‘If I had my own way I would oblige society—that is, its great men, its lawyers, its divines, its literature—publicly to acknowledge as such those instances of untruths which are not lies, as, for instance, untruths in war, and then there would be no danger in them to the individual Catholic, for he would be acting under a rule.’Considering the treatment which Roman Catholics have received from the common run of Protestant writers, and especially the attacks to which they have been exposed on account of the speculations of their casuistical divines, this is a perfectly fair challenge, and we now propose to offer a few observations on the subject.
In the first place, to repeat a statement made more than once in these columns, it is both unfair and ignorant to tax Roman Catholics in general, or any particular body of Roman Catholics—such, for instance, as the Jesuits—with moral dishonesty merely on account of the opinions maintained by some of their casuists as to the lawfulness of lying on particular occasions and in extreme cases. Once admit that human actions can be made the subject of systematic speculation—that bad actions can be classified as mortal and venial sins, and that a greater or less amount of penance is to be inflicted in respect of them according to the class into which they fall—and the moralist can no more escape from refinements than the lawyer. It was pointed out, in an article on Pascal's Provincial Letters published some years ago in this journal, that all the illustrations given by Pascal of the immorality of the Jesuits might be paralleled by cases taken from English law-books. Direct the mind exclusively to exceptional illustrations chosen for the purpose of showing the precise meaning of exact rules, and any science may be made to look morbid. Law will appear to be composed of artful contrivances for enabling people to approach as near as possible to fraud and crime; political economy will appear as hard-hearted, cold-blooded fatalism; medicine will lead you to think that there is no such thing as health in the world; and moral speculations will seem as if they were intended to enable people to have all the pleasures of sin without its guilt.
It would seem, therefore, that Dr. Newman has a perfect right to say what he has said on behalf of the Roman Catholic casuists, and that the passages which are read to crowded audiences in Exeter Hall amidst shuddering applause are in reality perfectly innocent, whether or not they are to be regarded as true. Dr. Newman has quoted some parallel passages from Protestant writers—namely, Jeremy Taylor, Milton, Paley, Dr. Johnson, and Bishop Butler. The first four are much to the purpose. The extract from Butler is considerably less pointed, -and appears to refer rather to the difficulty of conveying a true impression in certain cases than to the lawfulness of designedly conveying a false one. It may be interesting, and will furnish something like an answer to part at least of Dr. Newman's challenge, to add a little to this list. There is a most remarkable chapter on the subject, called "Of Truth opposite to the letter," in the second volume of Hey's Lectures on the Thirty-Nine Articles. He is treating of subscriptions to articles, and he says, "Time, or that change of circumstances which usually attends it, may take away the first meaning of a set of words and give them a new meaning." Thus, "I will say so many masses for the soul of Henry VI." may come to mean "I will perform the religious duties required of me by those who have authority." "I will commonly wear a gown with a standing collar, in my journeys a priest's cloak, without gards, welts, long buttons, or cuts "—this may come to mean "I will observe a decency in dress suitable to my profession." "I will preach at Paul's Cross" may mean "I will endeavour to propagate true religion." If Roman Catholics, having got possession of a Protestant foundation, interpreted "I renounce and abjure the Pope" to mean "I concede to the Pope all authority which lawfully belongs to him, be that what it may," or if they interpreted "I promise to read the Church of England service in chapel twice a day" to mean "I will celebrate mass twice a day," every one would cry out on their dishonesty; yet this would be strictly analogous to Hey's instances; and his work is one of great authority, being still used as a text-book by some of the Bishops of the Church of England. Paley's views on the