Monday, August 8, 2011

The Clever Frenchman

There is something morally disordered about telling a lie. We may see this by analyzing the three fonts of morality involved.

A lie is a little more complicated, I think, than some other cases, inasmuch as there seems to be what we might call a mediate end in speech within the moral object before the proximate end. We could also thus, from a more "zoomed in" perspective on the process gone through by the Will, call this mediate end simply the first intended end, and the proximate end a foreseen and intended consequence, or something like that.

This mediate end I'm talking about is the fact that the faculty of speech is the object of intelligible good in-itself, even before we consider the results we desire to obtain from it. Which is to say, speech is not purely instrumental, but has a natural intelligible good of Knowledge/Truth which would suffice to draw the Will even if there were no consequences/instrumental effects to our speech.

An analogy of this sort of "mediate end" might be masturbation to obtain a sperm sample. Such an act remains disordered even when the proximate end is simply obtaining the sample, because the pleasure remains a natural end of the Will inseparable from the ejaculation which is actively chosen as instrumental (and yet which choice, in context, thus also renders the pleasure unintelligible). This is different, you will note, from a case where some other act, in which the ejaculation is not chosen as instrumental, results in an orgasm/ejaculation as simply an indirect side-effect.

Also note: I am not saying that there is anything wrong, in itself, with instrumentalizing goods in the process of obtaining some other good (in fact, our whole life is a process of following mediate goods to our Final Good). But the instrumentalization must respect the holism and integrity of all the mediate goods and their natural ends, the final good sought does not justify disordering or fragmenting other goods in the process (just like we cannot kill people even if they are going heaven.)

Anyway, back to the question of a lie. We've discussed the ends involved, now the moral object proposed, in itself, will be simply the act of making of some statement, which is in itself fine. And the circumstances are the context (social and linguistic) in which the statement is made and understood, and which will thus effect what consequences result.

However, there is, in a lie, a disorder between end and the object, even if good consequences result. Because there is a relationship of object to end that is not intelligible. Speaking is good and desirable because of truth, and thus should never be chosen thwarting that [mediate] end, even when there is some additional end the speech is being instrumentalized for.

Speech should achieve any further intended ends reasonably, through the conveyance of Truth or the natural good of Knowledge. Or, rather, the choice of speech should not involve a direct choice against this good. A lie, however, achieves its proximate end in the manner of deception or ignorance, the statement chosen is related to the intended result exactly by not being True/Reasonable and thus constitutes an active choice to sever the good of speech from its natural goodness.

To do this is to simply instrumentalize speech, and to (internal to the moral agent, mind you) identify its good with deception (or an effect achieved through deception) rather than Truth. It is to make the very grounds of intelligibility (language) unintelligible, to make logos, the very vehicle of Truth, a vehicle of its very opposite!

However, while Catholic morality has never allowed a direct lie to be told, there is an ancient tradition of allowing equivocation in order to conceal the Truth from someone (in order to avoid bad consequences of them knowing it) while still making a statement.

So, for example, the following story.

There as a stupid Nazi officer going through a French village looking for hidden Jews. This soldier only speaks German, and he hears there is a man in town who speaks German too and who is hiding some Jews. There is indeed in this village a clever Frenchman who speaks both German and French and who is, in fact, hiding some Jews under his floorboards.

The German officer gets to the Frenchman's house and demands, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Haben sie Juden??" ("Do you speak German? Do you have any Jews??")

The Frenchman could answer in German, "Yes, I speak German. Yes, I have Jews." He'd be telling the truth, but the bad consequences would make this seem morally problematic. He could say in German, "Yes, I speak German. No, I don't have any Jews," but this is a lie, and a direct lie can never be allowed even to save a life (we won't get into the arguments about "mental reservation" here). It would be an act of simply instrumentalizing speech to achieve a good consequence, but within the Will of the Frenchman, internal to the moral agent, it would still require a directly chosen severing of word from truth, a choice against the good of truth.

The Frenchman thus has two options. He can remain heroically silent; this might get him killed, but let's assume there is no positive obligation to speak in this situation (ie, let's assume the German is so stupid that he won't realize the silence means this is the man he's looking for or something like that, that the silence does not of itself "speak"). There is no obligation to choose a particular good, as long as you don't make a choice against it.

However, there is also another option that remains moral. Assuming the clever Frenchman has gained knowledge of the circumstance of the officer not knowing French, the Frenchman may answer, "Oui, je parle allemand. Oui, j'ai Juifs." ("Yes, I speak German. Yes, I have Jews.") He wouldn't even have to answer the question; saying something else true in French like, "The capital of France is Paris," or even a string of nonsense words, would also clearly suffice.

