Moral Philosophy

Chapter III. Of Speaking the Truth.

Section I. -- Of the Definition of a Lie.

1. "LET none doubt," says St. Augustine, "that he lies, who utters what is false for the purpose of deceiving. Wherefore the utterance of what is false with a will to deceive is unquestionably a lie." The only question is, whether this definition does not contain more than is necessary to the thing defined. The objective falseness of what is said makes a material falsehood: the will to utter what is false makes a formal falsehood (Ethics, c. iii., s. ii., n. 7, p. 33): the will to create a false impression regards, not the falsehood itself, but the effect to follow from it. If a person says what is not true, but what he takes to be the truth, he tells indeed a material lie, but at the same time he puts forth no human act (Ethics, c. i., n. 2, p. 1) of lying. If on the other hand he says what he believes to be false, though it turns out true, he tells a formal lie, though not a material one, and moreover, he does a human act of lying. But human acts are the subject-matter of morality. The moralist therefore is content to define the formal lie: the material aspect of the lie is irrelevant to his enquiry, A formal lie is saying what one believes not to be true, or promising what one intends not to perform: briefly, it is speaking against one's mind.

2. We shall show presently that to speak against one's mind is intrinsically, necessarily, and always evil. But when a thing is thus evil in itself, there is no need to bring into the definition of the act, from a moral point of view, the intention with which it is done. There is no use in prying into ends, when the means taken is an unlawful means for any end. If a person blasphemes, we do not ask why he blasphemes: the intention is not part of the blasphemy: the utterance is a sin by itself But if a person strikes, we ask why he strikes, to heal or to slay, in self-defence or in revenge. So, if speaking against one's mind is a thing indifferent and colourless in point of morality, and all depends on the intention with which we do it, so that we may speak against our minds to put another off, but not to deceive him, then certainly the intention to deceive must be imported into the definition of lying. But if, as we shall prove presently, the act of so speaking is by no means indifferent and colourless, but is fraught with an inordinateness all its own, then the intention may be left out of the question, the act is to be characterised on its own merits, and speech against one's mind is the definition of a lie.

3. Then, some one will say, it would be a lie for a prisoner in solitary confinement to break the silence of his cell with the exclamation, Queen Anne is not dead. The answer is simple: it takes two to make a speech. A man does not properly speak to himself, nor quarrel with himself, nor deal justly by himself. Not that it would be a lie to deny the death of Queen Anne even in public: for speech is an outward affirmation, the appearance of a serious will to apply predicate to subject: but in this case there is no appearance of a serious will: on the contrary, from the manifest absurdity of the assertion, it is plain that you are joking and do not mean to affirm anything. This perhaps is as far as we can go in permission of what are called lies in jest.

Readings. -- St Thos., 2a 2ae, q. 110, art. 1.

Section II. -- Of the Evil of Lying.

I. Human society cannot go on, if men are to be allowed indiscriminately to lie to one another. Thucydides (iii., 83) gives as the reason of the extravagant length to which faction ran in Greece in his time: "For there was no power to reconcile the parties, no plighted word reliable, no oath held in awe." Even in trifles no one likes to be lied to, and we are not to do to our neighbour what we would not have done to ourselves. The laws of good fellowship require that we should "put away lying, and speak the truth ever man with his neighbour: for we are members one of another." (Ephesians iv. 25.) This at least in ordinary circumstances. The same good fellowship requires that in ordinary circumstances we should respect the lives and property of our fellow-men.

2. But it is lawful to take life in pursuance of the just judgment of authority: it is lawful to seize upon property in self-preservation. These exceptions stand very harmoniously with the well-being of society, or rather are required by it, as we shall see later on. The law against lying, so far as it is founded on the general prejudice done to society by the shock of social confidence, and on the particular annoyance of the party lied to, may seem to admit of similar exceptions. Whoever has no reasonable objection to having life and property taken from him in certain contingencies, can he reasonably complain of any hurt or inconvenience that he may suffer from a lie being told him at times?