subject are well known, and were till very lately part of the authorized teaching of the University of Cambridge. As Dr. Newman has quoted them, we need not here refer to them further. Grotius has an elaborate chapter on the subject (Book iii. ch. i.), filled with more or less refined distinctions. He divides deceit (dolus) into deceit by negative acts and by positive acts. Negative deceit, or dissimulation, consists in concealing the truth, especially by statements so partial as to be misleading — as when Abraham called Sarah his sister. He says, "Cicero admits that this is altogether inevitable and necessary, especially in the governors of States." Positive deceit is either by acts, which is simulation, or by words, which is falsehood. You may go further in deceiving by acts than by words; for as to the meaning of words there is a definite general understanding, but as to acts (with the exception of a very few conventional signs, like shaking the head for "No") there is none. "We may, therefore, use these things (i.e. significant actions), although we may foresee that others will draw a false conclusion from them." This, however, is subject to the proviso that no harm, or none but a lawful harm, follows. He refers to Christ, who, when he came with the disciples to Emmaus, ''made as if he would go further," and to the stratagem of Joshua before Ai, as to which no observes: —
‘The injury which followed was just by the laws of war; flight itself has BO express conventional meaning, though the enemy may take it as a sign of fear. This the other side is not bound to guard against using his liberty of going this way or that, more or less quickly, and with such and such dress or gestures.’As to deceit by express words, Grotius appears in the first place to justify equivocation. He says that, wherever there is a lie, words are used in a sense really different, or meant to be different, from the conception in the mind. "Hence, if a word admits of several senses . . . then, if the conception of the mind agrees with any one of those senses, no lie is told, even if it is supposed that the hearer will receive it in a wrong sense." He adds, however, with something like a twinge, that this use of words is not lightly to be approved, though it may be justified by circumstances; "as if the object is to teach a person under our care, or to avoid an unjust question." On the other hand, equivocation may be. wicked, "if the honour of God, or love due to our neighbours, or reverence to superiors, or the nature of the case, requires that the thoughts of the mind should be altogether laid open." If the name of "lie" is to be restricted to falsehoods opposed to natural morality, not only must the sense conveyed be incapable of being understood truly, but there must be "a repugnancy to an existing and abiding right, relative and cognate to the business of the party addressed." On this principle he justifies lies to children and madmen, and also statements which are meant to deceive, and which do deceive, a bystander who volunteers to listen. He gives an odd illustration of this:—
‘To this head Chrysostom and Jerome referred the speech of Paul in which at Antioch he blamed Peter for over-Judaizing. They say that Peter understood well that lie was not serious, and that Paul spoke with a view to the infirmity of the bystanders. Interim vero consultum infirmitati adstantium.’A third kind of justifiable falsehood is where we may presume a tacit consent to be deceived on the part of the person deceived. This is the ground on which falsehoods may be told to sick people, and he adds that, in a battle, false news may be invented to encourage soldiers. This comes very near to "Populus vult decipi decipiatur." A fourth case is—
‘Where one who has a sovereign right (jus supereminens) over all the rights of another uses that right either for his own or for the pnblic good. This appears to have been the principal thing in Plato's mind when he permitted falsehood to rulers.’The exception to this rule is very remarkable:—
‘Plato, however, rightly admits that falsehood is not suitable for God, though he has supreme right over men, because it is a mark of weakness to have recourse to such things.’The fifth case is where the life of an innocent person, or something of equal importance, cannot be otherwise preserved, or where another cannot be otherwise diverted from a great crime. Lastly, there is the case of lying to a public enemy.
