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The Thomist 63 (1999): 439-53 LYING AND SPEAKING YOUR INTERLOCUTOR'S LANGUAGE1 ALEXANDER R. PRUSS University ofPittsburgh Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania INTRODUCTION GIVEN ITS CONSTANT preoccupation with the Church's stance on sexual issues, it is not surprising that the media have missed a controversy over lying in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the first English version [CCC1], the Catechism stated: Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. 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. (U483) This formulation of the moral prohibition to lie is exactly the same one as Kant roundly criticized in his 1799 essay "On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns." Kant gave two criticisms. First, he denied that there was a possibility of a right to truth: for Kant it appears that rights are things that can be achieved through the will of the person possessing the right, and it is not always possible to come to true conclusions. Second, Kant claimed that an intentionally untruthful declaration to another man ... always harms another; if not some other human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general, inasmuch as it vitiates the very source of right [Rechtsquelle]. (426) 1 I am most grateful to Abigail Tardiff for fascinating discussions on this topic. In particular, I am indebted to her for so aptly characterizing the basic idea from which this paper evolved as: "speaking [your interlocutor's] language." Without her contribution, the paper might have never been written. 439 440 ALEXANDER R. PRUSS The very source of right is rationality, and an untruthful declaration is directed against rationality. But one can also make another criticism of the CCC1's principle against lying. To say that it is wrong "to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth" is a merely analytic truth, a tautology, since its validity follows from the very meaning of the word "right" in "right to know the truth." Evidently one may not act against someone's right-this is what the word "right" means. Thus the CCC1 formulation, while not false, is trivial. Moreover, it does not accurately reflect the full strength of the traditional prohibitions against lying in the Catholic Church. Perhaps for these as well as other reasons, the recently released second English version of the Catechism [CCC2] states instead: 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. (~2483) This formulation is free of our and Kant's criticisms of the CCC1 principle, but now it becomes open to criticisms to the effect that it is too strong. After all, if one is hiding Jews in one's basement and the Gestapo asks whether one has Jews in one's basement, then one might think that to fail to deny the presence of Jews in one's basement is wrong. Obviously, remaining silent is not an option since in this case dearly silentium affirmatio est.2 Nor is any kind of equivocation (equivocation, an assertion of a true claim that one expects to be misunderstood by the interlocutor, might be compatible with CCC2's ~2483, though it is not dear if it agrees with Kant's views) a reasonable option (one might well imagine that the Gestapo insists on an unambiguous yes or no answer). Kant appears committed to biting the bullet and saying that there are Jews in his basement. We will argue that in this case, and perhaps in a few similar cases, both on Kantian grounds and on the grounds of the CCC2, it is acceptable to say to the Gestapo, in a dear voice, "No, there are no Jews in my house." Indeed, we will argue the further claim that to say, ''Yes, there are 2 Or at least, silentium has the same end result as affinnatio. LYING AND THE INTERLOCUfOR'S LANGUAGE 441 Jews in my house," would be to lie. We will use this particular example throughout the argument...


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