Moral reasoning

As I said, you are playing a semantics game.

That seems to be a crude allegation, Byz. I don’t play games. My grappling with the understanding of this moral situation is sincere, and I will have to ask someone in pastoral authority to clarify it for me.

I don’t believe the OP (not Pat) is referring to moral relativism - he’s suggesting more situation ethics than anything. Moral relativism holds that morals are relative to the culture and time in which one lives - that there’s no firm, universal “right” or “wrong”, no moral code that applies to everyone. anytime, anywhere. He seems to be suggesting that there IS a universal code, but that in certain extenuating circumstances that code does not apply. This, of course, is wrong (e.g. one can never sacrifice to idols, one can never blaspheme), but grave fear, duress, force, etc. can mitigate culpability.

In the case of the slave, I think one could make a “mental reservation”. Look that up.

Why isn’t this in the Moral Theology forum?

The situation appears to work out to this:

that if you say “no, I do not have any runaway slaves in my house”, you are therefore committing a venial sin.

alternatively, you can say “yes, i do have runaway slaves in my house”, thus not committing a sin, but still essentially permitting evil to befall these runaway slaves.

So, if not to sin is better than to sin, according to the logic thus far presented, it would be better not to sin, and for the slaves to be turned over?

In the case of the slave, I think one could make a “mental reservation”. Look that up.

I looked up Fr. Hardon’s definition of lying.

LYING. Speaking deliberately against one’s mind. The speech is any communication of ideas to another person, and may be done by means of words, spoken or written, and by gestures. By speaking deliberately is meant that the speaker must realize what he is saying; it is not a mere matter of ignorance or misstatement. When a person tells a lie, he or she says something that is contrary to what is on that person’s mind; there is real opposition between what one says and what one thinks.

That which was in the speaker’s mind in the two examplies I gave, was in accord with what was answered, and not in opposition to it. I will look in my copy of Grisez’s “Christian Moral Principles.” Maybe there is something in this book that will resolve the issue in my mind.

Good question. Also, does one become complicit in an intrinsically evil act if you respond in the affirmative and that person is taken and murdered?

I think this is where it is. Complicity in a mortal sin is worse than committing a venial sin IMHO.

I agree but I personally do not believe it to be a sin to deny knowledge of something to someone who has no right to it, especially if someone demands knowledge that will lead to the commission of an intrinsically evil act. If that requires a “lie,” then I don’t consider that action a sin.

If a pregnant woman asks me the whereabouts of a clinic that provides free abortions, am I subverting Truth and Justice by telling her that I do not know, even if I know perfectly well that there is one down the street and around the corner? Would it be better for me to become part of an intrinsically evil act and not subvert Truth by assisting in the murder of her child?

I used to think this way, but a lie is a distortion of the truth regardless of whether or not someone has a right to it. I know some saint has written on this but I have failed to find it so I am now leaning the other way. If someone does not have a right to the information then you do not answer them, if you lie you commit a venial sin. That is the way I am leaning now, unless I can find that saints writings on this.

In your example here you have three choices, refuse to answer her, tell her how you truly feel about abortion, or lie (distort the truth and commit a venial sin).

I agree but I personally do not believe it to be a sin to deny knowledge of something to someone who has no right to it, especially if someone demands knowledge that will lead to the commission of an intrinsically evil act. If that requires a “lie,” then I don’t consider that action a sin.

:thumbsup: Exactly! In the matter of hiding the slaves, the KKK has no “right to know” the truth, for they would carry out their evil intent. Nor does the salesman at the door have a “right to know” if mom is home.

I certainly respect your reasoning and opinion; it does present difficult choices. This is what the Catholic Encylcopedia has to say on the subject of a “lie;”

The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article on a “lie” that presents both sides. I tend to side with those who say" that we may sometimes lie as we take medicine, driven to it by sheer necessity."

The Church, actually, holds that one may use something called *mental reservation *to say one thing but really mean another to those who ask about things which they have no right to. I would certainly think that mental reservation would be appropriate in your KKK situation.

