When is lying wrong and how do we define a lie?

Saint Augustine was not certain whether the deliberate assertion of a falsehood is still a lie if the person does not intend to deceive.

Saint Augustine: “But whether a lie be at some times useful, is a much greater and more concerning question. Whether, as above, it be a lie, when a person has no will to deceive, or even makes it his business that the person to whom he says a thing shall not be deceived although he did wish the thing itself which he uttered to be false, but this on purpose that he might cause a truth to be believed; whether, again, it be a lie when a person willingly utters even a truth for the purpose of deceiving; this may be doubted. But none doubts that it is a lie when a person willingly utters a falsehood for the purpose of deceiving: wherefore a false utterance put forth with will to deceive is manifestly a lie. But whether this alone be a lie, is another question. Meanwhile, taking this kind of lie, in which all agree, let us inquire, whether it be sometimes useful to utter a falsehood with will to deceive.” [On Lying, first paragraph, n. 5.]

However, in the same article, Augustine counsels us neither to assert falsehoods nor to deceive [On Lying, n. 4, last sentence].

Saint Aquinas believed that deliberately asserting a falsehood was a lie, even without the intention to deceive: “The desire to deceive belongs to the perfection of lying, but not to its species, as neither does any effect belong to the species of its cause.” [Summa Theologica, II-II, 110, 3, Reply to Objection 3. ]

What Aquinas is saying is that the deliberate assertion of a falsehood is a lie, and if you add to that the intention to deceive, it is more sinful. An act wrong by its “species” (or nature) is intrinsically evil and therefore always wrong.

In answer to the question “Whether every lie is a sin”, Thomas writes: "Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i). "

CCC 2482 "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving."The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

CCC 2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

CCC 2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

CCC 2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

CCC 2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.

Intending to deceive…not in the context of fictitious literature, of course.

Has anybody NOT lied in response when somebody asked you “What time is it?”

I think it was the philosopher Yogi Berra that responded “You mean right now?”

I don’t think intending to deceive by itself is a lie. One could intend to deceive without asserting a falsehood. Augustine was not certain if every lie must include that intention. But it seems clear that one could have the intention without lying.

The CCC text is difficult on this point. The assertion that lying is wrong “by its very nature” indicates it is an intrinsically evil act, an act with an evil moral object (as Aquinas essentially says). But then the text “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” adds a particular intention. A few interpretations are possible.

  1. lying is speaking a falsehood, and the intention to deceive is simply the most common intention. There is nothing wrong with describing an intrinsically evil act along with its most common intention or a common circumstance. This would not imply that the act ceased to be intrinsically evil with a different intended end or circumstance.

  2. to assert a falsehood is an inherently deceptive act; to intentionally assert a falsehood implies a willing choice of that type of act, regardless of the intended end.

  3. Perhaps the text needs further reform. Already, from the first to the second English edition there has been a change:
    First edition:
    “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.”
    Second edition:
    “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”
    scborromeo.org/ccc/updates.htm

The requirement that the person has a right to know the truth is not essential to the definition of lying. It is still a lie if the person to whom one is speaking has no such right, yet one asserts a falsehood.

  1. that a deliberate false assertion is only a lie if your intended end is to deceive, as if a good intended end would justify a deliberate false assertion, making it somehow not really a lie.

However, I would reject the fourth apparent possibility, as being incompatible with magisterial teaching on intrinsically evil acts. Aquinas was clear that the intention to deceive is not essential for a false assertion to be a lie and to be immoral.

So I don’t misunderstand you, are you saying the Church teaching as laid out in the CCC is wrong but Aquinas is correct?

No. The CCC and Aquinas agree that lying is always wrong. Any act that is wrong “by its very nature” or “by its species” is intrinsically evil and always immoral to knowingly choose. However, the definition of a lie is somewhat unclear in the CCC.

I would say that a lie is the deliberate assertion of a falsehood. The CCC also states the typical intended end: to deceive or to lead into error. But even if a lie is told for a good intended end, it is still immoral because lying is wrong by its very nature.

