that the reaction of the Christian conscience to it is likely to be that of St. Augustine: "He who says that there are some just lies must be regarded as saying that there are some just sins, and, consequently, that some things which are unjust are just. What could be more absurd?" (C. mend. 15.31.)

Argument from Reason. The most fundamental argument is that drawn from man's social nature. The social order that human nature requires for its proper development and fulfillment demands that mutual trust and confidence and a general friendly good will should prevail between men. This, however, is undermined not only by the pernicious lie that damages the rights and reputations of others, but also by officious and jocose lies, because if one were under no obligation to refrain from such lies, an individual's confidence in the communications made to him would be considerably lowered. Every statement would have to be weighed with suspicion, and this would, in effect, debase the currency of communication. Man's faculty of speech or communication would be perverted in the sense that the prevalent mendacity would make it impossible or difficult to communicate with others. This is a situation that has in fact come to pass in matters with regard to which "white" or "social" lies are in common use. Words lose their meaning and their capacity to convey thought. Richard Cabot has pointed out the dilemma that physicians create for themselves when, for humane reasons, they lie to patients suffering from incurable disease (see bibliography). When this practice comes to be generally known, the physician has no effective way of reassuring a patient who suspects that he has contracted such a disease and that his physician is concealing this fact.

Difficult Cases

It cannot be denied that the doctrine of the intrinsic malice of the lie can involve a conscientious person in moral dilemmas. However, the frequency and seriousness of these troublesome situations should not be exaggerated, and from most of them escape of one kind or another is available without lying.

The "Social" Lie. In many cases a statement, whose literal sense is not in accord with facts as the speaker knows them, is nevertheless not a lie because social convention permits certain kinds of expressions to be used, and requires people of good sense to understand them, in other than a literal sense. This conventional meaning is not false; ultimately all meaning that attaches to words is determined by convention. No prudent person would take in their strict and literal sense complimentary forms of address such as "your devoted servant" or even "yours." Nor would a serious person take seriously many of the amenities common in social intercourse: compliments about dress or appearance, or the remarks about the pleasantness of an evening made by a departing guest.

Similarly the statement made by one answering the door or the telephone that a member of the family is not at home has acquired by general use (or misuse) a certain objective ambiguity. It may either mean that the person is literally not at home, or that, though at home, he does not want to see or talk with the caller, but wishes to signify his refusal in the polite manner sanctioned by social custom. In this situation, however, the status of the person calling could affect the objective sense of the statement. If he is a person who should not be refused, he will be entitled to understand the statement in its literal sense, and if the speaker knows it to be untrue, it will be a lie.

Professional Secrecy. Mental reservation, or the restriction of one's understanding of the meaning of a question put to him, and the sense of his reply, will enable a person to avoid other difficulties. Clergymen, lawyers, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, secretaries, and others are obliged to professional secrecy with regard to certain information that they may possess. This is understood by all reasonably well-informed people. When such a person is questioned about matter he knows only under professional secrecy, he can legitimately (and charitably) interpret the inquiry to mean: Have you any communicable knowledge about this subject? He may, consequently, frame his answer accordingly, and deny that he has knowledge of it. Because of the objective nature of the situation, the hearer ought to understand the statement to be ambiguous. It may be an absolute denial of knowledge, or it may only be a denial of communicable knowledge.

Non-Professional Secrets. It seems unreasonable to restrict the use of this kind of evasion to the protection of professional secrets. Others besides professional people have in their keeping secrets it would be sinful, even gravely so, to reveal. For example, revelation of the hidden sin of another could amount to a mortal sin of detraction. Everyone should be aware of the obligation to secrecy that exists in certain cases, and should be sensitive to the possibility that questions he asks might put another in a moral quandary. A well-intentioned and reasonable man can therefore be understood, when he puts a question, to be asking for information that his hearer is morally free to divulge. Hence a denial of knowledge could reasonably be understood as objectively ambiguous, just as in the case of the professional secret.

Other Dilemmas. There is another type of difficulty in which ambiguity provides no refuge. For example, let us suppose that a man is hidden from a gang of murderers intent upon killing him, and his friend is questioned concerning his whereabouts, or that a person working with the underground in an area occupied by the enemy is interrogated by enemy officials about the resistance movement. No doubt the type of evasion discussed above could legitimately be used in these cases also, but their particular difficulty consists in this that no simple denial of knowledge would be likely to suffice to put the miscreants off the scent. Denials would need to be backed by strong, circumstantial affirmations that no stretch of ingenuity could classify as ambiguous, and perhaps positive misinformation would have to be invented and palmed off for true. If one holds to the doctrine of the intrinsic malice of the lie, there would seem to be no escape possible in these cases, unless it lies in questioning whether, in such circumstances, the idea of true human speech or communication is verified.

A lie is essentially a false communication. A man, speaking falsely to himself, does not lie. Similarly, it could be argued, it is no lie to speak falsely to another when some circumstance prevents one's speech from being, in a true sense of the word, a communication. As has been shown, false communication is immoral because it subverts the mutual trust and confidence that should exist between men, and tends to make communication impossible. Now in the extremely difficult situations being considered, there is no mutual trust or confidence to destroy. In fact, a maximum of distrust prevails between the parties, and no man in such a position could prudently take the words of the other at their face value. In such a case, words would cease, to a degree, to be a medium for the exchange of thought. Communication would be broken down, and to the extent in which the communication of mind with mind has become impossible, it would be equally impossible to realize the idea of a lie. In particular cases the breakdown of communication or its degree might be difficult to determine, but it seems incontestable that if no communication in the ordinary sense of the word is possible, there can be no lie.

However, these cases are altogether exceptional, and if special norms are found to apply to them, these must not be extended to include situations in which one cannot refrain from lying without involving himself (or even others) in trouble and difficulty. The practice of virtue of any kind is likely to require a measure of heroism in some circumstances. At times the obligation to truthfulness may impose some hardship, but the endurance of this is a small price to pay for the blessings which society and individuals enjoy when its members "speak the truth each one with his neighbor" (Eph 5.25).

Bibliography: augustine, "Lying" (De mend. ), tr. m. s. muldowney, Treatises on Various Subjects, ed. r. j. deferrari (Fathers of the Church, 16; New York 1952); "Against Lying" (C. mend. ), tr. h. b. jaffee, ibid. thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 110; Quodl. 8.6.4; In 5 eth. 4.15. j. a. dorszynski, Catholic Teaching about the Morality of Falsehood (CUA Stud. Sac. Theol. 2d ser. 16; Washington 1948). j. h. newman, Apologia pro vita sua (Garden City, NY 1956). j. brosnan, "The Malice of Lying," The Irish Ecclesiastical Record 4 (1914) 377392. l. godefroy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 10.1:555569. r. cabot, Honesty (New York 1938).

[d. hughes]

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