Monday, February 28, 2011

Lying for Life

Live Action is a Pro-Life group that went undercover to see what they could dig up about Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider. The Live Action actors pretended to be a pimp and prostitute as they asked the Planned Parenthood employee if she could help them obtain abortions for teenage prostitutes. Shockingly, the employee provides them with the information.

The debate in the broader community is whether this is an isolated case of a Planned Parenthood employee gone AWOL or just a typical day at the office at your local abortion provider. But there is an even more interesting argument going on within the Pro-Life movement about the means employed to obtain this information: Is lying a justifiable means to save the lives of the unborn? Is lying always wrong or are there exceptional cases in which it is justified? Academics have lined up on both sides of the issue:

A Moral Absolute

Robert George

Christopher Tollefsen

Carson Holloway

Admits of Exceptions

Peter Kreeft

Hadley Arkes

Joseph Bottum

Janet Smith

The debate reveals a tension between two necessary themes in any sound moral philosophy:

1) Good guys stick to their principles; bad guys violate them. If the good guys abandon their principles at the first sign of trouble, then there is no longer a clear line between right and wrong. This point is illustrated nicely in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In the interrogation scene, the Joker tells Batman that he will force him to break whatever rule or moral code he lives by. To kill Batman is not enough; he must be corrupted. The Joker employs this same strategy with Harvey Dent. Batman understands this which is why he prevents Dent from torturing someone. Dent must be beyond reproach. The Joker ultimately succeeds in the case of Dent but fails when it comes to Gotham City as a whole. He thinks people are principled as matter of convenience and will drop them when the going gets rough. The boat experiment in which two groups of people are given the choice to either kill or be killed is supposed to prove this point, but he turns out to be wrong. The people would rather die than commit such an evil deed.

2) Statesmanship requires latitude which absolutes hinder. Principles must be flexible for those who participate in the political arena. To rigidly hold onto abstract principles in such cases is doctrinaire, for it fails to take into account practical difficulties. This is not an endorsement of relativism because principles are not being denied altogether. It is just saying that theoretical principles must to be applied to concrete situations which requires the virtue of prudence. The prudential application of a principle might require it to be modified, adapted, or only partially realized in a given situation. Think of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. His principled stand against the tyrant Henry VIII does not exclude his prudence when it comes to avoiding death. He is both a wise serpent and an innocent dove.

The Natural Law tradition is aware of this tension which is why it places moral precepts in either primary or secondary categories. Primary precepts are absolute and brook no exceptions. For example, murder, defined narrowly as the “deliberate taking of innocent human life” is always wrong. Secondary precepts are generally wrong, but admit of exceptions. Aquinas lists stealing as a secondary precept because private property is not absolute; the goods of the earth ultimately belong to mankind in common so emergencies could require a redistribution of goods.

What category does lying fall under? Is language more like God-given human life or the human invention of private property, with all its pliability? This is where the question lies.

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