by Peter Kreeft
Is lying always wrong? Not so, argues theologian and philosophy professor Peter Kreeft, in this commentary on the tactics used by the pro-life group Live Action against Planned Parenthood. What troubled Live Action's critics was the use of "sting" tactics, which employ false identities and statements — such as claiming to be a pimp or prostitute — in an attempt to show Planned Parenthood's willingness to cover up crimes.
When I talk about abortion, I often surprise most of my audience, even some prolifers, by saying that not only is abortion always evil but that it is not a "complex issue," that deep down we all know that it is evil; that Mother Teresa is very clearly right when she says "If abortion isn't wrong, nothing is wrong."
I want to say a similar thing about Live Action: not only (1) that its actions were right but (2) that they were very clearly right.
An immediate objection arises to my second point. If it was very clearly right, why do some sincere and intelligent pro-lifers insist that it was wrong?
This is not surprising, for many sincere and intelligent people disagree with the even more obvious truth that abortion is always wrong. Not all pro-choicers are insincere or stupid. Some are both sincere and intelligent, like the pro-lifers who disagreed with Live Action.
The controversy about Live Action probably is rooted in a controversy about method in ethics, specifically about which should have priority, (1) clear definitions of general moral principles and valid logical reasoning from them ("casuistry") or (2) moral experience, instinctive moral judgments about concrete situations by our innate moral common sense. I think it is (2) and I think these critics think it is (1). I think they are so (rightly) afraid of moral relativism that they have (wrongly) fallen into moral legalism.
I teach Logic, I have written a Logic textbook, and I value logic very highly. On some other occasion I may take the time to argue logically against the serious arguments of the pro-life critics of Live Action, and about the proper definition of "lying." But in this short piece I want to appeal to something that I think is prior in importance, in clarity, and in time, namely our immediate, intuitive moral experience. For that is what I find missing in their arguments.
The question of method in moral reasoning has a long and heavy history. Beginning with Ockham (Nominalism), exacerbated by Descartes (Rationalism), and even more by Kant (his 'Copernican revolution in philosophy'), our concept of 'reason' has been increasingly separated from experience and narrowed to something more and more resembling what computers do. The Aristotelian and Thomistic (and, more generally, pre-modern) meaning of 'reason' is broader. It had to be, to justify the definition of man as 'the rational animal.' It included the immediate, intuitive understanding ('the first act of the mind' in Aristotelian-Scholastic logic) and intuitive judgment ('the second act of the mind') as well as inductive or deductive reasoning ('the third act of the mind').
We moderns have narrowed 'intuition' as we have narrowed 'reason,' so that 'intuition' now means 'irrational feeling.' 'Intuitive reason' or 'rational intuition' sounds to us like an oxymoron. When we read Pascal's famous saying that 'the heart has its reasons, that the reason does not know,' we think he is exalting something else against reason, when he is saying exactly the opposite: that the heart, the faculty of immediate intuition, has reasons. It sees. It has eyes. It is a crucial part of 'reason.'
We have also, especially in philosophy, narrowed the term 'experience' to mean strictly sense experience, which we share with the other animals. ('Animals' has also narrowed, so that we no longer classify ourselves as 'rational animals' unless we are materialists.) Thus we no longer see 'moral intuition' or its application to our moral judgment of concrete situations like Live Action's 'sting' as part of 'reason,' as Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas did. (Aquinas called this moral intuition 'synderesis.')
This is not simply a case of altered conventional usage, but of real error. Since we are not angels, all our knowledge begins with experience, and our moral knowledge begins with moral experience — experience of concrete cases. Before we reason about these (by 'ratio,' the 'third act of the mind'), we understand them (by 'intellectus,' the 'first act of the mind') and judge them (the 'second act of the mind') by the 'habit' of moral judgment. In other words, we begin with the concrete, not with the abstract. Only after experience do we rise to the level of abstractions, i.e. articulated, defined, and defended principles, definitions, and deductions. If we do not begin with experience, we become nominalists, not realists; we have nothing real to argue about, only names and the logical relationships between them — like a computer.
That is why the simplest and most common form of argument among ordinary people is arguing by analogy, from one concrete situation to another that is similar or analogous, letting the common principle that justifies the analogy be implicit rather than explicit. The simplest and most basic example of this in morality is the Golden Rule, which is often expressed to small children by the formula 'How would you like it if we did that to you?' This is an appeal to the moral imagination, which is concrete, rather than to moral reasoning (either in the form of a definition, a defined universal principle, or a deductive argument from a principle to an application of it). Without this moral imagination, no moral reasoning is possible for us. In other words, we are not angels.
This first step is not sufficient for moral philosophy; of course. We also need to (1) rise by abstraction to universal principles, (2) define them correctly, and (3) deduce conclusions from them. But though not sufficient, it is necessary, like the foundation of a building; for we are neither angels nor computers but human beings with moral experience and imagination and the innate power and habit of moral understanding and judgment, moral 'common sense,' which makes instinctive judgments about moral experiences.
These judgments are not infallible, of course. But they do see moral truth, moral reality. They are like physical vision in those two ways. God did not leave us in such a moral limbo that we had to depend on the philosophers — either the philosophers outside us or the philosopher inside us. What a world that would be!
