Monday, February 21, 2011

Thoughts on LiveAction

I had hoped to avoid the debate surrounding the moral status of the Live Action investigators' behavior toward Planned Parenthood.

In private correspondence I have to the best of my ability answered a series of questions touching basic principles of moral theology, as well as their general and specific applications.

Rather than abating, however, requests for a more public engagement have increased, as have the attacks on the moral character of Live Action and the LA Actors, who have a right to their good name.

Then, there is the matter of the POTUS, who, apropos the uproar over PP's MO in a central NJ office, has praised PP as, "[Having] done good work in the past," and dismissed the concern as "manufactured."

I wonder whether the President knows that, in the past, Planned Parenthood was founded by a racist eugenicist (links to NYU's Sanger Papers Project page - let Sanger's damnatio memoriae come by her own words, as sympathetically presented as possible) for the express purpose of making it as unlikely as possible that people who look like the POTUS ever make it to the world.

That question will have to wait.

The real issue arising out of the President's remarks is whether there be anything to the charge of "manufacturing" outrage.

There are, therefore, three broad areas of conern in the following reflections:

  1. The question whether Live Action's tactics are morally licit;
  2. The question whether the accusations against Live Action, which come from sources opposed to Planned Parenthood, are founded;
  3. The question whether the claims against Live Action, which come from certain of Planned Parenthood's supporters are meritorious.

Before engaging directly, allow me to engage in a little throat clearing.

I) Is lying always wrong?

Yes, lying is always wrong.

Nevertheless, not every deception is a lie.

Dissembling, equivocation, obfuscation, obtuseness, and many other forms of communicative dexterity are available to the person who would either keep the truth from one who would have it for sinful purposes, or to obtain the truth from one who would unrightfully conceal it.

The question is, therefore, whether LiveAction's was a morally licit use of deception.

II) Was LiveAction's deception morally licit?

  • General concerns: broadly and generally, moral science recognizes that the use of deception (dissembling, equivocation, obfuscation, obtuseness, inter alia -and even on to subterfuge), if it is to be licit, must be (1) accomplished with a view to protecting or achieving some important good; (2) practiced on someone whose rights to the truth (again, to have it or to conceal it) are attenuated.
Because deceptions like that of LiveAction can be licit in principle, the present analysis is specific: it concerns the moral quality of the project that exposed the Perth Amboy center of Planned Parenthood Central New Jersey (you can see the unedited footage here; transcript here).
  • The first thing to do is determine what kind(s) of deception is (are) being employed. There are two broad categories of deception: deceptions that use the truth or parts of the truth; deceptions that involve the telling of untruth. While moral scientists disagree about whether cases falling under the second category are ever licit, it is generally true that the more complex cases arise under the first category. On the surface, it would perhaps seem that the Live Action investigators tell untruths.

  • Having read the transcript carefully, however, I cannot find any utterance of the LA "pimp" and "prostitute" that could not have been, in some sense, true. NB, I do not mean that their statements could be rendered true, should they have availed themselves of the (sometimes, at least) morally problematic practize of mental reservation. With the exception of their claim, "we're involved in sex work," which is a classic case of equivocation, most of the other statements were simply too vague to be false. Only the circumstances and the expectations/assumptions of the PP office manager led this last to attach specific (and in the event, erroneous) significance to, and draw the conclusions from the statments of the Live Action investigators.
  • Their statements are definitely misleading. Similar deception could be - and often is - illegal, as when one deliberately misleads an agent of the civil authority who is conducting a legitimate investigation by legitimate means. Such behavior in such circumstances is often also sinful, for the duty owed such an agent in such circumstances is often one of transparent and fulsome (even if not necessarily cheerful) cooperation. Such a duty, however, is not comparable to the duty owed those who engage, under the aegis of law and with public financial support, in morally reprehensible practices, some of which are quite possibly illegal.
  • The citizenry have a right to know whether those who receive public money in support of their activities are really serving the common good in a manner consistent with the purposes for which they were awarded public money, in the first place; it were absurd to think that those, who receive public funding, should receive it in order that they break the law. Citizens certainly have the right to inquire into such organizations.The idea that either Planned Parenthood, or PP's employees should have a right to privacy while conducting business in public, is absurd.
  • Indeed, the LA actors relied on the PP employee's readiness to draw precisely the conclusions she did, in order to expose practices about which the larger public has an undoubted and invincible right to know.
The proper moral register in which to account for LA's conduct is therefore that of Socratic eironeia, for which, regrettably no adequate term in current, non-technical English is available, but which may nevertheless be sufficiently described as the wiley employment of one's own superior material knowledge, mental and verbal dexterity, in order to further the cause of truth.

In that register, the conduct of LA is most praiseworthy.

III) Manufacturing moral outrage

We must admit that the President's charge has some degree of merit, and so on its face: the public outrage - which must be sufficient to encourage even Planned Parenthood's staunchest supporters in the Federal legislature to put a freeze on PP's funding pending an investigation into their business practices - is the result of a dramatic contrivance.

The dramatizing of injustice will always involve some art. The question is whether the injustice is real, whether it is worth the cost in time and energy of the drama.

The question remaining is whether those, who oppose Planned Parenthood and hate abortion as they hate hell, can also bring themselves to think all the good they can about Planned Parenthood and the Planned Parenthood employees.

We are not called only to "think all the good [we] can" about the people with whom we agree. Indeed, it is most important that we follow the maxim in our dealings with people who do not share our opinions, our views, our basic understanding of fundamental moral principle.

This being the case, are we not - all of us - a little to quick to think the worst about the Planned Parenthood people in the video, and about Planned Parenthood in general? Do we want the terrible things exposed in the LA video to be generally true of the whole organization? Is not their mere involvement in the terrible sin of abortion enough to condemn them? Would you breathe a sigh of relief, if you were to discover that Planned Parenthood does not allow its branch offices to act as accessories to underage sex slavery, that PP conducts responsible oversight (I do not know that they don't in the first case, or that they do in the second. This is a hypothetical)?

Finally, are you willing to consider that the office manager, who has lost her job as a result of the Live Action exposure (she deserved to be fired, at least), might have been genuinely concerned for the health of the poor girls her prospective client was putatively pimping? Might she not have thought herself in a condition not unlike that of the bystander required to bind the guard and the bank teller, so the robber might commit his crime without adding to it the crime of murder? In short, might she not have been seeking to do what she understood to be the best she could for the girls supposedly enslaved by the putative pimp?

I am not saying this would make the erstwhile PP office manager's behavior less sinful, or less illegal. It would not. Nevertheless, it does speak to a discipline both moral and a spiritual, which those who would engage in and/or benefit from such behavior as Live Action has recently exhibited would do well to cultivate.

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