Puffendorf (Book iv. chap. i. ss. 9-21) discusses the same point. He agrees with Grotius in treating the criminality of lying as a question of private right. A falsehood is not blameable unless some right is violated, but he thinks that Grotius goes too far in favour of equivocation. In other respects he agrees with him, as with regard to infants and madmen, and as to lies which
‘either save and protect innocence, appease rage, assuage grief, or procure any benefit or convenience to others which would not have been obtained by open and direct expressions.’This is a most sweeping exception. So, with regard to rulers, he observes:—
‘The governors of States may sometimes too very lawfully use a manner of speaking not strictly true; inasmuch as their counsels and resolution as if divulged, frequently come to nothing, or perhaps turn to the prejudice of the commonwealth.’As to the case of enemies, he agrees with Grotius, but in some points he goes far beyond him. He distinctly says, not only that a person accused of crime may lie to save himself, but that the judge may lie to convict, and the advocate—if nominated by the prisoner and not by the Court—to rescue him. As to the prisoner, Puffendorf is speaking not of a mere formal plea of Not Guilty, but of the invention of a false story:—
‘As none but a fool will deny manifest faults, so ... it seems allowable for a man to wipe on" an imputation by a falsehood.’As to the advocate:—
‘He whom the prisoner particularly chooseth and retains to plead in his behalf, since he only nets as his client's interpreter, may in our judgment lawfully use the same method of defence which the prisoner might have used had he answered for himself.’A little further on he explains what sort of lies the advocate may tell:—
‘Since the judge is supposed fully to understand the law, the advocate, by producing false laws and false authorities is not likely to prevail to any purpose, lie is never credited on his bare assertion, but obliged to produce sufficient proof, and, therefore, if a guilty person do by this means sometimes escape punishment, the fault is not to be charged on the advocate or on the prisoner, but on the judge, who had not the wisdom to distinguish between right and wrong.’According to this, it would be right in an advocate to get, say, an Act of Parliament incorrectly printed to serve a purpose, and to hand the forged copy to the judge as true. The judge's rights are quite as extensive:—
‘A judge hath power and liberty to get out the truth by any possible means, in case the fact be of such consequence that the safety of the public absolutely requires that it should be punished. And therefore he cannot be taxed with lying if to bring the party to a confession, he makes use of some stratagem of fiction, as sujniose by pretending that he hath received full information some other way.’According to this theory, a criminal trial would be a regular lying match.
Bentham has not, so far as we know, handled the subject of lying systematically, or at length. He seldom dealt with moral speculations, except with a directly practical object in view. There is, however, a passage in the Rationale of Judicial Evidence (Book i. chap. xi. vol. vi. p. 267 of his works), in which he discusses the question to some degree. He allows (1) falsehoods to avoid mischief—the case of misdirecting a murderer; (2) falsehoods of humanity—the case of physicians; (3) falsehoods of urbanity—an exaggerated compliment. In these cases, or at least in the first two, he says falsehood is a duty. In other cases it may be allowable, as in all those in which the person addressed has no right to know the truth. This would embrace most of the cases discussed by Grotius and Puffendorf. Bentham, however, points out one consideration which escaped them, and which is of the highest possible importance in reference to this matter. He says:—
‘Granting that were probity, or the duty of one man to another, alone to be attended to, a liberty thus ample might and would be allowed; the latitude will be found to receive very considerable limitations when those considerations are attended to which concern a man's self-regarding interest, and belong to the head of prudence. So dishonourable and pernicious to a man is the reputation of habitual or frequent falsity [he should have added, so fatal is the habit to his own peace of mind and self-respect], so honourable and so valuable to him that of never having violated truth, that without the least prejudice to any other individual by even a single departure from veracity, it may happen to a man to do irremediable mischief to himself—’especially, we should add, to his own mental constitution, by making a precedent which he cannot be sure of applying correctly on subsequent occasions, and under unknown temptations.