The stupid Nazi would not understand this true or meaningless statement, assumes the man only speaks French, and leave in frustration.

There is nothing wrong here, morally. People whose understanding of morality is a modern consequentialist one may think this is equivalent to a lie (and thus that either it is wrong, or that lies for good reason are okay), but really the genius of Catholic morality is that this situation would be considered categorically different than a direct lie (and rightly so!)

The proximate end of speaking this words is, presumably, to get the Nazi officer to leave. Speaking those French words in itself is neutral; there is no natural good ever harmed in the mere creation of certain sounds with the mouth, and even relative to the "mediate end" of the natural good of speech...there is no severing of Word from Truth within the mind or will of the moral agent. In speaking those words, the Frenchman has not chosen "the good of truth without truth" or anything like that (as would be the case in a direct lie).

The circumstantially-based foreseen consequence of the German not finding out the Truth he wants is non-controversial. And this would likewise be true if the Frenchman simply remained silent, so the continued ignorance can't be called a consequence of making the statement as compared to total abstinence from speech; and even if it could, this continued ignorance on the Nazi's part would not be a bad consequence, as he has no right to the truth.

Where people will perhaps object (incorrectly) is on the grounds that the man chose to speak in French based on his knowledge that the German would not understand, and that this makes it equivalent to a lie, to a choice of severing speech from truth.

This is incorrect, however. The German's lack of knowledge of French is not in itself evil as a circumstance. And it is not something the Frenchman actively chooses, because it simply is an already-existant fact. It thus does not enter into the proposal of the moral object since it is not something actively caused by the Frenchman. It remains a circumstance and thus cannot be involved in any disorder between object and end (the only moral evil that external circumstances can affect are the foreseen consequences).

You might say, "Yes, but his knowledge of the German's ignorance of French informs his choice to abstain from speaking German to him," but unless we're going to propose a positive obligation to make sure people understand what we say (which is absurd, and a practical impossibility), or a positive obligation to actively convey all Truth (or even just this truth) to the German (again, an impossibility, and this would also exclude even total silence)...this choice of abstinence (inasmuch as the non-act of abstinence can even be considered an active choice) from speaking German with him cannot be considered bad (if total silence would be allowed, speaking another language cannot be condemned either on these grounds).

The only thing some people might say at this point is that the relationship between the meaning of the (French) words spoken and the intended end of getting the German to leave is as disordered as in a lie, because conveyance-of-truth is not being actualized either way. However, this is incorrect because, as has been established above, the lack of conveyance-of-truth is an external circumstance, not inherent in the moral object of making the French statement. Internal to the moral agent himself, there is no severing of word and truth, no "good of truth without truth," even if no truth is actually conveyed externally. Because morality is internal and in some sense abstract; within the Reason of Frenchman himself, the truth and the statement are not severed (and so his own orientation towards the Good is not effected), even if in a sheerly external and accidental they are (ie, relative to the German).

The fact that the German doesn't know French (and thus the good of conveyance-of-truth is not actualized) is relevant only as a known circumstance, but since this doesn't lead to any moral's fine. And yet, who would deny that the clever Frenchman's statement was still intelligibly ordered to the Truth within his own Will?

In identifying the defect in telling a lie as internal to the moral agent, as involving not the question of foreseen understanding, but about whether language is severed from truth in order to be instrumentalized, some might object that this requires the conclusion that even making an untrue statement out-loud when you're all alone...would also be a lie and wrong.

However, this would be a misunderstanding of what I'm saying. I'm not saying that certain words have an inherent meaning (language is, after all, basically arbitrary) and that we can never make certain sounds because what the signify linguistically isn't true. Rather, that the very untruth of a statement cannot in itself be chosen as instrumental to another end (as in a lie, where the very effect sought is dependent on the other person understanding as true what is untrue).

If, however, an untrue statement needs to be used to cause an effect that has nothing to do with its untruth, in a context where the truth-value of the statement is accidental/non-instrumental (like, for example, if "Paris is the capital of Britain" was simply a pass-phrase for getting into a club), then this is clearly non-controversial, as there is already no truth-claim implied in this statement (fictional or hypothetical statements, clearly such in context, do not frustrate the good of speech, as there is a real good in the mere of idea of hypothetical realities.)


A Sinner said...

I've been thinking about this some more and just want to clarify what exactly is the nature of the moral defect in a direct lie, and why it ISN'T present in equivocation.

I get at this in the post, but am not sure I was entirely clear, when I said that the defect in a lie is choosing "the good of Truth without Truth."

