Planned Parenthood has had a very bad summer. This is the consequence of videos produced by David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) in an under-cover sting operation that provide convincing evidence that Planned Parenthood clinics sell body parts of aborted babies for profit.
Daleiden and members of CMP passed themselves off as representatives of a fake biologics company to facilitate their covert action. For this they have been criticized by at least two articulate voices, Professor Robert George and Catholic author Mark Shea. They accuse Daleiden and CMP of engaging in the evil of lying and consequentialist ethics.
Their arguments were first made against Lila Rose when four years ago undercover investigators from her group Live Action, conducted similar pro-life covert activities. At the time, I published an exhaustive critique refuting the claims of Live Action’s critics. I will review some of those arguments here and offer a new perspective as to why Daleiden did not lie.
The George and Shea analysis, while thoughtful, suffers from a literalist understanding of language and communication and fails to make a sufficient distinction between lying as a direct offense against truth and acts of deception that can be morally justified. Critics of CMP are more than hesitant to condemn covert police or wartime operations which require false identities. If critics of CMP cannot come to a moral conclusion about these types of deceptive acts they have very little ground by which to condemn Daleiden.
Art. 2485 of the Catechism (CCC) states that “By its very nature lying is to be condemned.” Art. 2483 states: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” Art. 2488: “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional” and we are required “in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.” And finally, Art. 2489: “The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. … No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.”
Art. 2483 identifies the components of a lie as 1) speech or action 2) against the truth 3) in order to lead someone into error. The language “in order to” means the intent to lead another into error. If the term “error” only refers to leading someone to think something is true (when it isn’t true) and not moral error, then all undercover police officers are guilty of sin—but the Catholic Church does not teach that they commit sin.
Let’s also note Art. 2469: “The virtue of truth gives another his just due.” This article indicates that truth may be withheld from those who do evil; as such persons have lost their moral entitlement to a “just due.” It is clear that several factors need to be considered before judging whether particular speech or action is a lie.
Augustine and Aquinas both believed that any false signification in word or deed was an offense against the good of truth and thus sinful as such signs contradict what one knows to be the truth in one’s mind. Aquinas teaches that lying exists in the will to make a false statement that causes another to be deceived. It would appear there is no way to justify the donning of a false identity according to strict Thomistic principles.
However, even St. Thomas taught that ambushes in war could be morally justified (ST. 2, 2, Q40, art 3). He cites the actions of Joshua who tricked the enemy by instructing his army to pretend a retreat when in fact his men were luring their foes into a trap. Aquinas approved of actual gestures of false signification stating: “A man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him.” Aquinas goes on to say: “Nor can these ambushes be properly called deceptions, nor are they contrary to justice or to a well-ordered will.”
The Thomist system may provide a basis to understand why the Church does not condemn the use of false identity for a good purpose. When it comes to lying or the morality of any action, Aquinas states (ST 2,2, Q110) that actions have two parts—the end for which a person acts and the means by which the end is achieved and both parts are willed by the acting person. For instance, one wills to quench one’s thirst and to drink a glass of water is the means by which the end is achieved.
However, Aquinas taught that certain goods other than the truth, namely the good of life and the good of ownership of property may be “taken away” under certain circumstances. Here I wish to build on the insights of Professor Janet Smith and explain how false identity does not directly offend against truth and is thus not a lie.
Smith points out, neither Aquinas nor the Church consider the use of lethal force in defense of life to be an “exception” to the prohibition of murder. Why? The answer lies in the exact nature of an act of self-defense. Basically Aquinas teaches even in self-defense one does not have a right to the direct killing of the aggressor. Emphasis here must be on the word “direct.” Since one has a right to protect the good of one’s life and a duty to protect the lives of others—the action taken to achieve that end is not direct killing. It is an act that thwarts acts of aggression that may seriously wound or even kill the assailant. What one is directly doing (the object of the act) is thwarting, in a justified act of self-defense, another’s harmful action. The harm done to the assailant is an indirect effect of an otherwise legitimate moral action. Readers may recognize here the Principle of Double Effect.
Let us apply the above elements to false identity. Assuming the person acts for a good end, what is a person actually doing to achieve that end? By false identity one intends an act of self-defense and only secondarily an act of deception. The person in effect cloaks himself, thus defends himself against those who have no right to know who he is. The false identify does not directly offend against the good of truth because the primary object of the action is to hide oneself—the indirect effect being the deception of those with whom the person comes into contact.
One may argue that the person wills that others be deceived and thus is guilty of a lie. However, the deception here is no more immoral (the offense against a good) than the ontic evil of wounds or death that certainly results when someone aims a gun and pulls the trigger at an unjust aggressor. Keep in mind that, if someone has the right to don a disguise to ward off danger to himself or others, yes deception results, but according to CCC, Art. 2489: “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have a right to know it.”
Let’s consider this case. May a Jew in Nazi Germany named Mr. Rubin disguise himself as a German gentile, call himself in fact Mr. Schmidt to escape detection by the Gestapo and get himself out of the country? To get past Nazi check points, he may indeed “pass himself off” as someone else. Should the Nazi guard ask him: “Are you Mr. Schmidt?” Mr. Rubin may answer: “Yes, I am Schmidt.” What the victim of injustice is really communicating, according to mental reservation is “I am Schmidt insofar as this is my defense against your unjust intention of killing me.” The Nazi guard has no right to know the man’s Jewish identity and he is only “led” into error concerning some literal fact.
Certainly CMP acted for a good end—to expose the unjust and possibly illegal activity of Planned Parenthood to facilitate an end to abortion. When Daleiden takes on a false identity—pretends to be someone other than who is he—the primary object of his act is to protect himself from those who kill the unborn, for the end result of gathering information that will lead to the freeing of the unborn from legalized abortion. Are the PP workers deceived by his pretense? Yes. But this is not Daleiden’s direct object. The direct object of his action is to protect himself against evil-doers for the sake of helping others.
I am not offering a moral critique of every aspect of Daleiden’s strategy. This article is only focused on the morality of false identity. I do not claim to have the definitive answer though I hope to have advanced this discussion. The fact remains that many in law enforcement and the military take on false identities for the sake of pursuing the good. They are not required to go to confession before receiving Holy Communion. Thus it is clear that assuming a false identity is not sin. Whether I have provided a possible explanation as to why this is the case—it is the case—and it begs for an explanation.