One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat. As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying. Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing. As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real. Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth. As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.” It is time to tell the truth about lying.
Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area. That is because we lack a really good definition. Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition. In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth”(CCC 2483). When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow. This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful. He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind. In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.
Loving the Truth
Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong. Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts. When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power. Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter. Lying is always wrong.
Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies. Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). There are no such thing as white lies. A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated. That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things. It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.
In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying. Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking. This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying. If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying. He communicated the truth as he understood it. Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth. Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp. Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying
Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying. But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult. For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition. It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”
Living the Truth
It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying. All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying. There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil. Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth. In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret. Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion. But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.
Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation. A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning. There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean. This would be a form of lying. A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear. Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?” The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.” Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking. A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.
What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly? Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that. Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.” One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator. However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth. When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible. There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.
In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat. Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation? I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…