What I meant was this: achieving ones intent in a Lie requires attempting to actualize the Form of Truth in the mind of the other person, while actually NOT conveying any Truth (and, indeed, conveying its opposite). You try to get them to perceive (subjectively) the good of Conveyance-of-Truth by speech...yet without the objective good of actual conveyance-of-truth.

So you have taken the Form of Truth itself, the subjective experience OF Truth being conveyed (in the other person), and severed it from its actual objective good, from actual truth, in order to instrumentalize it to achieve some end. This is clearly very much morally deformed (especially depending on the gravity of the truth in question).

You will note that this is NOT true in cases where you don't intend the "audience" to have any notion that what you're saying is true (in fiction or theater or a joke or a hypothetical or whatever). It's not that untrue statements are wrong in themselves; in fact, it might be said, an untrue statement intended to be UNDERSTOOD AS a form of truth in itself (ie, inasmuch as the untruth of the statement and the understanding of that untruth MATCH, so the "truth of the statement's untruth" is conveyed accurately).

The problem is in the MISMATCH between understanding and reality. In the fact that you choose to have the Form of Truth activated in the mind of your listener, yet without its actual corresponding Good (which amounts to a fragmentation and instrumentalization of the Good of Truth).

A Sinner said...

Now, this is clearly NOT the case in equivocation.

Saying that the Form of Truth, the subjective experience OF the good of truth-conveyance, must never be intentionally "activated" in anyone separate from what you know to be the actual very different from saying that we must ALWAYS be actualizing the good of truth.

No, there is no positive obligation to always be actualizing Truth (nor, in most cases, does anyone have a right to that). Just that, when we do actualize it, we cannot sever the sign (the perception OF truth being conveyed) from the reality (actual truth).

So, as I think is rather obvious, silence is almost always okay. In most circumstances/contexts, silence doesn't convey an intent to convey truth on your part (unless it is a pre-agreed-upon sign)...if people assume something from the silence, that is their own fault.

Their assumptions might be wrong, and you might even know that, but this isn't like a lie because no perception is actualized in them that you were TRYING to convey whatever they assumed. And the deformity in a lie, remember, is not in their ignorance or false-knowledge in itself, but rather in the MISMATCH between that ignorance or false-knowledge and the perception you chose to create in them of you intending to communicate the truth.

But generally, if you remain silent, they won't have any perception of you intending to communicate the truth (even if THEY assume something from your silence).

Equivocation, then, is equivalent to silence. People usually have no right to have their question answered (though if you DO give an answer it must be truthful), and so saying something totally unrelated to distract them (or even knowing they will then make a false assumption about their question) which does not actually address the 100% equivalent to silence.

If you ask me, "Hey, have you ever been to France?" And I say, "My favorite color is blue!" I haven't lied, I've simply ignored the question. They may make a false assumption based on this, but there is no perception in their mind that I intended to communicate any truth about their question by what I said (even if they then assume one). Saying something unrelated or equivocal is equivalent to silence inasmuch as it involves simply NOT answering the question rather than answering it falsely (a huge difference).

So, in the example of the clever Frenchman, the Frenchman responding in French is not a lie. Yes, the German assumes incorrectly that this means the Frenchman does not speak German, and the Frenchman knows he'll make this false assumption. But, there is no perception by the German that the Frenchman has intended to communicate that (and thus perception of communication-of-truth severed from actual truth).

Indeed: if the German takes the talking in French to indicate that the Frenchman does not know German, the German CAN'T logically be thinking that the Frenchman has tried to answer his question (truthfully or falsely), as the question was asked in German and the German is now assuming the Frenchman only knows French. So his speaking in French CANNOT be perceived as an attempt to answer the question asked in German. So there is no mismatch between a perception of Truth-communicated and lack of actual Truth-conveyed.

The German does not perceive the Frenchman as communicating an answer to his question as, as far as the German assumes, the Frenchman can't be attempting to convey anything (one way or the other) regarding that question (given the assumption that he couldn't even understand the question!)

So equivocation is not a lie, because equivocation is simply NOT ANSWERING the question and thus equivalent to silence (even if the listener jumps to their own conclusions based on your silence or whatever else you do say). Whereas a lie is answering FALSELY (ie, making them think you've communicated truth, activating that good in their head subjectively, when you haven't actually).

Mark of the Vineyard said...

Thanks for clarifying the part about jokes and such. I always wondered where sarcasm fell.

I take it you accompanied the various posts and debates in the comboxes of the New Theological Movement blog related to this subject some months ago?