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Lying to Mother Teresa

Derek Harrison deceives a saint, and derives a moral lesson.

Picture this. It is Easter Sunday in Calcutta. You are in the foyer of the motherhouse of the convent of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded and led by Mother Teresa. You’re standing behind an elderly man and woman who are talking to Mother Teresa. In another moment, they will finish their conversation with her and it will be your turn. What will you say?

That was the situation I found myself in some years ago while working as a volunteer in a Calcutta street clinic. I had also worked at Kalighat, Mother Teresa’s best-known facility, where it was common for her to turn up and talk briefly with volunteers. In those small crowds it would have been easy to blend in and simply shake hands; she probably did most of the talking as it was. By chance I had not met her there, and now, by an unlikely contrast, there was no crowd in the foyer of the motherhouse. I was to have a private audience. The story of that audience offers an opportunity for some moral analysis, along with the light comedy that it deserves.

But first, what to say? Or rather, what not to say? There was little time to prepare, but I was determined not to fall back on any of the expressions habitually used by others. “You are a saint, Mother,” “The whole world loves you,” and “You are doing God’s work,” would surely be among them. Such sentiments are sincere and heartfelt, no doubt, but it was to be assumed that Mother Teresa had heard them all before, and many times at that. A new opener was in order. The problem was that nothing was coming to mind. Suddenly the couple in front stepped aside. I took a step forward; Mother Teresa looked up at me. It was the moment of truth, or in this case untruth. Maybe it was her presence that gave me inspiration.

“Hello, Mother. I have greetings for you from Port-au-Prince,” I said.

Lie. I did not have greetings from the sisters in Haiti. The thought came to mind because I had been working with them in that country’s capital a few months earlier.

With all the innocence of the sainted, Mother Teresa fell for it. “Oh, how nice of you! And how are they doing there?” she asked.

Once truth has been abused, we know how easy it is to carry on abusing it. “They’re fine, Mother. I think they have some plans to, uh… paint the second level. It will look much better.”

“Yes, it will. Very good.”

Again she looked up at me, this time as though expecting more information of that sort. Or was she seeing through me? It seemed that I needed credibility.

“I have worked there with the sisters for a few years now, ummm, between semesters.”

“I see.” It was clear that we had reached the outer limit of common interests. She made a small movement with her hand, something between a blessing and a dismissal.

“Thank you, Mother.”

Good Intentions

A white lie is an untrue statement arising from a good intention. Most white lies are nothing more than the common pleasantries of everyday discourse (“How are you?” “I’m fine”), which are so fully accepted that we pay them scant attention – unless, as Sissela Bok points out, not to use them could be taken as a sign of indifference on the speaker’s part. So we use such phrases habitually. But such expressions can move to the margins of morality when they are, even unconsciously, tinged by irony or a stretching of the truth: “So good to see you again!” could be employed to mask the fact that the speaker has no idea who you are – or knows, and would rather not. “How was your daughter’s wedding?” is not normally meant as a desire to suffer an hour’s answer, with pictures.

So it would seem that Immanuel Kant had it right: morality is all about intention. If the intention is to use a nearly meaningless expression to prepare the conversational stage before moving on to more important matters, white lies – better in this situation to refer to them as ‘diplomatic’ lies – are acceptable. It could even be argued that such minor falsehoods are not even lies, since one can be said to lie only when what is being said is actually being heard and believed. One cannot tell lies, diplomatic or otherwise, in a conversational vacuum.

That was one of the problems with my conversation with Mother Teresa. I had deliberately chosen not to employ what I assumed were the over-used pleasantries of others. (It must be granted, however, that unlike the conversational examples above, those pleasantries are sincere, and are meant to be believed.) By avoiding any of those clichés, I got her attention to a slightly greater degree, but she was at the same time made to believe things that were not true. I did not specifically have greetings from her sisters in Haiti, although that would certainly have been the case if I had known then that I was going to Calcutta and had told them so. And while it is true that improvements are sometimes made to her facility there, painting the second story was probably not one of them. There was some moral refuge in the “I think they have plans…” – but not much.

What of my intention in this situation? Can it save the moral day?

Intention is an internal matter: it can be fairly assessed only by the person doing the intending. In this case, it can be claimed that my intention was good: I intended nothing more than to spare Mother Teresa, a woman of known humility, the embarrassment and tedium of hearing her praises sung once again. Whether that good intention is sufficient to override the use of falsehoods is the question. The more rigid Kantian has the answer ready: No.

