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An Honest Grasp of Lying and Ethics

Lying and Truthfulness
A Thomistic Perspective
By Stewart Clem
Cambridge, xiv + 213 pages, $110

In this marvelous book, Stewart Clem argues that interpreters of Aquinas on lying have misjudged him. Augustine had set the tone for the Latin West by strictly condemning all lies, even if Augustine recognized that some lies were worse than others. For Augustine, Christians cannot tell a lie in any situation, because lying is against the eighth commandment. Aquinas is often seen as simply carrying on the Augustinian perspective in this regard.

In fact, as Clem shows, Aquinas introduces two important elements that differentiate his position. First, unlike any other earlier medieval theologian, Aquinas in his mature writings identifies lying as a sin against the virtue of truthfulness (veracitas). Second, Aquinas carefully clarifies that not all lying is a mortal sin: some lies are venial sins that, while not good, do not separate persons from the life of charity and its reward.

In Clem’s view, Thomistic commentators need to pay more attention to these two elements. Without adopting a consequentialist ethic, Thomistic commentators should also be more aware that some situations involve a tragic dilemma (I should note that commentators who come closest — indeed very close — to Clem’s position include Lawrence Dewan and Kevin Flannery). For example, in the case of the Nazi at the door demanding whether Jews are in the house, someone harboring Jews would likely face a tragic dilemma.

If the person remained silent or gave a lame half-truth, the Nazi’s suspicion would be roused and the person would be responsible for the Jews being captured and murdered. If the person lied, that would not be a good act either. Clem proposes that “the theological category of venial sin helps us to understand why there may be some (perhaps very limited) instances in which one has no choice but to perform some morally defective action.”

Regarding such instances, he wants to avoid the notion that such lies, as venial sins, are permissible or good. He does not think it wise to develop a category of “virtuous lying.” All lying is sinful. Nevertheless, after the Fall, there are some lies that do not destroy charity and that, especially given the absence of sinless options, are fully understandable.

Clem provides a chapter with eight brief case studies that I find helpful. Among the case studies is that of a doctor giving a patient a better prognosis than the doctor actually believes — an action that may in fact lead to better chances of recovery. As Clem says, this is still a lie and not a good action, though the sin would be venial.

Another case involves a monastic superior asking, under holy obedience, whether a monk knows a secret shared with the monk privately by another monk. Rather than reveal the secret, the monk denies knowledge — a lie, though again a venial one. This chapter’s benefit consists in helping us to see how the mortal/venial distinction functions with regard to lying.

Why, however, should we not simply go ahead and approve of venial lying? Why bother with a distinction that dispenses with the venial liar’s culpability, when it would seem simpler just to offer an unambiguous approval of the lie? Clem urges that “simplicity” in speech, as opposed to duplicity, deserves to be highly valued. Lying, as such, “violates a debt [of truth] that is owed to another person” when we speak, even if the lying is venial.

Communal bonds — bonds between persons — depend upon truthful communication. It is worth noting the three ways that Aquinas thinks lying can constitute a mortal sin, destructive of charity. First, any lie about divine things, concealing or corrupting the truth of God, is a mortal sin. The same holds for lies that wound a “domain of knowledge that affects a person’s good,” whether with regard to knowledge or to morality.

Second, if a lie aims at harming or expressing contempt for one’s neighbor or God, then it is a mortal sin. Third, if a lie even accidentally causes a serious injury or scandal, it is a mortal sin. It is easy to see how these three kinds of lies deeply wound the bonds that hold true community together. It is also easy to see how a venial lie, while not an act of virtue as such (because falsehood never strengthens truthfulness), can still proceed from a charitable person without destroying charity — as in the biblical case of the midwives who lied to prevent the deaths of the Israelite male infants (Ex. 1:15-23).

Clem’s final chapter shows the fruitfulness of reclaiming the virtue of truthfulness in a culture increasingly marked by “truth indifference” or what Harry Frankfurt has influentially called “bullshit.” As Clem argues, “truth indifference” is a structural sin in contemporary American culture, built upon the brazen lying that is assumed to be normal for advertising — including, I note, the marketing that fuels universities, with Catholic colleges and universities often promoting themselves in ways that show indifference to truth.

Clem rightly remarks, “The problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit is generally more benign than our attitude toward lying is an important one.” He urges us to work toward a societal retrieval of truthfulness as a virtue, and thus as a habit.

As Clem points out, the Christian tradition on lying is complex. John Chrysostom even boasted of a lie that he told, because of its good end! Other Christians, most famously many Jesuits, adopted a policy of the goodness of “mental reservation.” Scripture is ambiguous about lying and certainly does not condemn every instance of it.

The medieval moralist Raymond of Penãfort argued that, in tight cases, one should simply follow one’s conscience: if one lies while following one’s conscience, it is not a sin. Christians such as Augustine and, more recently, John Skalko and Paul Griffiths (Clem is superb at pointing out how Griffits misreads Aquinas) have adopted a strict rule against any lie.

What Clem has achieved in this immensely valuable study is not only an insightful reading of Aquinas but a richly promising constructive approach to the ethics of lying.

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