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The Thomist 66 (2002): 267-74 WHEN A LIE IS NOT A LIE: THE IMPORTANCE OF ETHICAL CONTEXT BENEDICT M. GUEVIN, 0.S.B. Saint Anselm College Manchester, New Hampshire IN HIS ARTICLE "Lying and Speaking Your Interlocutor's Language,"1 Alexander Pruss argues persuasively that the principle of speaking one's interlocutor's language together with a distinction between the salient and nonsalient properties in a given communicative process allows one to say that a person who, having Jews in her basement, answers the Gestapo, "No, there are no Jews in my house," is speaking truthfully, and would be lying if she said, "Yes, there are Jews in my house." Pruss suggests that the correct principle against lying, compatible with the editio typica of the Catechism ofthe Catholic Church,2 would state: "Never say what is false in your interlocutor's language (i.e., in the language you expect him to understand your statement within) with the intention of deceiving him."3 Continuing to use the example of hiding Jews in one's basement, I will argue that the ethical context in which a communication occurs is just as important as speaking the interlocutor's language. In order to demonstrate this, I will first examine Aquinas's quaestio about lying. This question is found in his treatise on the virtue of truthfulness (STh II-II, qqo 109-13), a virtue that perfects human beings with regard to the fact that language as well as external actions manifests something internal, 1 The Thomist 63 (1999): 439-53. 2 "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" (CCC 2483). 3 Pruss, "Lying," 453. 267 268 BENEDICT M. GUEVIN, O.S.Bo and thus is about communication. Second, I will examine the meaning of ethical context and its importance in determining whether or not a "lie" is always a lie as Aquinas understands it. I. TRUTHFULNESS AND LYING4 For Aquinas, truth is a part of the virtue of justice in two ways. First, just as the virtue of justice has reference to another person, so too does truth, inasmuch as it is a communication to another person. Second, just as the virtue of justice establishes a certain objective equality between persons, so too does truth, making signs match facts (adaequat enim signa rebus existentibus circa ipsum).5 Truthfulness falls short of justice, however, from the standpoint of the quality of indebtedness. Whereas justice carries with it a legal obligation, truthfulness carries with it a moral one. It is out of a sense of honor (ex honestate) that one owes it to another person to express the truth. Without this moral debt (debitum morale), the mutual trust needed to live together in society could not be maintained. Now the manifestation ofthe truth (manifestatio veritatis) is an act of the will (actus voluntatis).6 A.s such, it is a human act (actus humanum). A.s an act of the will, the manifestation of the truth is not simply the sign relationship between the spoken word and thought (intellectus). Unlike animals, for whom "language" is brought about by a natural instinct, through a naturally determined correlation of sign and signified, human beings grasp and establish the relationship between sign and signified through an ordering act of the reason.7 If truthfulness is grounded in an act of reason that specifies the will, false speech, in what one expresses, the willingness to express it, as well as the intention to 4 ln this section, I am following Martin Rhonheimer's analysis of lying in Natural Law and Practical Reason: A Thomist View of Moral Autonomy, tr. Gerald Malsbary (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000) 452-58. 5 STh II-II, q. 109, a. 3. 6 Cf. STh II-II, q. 109, a. 3, ad 2. 7 Cf. STh II-Il, q. 110, a. 1: "quae quidem manifestatio sive enuntiatio est rationis actus conferentis signum ad signatum." WHEN A LIE IS NOT A LIE 269 deceive, is an act that is contrary to reason, an act that destroys the rational ordering of communication.8 Therefore a voluntarily false...


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