In a short note, in another part of the same volume, Bentham sums up his theory in language so characteristic of his later manner that we cannot resist the temptation of quoting it, italics and all. It has a meaning:—
‘Neither in the shape of veracity, nor in any other shape, virtue—nor m the shape of mendacity, nor in any other shape, vice—being of any importance but with reference to utility, to universal utility—let falsehood, as in the rare cases above mentioned, be necessary to the prevention of mischief—falsehood, instead of a crime, becomes a duty. But, upon examination, not inconsiderable would the ground be seen to be on which, while in respect of probity—i.e. regard for others, duty towards others—departure from the line of truth may be matter of indifference, yet, by the rule of prudence—i.e.by self-regard—it would seem-to be rigorously proscribed.’Bentham's life and writings show how scrupulous and sensitive moral sentiments may be, even when they are placed in the clearest light .and stripped of all mystery. He set his face against falsehood far more severely than men whose theories of morality were far more showy. In fact, he carried his objections to it in practice so far that he denounced the two Universities, and especially Oxford, as "schools of perjury," and used to declare that his own moral character had received permanent injury from the subscriptions which he made as an undergraduate. His works are full of denunciations of the wickedness of what most people would consider as the most innocent form of falsehood—legal fictions. Nay, as Mr. Mill tells us, moral indignation against a legal fiction which he met with in practice — the custom of making a client pay for three attendances in the office of a Master in Chancery when only one was given — was the first thing that "gave that shock to his mind the recoil of which has made the whole mountain of abuse totter."
Thus far we have tried to answer Dr. Newman's question as to the opinions of eminent lay writers on the subject of truth and falsehood, and it will probably be admitted that the authorities cited go at least as far as the common run of Roman Catholic casuists. In order to go a little further into his question, let us, in the first place, try to understand its scope. He has been dwelling on the theories usually accepted amongst Roman Catholics on the subject of falsehood, and he concludes by saying that the most approved theories on the subject leave them a certain latitude, within which they find no guidance from the authorities to whom they are accustomed to look. It is settled that in some cases a lie is justifiable, but there is no accurate list of these cases. Such questions Dr. Newman tells us, no doubt correctly, are left by the Roman Catholic theory to the consciences of individuals. It is in order to aid their consciences that he asks the question quoted above—What do you, the lay world, think of the matter? In what instances, with your standard and from your own point of view, do you sanction wilful untruth? If we knew what the conventional 1 view of the subject was, it would be a help to us, valeat quantum, in such an emergency, and would so far assist to deliver us from that bias which every one must fear when he is a judge in his own case.
This question is, by its terms, a question as to a matter of fact. What lies does conventional morality sanction? No one supposes that the standard will be a high one, compared with that of a systematic moralist of any sort—a theologian, Protestant or Catholic, a systematic writer on ethics or jurisprudence—or even the standard set up by the individual conscience of a man sincerely desirous to do what appears to him the will of God; but, though the standard may be a low one, it is real. Its existence is a fact like another, and a fact well worth noticing and bearing in mind. Whether there is any, and if so what, theory by which the standard which actually exists may be justified, is altogether another matter. To come, then, to the matter of fact. Society— i.e. the common sentiment of educated laymen in our own time and country—would certainly not blame lies told under any of those pressures which the theologians quoted by Dr. Newman consider as raising doubtful cases. Casuistical writers may discuss the question whether a woman might lawfully misdirect a murderer in search of her husband; but if she did, no one would in practice think the worse of her. It is impossible to say how far this goes, for two reasons. In the first place, the average sentiment of mankind is not determined by fixed rules; and in the second place, it is most difficult to distinguish between the sentiment which justifies and that which at once excuses and sympathizes with an action. Where there is no practical reason for drawing the line accurately between the two sentiments, it is scarcely possible to say which is which. Who thinks the worse of a detective for disguising himself, and assuming a false name and character, in order to arrest a criminal? Perhaps the very strongest case of lying which any part of society would justify is that of a man who is asked upon oath, in a court of law, whether he has been upon terms of improper intimacy with a woman? Many men of undoubted honour will maintain that in such a case it is a man's duty to take upon himself the shame and guilt and risk of perjury rather than betray the confidence, criminal as it was, which has been reposed in him. So common is this opinion (we are not saying that it is a sound opinion) that the denial upon oath of such an imputation would carry hardly any weight with a judge or jury, however high might be the character of the person who made it. As to what would be called conventional falsehoods, such as the practice of saying "I have an engagement already" when you mean "I wish to refuse your invitation civilly,” or, "Not at home" for "Madame n'est pas visible" (a far better phrase), society attaches to them no guilt at all. The same may be said of taking such oaths as used to be exacted at the Universities, such as the oath to keep statutes which required you to speak nothing but Latin. Bentham himself admitted that fellows and scholars of the Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were perfectly trustworthy in all common affairs, though he contended that all of them were perjured.
