Saturday, October 14, 2006

Seeing things in black and white

One of the things I've been dealing with lately, is issues where there's black and white, and then shades of grey--or at least, so it first appears.

For example, in Socrates Cafe, which I run for the homeschooling teens in our area, our last discussion was "Is it ever OK to lie, and is it ever wrong to tell the truth?"

Now the black and white reaction is, "Of course, it is always wrong to tell a lie, and right to tell the truth."

But then you start thinking of cases where it isn't that clear. For example: You are hiding a runaway from a prison guard, a person who is innocent. Jailed because of their race or religious beliefs or something like that. The guard is ordered to shoot to kill. He comes to your door and asks if you've seen the prisoner. What do you say?

The Catechism says, "Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret." This is actually a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas.

So, we can see that there are times when the truth ought to be kept hidden, and prudence is the virtue that helps us to know when to tell the truth, and when to withhold it.

But it is hard for we humans to have these "exceptions to the rules" as it were...a sort of "You shall not lie....except...." situation is hard for many adults to handle. They liked it better when, as children, we just learned the rules and obeyed them in all cases.

But even with these exceptions, we adults must figure out if the exception puts us on the side of right or wrong. So there is still that black and white thing.

Chesterton said something profound on his deathbed:
"The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and
every one must choose his side." Ward, GKC, 650

So when we must use prudence to decide what to do, let's still choose the light.


  1. While Catholic moral theology does not allow for a direct lie to be told, it does allow for the truth to be hidden, so to speak in certain circumstances. The inquisitor must have a right to the knowledge in question and if that is not the case, an individual may use evasive language to confuse the inquisitor, misdirect the conversation, or even blatantly refuse to give the information requested.

  2. Have you read the Casuists, though? Their idea was that the duty to Truth can be superceded by other duties, such as that to human life. The classic example, used by Belloc and GKC, is hiding a child from torturers in a cabinet. You don't tell them he's "in a small wooden structure nearby," which is technically true but likely to be misinterpreted; neither do you refuse to answer or misdirect the conversation, since that'll probably just make them search the premises, which'll defeat the purpose.

    The correct answer, of course, is to lie your brains out--tell them you saw him heading for the highway with a cardboard sign, or something.


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