Here’s a good article.

Is It Ever Right To Lie?

It does not clear up the discussion but it lays it all out very well.

So much so that I am back to leaning to the “right to know” line.

The “right to know” argument finds its roots in poor Thomistic interpretation. It is also problematic because of converted term “right.” The modern liberal notion of rights is quite different than what Aquinas (or the church for that matter) or pretty much any philosopher prior to Kant would have.

The “right to know” argument also rests upon a faulty understanding of the relationship between the transcendentals and also upon a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person. I would suggest spending some time looking at Aquinas on this issue. He seems to have the only coherent doctrine on the subject. The real question, and more interesting questions, revolves around the definition of the term ‘lie’. If there is to be any further development on this issue it will be in that study.

I did look it up on the Catholic Encyclopedia. Thanks for the suggestion!

It was commonly admitted that an equivocal expression need not necessarily be used when the words of the speaker receive a special meaning from the circumstances in which he is placed, or from the position which he holds. Thus, if a confessor is asked about sins made known to him in confession, he should answer “I do not know,” and such words as those when used by a priest mean “I do not know apart from confession,” or “I do not know as man,” or “I have no knowledge of the matter which I can communicate.”

All Catholic writers were, and are, agreed that when there is good reason, such expressions as the above may be made use of, and that they are not lies. Those who hear them may understand them in a sense which is not true, but their self-deception may be permitted by the speaker for a good reason.

If there is no good reason to the contrary, veracity requires all to speak frankly and openly in such a way as to be understood by those who are addressed. A sin is committed if mental reservations are used without just cause, or in cases when the questioner has a right to the naked truth.

Again, the CE entry cited is doing a poor job of expressing the nature of the act. I would like to see who the author is of that article. Look, a lot of good contemporary work has been done on how the principles both derive and applied from Aquinas to come to the above conclusion are very poor interpretations of Aquinas. They are too influenced by the thought of Kant.

For instance, the example provided of the confessor’s responses to the inquirer never constitute a falsehood (lie). They are examples of reserved speech. One can always, for a grave reason, refuse to respond to a direct question. By doing so, no injury is done to the truth. However, the risk to ones self can be high.


Rather than downplay the reprint from CE, do you have a better exegesis of the subject?
I posted Fr. Hardon’s definition of a lie, and I believe he is very revered for his orthodoxy. Was this not good enough in your opinion?
Your vague response and critiques are not helping much.

Sure. My apologizes. The issue is so complex that I didn’t want to get delve into the issue in depth unless it was necessary. When I tried to post a response it was too long so this will be in two posts.

First, let me provide a link to a post that was made recently on this very topic on the New Theological Movement Blog. If you look at the whole blog the author has done more than one examination on the question of lying.

I provide that as a way to frame what I’m going to say about the problem with the “right to know” argument for lying. What must also be made clear is that what is being argued by proponents of that position is that the act itself takes on the character of a virtuous act. This is an essential component to understanding my objection to the position. This being the case, let me try to explain why this argument cannot be considered to be a Catholic position even though there have been good catholics who have held it.

Let me now briefly restate what I mentioned in an earlier post. There are two movements that must be made in evaluating a human act. The first is the objective character of the act and the second is the subjective application of praise and blame attributed to the agent of the act. When we analyze the objective character of the act we are trying to determine if the act is good or evil in itself. In sort, we are trying to determine if the act is in accord with nature or contrary to nature. When analyzing the subjective aspect we are trying to determine the level of responsibility the agent has for the act he commanded and/or brought into use.

