Lying as part of work

Possibly a trivial question:

What if you are required to lie as part of your job? Is that sinful? For example, if you are an undercover police officer and pretend to be a drug dealer.

See mental reservation.

When you have to lie for work, it’s time to look for honest work.

Right. Remember the movie The Rainmaker?

That’s missing the point. Is an undercover officer not doing honest work?

Never heard of it. :o

That’s a good question. While he has good intentions, and the deception may bring about some good, it has unintended (and perhaps unpredictable) negative consequences. The deception may be harmful to the officer’s psychological and spiritual well-being, and his actions may lead others to commit crimes or sins that they might not have otherwise committed. It’s not clear to me that there is an overall benefit to society.

Undercover police work is almost always the epitome of dishonest. It is very often entrapment. That it is generally accepted doesn’t make it right.

Usually when people argue for some lies they envision a person lying to protect an innocent from the police. They envision lying as a response. Undercover police work involves inventing complex frauds and seeking to make use of that lie.

I really think of lying, in the sense of sin, as deceiving someone to their detriment for personal gain. So more like giving false testimony against someone in court, or selling them something at an inflated price by telling them it’s worth more than it is.

A few examples of things that I think most people would agree aren’t sinful but are technically lying/deceptive:

  1. Someone you work with sees you in the hall and says, “Hey, like my new tie? My wife got it for me. Isn’t it great?” Personally, you think the tie is hideous. But giving your honest opinion would probably be hurtful and offensive to no benefit, so you say, “Yeah, very nice” and move on.

  2. Someone frantically pounds on your door and begs to be let inside, claiming there is someone with an axe chasing her. You let her in and call the police. A minute later, someone else knocks on your door. Through the peephole, you can see it’s a guy holding an axe. He says, “Hey, have you seen my ex-wife? I’m looking for her to give her what she deserves.” Now, obviously, you HAVE seen her. She’s hiding in your living room. In that situation, the moral thing to do is go, “Nope, haven’t seen her!”

  3. When the Allied forces were planning the invasion of Europe during WWII, they attempted to deceive the Nazis into thinking the invasion would at a different point than it actually would, hoping the Nazis would shift their forces and be weaker at the actual invasion point. I doubt anyone thinks General Eisenhower was sinning by engaging in a military ruse to deceive the Germans.

I think undercover cops fall more into this category, personally.

I agree about mental reservation.

There are two good examples: First, politicians. None of them answer a question directly. They don’t necessarily lie, but they don’t answer the question, either. Very skillful!

Second, games. I’m thinking here of Survivor on TV or board games like Risk and Diplomacy. “Lying” is part of the game–everyone playing knows that going in, and to pretend otherwise (as you occasionally see on Survivor) is just plain stupid. There are other TV shows where lying is part of the game: To Tell the Truth, for example. Is lying in these situations “lying” with all its moral implications? Of course not.

I’m not sure if an undercover cop could get by on equivocation or mental reservation alone. And it’s clearly not a game if the other participants (drug dealers, etc.) aren’t in on the “rules.” Spies would be another example. Personally, I wouldn’t have any problem lying in those circumstances.

You can’t do it. It is very hard to accept that, especially if you have a family member who is actually engaged in espionage (as I remember one poster on these boards alluding to in her own case). I agree with Beryllos - look for other work. You can easily justify any number of crooked businesses with “it’s a lie for a greater good,” and indeed, it would be if you were supporting your family through dishonest gambling, for instance, or pretending to be the IRS, or an African prince, or whatever. In a lie, it is the object which is the problem, which means it is “intrinsically evil.” Certainly, the better the intention, the lesser the sin, but it remains a moral evil to lie. Sure, some espionage could be done through mental reservation alone, but to find someone sharp enough to deal with real situations in a sufficient way while “on the inside” would be difficult indeed.

What about my examples above? Do you think the person in number one should have said “No, that tie is awful, burn it immediately” or the person in number two should have said “Yup, she’s in here!” or, in number three, Eisenhower should have let the German generals know where the invasion force was going to land?

Surely you agree there are SOME situations in which one is not only permitted to lie, but might actually be morally obligated to lie.

I don’t think we must agree that there are some situations in which you can lie. In each of the three situations you list there is no need to lie.

You don’t need to volunteer the man should burn his tie. You could call the tie interesting. You could say it fits your style. You could even say it’s not your favorite without calling it hideous.

You don’t have to say the woman is inside. You can say nothing.

I don’t know the specifics of what you say Eisenhower did. But trying to deceive the enemy isn’t necessarily a lie. For instance Nathan Bedford Forest used a tactic against the Yankee army where he had calvary perform a looping charge. This made the enemy think the forces were larger then they were when in fact they were just seeing repeatedly the same troops. That isn’t a lie but a tactic intended to cause the enemy to get a false impression.

Hard to see how an undercover policeman could be successful if he was to practice mental reservation all the time.

Could the undercover cop go to confession?

Otherwise, we’d be in a world where no Catholic could be an undercover cop, or a spy, or in the military . . . .There’d be no Santa Claus, or Easter Bunny, or Tooth Fairy . . . There’d be no skinned knees treated with "Let me kiss it to make it better’. . . . .No “Eat fish, it will make you smarter,” . . . .:shrug:

Is there a simple, quick explanation of mental reservation? Is it like a mental version of crossing your fingers?

No, it is answering a question in a means that will be interpreted in a manner that is not true, but is not a lie if interpreted a very specific way.

Nazi: “are there Jews in this house?”
Owner (while standing on the porch): " they are not here. " (meaning the porch, where the two are standing)

It can only be employed when the person asking the question has no right to the truth.

Certainly does not solve the dilemma. A valid confession requires contrition, which implies an intent to not commit the sin again. An undercover cop would certainly be intending to sin again.

Maybe there can’t be spies. But how is that bad? Wednesday during Holy Week is called Spy Wednesday because of Judas betrayal. Depending on what you mean by spying it is immoral.

Certainly in the real world, there are evil countries and entities. Combatting these evils requires some level of intelligence work. It is a dilemma, not doubt about it. One of very few things (maybe only) think in the Catholic faith I have a trouble accepting on reason is the absolute banning of lying.

Mental reservation has never been satisfactory answer to me, especially not in the often cited Nazi searching for jews scenario (see my above post). To me, the only thing to do in that scenario which is moral is to lie the most effective way possible, the heck with mental reservation.

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