Saint Augustine, in On Lying, considers the difficulty of defining lying when a false assertion is incorrectly believed to be true, or a true assertion is incorrectly believed to be false. If a person asserts a falsehood, but he believes it is true, is he lying? If lying is defined as asserting a falsehood, then he would be lying. Is a person asserts a truth, but he believes it is false, is he lying? He believes that he is lying, but his statement is true. Augustine’s solution is to define lying as false witness to what is in the mind of the speaker. But this definition has the disadvantage of having no close connection to objective truth.
A better solution to this difficulty is found in certain points in subsequent development of doctrine on the three fonts of morality. Lying is intrinsically evil; therefore, the second font has an evil moral object. But the second font is not merely the moral object; moral objects do not exist apart from knowingly chosen acts. The second font of morality is the intentionally-chosen act, with is essential moral nature (its moral species, the type of act in terms of morality) as determined by the moral object. The relationship between the moral object and the chosen act is direct, that is to say, the chosen act is inherently ordered toward its moral object as its proximate (morally immediate) end.
Now the intended end is in the first font, while the moral object is in the second font. The intended end is in the subject, the person who acts. But the moral object (also a type of end) is inherent to the objective act, in that the act is intrinsically directed toward its moral object. However, the will is the source of each of the three fonts, and so intention does apply, in one way or another, to each font. Intention does not apply to the second font in such a way that an intended end (or purpose) would determine or change the morality of the object. However, intention does apply to the second font such that the act itself, with its inherent moral meaning (or essential moral nature), is intentionally chosen.
And that is why murder is infallibly defined in Evangelium Vitae as “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 57). The moral object of murder is evil. All evil is a type of deprivation; all moral evil is a type of deprivation of a good required by the eternal moral law, required by the love of God and the love of neighbor as self. So the moral object of murder is the deprivation of life from an innocent human person. But in order for the act itself to be murder, more than the moral object is required. Moral objects do not exist apart from acts. And morality is concerned with knowingly chosen acts, i.e. the choice by the human free will, based on knowledge in the intellect, of a concrete act (an action, a behavior, an interior act, etc.). So murder is not defined solely by its moral object. Murder is a voluntarily chosen act, that is to say, it is intentionally chosen or deliberately chosen. Murder is, at its root, a choice of the free will. If an innocent human person is deprived of life apart from any knowing choice, apart from an intentionally chosen act, then the act is not intrinsically evil and no murder has occurred (from a moral point of view). Or of the deprivation of human life from an innocent is not directly related to the intentionally chosen act, and so is not a moral object, but a consequence, then the act is not murder.
Every intrinsically evil act is the voluntary (intentional, deliberate) choice of an act that is, by its very nature, directly ordered toward the deprivation of some good required by the love of God, and the love of neighbor as self. Therefore, lying is properly defined as the deliberate (voluntary, intentional) choice of an act that is inherently ordered toward the deprivation of truth from an assertion. Put more simply, lying is the direct and voluntary assertion of a falsehood.
This analysis solves the problem put forward by Augustine concerning how to define a lie with respect to a conflict between objective truth and a sincere misperception of that truth. In order to be intrinsically evil, any act must be intentionally chosen. If a person chooses to assert a falsehood believing that it is true, then he has not committed even the objective sin of lying, for he has not intentionally chosen an act ordered toward the deprivation of truth. If a person chooses to assert a truth, believing that it is false, then he has intentionally chosen an act inherently ordered toward the deprivation of truth — even though that act failed to attain its moral object by objectively depriving an assertion of truth. He chose a type of act directed toward the deprivation of truth, even though the act failed to attain its object. An act is intrinsically evil when it is ordered toward an evil moral object, regardless of whether or not that evil moral object is attained.
So the intentional choice of an act inherently ordered toward the deprivation of life from an innocent human person is the sin of murder, even when the act fails to attain its moral object. A failed attempt at murder has the same moral object as a successful attempt at murder. A failed use of contraception has the same moral object as a successful use of contraception. A failed attempt to deprive an assertion of truth has the same moral object as a successful attempt to deprive an assertion of truth. It is the inherent ordering of the act toward an evil moral object that makes the act intrinsically evil, not the attainment of that moral object. And it is the deliberate choice of such an intrinsically evil act that constitutes the objective sin.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator