Question about ethics of sting operations

Is lying ethical if the cause is just?
J. Budziszewski | Aug 3 2015 | comment  

The use of foetal tissue in biomedical research has once again become a political issue in the United States. Four videos with some very graphic footage have been released by freelance investigative journalists working undercover. They purport to show that abortion provider Planned Parenthood (PP) is illegally selling foetal body parts to scientists for their research.

While this confirms the misgivings of many opponents of abortion, questions have been raised about the ethics of a sting operation like this. Two courts have issued injunctions which prevent the release of other videos.

Below Professor J. Budziszewski, of the University of Texas at Austin, answers questions about this sensitive topic.

Question: My question regards the recent videos showing officials of the organization dickering over lunch about the prices of aborted baby body parts with persons they thought were procurement agents for firms which buy such things, but who were really activists conducting “stings.”

I'm very glad that the videos are out there, not so much because they reveal that planned parenthood is doing something illegal, but because they reveal the moral corrosion of people who work in the industry. The videos horrify me because of the casual way these officials talk about abortions -- for example about using methods which aren’t as "crunchy” so that the body parts will be more intact. It isn’t about tone. It’s about moral evil.

My question, however, concerns the methods used to obtain this footage. Is lying to obtain this footage justified? Does it undermine our cause? I'm not in any way denying how powerful these videos are in shedding light on evil practices, but I wonder if such tactics discredit our calls for truth telling. I really don't know the answer.

Budziszewski: The way the abortion trade corrodes the souls of those involved in it appalls me too, and I am glad –- so to speak -- that some of this evil has been exposed. But that is not what you are asking. Your question concerns the means.

According to a very long tradition, it is wrong to do what is intrinsically evil so that good will result, and lying is intrinsically evil. This is easy to misunderstand. Not all forms of deception are evil; for example, the tradition has held that one may licitly set an ambush in a just war. Moreover, merely withholding the truth -– by silence, by vagueness, or by equivocation -– is not necessarily evil (although it can be in some cases).

The question, then, is what lying is. Lying has traditionally been defined as deliberately saying what one knows to be false with the intention to deceive. The justification of this definition is straightforwardly teleological. As one of the subordinate powers of rational beings, the power of language has an inbuilt purpose which surpasses any motive we might bring to the act. Speech must never be used in a way which makes it an enemy of truth.

If this definition is complete and correct, then what the agents provocateurs did to expose Planned Parenthood’s evils was lying, and should not have been done even for the sake of the good result that it achieved. One must not lie to expose lies.

However, some who are sympathetic to the methods of the sting operations argue that the traditional definition should be understood as including a tacit proviso, such that lying is deliberately saying what one knows to be false with the intention to deceive someone who has a right to the truth. In this way they argue that what the agents provocateurs did was not lying, because the Planned Parenthood criminals did not have a right to the truth.

In my opinion the agents provocateurs were indeed lying. But even if I am mistaken – even if they were not lying -- their methods are not ethically in the clear. Why? Whether or not deliberately saying what one knows to be false with in the intention to deceive is a complete definition of lying, it certainly corresponds to what people in general understand lying to be. This makes the act a moral stumbling block, what used to be called a “scandal.”

By exposing abortionist lies even by telling what merely seem to be lies, one encourages the view that the defenders of life are no more honest than the murderers, and at the same time promotes the idea that one may do evil for the sake of good. I understand the awful sense of desperation -- temptation often feels that way. But there lies the edge of an abyss.


This question is from a doctoral candidate at the University of Maastricht, Netherlands.

Question: I am fond of your blog and visit it frequently. Nevertheless, I write to you out of concern with your latest blog post. I think it unnecessarily condemns an action that is just and hence risks constituting an injustice.

The state in which decent people find themselves in relation to abortion is akin to one of war (it is way past the line of civil disobedience). The rules of war have generally accepted all sorts of deceptions, and it would be strange to assume that these deceptions are lies. I do think that criminals don't have a right to the truth in certain contexts, but this can be disputed.

Nevertheless, if this principle is disputed there is a much weaker principle in play, that one cannot lie when there is no reasonable expectation for truth. Deceptions in games and in war are not lies. And a person who ignores the nature of the situation has no one to blame for falling into deception.

In any case, I don't think it is worthwhile to pursue this sort of casuistry here. Although I have not read your work (beyond your blog) I think the appeals to what is "evident" and "written in the heart" are good ways to illuminate natural law thinking. If this is so, the justice of the actions taken is as clearly written in the heart as any other thing.

Budziszewski: Thank you; I’m glad you enjoy the blog. We agree that abortion is evil and we agree that it must be fought. After that, we differ.

To borrow the words of Martin Luther King Jr, I insist that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek; no one may use evil means to combat evil. You aren’t very clear here. For example, you do not quite say we may use evil means to combat evil. But you seem to say that if good results, then the means are not evil – which comes to the same thing. This is not natural law thinking; it is pure consequentialism.

But even setting aside the red herrings in your letter (for example, I did not argue that all deceptions are lies, or that all deceptions are unjust – quite the contrary), your letter presents several grave danger signals.

One is your scorn of necessary moral distinctions, which you call “casuistry” which is it not “worthwhile to pursue.” As soon as we get past the basics, such as “Do good and avoid evil,” morality is nothing but the drawing of necessary distinctions. I may have drawn them incorrectly, but you hardly make a case for that view by saying that they need not be drawn.

Another is your doctrine that we are at “war,” which is especially alarming considering the fact that you do not follow the doctrine of just war (which does make distinctions).

If you did, you would know that war may be waged only by competent public authority, and that you are calling not for soldiers, but for vigilantes. If these vigilantes may lie to combat evil, what else may they do? May they burglarize? May they kidnap? May they commit arson? Would you say that arson by a vigilante is not arson, as you say that lying in what you call “war” is not war?

The final one is your distortion of the doctrine of the law “written on the heart,” which does not mean, as you think, that whatever in the heat of the moment you consider “evident” is really true. But since you do challenge me in the name of the law written on the heart, let me call attention to one of the things I think we will find written there. Fiat justitia ruat caelum: “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall."

If this is true, then we may not commit injustice for any reason. Even against injustice, we must use just means. You don’t exactly deny the fiat. How could you? It is written on your heart too. But you treat it as meaning that to make sure justice is done, we may do whatever it takes – we may even commit injustice. To stop those who do evil, we may become just like them. Unfortunately, in this case, injustice has not been stopped at all. We have merely joined its perpetrators.

So it seems to me that you have illustrated the point with which I concluded yesterday’s post, when I wrote that there lies the edge of an abyss. This is why it is so important for both of us not to despair of the help of God.

J. Budziszewski is Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law (Cambridge University Press, 2014). This article has been republished with permission from his blog The Underground Thomist. 

This article is published by J. Budziszewski and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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