It is odd then that when the CCC writes:
2482 "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving."281, the reference given (281) is also to St Thomas:
281 St. Augustine, De mendacio 4,5:PL 40:491.

Is it possible to lie without with deceiving? In fact, isn’t “to tell a lie” the same as “to create a deception” (via a communication)? Is creating the deception via a well-chosen omission materially different from being more direct? [On the other hand, the CCC does say: 2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. So perhaps there are other similar offences. Are they not intrinsically evil?]

While causing deception seems to be inevitable when lying, is it ever the goal (motivation) in lying? Assuming one is not a pathological liar, I would imagine there is always a motivation to convey a falsehood beyond the deception itself - such as to avoid a speeding ticket, or a avoid a tax audit, etc.

When mums tells the 3 year old that Santa Clause will bring a present, she tells a falsehood, and the child is deceived. Is this a lie?

How about the use of mental reservation to avoid telling someone (who does not deserve to know the truth) the truth?
Is that still a lie but venial in nature or not a lie at all?

With the utmost respect to St Thomas, if he and the Catechism disagree, we must stick with what the Catechism says.

St Thomas was a brilliant thinker and writer, and his philosophy/theology have contributed so much to the Catholic faith. But his works are not assured to be free from error. Maybe this is one area he didn’t quite get right?

His teaching here, for example, would make it immoral for a comedian to tell a joke in the first person, if the joke involves a fiction, even though the audience will not be deceived into believing that it really happened. Is that really “intrinsically evil”?

Conversely, the definition found in the Catechism would not lead to that same conclusion, since no deception is intended. And thus faithful Catholics may retain a sense of humour.

PL stands for Patrologia Latina, which is a collection of Latin editions of texts from Church fathers. It’s not a reference to Saint Thomas.

Is it possible to lie without with deceiving? In fact, isn’t “to tell a lie” the same as “to create a deception” (via a communication)? Is creating the deception via a well-chosen omission materially different from being more direct? [On the other hand, the CCC does say: 2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. So perhaps there are other similar offences. Are they not intrinsically evil?]

So that’s what I ask in my post above. Is the CCC stating a common but non-essential intended end, that accompanies a lie? Or is the CCC simply pointing out that the knowing intentional choice to assert a falsehood is inherently deceptive? In any case, it is clear that lying is intrinsically evil, and therefore always immoral.

While causing deception seems to be inevitable when lying, is it ever the goal (motivation) in lying? Assuming one is not a pathological liar, I would imagine there is always a motivation to convey a falsehood beyond the deception itself - such as to avoid a speeding ticket, or a avoid a tax audit, etc.

Three fonts:

  1. intended end or goal – usually to deceive someone
  2. moral object – to deprive an assertion of truth
  3. consequences – that someone is deceived

Often, an act has similar ends in all three fonts. But suppose a person tells a lie in order to keep from losing his job? The intended end is good, but the act remains intrinsically evil. Suppose that a person is simply an incompetent liar, and no one is deceived in the consequences. It is still the choice of a disordered act.

The Santa example is simply a fiction told to a child, who does not distinguish fact from fiction. It is not a lie. But if I am mistaken, and it is a lie, then it must be immoral. We cannot contradict Church teaching, that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, by finding a case where it seems to us fallen sinners that the act is moral in a particular case.

Mental reservation, properly defined, is not a lie. In mental reservation, you assert no falsehood. You withhold a truth, with the reasonably anticipated consequence that a person might misunderstand. The typical justification for that bad effect is that the person “does not deserve to know that truth”, but other justifications are possible. As long as you intend only good, do not lie, and the good consequences are reasonably anticipated to equal or outweigh the bad, the use of mental reservation would be moral.

It’s not a question of St. Thomas and the Catechism disagreeing. Rather, the CCC must always be understood and interpreted in the light of all the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium with any insights available from theology. If a Catholic tries to understand the Catechism in isolation from the rest of the Faith, he will inevitably misunderstand many points.

A joke is not a deliberate false assertion; it is not inherently deceptive. So the chosen act is not intrinsically evil. No version of moral theology classifies a joke or a fictional story as a lie.

