July 16, 2014 § 53 Comments
Human language is a natural faculty like sex. The fact that we learn the specifics of (say) the grammar and vocabulary of English from others is similar to the fact that we learn the courtship dance in a particular culture from others. Treating speech as a taught-and-learned ‘social construct’ is as foolish and misguided as treating sex as a ‘social construct’.
I’ve previously covered the subject of property and my thoughts on moral theology related to property: usury, currency, slavery, and the like. In order to do that I had to do some reading and take several steps back to think about the metaphysical nature of property and currency. Our modern modes of thought pollute almost everything we try to think about, sometimes in quite subtle ways; so frequently getting a handle on things requires grasping the subject matter from multiple and ‘inverted’ perspectives. For example although it is true in an everyday sense expressed to modern people that “it is morally licit for a starving man to steal bread”, that everyday way of saying it can cast confusion on the fact that, as an intrinsically immoral act, it is always morally wrong to steal.
My blog isn’t a catechism: an attempt to explain some basics in everyday language to ordinary people, impossible to understand absent charitable interpretation, without worrying that overly-literal interpretations could lead to contradiction. This is a place where bad ideas come to die; and as such, it is important for the arguments and understanding to be rigorous.
So I plan to start doing some thinking and reading about the subject of lying, as time allows. It isn’t something on which I’ve ‘gone deep’ here yet. The blog format is informal and conversational, so as with other topics you’ll probably see my thoughts unfold more or less as I have them.
Understanding the moral theology of lying will require getting a grasp of the core metaphysical elements involved in telling lies: language and meaning. So this exploration follows directly from recent discussions of positivism: you won’t adequately grasp my thoughts on lying unless you already have a reasonable grasp of my thoughts on positivism and nominalism, because, quite appropriately, when we listen to speech or read text almost all of the meaning comes from somewhere other than the text.
Speech is a natural human faculty like sex, and its telos is an empathic sharing of meaning between minds. Speech doesn’t do the heavy lifting of creating meaning; words light up and help combine meanings that the listener for the most part already apprehends, or else he wouldn’t understand the speech at all. Speaking and listening requires significant preexisting common ground between speaker and listener in order for it to be meaningful at all.
So lying is to speech as contraception is to sex: both involve the behavioral use of a natural faculty in a manner directly contrary to and destructive of its telos. Lying attempts to construct false meaning – meaning which does not correspond to truth – in another person’s mind; truth-telling is the use of speech in an attempt to construct meaning in another person’s mind which does correspond to the truth.
My preliminary thought – and this is preliminary – is that this understanding has interesting implications for the classic scenario of the Nazis knocking at the door asking if any Jews are hiding there. Because when the Nazis do that, we know that when they are asking for Jews they are asking if there are any Untermenschen present whom they should haul off to the camps; and it isn’t obvious that answering “yes” is truthful even if Elimelech and Ezra are hiding under the floorboards.