Is it ever OK to lie?

Back in March, I wrote a post about the ethics of undercover journalism. The hook was the NPR sting but the background was the vigorous debate among prolifers about stings of various Planned Parenthood offices. That debate centered around undercover reporters exposing employees willing to break rules and laws in order to help an underage sex ring. Some defended the morality of the undercover journalism while others said that lying can't be defended, even if it does expose wrongdoing. Public Discourse ran a series of arguments and responses. (Here's Christopher Tollefsen first, then Christopher Kaczor's response; Tollefsen again, and then Hadley Arkes's response; Tollefsen for a final time, Carson Holloway, and Bill Doino. The best pro-sting defense was by Peter Kreeft.)

I waited to cover the debate once it received mainstream coverage but gave up. One never knows how long to wait before criticizing folks for not covering something, such as this debate.

All of that to say that I was absolutely delighted to see that Religion News Service gave a thorough treatment to that debate in this new story "Spotlight on abortion activist makes some Catholics nervous."

What advanced the story was the following news:

The telegenic 22-year-old will address the seventh annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday (April 27) in Washington, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell.

Rose, who converted to Catholicism two years ago, is founder and president of Live Action, which she calls "a new media pro-life organization." The group has released dozens of covertly taped videos in which Rose and other activists pose as pimps or underage girls seeking abortions, birth control or exams from unwitting Planned Parenthood clinics.

Joseph Cella, a conservative political consultant who founded the prayer breakfast, called Rose a poster child for Jesus' counsel that Christians be "shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

"Lila is one of the bright young leaders of the pro-life movement," Cella said. "She is going to be around for a long time."

Cella acknowledged, though, that Rose's work has provoked a "family squabble" among conservative Christians.

In fact, the Live Action debate seems less an internecine spat than a university seminar, with philosophers and political scientists consumed by a clear-cut but complex question: Is it ever moral to lie?

I've been following these debates and this is an accurate description. From there, the reporter takes us through some of these debates. We hear from Rose about the purpose of her work (to "expose abuses and injustices against those who are defenseless."). We learn that Planned Parenthood took action in response to the tapes. We learn that some "conservative Christians" rejoiced but that others didn't. Princeton University's Robert P. George said the videos are a form of lying which are always and everywhere wrong.

Other Catholic and evangelicals weigh in with their concerns as well. The story even gives some nice historical perspective:

Debating the morality of undercover work is actually an ancient Christian tradition, according to Christopher Tollefsen, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

St. Augustine tried to settle the argument back in the fourth century: He wanted to stop Christians from spying on rival sects to root out heresy.

Rose said that she has consulted with her spiritual director and other Catholics, who offered assurance that history is also rife with saints who used deception for worthy causes.

Take, for instance, the Hebrew midwives who lied to protect children from a murderous pharaoh, and priests who forged baptismal certificates to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher at Boston College, defends Rose and analogizes her work to that of a spy.

The article doesn't resolve the issue, but it did a good job of summing up and excerpting some of the key arguments in the debate. It also makes me wonder if, after a year with an NPR sting and a prank phone call with a liberal activist impersonating a Koch brother in a call to the Wisconsin governor, any other groups are debating the ethics of such undercover work. And, of course, undercover reporting and its accompanying deception happen regularly in major media. I think it's time the debate took place outside of the pro-life community, too.

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