Live Action and Lying: Janet Smith on the (Im?)morality of False Signification

The undercover stings at Planned Parenthood facilities conducted by Live Action a few months back have produced an extended conversation in Catholic moral philosophy about lying. Janet Smith’s contribution is reasonable and important.

The undercover stings at Planned Parenthood facilities conducted by Live Action a few months back have produced an extended conversation in Catholic moral philosophy about lying. In the June/July edition of First Things, prominent thinker Janet E. Smith adds to that line of inquiry with an intriguing argument about the impact of the Fall on the teleology of enunciative speech.

The crucial question in the Live Action debates is whether false signification—intentionally communicating, with words or actions, that which one knows to be untrue—can ever be morally permissible. Well-regarded Catholic thinkers have differed widely in their responses, but the major sticking points are usually doctrine, Scripture, and Aquinas. (Methinks I spot a three-legged stool…) Smith makes a fairly compelling case—using for examples things like the “right to know” qualification and the lies of the midwives in Egypt—that neither the Magisterium nor the Bible makes an unequivocal blanket statement on false signification that gives us an obvious answer in every case. Interesting points, but she covers them briefly and I’ll leave others to challenge or endorse her on them.

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I, on the other hand, will address the remaining pages of the article, which are also the most interesting (did you catch that there? Always self-interested, I am): the part where Janet Smith, prominent and dyed-in-the-wool Aquinas scholar, challenges the Augustinian/Thomistic line on the teleology of language.

In a nutshell: For Aquinas and Augustine, the moral character of any action is determined by its purpose (telos), which can usually be discovered by observing how it “operates” (operatio sequitur esse)—loosely, the nature of the thing and thus how it is properly used. As Smith puts it, in Thomistic thought,

Enunciative signification is some action or some speech—any means of communication—that attempts to assert a truth about reality. Aquinas holds that the purpose of all enunciative signification is to convey the concepts in one’s mind…to signal by speech or by deed anything contrary to what one holds to be true is to violate the purpose of signification.

At the very least, this rules out intentional falsehood under all circumstances—so, for example, Aquinas’s linguistic teleology would forbid you to tell a Nazi that there were no Jews in your attic, even though admitting their presence would cause their death as well as yours. (Presuming you did, in fact, have Jews hidden in your attic, which in these hypotheticals you always do. You’re so brave.) At the extreme, some really enthusiastic Thomists will apply the prohibition on false signification to things like drama, which requires actors to portray the unreal as real.

Setting aside the fringe element, Smith addresses Aquinas’s argument at its heart and makes the fascinating claim that the Thomist account of the purpose of language would work—but only in a prelapsarian world. Post-lapse, things get a little more complicated. In Smith’s words,

Before 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. After the Fall, however, all communication is between human beings damaged by sin. Now, language must serve many other purposes besides the conveyance of the concepts on our minds. We need to correct, console, encourage, and deter one another. These actions need not involve falsehoods, but they are a use of language that differs from the fundamental purpose of communicating truth.

Thus, an adequate understanding of the morality of language must grow out of a postlapsarian understanding of the purposes of human communication. And while Thomas’s direct account of lying fails to consider this, it is perfectly consistent with other areas of his thought. As Smith aptly notes, Aquinas accounts for the realities of postlapsarian human interaction in his treatment of things like private property and violence. So, for example, a police officer may shoot to kill in the defense of innocent life without violating the moral law. That would be both impermissible and incoherent in prelapsarian teleology, but “new forms of behavior are permissible given new realities” post-lapse. Analogously, Smith suggests, there are probably instances of false signification that would have violated the nature of speech before the Fall but are acceptable after it.

Smith does not purport to determine one way or the other whether the specific practices of Live Action fall within that category. The scope of her argument is limited to suggesting “that a strong case can be made, using natural law principles and affirming the absolute condemnation of lying, that not all false signification is wrong.” And with the good sense that characterizes all of Smith’s work, she ends with a dose of gritty prudence:

Some argue that the principles I articulate are too difficult to apply and too open to abuse. The fact that moral reasoning can be difficult does not render it impossible or unnecessary…Yes, it will on occasion be difficult to determine when it is moral to tell falsehoods, of what kind, and to whom, but the difficulty of acting upon moral principles does not negate their truth.

From where I stand—which is well within a robust Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysical framework—the whole argument seems reasonable and potentially important. It’s definitely worth a read.

Disclaimer: Janet Smith is an intelligent and careful thinker, and far better educated than I am. Her article is also significantly longer than this one, and covers more ground. If you spot something here that you think is wrong, I encourage—I ask—nay, I implore  you—to go read her article before starting a fight; chances are it’s my error, not hers.

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  • July 21, 2011

    Bryan Wandel


    How do you think OT vs. NT morality legislation plays into this problem? When Jesus says “You have heard it said … but I say unto you …” is he possibly indicating that the previous morality form was dealing with sin/Fall in a unique way, whereas now the purer form is applicable?

    I heard a suggestion of this once: that the tacit acceptance of things like polygamy in the earlier OT might be explained in part by the notion that a return to the correct state might mean an oblique path. Or, to paraphrase CS Lewis – sometimes the quickest way to get where you are going is to go backwards first in order to correct the wrong turn.

    Just wanted to hear your thoughts.

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