By Leon Suprenant | March 3, 2011
I’m sure that many of you have been following the discussion regarding the Lila Rose/Live Action controversy. Were they sinning by deceiving Planned Parenthood personnel and thus exposing their corrupt activities?
There has been some great thinking on this from all sides of the issue. Perhaps I would give the nod to Dr. Peter Kreeft’s explanation, as well as the more recent commentary from Dr. Janet Smith, but the answer isn’t as clear cut as we might like.
As Christians, we all have the vocation to truth—to believe the truth (including the Truth), to live the truth, and yes, to tell the truth. Therefore, how we understand any deviation from the truth matters greatly.
I am not a moral theologian, and the typical philosophical, catechetical, and theological arguments have already been advanced in the public square. However, I would like to share briefly a few insights drawn from might research in the area of criminal law that might help clarify our thinking on this subject.
In legal jurisprudence through the centuries, all criminal law defenses have fallen into one of two main categories: excuses and justifications. There is a big difference between the two: an excuse admits the wrongness of the action, but examines the culpability of the actor. Meanwhile, a justification admits (at least impliedly) the usual wrongness of the action, but examines whether under the present circumstances it wasn’t wrong this time.
Examples of excuses include insanity, sleepwalking, mistake, involuntary drug or alcohol intoxication, duress, etc. In these and similar cases what the person did was clearly wrong, but because of this excuse their guilt is removed or at least mitigated (e.g., murder becoming manslaughter). By analogy, in mortal sin terminology, the excuses don’t contest the “grave matter,” but rather call into question the requirements of knowledge and consent.
Justifications are necessarily rare. We can’t go around justifying illegal (or in the moral realm, sinful) behavior. We have standards of conduct (do not kill, lie, or steal, for example) that we must uphold. Imagine the confusion and grave danger if everyone thought they were justified in ignoring red traffic lights!
Probably the most common illustrations of a justification would be the suspension of traffic laws in the case of rushing a severely sick or injured person to a hospital, or the suspension of arson laws to allow a person to set a field on fire to divert a wildfire and thus prevent it from spreading to the city. In such limited cases, the action itself is deemed good, or at least not morally wrong or criminal.
The reader may be saying, “Yeah, yeah, but it’s never okay to lie.” Well, let’s look at the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” While killing another is typically murder, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a complete accident, or perhaps the killer has an “excuse” such as insanity that reduces one’s guilt.
Even more, the Catechism (see CCC 2263-67) and civil law recognize other instances in which “killing” another human being is permitted under certain rare circumstances, such as in the case of capital punishment, just wars, and self-defense and defense of others.
It’s beyond the scope of this short piece to discuss the parameters of those controversial justifications for killing. Nevertheless, I do want to point out that when those killings are morally permissible, we’re looking at the action itself, and not the culpability of the individual actor. If the killing is justifiable, then the “knowledge” and “consent” of the particular executioner, soldier, or defender is generally not at issue.
When it comes to Christian morality, we accept that some acts are intrinsically evil—always and everywhere wrong. Yet we also have “double effects” or “proportionate reasons” or what we might in common parlance call “extenuating circumstances” that change the very nature of the act itself, so that the conduct no longer falls within the general prohibition. Again, this has to be rare, or we’ll lapse into a subjectivist “ends justify the means” mentality. And yet, categorically dismissing these extenuating circumstances would violate what Peter Kreeft calls our “moral common sense” and lead to excessive legalism.
I tend to think, and I could be wrong in my analysis, that lying is not akin to killing, but akin to murder. Not every falsehood qualifies as a lie, just as not every killing qualifies as murder. In both cases, we’re talking about exceptional fact patterns in which our actions have ambiguous meanings. Let’s take a closer look at this.
The families that hid the Jews from the Nazis in WWII may have been both justified and excused. In other words, they arguably were not acting freely, but out of extreme fear and duress, so their “lie” could be morally excused. But, even more, one might say (here the various arguments come into play) that deceiving the Nazis was a good act done to save innocent people, a la the Egyptian midwives of old, and not a lie in the technical, moral sense (cf. Ex. 1:15-21).
The Lila Rose case, and indeed all cases of espionage or “sting” operations, bring the matter into sharper focus. We’re not talking about actors who were acting at a moment of unspeakable duress. Rather, these cases involve calculated conduct in which deception played an intentional and pivotal role.
My common sense tells me that in very narrow circumstances someone may need to infiltrate a criminal organization and through deception gather necessary evidence. This need is especially acute in our society, which puts such a premium on the individual rights and liberties of accused wrongdoers that there is no other way to protect society from criminal operations.
An analogy that keeps coming to mind is acting. Simply by virtue of acting, of pretending to be someone he’s not, the actor is telling a falsehood. But let’s take it a step further. Perhaps the actor’s lines include a statement that isn’t true. Has the actor sinned by convincingly delivering these lines? We would all say that he hasn’t. This isn’t a case of untruthful communication (though it looks like it), but a form of art or entertainment.
The actors in a “sting” operation to bring down Planned Parenthood, organized crime, or some other evil enterprise have a motive even higher than entertainment as they promote the common good. And when it comes to Live Action’s actions in particular, they’re saving the lives of unborn children. I want to say that their actions were justifiable. That’s what my “moral common sense” says. Yet I’m not sure of the ethical basis for doing so, which is why I’ve been so interested in the debate.
In law, there is a truism that “bad cases make bad law.” It would be much better if we didn’t need a Live Action. But here we are, and I’m grateful for their courageous work.
Leon Suprenant contributes daily to An Undivided Heart, the blog of the Institute on Religious Life.