When morally sane human beings hear the very clever and intelligent arguments of a philosopher like Peter Singer for ascribing more rights to whales than to babies and no more importance to your own family than to anyone else, they do not begin by looking for his logical mistakes. They say something like: "That idea is so stupid that you have to have a Ph.D. to believe it." They have moral common sense.
That is why there is massive agreement about morality, even among believers in very different and mutually contradictory religions, and even many atheists. Though God let our theological ignorance run wild, He left our moral knowledge pretty much intact (though of course weakened, so that it is easily twisted by our will to rationalize our sins).
These instinctive intuitions and judgments are not infallible, of course, and logic can often reveal our errors. This is what Socrates did, and four cheers for his doing it. But any argument that begins by contradicting our moral common sense is almost certainly going to be wrong.
A good example is Euthyphro, the young man in the Platonic dialog by that name who is impiously prosecuting his own father for murder while professing to be an expert on piety. ('Piety' was the ancient virtue of respect both for gods and for elders, ancestors, and family.) In reasoning with Euthyphro, Socrates does not begin with logic, he begins with an instinctive astonishment, which is an implicit moral judgment that Plato expects all morally sane readers to share. Until we read Socrates' arguments, we don't clearly know why Euthyphro is wrong, but we know that he is wrong.
Readers of the Gospels do the very same thing when they meet the Pharisees, who could put up strong arguments for a literalism and legalism about the Sabbath and against Jesus' apparent disregard for it. I think we should have the same reaction to the critics of Live Action. These people are of course far, far better people than either Euthyphro or most of the Pharisees. (But remember Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel!). But they are wrong, and wrong not just logically but "you gotta be kidding"-ly.
Most of my students, however confused their abstract philosophical and ideological principles may be, are ordinary people of normally sane and fairly healthy consciences (except, of course if it has anything even remotely to do with sex). When they are confronted by a moral legalist like Kant who holds that all lying is morally wrong, they instinctively sense that he is wrong, though they cannot explain why — just as most students, when confronted by St. Anselm's 'ontological argument,' instinctively know it is wrong somehow, though they cannot refute it logically. Similarly, most (though not all) pro-lifers instinctively side with Live Action even if they cannot answer the arguments of its critics. (Is it an accident that its critics are more Kantian than Aristotelian?)
Similarly, when we discuss Kant and the issue of lying, most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. They do not know whether this is an example of lying or not. But they know that if it is, than lying is not always wrong, and if lying is always wrong, then this is not lying. Because they know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil. If anyone is more certain of his philosophical principles than he is that this deception is good, I say he is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian. He is a Laputan, like Swift's absent-minded professors who live on an island in the sky in Gulliver's Travels, and who make eye contact with abstractions but not with human beings.
But can't we solve the problem of the Dutchmen and the Nazis by saying that all lying is wrong but the Dutchmen don't have to lie to save the Jews because they could deceive the Nazis without lying by a clever verbal ploy? No, because effective deception by clever verbal ploys cannot usually be done by ordinary people, especially by clumsy Dutchmen. I know; I'm one of them. Our moral obligations depend on abilities that are common, not abilities that are rare
Besides, the Nazis are not fools. They would suspect clever prevarications and sniff out duplicitous ploys. They could be reliably deceived and deterred from searching every inch of the house only by an answer like "Jews? Those rats? None of them in my house, I hope. Please come in, and if you find any, please give them rat poison. I hate those vermin as much as you do."
You promised the Jews to hide them from their murderers. To keep that promise, you have to deceive the Nazis. Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It's a good thing to do. If you don't know that, you're morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles.
The closest analogy I can think of to Live Action's expose of Planned Parenthood is spying. If Live Action is wrong, then so is all spying, including spying out the Nazis' atomic bomb projects and saving the world from a nuclear holocaust.
If you say that morality changes in wartime, I reply that police 'sting' operations are an example of legitimate peacetime spying. An undercover policeman saves children from becoming drug addicts by pretending to be a drug customer to expose the drug dealer. Is this pretending 'lying' or not? I don't much care, except as a professional philosopher and logician. I do much care that the 'sting' works and my kids are protected. Do you care more about protecting your own moral correctness than protecting your kids' lives?
If lying is always wrong, then it is wrong to lie to a nuclear terrorist (the "ticking time bomb" scenario) to elicit from him where he hid the nuclear bomb that in one hour will kill millions if it is not found and defused. The most reasonable response to the "no lying" legalist here is "You gotta be kidding" — or something less kind than that. Thomas Aquinas said that even torture is sometimes justified; in emergency situations like that; if torture, then a fortiori lying.
If you were watching your son or daughter being raped while you were disarmed and tied up and had only words as weapons, and if there was some lie you could tell to the rapist that would stop him, do you really mean to tell me that you would not tell that lie? If so, I thank God that you were not my father.
I know there are universal, objective moral absolutes. I know that a good end does not justify an evil means. I know that we should not ever murder or rape or blaspheme even to save the world. But I think your child would probably understand that. In the above horrible scenario, if the rapist could be deterred only by watching you rape or murder some other victim, or defecate on a crucifix, you should not do it — and your child, his victim, would probably understand that. But your child would certainly not understand why you could not save him by lying to the rapist.
Children can be touchstones. Our supreme moral teacher once said that we must become like little children. He did not mean for us to abandon our logic textbooks, but I think He did mean for us to remember our more simple and innocent moral wisdom.
But I may be wrong. As I said, our innate moral wisdom is not infallible.