In “Fig Leaves and Falsehoods,” Janet E. Smith argues against the consensus view of Catholic moralists who, following Aquinas, regard all deceptive speech as morally wrong. She maintains that Aquinas’s view depends on an overly limited view of the purpose of speech, a view based on a prelapsarian order of things and neglectful of the additional needs which arise from the sins and sufferings of fallen humanity. In her view, so-called lies told for certain purposes, such as to “stymie the evildoer and protect the innocent” or to “promote civility, encourage, [or] console,” ought not to be considered lies at all, since they are not spoken with the intent (nor would any true statement spoken in their place be spoken with the intent) of communicating truth. In these cases, speech need not be judged by either the intent to communicate or the efficacy with which it does so, because it is not being used as a tool of communication, but as a means of promoting some other good.
As Smith explains it, “Aquinas holds that the purpose of all enunciative signification is to convey the concepts in one’s mind” and “that to signal by speech or by deed anything contrary to what one holds to be true is to violate the purpose of signification.” She points out that, if this principle is followed strictly, it is wrong even to utter a true statement if one knows it is likely to be misinterpreted, still more to utter a false statement for any reason, even to save a life. These strictures are, of course, intuitively offensive, and Smith very plausibly suggests that it is an error on Aquinas’s part that leads to them, that he assumes the original purposes of things, purposes designed for a sinless universe, remain always normative even in a universe where all things are affected by sin.
Smith makes a brief analogy to killing, upon which I am dilating slightly. In a morally perfect world, it would always be wrong, and considered murder, to deprive someone of life, and so no one would ever do it – not only because it was always wrong, but also because no wrong could ever be prevented or corrected by it, as no wrong could possibly exist at all. But in the real, fallen world, the defense of others sometimes permits killing in defense of another’s life – not as a grudging exception to the prohibition against murder, but as a morally permissible act in its own right, not falling under the category of “murder.” The concept of nonmurderous killing is impossible in a sinless world, but possible and perhaps necessary in a sinful one. Likewise, Smith says, “[b]efore the Fall, there would have been no reason to engage in false signification. Before the Fall, all communication, all interaction was between innocent and trustworthy human beings.” Falsehood, in the prelapsarian world, could never be a cause of good, being neither good in itself nor able to correct any evil (sinc evil did not exist). But in the fallen world, there are situations in which it is morally justifiable, not only to silently withhold the truth, but to speak something other than the truth; these are not lies, and therefore not exceptions to the prohibition against lying, but rather fall into separate categories of speech, categories which can only exist in a morally imperfect world and yet are not themselves morally wrong.
To me, this way of thinking about false speech helps to justify Catholic teaching concerning “wide mental reservation,” which the old Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as occurring when “a statement receives a special meaning from use and custom, or from the special circumstances in which a man is placed” (Slater, “Lying”) – in other words, when context makes it permissible to make a statements that are not true (mark those words), even when there is a chance of their being taken to be true. “Those who hear them may understand them in a sense which is not true, but their self-deception may be permitted by the speaker for a good reason” (Slater, “Mental Reservation”). The one limitation is that the not-true statement cannot be a falsehood per se, but rather a statement that does not have a definite truth value because it is equivocal (ibid.). This seems, to me, a narrow distinction: surely it is the substituting of something not true for truth (the giving of anything other than truth or silence) that makes for deception, and not whether the thing substituted is an actual falsehood or a statement simply devoid of truth value.
In any case, if untruth (whether via equivocation alone, or also via falsehood) is allowed for good reason in some contexts, it seems most important to determine what these contexts are and how they are to be distinguished from one another. It seems reasonable to suppose that there are contexts in which truth is assumed, making any willful deprivation of truth an automatic lie. There are other contexts in which falsehood is automatically assumed, making it impossible to lie: no one expects to read literal truth in a novel or hear it in a play. There are other contexts in which one may reasonably expect truth and falsehood to be mingled – in the anecdotes shared among friends or co-drinkers, for example – and thus should take all with a grain of salt. (Aquinas maintains that falsehoods told here are still lies, and therefore sins: “a jocose lie, from the very genus of the action, is of a nature to deceive; although in the intention of the speaker it is not told to deceive, nor does it deceive by the way it is told.” And yet if neither the intention nor the effect is deceptive, it can only be deceptive on account of its being literally false, and yet Aquinas is clear that a literally false statement – for example, a figure of speech, or an honest mistake of fact – can be morally acceptable.) Conversational conventions seem to fall into the same category: in the context of casual conversation, words otherwise meaningful may have no meaning at all. (Smith: “Saying ‘I’m fine’ in response to the greeting ‘How are you?’ signifies virtually nothing . . . . By contrast, the same response to the same query from a worried and concerned spouse or psychiatrist could be a serious lie.”)
Then there are contexts in which harm is threatened, which neither truth nor the neutral nontruth of silence can surely avert, while an untruth can: here the untruth seems unquestionably justified. (Smith frames this kind of situation in the context of the would-be malefactor’s rights: “Isn’t giving the truth to a Nazi like returning a loaded weapon to a madman? Does he have any right to the truth?”) Then there are contexts in which a good can be obtained via untruth that could not be obtained via truth or silence, such as calming a hysterical person.
Aquinas, Thomas. “The Vices Opposed to Truth, and First of Lying.” Summa Theologica. New Advent. Web. 23 Aug. 2011. <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3110.htm>.
Slater, Thomas. “Lying.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web. 23 Aug. 2011. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09469a.htm>.
Slater, Thomas. “Mental Reservation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. Web. 23 Aug. 2011.