Lies are inherently deceptive since one is knowingly choosing to assert a falsehood. But the purpose for the lie, whether to deceive as an end, or whether the false assertion is a means to a good end (such as to save lives), is irrelevant to its moral object. A lie told for a very good reason is still immoral.

I have no idea how I “saw” that as a reference to St. Thomas!

So that’s what I ask in my post above. Is the CCC stating a common but non-essential intended end, that accompanies a lie? Or is the CCC simply pointing out that the knowing intentional choice to assert a falsehood is inherently deceptive? In any case, it is clear that lying is intrinsically evil, and therefore always immoral.

Three fonts:

  1. intended end or goal – usually to deceive someone
  2. moral object – to deprive an assertion of truth. = to Lie?]
  3. consequences – that someone is deceived

Often, an act has similar ends in all three fonts. But suppose a person tells a lie in order to keep from losing his job? The intended end is good, but the act remains intrinsically evil. Suppose that a person is simply an incompetent liar, and no one is deceived in the consequences. It is still the choice of a disordered act.

The Santa example is simply a fiction told to a child, who does not distinguish fact from fiction. It is not a lie. But if I am mistaken, and it is a lie, then it must be immoral. We cannot contradict Church teaching, that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, by finding a case where it seems to us fallen sinners that the act is moral in a particular case.

The person lying to keep a job must choose deception. That seems to be the proximate end. A lie cannot be effective without this. The comedian on stage asserts falsehoods by way of storytelling but with no expectation to deceive. No one would suggest he lied.

I imagine that Santa would have ‘figurative and prophetic’ meaning as per Aquinas explanation here…

In Holy Writ, as Augustine observes (Lib. De Mend. v), the deeds of certain persons are related as examples of perfect virtue: and we must not believe that such persons were liars. If, however, any of their statements appear to be untruthful, we must understand such statements to have been figurative and prophetic. Hence Augustine says (Lib. De Mend. v): “We must believe that whatever is related of those who, in prophetical times, are mentioned as being worthy of credit, was done and said by them prophetically.” As to Abraham “when he said that Sara was his sister, he wished to hide the truth, not to tell a lie, for she is called his sister since she was the daughter of his father,” Augustine says (QQ. Super. Gen. xxvi; Contra Mend. x; Contra Faust. xxii). Wherefore Abraham himself said (Genesis 20:12): “She is truly my sister, the daughter of my father, and not the daughter of my mother,” being related to him on his father’s side. Jacob’s assertion that he was Esau, Isaac’s first-born, was spoken in a mystical sense, because, to wit, the latter’s birthright was due to him by right: and he made use of this mode of speech being moved by the spirit of prophecy, in order to signify a mystery, namely, that the younger people, i.e. the Gentiles, should supplant the first-born, i.e. the Jews.

Some, however, are commended in the Scriptures, not on account of perfect virtue, but for a certain virtuous disposition, seeing that it was owing to some praiseworthy sentiment that they were moved to do certain undue things. It is thus that Judith is praised, not for lying to Holofernes, but for her desire to save the people, to which end she exposed herself to danger. And yet one might also say that her words contain truth in some mystical sense.

newadvent.org/summa/3110.htm

There must be countless examples of lies told with the deepest of love imaginable such as a parent soothing a dying childs fears of death and separation, where the ‘words contain truth in some mystical sense.’

The Catechism is a “sure norm for teaching the faith”. Catholics can have every faith in its teachings. There is generally no need for further interpretation - apart from in academic theological circles, where doctrine is further explored and expounded - but you and I do not belong to that sphere.

St Thomas’s works are excellent, but not authoritative. He gets some things wrong.

Aquinas included jocose lies in his definition of lying: “a jocose lie, from the very genus of the action, is of a nature to deceive”

It seems you disagree with Aquinas. That’s OK. As you say, no (modern) version of moral theology classifies a joke as a lie.

Here is a very detailed threatment of the development of the Church’s understanding of lying: newadvent.org/cathen/09469a.htm

You are correct. He did not believe in the Immaculate Conception, albeit it was not dogma at that time.

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