I should say, before I begin, that I have paid some price for defending Elizabeth Scalia (AKA "The Anchoress") in the past. One of my siblings refused to speak to me for several weeks after I defended one of Scalia's positions. But this time I think she has engaged in a lot of intellectual effort to prop up something that should not be propped up. And that something is the notion that it is a sin to tell a lie. That bearing false witness and lying are the same thing.
Worse than the defence, however, are the reasons she gives for the position. You can read the whole thing here but the issue that concerns me is Scalia's praise of a young woman who said she would not lie if Nazis asked her if she were hiding a Jew in the attic. And Scalia cites approvingly the example of a child [corrected from an earlier version] who did tell "the truth" in such a situation.
No less then the Jew-hiding heroine Corrie ten Boom might disagree. In her book The Hiding Place, ten Boom recounts an episode where Nazis sought her nephew, Peter, who had been hidden in a root cellar, a rug and table hastily placed over the trapdoor. When soldiers demanded to know Peter’s whereabouts, his young cousin Cocky replied, “Why, he is under the table.”There are so many problems here that it's hard to know where to begin. We might start by imagining if the Nazis had asked what was in the pitcher on the table and young Cocky had replied, "Wine" leaving out that the wine in question was also laced with arsenic? If you believe that all lies are the equivalent of bearing false witness then young Cocky lied because she didn't tell the whole truth.
The soldiers peered under the table while the family suppressed nervous chuckles. Humiliated, the Nazis threatened the family, then left. As others chastised Cocky for putting Peter—and the whole family—at such risk, her mother defended her, saying, “God honors truth-telling with perfect protection!”
That is our first clue that Scalia has gone deeply wrong here. Her answer is clever and fatuous. It is casuistry in the bad sense of the word.
But there is an even deeper problem and that is that Scalia has got herself on exactly the wrong side of the issue. She is not on the Catholic side of the question but the Enlightenment side. Here is how she defends simple truth telling.
Simplistic, right? Some might say “fundamentalist” and “anti-intellectual” to boot. But the story bolsters O’Donnell’s position; it suggests that power resides in a complete abandonment and surrender to the will of God and his laws, a faithful reliance that says, “If God is truth, he will be found only within truth, and not in a lie.”Here is the problem. The kind of truth telling she advocates is not the product of childlike simplicity. No class of grade 2s would make the mistake she advocates as childlike. The person who did make this mistake was Immanuel Kant. Kant wasn't just clever, he was one of the smartest people to ever live. Let em assure you, no matter how smart we might think we are being, we are not as smart as Kant was.
Kant, I hope you grasp, did not make a simple mistake. Kant was defending an idea with incredible tenacity when he arrived at his stupid position. That idea was deontolgy, which means the belief that morality consists in identifying and following rules. Kant took rules and tried to make them do everything. He believed that there was a set of straightforward rules that could be applied to every situation.
As a consequence, he was like the mad scientist who pushes a rational idea to the point that it becomes a nightmare. He concluded that if lying was wrong and therefore if a maniac with a knife shows up at your door asking to know if Bill is there and Bill is there because he asked you if he could hide in your attic, you should say, "yes, he is hiding in my attic."
Bearing false witness means you should tell legitimate authorities the truth in a court of law. The idea was obviously meant for broader application. I should, for example, tell the truth if Trudy's mother asks me if I saw Trudy, who is under age, drinking at the bar last Saturday. There is no reason in the world, however, why I should tell Lisa who hates Trudy and would love to use this information to hurt her this.
The Nazis were not legitimate authourities.
Jesus does indeed tells us to be like children in our faith just as he tells us to be innocent like doves. He also tells us to be wise like snakes.
Consider the answer Jesus gives to the chief priests and the scribes in chapter 20 of Luke who wanted him to know "by what authority are you doing these things?" Jesus does not answer their question but tricks them.