3. I put forward this difficulty, not as though it were without its answer in the principle of General Consequences: still it is a difficulty. Besides, if the whole harm of lying is in the unpleasant effect wrought upon the deceived bearer, and the scandal and bad consequences to society at large, it is a long way to go round to show that lying is impossible to God. He in whose dominion are all the rights and claims of man, is not to be restrained by the mere reluctance of His creatures to be deceived, or by the general bad effects of a lie upon the edifice of human credit. As Alaster He might impose this annoyance upon the individual, these bad consequences upon society: or by His Providence He might prevent their occurring, whenever He willed in His utterances to swerve from the truth. The only help for the argument for the Divine veracity on these grounds, is to urge with Plato that none of the motives which lead men to lie can ever find place in the mind of God: that a lie is a subterfuge, an economy, a device resorted to under stress of circumstances, such as can never serve the turn of the Supreme Being. But though God be inaccessible to human reasons for departing from the truth, may He not have higher reasons, mysterious, and unsearchable, for such a deviation? It is long arguing out this point. Better bring the discussion sharp round with the question: Is there not some element in the Divine Nature itself, which makes it impossible for God to speak false?

4. Undoubtedly there is such an element, deep down, even at the root of the sanctity of God. God is holy in that, being by essence the fulness of all being and all goodness, He is ever true to Himself in every act of His understanding, of His will, and of His power. By His understanding He abidingly covers, grasps, and comprehends His whole Being. With His will He loves Himself supremely. His power is exercised entirely for His glory -- entirely, but not exclusively, for God's last and best external glory is in the consummated happiness of His creatures. Whatever God makes, He makes in His own likeness, more or less so according to the degree of being which He imparts to the creature. And as whatever God does is like Him, and whatever God makes is like Him, so whatever God says is like Him: His spoken word answers to His inward word and thought. It holds of God as of every being who has a thought to think and a word to utter

5. God's sanctity is in His being true to Himself. His veracity is part of His sanctity. He cannot in His speech, or revelation of Himself, contradict what He really has in His mind, without ceasing to be holy and being no longer God. But the sanctity of intellectual creatures must be, like their every other pure perfection, modelled on the corresponding perfection of their Maker. Holiness must mean truthfulness in man, for it means truthfulness in God. God's words cannot be at variance with His thought, for God is essential holiness. Nor can man speak otherwise than as he thinks without marring the attribute of holiness in himself, that is, without doing wrong.

6. To speak against one's mind is an act falling upon undue matter. Words are naturally signs of thoughts. Not that the words of any given language, as English or German, have any natural connection with the thoughts that they express; but it is natural to men, natural to every intellectual being, to have some mode of expressing his thoughts by outward signs; and once a sign is recognized as the sign of a certain thought, so long as the convention remains unrepealed, whoever uses that sign, not having in his mind at the time the thought which that sign signifies, but the contradictory to it, is doing violence to the natural bond between sign and thing signified, by putting forward the former where the latter is not behind it. And since the due and proper matter for the sign to be put upon is the presence in the mind of the thought signified, to make that sign where the opposite thought is present \, is, as St. Thomas says, an act falling upon undue matter. The peculiar spiritual and moral inviolability of the connection between word and thought, appears from the consideration which we have urged of the archetype holiness of God. This then is the real, intrinsic, primary, and inseparable reason, why lying, or speech in contradiction with the though of the speaker, is everywhere and always wrong.

7. Grotius (De Jure Belli et Pacis, l. iii., c. i., nn. 11, seq.) argues a lie to be wrong solely inasmuch as it is "in conflict with the existing and abiding right of the person spoken to." If right here means something binding in commutative justice (Ethics, c. v., s. ix., n. 6, p. 106), we deny that any such right is violated by what is called a simple lie, that is, an untruth not in the matter of religion, and not affecting the character, property, or personal well-being of our neighbour. For is a simple lie is a violation of commutative justice, it carries the obligation of restitution (Ethics, c. v., s. ix., n. 6, p. 107); that is, we are bound to tell the truth afterwards to the person that we have lied to, even in a matter of no practical consequence, -- quite a new burden on the consciences of men. Again, if the bar to lying were the hearer's right, whoever had dominion over another's right might lie to him' the parent might lie to the child, the State to the citizens and God to man, a doctrine which, away from its application to God, Grotius accepts. Lastly since volenti non fit injuria, the presumed willingness of the listener would license all manner of officious and jocose lies, as the authority of the speaker would sanction official fabrications. Thus, what with official, and what with officious speeches, it would be very hard to believe anybody.

