instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A lapse in judgment

Mark Shea links to a curious article by moral theologian Janet Smith in First Things, in which she argues that St. Thomas was wrong to conclude that "false signification" -- what normal people would call "lying" -- is always sinful.

The nub or crux of their disagreement is this:
  • St. Thomas taught that every lie is a sin -- more precisely, that every act by which "a person intends to say what is false" is "evil in respect of its genus" -- because, "as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind."
  • Prof. Smith thinks it can be both natural and due to signify by words something that is not in your mind.
That much is unremarkable; the list of Church Fathers and Doctors who disagree with St. Thomas on this point is probably longer than the list of those who agree. What I find curious is how much attention Prof. Smith pays to why St. Thomas was wrong:
The mistake that Aquinas makes (and those words do stick in my throat!) is that he analyzes the question of lying with a prelapsarian understanding of the purpose of signification—an understanding that presumes the innocence of man before the Fall.
There follows, in the remaining 1,800 words, fifteen more mentions of "-lapsarian" things, both "pre-" and "post-."

That's a whole bunch of lapsarianism.

What makes it odd is that none of it is necessary. If she had left out the whole -lapsarian angle, if she had left it at, "This is what he says is the nature of speech, this is what I say it is, and this is why what I say it is is right," then she wouldn't have had to beg the question of whether there is a prelapsarian nature of speech different from a postlapsarian nature.

As it is, by allowing that "the purpose of signification in the postlapsarian world" is not "the same as that in the prelapsarian world," she is obliged, I think, to explain how the Fall changed the nature of speech. Not just the circumstances in which we might speak, but what speech is. If St. Thomas was right about what speech was before the Fall, and if the Fall didn't change what speech is, then St. Thomas is right about what speech is now.

Explaining how the Fall changed the nature of speech is a tall order -- one not made easier by the fact that we hold by faith that the unchanging God spoke to Adam and continued to speak to fallen man. Had Prof. Smith hewn to Ockham's Razor and not made her thesis more complicated than necessary, she wouldn't have that obligation, and she might even have come up with better arguments for her position than, "What culture doesn’t permit spying, police sting operations, and research programs involving deception, let alone jocose lies and social courtesies involving falsehood?"