Is Deception Always Wrong? I'm Not Convinced

Ever since the release of the Lila Rose - Live Action videos that exposed Planned Parenthood for their illegal practices (beyond the obvious immoral practices,) I have been following the debate over the sinfulness of subterfuge with much interest.

My esteemed colleague Mark Shea has treated on the subject twice in the last week (here and here.)

I have to admit that after reading Mark’s comments, the articles that he links to, and the catechism, the case seems cut and dry.  And yet, I suspect that it is not.  There remain some questions that I believe are unanswered.

I wish to be clear here before I continue; I am posing questions here, not making pronouncements.  I am not making a defense of the particular actions of Lila Rose or Live Action. (Although I do suspect they may be justified.) Additionally, and please listen to me here, I am not advocating an ends justify the means defense.  I wish to speak only about the idea that lying or deception is always wrong.  The catechism seems, and may well be, complete and definitive on this point.  Yet for me questions remain.

In much of the discussion on this intriguing topic, one example comes up time and time again.  You are a Christian in 1940’s Germany.  In your basement you harbor several Jewish people because their lives are in danger for no other reason than they are Jewish.  Yet, taking the catechism and St. Augustine as your guide, when the S.S. comes knocking at your door and asks “Are you hiding Jews,” you cannot lie to protect them.  Maybe—maybe you can attempt to offer a clever equivocation (mental reservation), but you cannot lie.  Hmmmm?

Let’s look at this another way.  Among the Ten Commandments, there is one that states rather unequivocally “thou shall not kill.”  Yet, we commonly recognize that this is not a blanket prohibition.  There are circumstances in which we realize that killing, while not a good and certainly not the desired end, is legitimate and not sinful.  Of course, we have just war theory as well, that states, under particular circumstances, killing may be licit.

Further, we also recognize that under certain circumstances, a person, in defense of his own life or even in the defense of others, may take a life (circumstances common to law enforcement come to mind.)  The desired end is not the killing, but the protection of life.

So the Church recognizes that there are certain narrow circumstances, notably in the protection of life, in which it is licit to kill.  But there are no narrow circumstances, even to protect life, in which it is licit to deceive?  Does that seem right?

Was killing always wrong before we had a “Just War Theory,” of course not.  Perhaps we are just waiting on a moral theologian of note to define a “Just Deception Theory.”

Some may well argue, legitimately, that such a theory would be a slippery slope.  Probably.  Just War Theory is a slippery slope too and often twisted and abused, that does not mean it is wrong.

I do not know even if a “Just Deception Theory” were to exist, that the deception tactics of Live Action would conform.  Yet, the blanket condemnation of deception as always sinful seems so constraining as to strain reason.

As always, I defer to the Church in such matters, but I do not think that it is as cut and dry as the short treatment in the blogosphere might suggest.**

**One final and important note to my wife.  Just because I wrote this post in defense of deception, you should know that I really meant it when I said those jeans don’t make you look fat.