8. By our rejection of Grotius' theory we are enabled to answer Milton's question: "If all killing be not murder, nor all taking from another, stealing why must all untruths be lies?" Because, we say, killing and taking away of goods deal with rights which are not absolute and unlimited, but become in certain situations void; whereas an untruth turns, not on another's right, but on the exigency of the speaker's own rational nature calling for the concord of the word signifying with the thought signified, and this exigency never varies. Untruth and falsehood are but polite names for a lie.

Readings. -- St. Thos., 2a 2ae, q. 110, art. 3, in corp., ad. 4; ib., q. 109, art. 2, 3, in corp. Ar., Eth., IV., vii.; Plato, Rep., 382, 389 B, C.

Section III. -- Of the keeping of Secrets without Lying.

1. There are natural secrets, secrets of promise, and secrets of trust. A natural secret is all a man's own private history, which he would not have made public, as also all that he discovers by his own observation of the similar private history of his neighbours. If a man finds out something about his neighbour, and, after he has found it out for himself, the neighbour gets him to promise not to publish it, that is a secret of promise. Lastly, if one man comes to another, as to a lawyer, or a surgeon, for professional advice, or simply to a friend for moral counsel, and in order thereto imparts to him some of his natural secrets, those secrets, as they are received and held by the person consulted, are called secrets of trust. This latter kind of secret is privileged above the other two. A natural secret, and also a secret of promise, must be delivered up on the demand of an authority competent to inquire in the department where the secret lies. But a secret of trust is to be given up to no inquirer, but to be kept against all who endeavour to come by it, except where the matter bodes mischief and wrong to a third party, or to the community, and where at the same time the owner of the secret cannot be persuaded to desist from the wrong. This proviso does not hold for the seal of confession, which is absolutely inviolable.

2. The main art of keeping a secret is, not to talk about it. If a man is asked an awkward question, and sees no alternative but to let out or lie, it is usually his own fault for having introduced the subject, or encouraged the questioner up to that point. A wise man lets drop in time topics which he is unwilling to have pressed. But there are unconscionable people who will not be put off, and who, either out of malice or out of stupidity, ply you with questions against all rules of good breeding. This direct assault may sometimes be retaliated, and a rude question met by a curt answer. But such a reply is not always prudent or charitable, and would not unfrequently convey the very information required. Silence would serve no better, for silence gives consent, and is eloquent at times. There is nothing left for it in such cases but to lock your secret up, as it were, in a separate compartment of your breast, and answer according to the remainder of your information, which is not secret, private, and confidential. This looks very much like lying, but it is not lying, it is speaking the truth under a broad mental reservation.

3. Mental reservation is an act of the mind, limiting the spoken phrase so that it may not bear the full sense which at first hearing it seems to bear. The reservation, or limitation of the spoken sense, is said to be broad or pure, according as it is, or is not, indicated externally. A pure mental reservation, where the speaker uses words in a limited meaning, without giving any outward clue to the limitation, is in nothing different from a lie, and is wrong as a lie is always wrong. A good instance is Archbishop Cranmer's oath of fealty to the Pope, he having previously protested -- of course out of hearing of the Pope or the Pope's representative -- that he meant that oath in no way to preclude him from labouring at the reformation of the Church in England, that is, doing all the evil work which Henry VIII. had marked out for him in the teeth of the Roman Bishop. [Strype's Cranmer, I., pp 27, 28; ib., ii., Appendices 5, 6; ed. Oxon., 1812.] Even broad mental reservation is permissible only as a last resource, when no other means are available for the preservation of some secret which one has a duty to others, or grave reason of one's own, to keep.

