A Thomist Take on “The Invention of Lying”

The Invention of Lying, with The Office star Ricky Gervais, imagines a world in which lying does not exist. This is a great premise which has weird, sometimes inconsistent manifestations in the film. For example, the film presumes that since lying does not exist, people automatically speak their mind without provocation, such as when Jennifer Garner tells Gervais’ character Mark Bellison that she is “out of his league” or when Tina Fey’s character greets Mark with a cheery “I loathed almost every minute that I worked for you.” This is an illogical spin to the plot. Just because humans must tell the truth does not mean they must speak their mind.

Other times, however, the lack of lying is used to make interesting social commentary. Nursing homes are called “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.” Individuals, like Mark’s neighbor, cannot gloss over their actual feelings when asked how they are doing, but actually tell the truth: “Actually, I’m doing pretty bad. I spent the night throwing up pills because I am too afraid to kill myself.” Additionally, Jennifer Garner’s character Anna is completely upfront with Mark about her feelings for him. She likes him, she explains, because he is nice and makes her laugh. But, she can’t date him because she wants to marry a genetic winner, not just somebody who makes her feel good. She wants somebody who is rich and successful and most especially, will not give her “short, pudgy children with snub noses.”

The plot of the movie involves Gervais realizing he is the one person in the world who actually can tell a lie, and being the person of relatively decent character he is, after only one minor mishap where he tries to convince a woman to have sex with him by telling her the world will end if she doesn’t (he can’t go through with it because of the sincerity and pathetic nature of her sheer terror), he tries to use his power for good, telling relatively innocent lies to people like his suicidal neighbor to get them to feel good.

The movie takes an interesting turn which ends up not going anywhere when Gervais’ character tells his dying mother, terrified at the prospect of an eternity of nothingness, that she is actually going to a happy place where she will have a mansion and see all the people that she loves. She dies happy, Gervais temporarily becomes a prophet, and then the movie turns romantic comedy.

What this and other similar movies like Liar, Liar do is challenge us to consider our ethical evaluation of lying. Aquinas says that the essential notion of a lie is taken from formal falsehood, “namely, that a person intends to say what is false” (II-II, Q. 110, art. 1). As a realist, he thinks that truth actually exists and is not just in the mind of the agent: “Consequently if one says what is false, thinking it to be true, it is false materially, but not formally, because the falseness is beside the intention of the speaker so that it is not a perfect lie, since what is beside the speaker’s intention is accidental for which reason it cannot be a specific difference” (ibid).

But he also introduces the treatise with the statement that a moral act takes its species both from the object (what is actually done) and its end (what the intent behind the action was; in other words, what the action was done for). Accordingly, Aquinas identifies three kinds of lies: “for some are told for the well-being and convenience of someone; and there is another kind of lie that is told in fun; but the third kind of lie is told out of malice.” The first of these is called an officious lie, the second a jocose lie, the third a mischievous lie” (II-II, 110.2). The intention in making this distinction is not to say that some lies are not sins, but rather, to distinguish in what way a lie may be a sin:

Thirdly, lies are divided in a more general way, with respect to their relation to some end, whether or not this increase or diminish their gravity: and in this way the division comprises eight kinds, as stated in the Second Objection. Here the first three kinds are contained under “mischievous”lies, which are either against God, and then we have the lie “in religious doctrine,” or against man, and this either with the sole intention of injuring him, and then it is the second kind of lie, which “profits no one, and injures someone”; or with the intention of injuring one and at the same time profiting another, and this is the third kind of lie, “which profits one, and injures another.” Of these the first is the most grievous, because sins against God are always more grievous, as stated above (I-II, 73, 3): and the second is more grievous than the third, since the latter’s gravity is diminished by the intention of profiting another.

After these three, which aggravate the sin of lying, we have a fourth, which has its own measure of gravity without addition or diminution; and this is the lie which is told “out of mere lust of lying and deceiving.” This proceeds from a habit, wherefore the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that “the liar, when he lies from habit, delights in lying.”

The four kinds that follow lessen the gravity of the sin of lying. For the fifth kind is the jocose lie, which is told “with a desire to please”: and the remaining three are comprised under the officious lie, wherein something useful to another person is intended. This usefulness regards either external things, and then we have the sixth kind of lie, which “profits someone in saving his money”; or his body, and this is the seventh kind, which “saves a man from death”; or the morality of his virtue, and this is the eighth kind, which “saves him from unlawful defilement of his body.”

Now it is evident that the greater the good intended, the more is the sin of lying diminished in gravity. Wherefore a careful consideration of the matter will show that these various kinds of lies are enumerated in their order of gravity: since the useful good is better than the pleasurable good, and life of the body than money, and virtue than the life of the body.

This is a fascinating statement: “The greater the good intended, the more is the sin of lying diminished in gravity.” What this allows us to do is commend certain people for their actions, in spite of the fact that their actions involved a sin. for example, the midwives in Exodus, as Aquinas notes in an objection, were rewarded by God, despite the fact that they lied. In reply, he notes, “The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): “And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses.” But the subsequent lie was not meritorious” (II-II, 110.3.2).

He goes on to note that some are commended in the Scriptures, “not on account of perfect virtue, but for a certain virtuous disposition, seeing that it was owing to some praiseworthy sentiment that they were moved to do certain undue things. It is thus that Judith is praised, not for lying to Holofernes, but for her desire to save the people, to which end she exposed herself to danger. And yet one might also say that her words contain truth in some mystical sense” (II-II 110.3.3).

It seems that Aquinas provides a handy way of dealing with the very sticky case approached in Introduction to Ethics classes of the individual hiding Jews in their basement and asked by the Nazis, who are clearly intending to kill those Jews, whether there are Jews in the house. The standard deontological response, hearkening from Immanuel Kant, says that every lie is immoral, no matter how grave the consequences, and so one should not lie. The standard utilitarian argument says that acts are to be judged according to their consequences, and acts that produce greater happiness or utility are to be pursued. Accordingly, lying produces more happiness (by preserving the life of innocent Jews) so lying is therefore the moral option. Aquinas gives us a more nuanced third way. Lying is a violation of the moral law, regardless of the consequences (see II-II, 110.3.4) but we might commend the person who lies to the Nazis not because of the lie, but for their good intention in spite of the lie. In other words, lying is not moral, but the intention to save innocent lives is. The movie implicitly makes this distinction between the lies told by good people and those told by wicked people when Gervais’ character has the opportunity to lie to Anna (Jennifer Garner) in order to get her to marry him. He does not, realizing that such a lie would be told purely from a selfish intention.

The Invention of Lying wants to illustrate that a categorical opposition to lying results in a world that is cruel and inhumane and so lying has to be “okay” sometimes. I think that with the right Thomistic resources, we can say that the person who lies is sometimes morally commendable, not because of the lie, but because of the intention to soothe those who are in pain, shield those from the sharpness of the truth, protect the innocent, etc. Lying is still evil (no Thomist would want to deny this) but people who do lie, according to Thomas, can be good.

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