For Aquinas we first try to determine the objective and only then can we move to the subjective. This is because the objective character of the act provides the ontological foundation that grounds the subjective. In short it tells us if the act is good or not. Now, if the act is evil then no level of mitigation through the subjective character of the act can make it good. It can, however, make it less evil. The opposite position is a form of what is called Consequentialism and most likely Proportionalism. In any case the contrary argument is that the subjective character of the act could somehow change the objective character of the act from evil to good. But, this is absurd and why as time went one, those who held this contrary position began to deny the existence of objectively evil acts. This is from whence we get Proportionalism. There is an excellent book that follows this history of thought among Catholic Moral Theologians. Anyone interested in Ethical issues should own the book. I’ll provide the link to its Amazon page. It is called Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition by Christopher Kcazor. The Manuals and the CE are filled with this type of ethical evaluation. Note that it was not malicious on their part. Rather, they had a fundamental misunderstanding of Aquinas’s evaluation of the human act, viz a vis, the natural moral law. As a result of this history contemporary Thomists have had to go back to Aquinas and retrieve his authentic moral thought. One of the results is that generally the Manualists have been deemed erroneous in their treatment of Aquinas. Aquinas’s Moral Theology is centered around the Natural Moral Law which emphasises right actions according to the virtues and grace. However, the Manualists and the Proportionalists after them place the emphasis on law and duty a la Emmanual Kant. This evaluation of a moral action is Voluntarist at best and Nominalist at worst.

So, getting back to the “right to knowledge” argument. The first thing that must be evaluated before we consider anything else is the act itself. The act is lying, i.e., deliberately uttering a falsehood with the intention to deceive. Then we evaluate the act based upon human nature: Speaking is a mode of communication. Communication is ordered to the communication of truth. To deliberately utter a falsehood is to radically violate the nature of human communication. This is because it is the contrary to the end of speaking itself which is derivative of the nature of the human person. Therefore, the objective character of the act of lying is evil. But, because the nature of the act is evil it is not possible for it to be good no matter the circumstances.

Notice, the evaluation of the act has not invoked the “right to know” argument in any way. Why is this? Because the person to whom one is lying is not part of the act with respect to its object or end. Rather, the person one is lying to is part of the act with respect to the circumstance. But, circumstances does not enter into the objective character of the human act. Rather, it enters into the subjective character of the act. As a result the person one is lying to is only relevant to determine the subjective character of the act – the agents culpability. But, it was already determined that lying is an intrinsically evil act and can not be mitigated unto it being characterized as a good. It can only serve to determine just how bad of an act it is in this or that concrete circumstance.


So, to be fair we could consider the person lied to in this example. Everyone has a natural right to the truth because the proper object of the human intellect is the knowledge of all things. However, not everyone has a right to all knowledge right this instant. I could see legitimate reasons for withholding knowledge for a time for the sake of some higher good. So, let’s say that the person does not need to know some specific information right now. Then the act of lying would be mitigated significantly. However, let’s say that the same information is withheld from someone who has a grave reason to that same knowledge at that time through an act of lying. In this latter case the act of lying is not mitigated. The full moral responsibility of the act of lying is attributed to the agent (all things considered equal). Thus, in both instances the act of lying is evil but in the former instance it is not as evil as in the latter.

However, this would be a *post facto\i] judgement of the act. The individual is not ever free to do an evil act to bring about a good. This is one of the most basic moral principles. It is the practical reasoning equivalent to the speculative reasoning principle of non-contradiction. Because of this principle the individual who is confronted with a difficult situation like this must seek out a way to act with respect to the agressor in such a way that he does not deliberately lie. He would be free to not respond or to do some other thing but if he were to lie he would be acting in a way that is contrary to his human nature and would thus be committing an evil act.

But, the question would need to be asked, why would he lie? He may consider lying because he foresees that by this act he would be saving the life of the person(s) he is hiding. However, here is a problem. What he foresees does not have any necessary relationship to the desired consequences. He may lie and it does not turn out the way he desires. However, even if it does turn out as he desires and we judge the act to be good because of the results then we definitely become Consequentialists and again we end up having to deny that there are such things are intrinsically evil acts.

Hopefully this is a sufficient explanation according to Thomistic principles.*

Thank you, Mosher, but it is way over my head. I was hoping for a simple answer, like what I might receive in confession. It reminds me of my very intense moral theology book.

You’re welcome. That’s why I didn’t want to go into it. The point is, don’t lie. Lying is bad and nothing can make it good only less bad. But don’t do less bad things either because they are still bad.

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