Live Action's act: a defence

At the beginning of February US pro-life group, Live Action, released
a video of one of its "sting" operations at a Planned Parenthood
clinic, revealing the manager's willingness to assist two people acting
as a pimp and a prostitute in sex trafficking of underage girls. Amongst
other things, this sparked a passionate debate about the morality of
lying. Some of this debate has taken place on the Public Discourse
website, from which we draw this
defence by Christopher Kaczor of
the Live Action tactics and, in the accompanying article on our site, a
critique by Christopher Tollefsen. The articles are republished with

* * *

Image: Live ActionAre the choices undertaken by agents of Live Action in exposing Planned Parenthood wrong or right? In his Public Discourse article earlier this week, Christopher Tollefsen writes, “Yet for all the good
that may come of these videos, the way in which Live Action has made its
mark is itself extremely troubling, for it is predicated on a form of
falsity, which is exercised in an unloving way. Promising and welcome as
the effects of these videos might be, they represent a real and
dangerous corruption of the pro-life movement itself by endangering the
pro-life movement’s commitment to its ideals of love and truth.”

The assessment of this conclusion depends upon how one understands
the commitment to love and truth. Tollefsen’s critique of Live Action
rests in part on an understanding of what constitutes a lie. However,
there is not a single shared understanding of how to define lying. For
example, the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
echoing the teaching of many casuists, held that “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” (CCC 2483).  Supposing that those who kill
unborn human beings do not have a right to the truth, the actions of
Live Action would not be lies, since Planned Parenthood workers, at
least in their capacity of facilitating abortion, do not have a right to
know the truth.

Of course, the bit about a right to know the truth was edited out of the second edition of the Catechism, which taught
that “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead
someone into error” (CCC 2438). This is in keeping with two moral
giants: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. In De Mendacio, St. Augustine defined lying as a communication of what one believes is an untruth with the intention of deception. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas had a broader definition of lying as “speech against one’s mind.”

Adopting any of these understandings, the “pimp” in the Live Action
video lied. The next question to consider is whether lying is always
wrong. Augustine and Aquinas held that it is always wrong to lie, even
to save someone’s life. But some moralists such as Cassian and St. John
Chrysostom have argued that it is permissible to lie in order to save
human life. On the standard of Cassian and Chrysostom, the words of Live
Action could be justified in virtue of saving human life.

While Augustine and Aquinas held that lying is always wrong, they
both agree that it is not necessarily contrary to the truth—it is not
intrinsically evil—to leave someone in a state of not knowing one’s true
intentions. Aquinas held that, “a man may be deceived by what we say or
do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him. Now we are
not always bound to do this” (ST II-II, 40, art. 3).  When heading down
the Nile River the enemies of St. Athanasius, not recognizing him,
called out to the saint who was on another boat heading up river, “Do
you know where Athanasius is?” St. Athanasius replied, “he’s not far
off.” His enemies sped down river away from him. Deception is not lying
and can be justified for a serious reason, such as saving someone’s

Could Live Action do its sting operation by mere deception rather
than by lying? I think it could.  The Live Action agent could say things
to the Planned Parenthood worker like, “Let’s say I was a pimp. How
could I make sure that my young workers can get the abortions that they
need?” In hearing a statement like this, the Planned Parenthood agent
would likely be deceived into thinking the agent really was a pimp who
did not want to come out and flatly state the fact. The worker has been
deceived, but not lied to. The agent did not assert he was in fact a
pimp. In virtue of saving human life, such a deception would seem
justified. The real question at dispute is whether outright lying—what
Live Action actually did—ever can be justified.

On Tollefsen’s view, Live Action also fails in terms of charity:

Nor can it be said that Live Action’s behavior towards the Planned Parenthood workers was loving.
Under most circumstances, to speak the truth to another just is a
demand of love. But under all circumstances, to seek to deceive is to
create a relationship with another based on falsity, and this seems
inevitably to be unloving. But to encourage wrongdoing through falsity
does no good for the deceived agent.

To seek to deceive is not to lie, at least as that term is understood
by Augustine or Aquinas. Since deceiving is not intrinsically evil, it
is the sort of act that in some circumstances may be justified. The
circumstance of saving innocent human life seems like just the sort of
circumstance that justifies deceiving others. Indeed, it is love that
motivates Live Action to undertake the dissimulation: love for unborn
human beings but also love for those who are perpetrating the evil. The
works undertaken by Live Action have led to job losses by Planned
Parenthood employees who are thereby prevented from continuing to do the
evil that they formerly did on a daily basis. Though they doubtless
would not agree, it is a good thing for these employees that they are no
longer doing their former jobs. It is an act of love to facilitate the
end of their evildoing.

Finally, Tollefsen’s principles would seem to prove too much. They
would seem to exclude undercover sting operations undertaken by law
enforcement. They would exclude infiltrating a terrorist cell. They
would exclude spies working to foil enemy battle plans. They would
exclude investigative journalism that cultivates trust with the object
of investigation. It could be that morality demands an end to all such
activities, but it seems more likely that such activities are ethically
permissible for serious reasons. By the same reasoning, it seems that
the basic strategies undertaken by Live Action need not involve
intrinsically evil acts that must always be avoided whatever the cost.

Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.

Copyright 2011 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.


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