It thus appears that the common undefined sentiment of English society is much more lax in the matter of truth and falsehood than the rules of the casuists who have got such a bad name, and, we should add, it is far more lax than the rules which individual conscience would impose on any high-minded man. Nor is this a fair subject for complaint. Society takes, and ought to take, very much the same kind of line in these matters as that which, according to Dr. Newman, is taken by the Roman Catholic Church. It considers that the question is one on which the individual conscience is the proper judge, and that, if the case is such that the course actually taken may have been taken in good faith, the person taking it ought to have the benefit of the doubt. The presumption must be that he has, in fact, acted conscientiously, if any reasonable theory can be suggested which his conscience may have accepted and acted on. If he acted against the dictates of his reason and conscience, and merely gave way to temptation, and if this appeared from circumstances, society would not acquit him.
It appears to result from all this that neither the writings of jurists, nor the standard of conventional morality, are likely to do much to help Dr. Newman in the extremely improbable case of his being placed in one of the difficult positions to which he refers. He would have to act on his own judgment, which no doubt would be far more severe than either of the standards in question; but this follows from the nature of a rule, moral or legal. A rule is a barrier against evil, not a guide-post towards good. The law is our schoolmaster to put us in the way towards honesty, but it will never make us honest men.
Our own opinion on the questions mooted by the great writers referred to above is that speculation in reality decides nothing except the consistency of certain particular rules with certain general principles. Grotius, for instance, proves (supposing that e argues correctly) that, if the obligation to tell the truth be measured by respect for the existing rights of others in regard to the subject of discourse, there are many kinds of discourse to which that obligation does not extend. Bentham proves that, if a tendency to produce the maximum of happiness is the test of the morality of an action, it is in some cases a duty to tell a falsehood, and that in other cases it is permissible as against other persons to do so, though a breach of duty as regards oneself— an opinion which, though drily and ungraciously expressed, appears to us to come much nearer to a satisfactory solution than the theories of Grotius and Puffendorf. But quis custodiat custodies? Does either Grotius, or Bentham, or any other writer whatever, exhaust the subject of morality? Dr. Newman himself says that amongst the Roman Catholics themselves there is no theory of morals which possesses dogmatic authority. The utmost that even the Pope says for Liguori, who is a canonized sainjt, and whose moral works have been formally approved, is that these works are "free from any theological censure"—that is, they are harmless speculations, but still mere speculations, which may be received or not. Perhaps the existing state of knowledge on the subject might be summed up in a few such propositions as the following:—
1. Knowingly to deceive another is, in the vast majority of cases, and under almost all circumstances, wicked, according to all recognised theories of morality.
2. There are, however, classes of cases in which the practice of wilful deceit tends to produce more pleasure than pain.
3. There are other classes of cases in which the practice of wilful deceit violates no right possessed by the person deceived.
4. In these last-mentioned cases, the person deceiving has always a strong interest (the maintenance of self-respect and the enforcement of self-discipline) in telling the truth. No rule has been laid down as to the cases in which a man who regards his own moral goodness and beauty of character as one of the principal objects of his life (i.e. in which a good man) would prefer these interests to self-regarding interests of other kinds.
The general result of the whole is that, except for practical purposes, no rule can be laid down about extreme cases; and that, where there is a practical purpose — as, for instance, in the case of the regulation of confessionals—the rule must be to a considerable extent arbitrary and conjectural, depending on the private opinion of the author of the priest's manual upon very doubtful questions. This conclusion, as far as it goes, appears to justify the Protestant disinclination to dogmatize upon the subject, though it certainly does not justify the common—we might say the vulgar —notion of Roman Catholic casuists.
Saturday Review, July 2, 1864.