instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, July 14, 2012

St. Alphonsus and the Christian Remembrancer, pt. 3

Let me quote the following passages from The Dublin Review article on discoverable equivocation and discoverable [non-pure] mental restriction.
There are times when we are bound to open our hearts to our neighbor; at other times the obligation is not so urgent; and lastly, there may be occasions when we are forbidden to do so. Man, then, besides his universal right to true language, has a particular one, which we will call, The right to knowledge. This last is protected by the affirmative precept relating to truth, which bids us "speak out the honest convictions of the heart," and includes in its sphere all the interests of Christian simplicity. Now we concede to the full that even Discoverable equivocations and non-pure mental restrictions are opposed to the dictates of this last precept; but then we deny the latter's claim to be universal. Whenever it can be said to bind, whether directly, or indirectly, there we grant all amphibology is unlawful; and as we would be foremost in maintaining that the claims of Christian simplicity ought to pervade the whole atmosphere of social life, so we should consider a general habit of equivocating more detestable than we can express.

Before all things, we must consider it as an established point, says Theophilus Raynaudus, that no one may use either equivocation or ambiguity of speech, especially that kind which is less commonly understood and employed, unless he have lawful and sufficient cause for so doing; and on this side, all theologians, varying, as we shall see they do in the opinions they severally maintain, have unanimously ranged themselves.
This, then, is how Catholic theologians dealt with "the right to know" through 1854: not, like the Protestants following Grotius,1 as a constraint on the definition of a lie, but as a precept of the virtue of truth. Again, to understand an evil, we must first understand the good it opposes. By recognizing that the right to know is a positive precept associated with truth-telling, not a negative condition associated with lying, we keep in front of us the critical teaching that "lawful and sufficient cause" is needed for amphibology to be lawful.
We are quite aware that the account given above of the negative precept [against lying] lies open to the charge of being too limited in its scope and significance. It may be urged that this precept comprehends not merely man's right to true language, but also his right not to be led into error; that this latter right is as inalienable as the former; consequently, that the intention to deceive must be considered as much prohibited by the negative precept as the intention to say that which is false.

Thus we are told "whenever there is an attempt to deceive, whether by a material truth or by a material falsehood, there is moral falsehood." We were not likely to forget this fact, since it is conceded to the full by all our theologians, although some of them maintain with St. Thomas that the special malice of a lie, as such is to be sought from the intention of saying that which is false. But equivocations and mental reservations as held permissible by Catholic Divines cannot be objects forbidden by the negative precept in virtue of the intention to deceive which accompanies their use, for they are only allowable under the hypothesis that such intention be absent.
 To put it another way: It is always sinful to speak with intent to deceive. If we get hung up on definitions of lying, we are likely to overlook this fact, since telling a formal lie is not the only way of speaking with intent to deceive.

Now, it's all well and good to say you can't lawfully speak an equivocation if you intend to deceive. Why even make that distinction, though, if you can't practically speak an equivocation if you don't intend to deceive?
The establishing a false opinion in the mind of another is not necessary to obtain the desired effect, and therefore need not necessarily be included in the intention to that effect. All we need, in order to conceal the truth, is our hearer's ignorance, and this is all that is implied in our intention. The false opinion that may or may not be conceived by him, is an accident, which ordinarily we should take pains to prevent, but which in the cases supposed, we may, nay, sometimes are bound to permit. Very often, however, equivocation effects ignorance without error, for our hearer may suspect we are equivocating, still, unless he can be sure of the fact, he is not, for practical purposes, a bit the wiser; he is still in ignorance even as to the existence of our secret, which he would not be, if we directly refused to answer his question. Hence equivocation is often resorted to for courtesy's sake, e.g., People tell their servants to say, "not at home" to those visitors whom they do not wish admitted, instead of positively refusing to see them: because the equivocal nature of the phrase "not at home," leaves the visitor in a state of ignorance, and prevents his taking offense,

It may be objected further, that the use of words is to represent to others a conception existing in our minds; hence, to use language for any other purpose is plainly an abuse. To which we reply that an abuse consists in so using a thing as to contradict the end for which it was instituted. Now language was intended to represent thought,--1stly, absolutely, 2ndly, relatively; i.e., to our neighbor; but it was instituted for this latter end, only upon supposition of a right existing on our neighbor's part; it cannot then be said to be abused when not used for this end where no such right exists. It is abused, 1stly, when so used as to not represent thought at all; 2ndly, when so used as to be in itself, per se, the cause of error to another, because whatever is used to injure is abused, and man, as we have said, has an inalienable right of not being positively deceived. We deny, then, that to use language for any other purpose than plainly to signify our thoughts is an abuse, or that it is so limited to this one purpose, that the fact of our being obliged to speak, compels us to surrender knowledge which we should otherwise have had just cause for retaining.
The "not at home" example illustrates three points:
  1. Equivocal use of language depends on context; where there is no such social convention, "not at home" is an undiscoverable equivocation -- which is to say, a lie.
  2. The use of equivocation without intent to deceive doesn't require extraordinary circumstances. The visitor may well have certain knowledge a person is home, and therefore know for certain which meaning "not at home" has. The visitee's intent may be merely to not state that he does not want to see the visitor, without regard for the resulting state of the visitor's mind.
  3. The magnitude of the "lawful and sufficient cause" needed to use an equivocation is proportionate to the difficulty of discovering the equivocation. No one, I hope, would argue that not wanting to see a visitor is a rare and grave occasion akin to protecting someone from an unjust aggressor.
Having made that last point, let me play my rigorist card:

Left to its own, a human society will prefer immediate convenience over love of virtue. Discoverable equivocations will proliferate, to the point where it takes effort to make clear that one is speaking plainly and literally. In such an environment, the value of truthfulness will be debased. In such an environment, the Christian must speak plainly and literally, even when no one else does.

1. That'll fix the Catholic advocates of novel doctrine!