The Geometer and the Carpenter: Evaluating the Midwives
It is the sign of a great mind that he can keep seemingly contrary or contradictory statements together at the same time. I do not say really contrary or contradictory statements together at the same time, for that is the sign of the modern mind. In light of the recent debate over Live Action’s outing of Planned Parenthood, I have decided to weigh in on the matter in hopes of shedding light with help from the Angelic Doctor, who because of the greatness of his mind, allows us to both affirm that lying is always wrong and praise the actions of Lila Rose, though not for the deception which those actions involved.
Before presenting what I hope is a Thomistic insight into the debate which includes the actions of spies, Dutchmen, 19th century abolitionists, and Live Action, I wish to express some disagreement with one of the interlocutors in this dialogue. My response to his article will lay the foundation of moral reasoning that is supremely rational and intuitive, neither rationalistic or casuistic nor lax.
Response to Peter Kreeft: The pitfall of moral rationalism
Dr. Peter Kreeft, in his article – “Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that” – has argued for a broader understanding of reason and moral intuition in thinking clearly about moral acts. He rightly points out that both aspects of our mind’s activity have suffered greatly on account of modern thinkers. The resulting emaciation of our account of how we know and what to do about it leaves us open to critics who are skeptical that we know anything at all.
However, when Dr. Kreeft appeals to St. Thomas and to Aristotle in order to defend the use of lying simply because it strikes the great majority of students as the right thing to do in that concrete situation – such that to question the praiseworthiness of actions in which deceit is used to obtain good results can only be met with the “you have got to be kidding me” response – he is mistaken. Moreover, he may be guilty of the same moral rationalism that he rightfully cautions against.
Dr. Kreeft is right to cite Aristotle as a witness against moral rationalism. In teaching Descartes to students, I often refer to Aristotle’s dictum “for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.” (I.3) The certainty of mathematics is of a different nature than the certainty of philosophy, something that Descartes simply did not understand or could not come to grips with. Aristotle and St. Thomas knew that the carpenter does not demand the right angle of the geometer, nor should he (I.7)
It will be helpful to remember that at best the principles in moral matters, because of their concreteness, variability of circumstances, and infinite particularities, will indicate truth “roughly and in outline fashion.” (I.3). So while Dr. Kreeft does point out that moral intuition is not infallible, he does seem to suggest that the correct answer should be always or for the most part immediately grasped as true. In other words, Dr. Kreeft seems to suggest that with the same ease as we grasp “murder is wrong”, we should be able to grasp not just “not all lying is wrong”, but the even more particular, “Lila Rose is right”. Claiming universality based on a priori intuition sounds more like rationalism and the carpenter expecting the geometer’s right angle, than Aristotle. In this way, Dr. Kreeft is far more rationalistic than he realizes.
I must also disagree with the way that Dr. Kreeft appeals to moral intuition of everyday people as the standard for moral judgment. The standard to whom we appeal is not the moral intuition of us all, but the moral intuition of the virtuous man. The problem is that all of us who think ourselves pretty good blokes, when confronted with a moral dilemma, will consider ourselves to be good judges, even when we are not.
Response to Peter Kreeft: The moral intuition of the saints
We have many examples of virtuous agents in the realm of truthfulness in the saints. Many of which have been well laid out in the context by contributors to the New Theological Movement, “Lying to Planned Parenthood, or is it mental reservation?”. Perhaps the greatest example of the virtuous man is the Man himself, in his dialogue with the one who questioned the very nature of truth. When questioned by Pilate, not only does our Lord not lie, but speaks in such a way that his words cannot be used against him. St. Athanasius, St. Francis, St. Nicholas Owen, the monks defending St. Moses the Black do not lie, but are given the graces necessary to be heroically truthful even when life is on the line.
I must also disagree with the appeal to synderesis as Thomistic justification for the quasi-universality of moral intuition. While it is the habit of precepts of the natural law, so indeed moral intuition, the habit of the first principles of human action, synderesis does not come with conclusions from moral intuition included. The principles must be applied to our particular circumstances, something which only the virtuous person habitually does effectively.
Nor do I agree with the assertion that verbal ploys to maintain honesty are beyond the moral capacity of every but the most clever human being. If the gifts of the Spirit and the infused virtues allow God to “work in us without us,” then anyone in the state of grace would be capable of such heroic honesty as to act and speak truthfully even in difficult situations.
The example of the Egyptian midwives
So what happens when people do not act heroically virtuous as regards truthfulness in difficult situations such as when the Nazis are at the door or when spying on Russians or when going undercover either as an agent of the state or as a defender of life? For this answer, I would look to St. Thomas Aquinas and how he treats the examples of the midwives during pharoah’s slaughter of the innocents. It seems clear that the midwives lied to pharaoh about being present at the time of birth of the Hebrew children (Ex.1:19). It seems to me an appropriate parallel to the actions of Lila Rose and company. Both the midwives and Live Action are lying to save children. How are the actions of both to be morally evaluated?
On at least two occasions, Thomas deals with the case of the midwives in answering objections. The context of the objections are enlightening. Thomas asks, “whether every lie is a sin?” to which he will reply in the affirmative. Thomas then asks, “whether every lie is a mortal sin?” to which he will reply in the negative. There should be no difficulties yet. When the objection points out that God rewarded the midwives, which is clear from Ex. 1:21, the objector concludes therefore not every lie is a sin. One can almost hear the voices of interlocutors in the current debate surrounding the actions of Live Action. Thomas, on the other hand, will praise the midwives, not for their lying, but for their fear of God and their good-will, good-will which led them to tell a lie. The midwives are praised because they feared God and they wanted to save babies. The midwives are not praised for their lies.
In reply to the next reference to the midwives, Thomas must answer St. Gregory who, at first blush, seems to be more rigorous in his interpretation of the dilemma of the midwives. Gregory interprets the rewards granted by God as merely temporal and not eternal on account of the lie that they told which excluded them from heavenly rewards. The conclusion in the objection is “therefore, even a dutiful (officisum) lie, which seemingly is the least of lies, is a mortal sin.” Thomas considers the lie of the midwives first from the point of view of their benevolence toward the Jewish babies and of their fear of God. In light of these virtues, the midwives merit not only praise but an eternal reward. When Thomas considers the external actions, they still merit remuneration, namely, one that is not inconsistent with the deformity of their lie.
Lying to Planned Parenthood was wrong, but Live Action still deserves praise
So what can we conclude? We can watch movies about, listen to stories of, even grant honors to war-time spies, CIA agents, undercover policemen, men and women who protected Jews during world-war II, blacks in 19th century America, and priests in 16th century England. If, according to St. Thomas, we can remunerate such people as regards even their external acts with temporal honors that are not inconsistent with the deformity of their lying, is there some remuneration for the external actions of Live Action? On the other hand, as regards the morality of the actions, can we praise and commend, not the perfect virtue, but the virtuous dispositions of Live Action, knowing that we praise them for their benevolence toward children in the womb and fear of God, not for their lying?
If this seems imprecise, I would respond that such is the nature of the subject matter. To re-iterate the conclusion, then, hopefully in the spirit of St. Thomas: Though the external actions of Live Action are not good, the virtuous dispositions which led them to lie are good. Their course of external actions is not the best way to act, nor the only way to act, but that course does not exclude them from temporal remunerations, nor even eternal rewards.
This article, though posted by Reginaldus, has been written by “Hospes” – a guest contributor.