Live Action and Telling Falsehoods

Over at the website Public Discourse, two outstanding Catholic philosophers, Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor, have published essays about the morality of the tactics of the prolife group, Live Action. Two other Catholic philosophers, Robert P. George and Joseph Bottum have weighed in as well.

Live Action recently released a video that included two of its members posing as a pimp and prostitute during a visit to a local Planned Parenthood clinic. Very much like in a police sting operation, Live Action taped the encounters without the permission of its target. In the video, Live Action’s “pimp” and “prostitute” make several inquiries that provide opportunities for the PP worker to commit or not report several crimes.

According to Tollefsen, this tactic, even though it exposed corruption, is itself immoral because it depends on a lie and lying is always wrong. Kaczor disagrees, arguing that not all intentional falsehoods are immoral, and thus not all intentional falsehoods are technically lies. Setting aside the question of whether Live Action did the right thing, I think Tollefsen and Kaczor are both correct if we make sharper distinctions: lying is the intentional telling of a falsehood that is always wrong, though not every intentional telling of a falsehood is a lie, just as every murder is a case of unjustified intentional killing, though not every case of intentional killing is murder (e.g., capital punishment, killing in a just war).

Two instances found in Scripture make this clear. The author of Hebrews writes, “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.” (11:31). In James 2:25 we learn that Rahab was “justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way.” What did Rahab do that was so commendable that Scripture presents it as a work of faith that justified her? She intentionally told a falsehood. Here’s the story as found in Joshua 2:1-7:

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.

The Harlot of Jericho [Rahab] and the Two Spies (James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The second instance concerns the Hebrew midwives who told a falsehood to Pharaoh in order to save the lives of Hebrew infants (Ex. 1:15-21):
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Emphasis added).
So the midwives were blessed by God for what they did. And what they did was to intentionally tell a falsehood in order to save the lives of innocents.

Whether Live Action’s tactics are justified is another question altogether. One could, for example, legitimately ask whether Live Action was acting morally when it employed deception in order to tempt PP workers to sin. But that’s a different question for another essay. Nevertheless, the intentional telling of a falsehood is not in and of itself a reason to judge the entire enterprise as immoral.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).