4. The point to make out is that no lie is told. To speak under a reservation is a lie, if it is speech against the mind of the speaker. But how can it be aught else than speech against the mind, when the heart thinks yea, and the tongue says nay? We answer that, in the case contemplated, the thought of the heart is, secrets apart, nay; and though the word on the lips is nay simply, yet we must not take that word as the whole locution, but as a mere text, to which the situation of the speaker and the matter spoken of form a commentary, legible to any observant eye. The word is an annotated text; nay in the body of the page, with secrets apart inscribed in the margin. The adequate utterance is the whole page, text and gloss together; that speech answers to the thought in the speaker's mind; therefore it is no lie.

5. The essential requisite is that the gloss, secrets apart, be not written in the speaker's private mind, but be outwardly and publicly manifest in the matter spoken of, which must be one that clearly admits of secrets, and in the circumstances of the speaker, who is driven into a corner, and obliged to answer something, and yet cannot by any prudent man be expected to answer out of the fulness of all the knowledge that he may possibly possess.

6. Nor let it be said that all confidence in the replies given to our questions is hereby destroyed. For most questions are in matters that do not admit of a secret. There the qualification, secrets apart, which may be said to attach to all answers, has no value and meaning: it is mathematically equal to zero; and we may take the answer in full assurance just as it reaches our ear. Again, when a person volunteers a statement unasked, he cannot be supposed to be reserving secrets. But when delicate subjects are touched on, and inquiry is pushed to extremity by an unauthorized questioner, secrets apart is the handwriting on the wall.

7. But why is not this qualification spoken out with the tongue? Sometimes it safely may be, and then it should be so added. But, as the addition is unusual, our taking the trouble to express it would often certify to the inquirer that his suspicions were correct, though we ought not to tell him so. Our aim then must be to give such an oral answer as we should return, were the suspicion quite unfounded. Our questioner, if he is a prudent man, will piece out our phrase with the addition, secrets apart; and he will understand that he can get nothing out of us either way, which is exactly what we wish him to understand. His unauthorized interrogatory has been met by speech that amounts to silence, arguing indeed our prudence, but leaving him as wise as before on the forbidden topic. If he is a thoughtless man, he is deceived, not by any intention or election of ours, but indirectly so far as we are concerned, an incidental deception which he has brought on himself.

8. This then is a convention that obtains, not of positive institution, but dictated by nature herself, that on a matter which admits of being secret, any answer elicited under stress of necessity must be so construed, as that any grave secret that may be touched, not being morally in the power of the respondent to reveal, shall be taken to remain reserved.

9. We may therefore sometimes avoid seeming to know what we know, or to be what we are. But we may never of our own proper motion step forward and court observation as being what we are not, or knowing what is against or beyond our knowledge. We may dissemble occasionally, but not simulate. The dissembler of a secret wishes for obscurity and silence: he wants to have the eyes of men turned away from him and their curiosity unroused. Whatever he says or does is to divest the idea of there being anything particularly interesting about him. But he who simulates -- call him pretender, impostor, or quack -- is nothing, if not taken notice of. The public gaze is his sun. shine: obscurity gives him a deadly chill. His ambition is to appear out of the ordinary, being really quite within common lines: the dissembler is in some respect beyond the ordinary, but wishes not to show himself otherwise than as an ordinary mortal with ordinary knowledge. The pretender is on the offensive, challenging attention: the dissembler is on his defence against notice. "Simulation," says Bolingbroke, "is a stiletto, not only an offensive but an unlawful weapon, and the use of it may be rarely, very rarely, excused, but never justified. Dissimulation is a shield, as secrecy is armour: and it is no more possible to preserve secrecy in the administration of public affairs without dissimulation than it is to succeed in it without secrecy." (Idea of a Patriot King.)

Readings. -- De Lugo, De Just. et Jure, 14, nn. 135, 141, 142; The Month for March, 1883; Lockhart's Life of Scott, vi., 26.

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