Benign Dishonesty

Maybe the utilitarians can provide some help. Utilitarians are not as worried as Kantians about means. Additionally, the means here can hardly be called dangerous or wicked or otherwise harmful, so not obviously open to utilitarian censure. And because the case is fairly simple, the cost and benefit calculus advocated by utilitarians is easy enough to perform.

With respect to the benefits, connectivity is the common ground. Mother Teresa benefitted from remembering a connection with one of her distant outposts (she had visited Haiti, but only years earlier, and was unlikely to travel there again). That benefit was not dependent on any lie about invented greetings; the fact that I (truthfully) mentioned having been there made the connection. She could not have known that without a statement of some sort by me. On the other hand, the fact of my being there was much less important than the invented fact of the sisters’ greetings. The use of non-existent greetings was a means to create the connection and give it some diplomatic value at the same time.

The sisters in Haiti might be said to benefit as well. True, they did not know that they had sent greetings to Mother Teresa, but the greetings were carried nonetheless. I doubt that they would have quibbled too much about the particulars of the situation. And who is to know whether some future benefit might accrue to their work as a result of the connection I made for them? That is a hypothetical, but we are framing a utilitarian argument at this point. The better criticism might be that this part of the argument is far-fetched, because it is.

Finally, if there was any benefit to me, it would have to be that I felt good about both making the connection (however dubious), and about the last-second creativity of my greeting, and the way it may have spared Mother Teresa embarrassment.

It is difficult to find any harm that might act as a counterweight in the utilitarian analysis. To be once again far-fetched, it is possible to imagine these fictitious greetings unraveling if one of the sisters in Haiti were to be transferred to Calcutta and the matter somehow came up. But not only is that unlikely, it is also unimportant. Mother Teresa had better things to do than to investigate this wayward conversation. We can conclude that no real harm was done. So on balance, more good than harm was done by my deceitfulness.

Irrelevant Considerations

Still, a more difficult question remains. Does a diplomatic lie, whatever its good intention or its positive or negative effects, stray further from the path of virtue when it is told to a person of higher than normal moral standing? If a child tells a lie to an angry and threatening parent, and later repeats that lie to the loving and guileless grandmother, does the lie carry a greater degree of moral mischief in the second case?

It seems that it does. Even if neither the parent nor the grandmother is ever the wiser, the child surely understands that the innocent grandmother has been gratuitously deprived of the truth. Along with that, it could be argued that the (im)moral position of the angry, threatening parent gives the child at least some excuse for the lie that is not applicable to the grandmother.

For the sake of this analogy, Mother Teresa was a grandmother to the world. She was a personification of the world’s conscience, on a par, say, with Nelson Mandela. The strength of her mythos was perhaps the reason the reader was initially attracted by the title of this article. Lie to Mother Teresa? Who could be so shameless? What circumstance could justify such an act?! If even the most harmless lie is morally magnified when it is told to a person of refined conscience, then my short conversation with Mother Teresa deserves a special, if minor, place in the long history of lying.

But does this follow? Consider the child and grandmother analogy again. By the logic of that argument, and going to the other end of the continuum, a diplomatic lie told to a thorough scoundrel would be more acceptable because of the lower moral standing of its recipient. That seems wrong: are we necessarily less guilty when lying to such a person? If the answer is yes, then we need to note that the burden of virtue or vice has been shifted at least partly from the moral actor to the moral recipient of the action. Neither virtue ethicists nor Kantians are going to be happy with that conclusion. Note additionally that this question would need to be thought out carefully in the context of important diplomatic and political talks, and the results may be as interesting as they would be frightening.

Whatever one says, it should be clear that when we try to make the turpitude of a lie dependent on the moral status of the lie’s recipient, we start down a complex ethical path. Why not include place and time as further morally-relevant considerations? Now the case against me becomes worse. The location, after all, was a convent – presumably a place of elevated spiritual and moral aspirations, even if these aspirations are not always achieved. The date was Easter Sunday, the most important Christian holy day. Are lies worse when told in convents on high holy days?

Of course they are not. Nor are they worse when they are told to one kind of moral agent rather than to another type. Lying to Mother Teresa might at first glance have seemed a peculiar and brazen breach of moral probity, but it is no worse than any other lie told in the name of diplomacy, connectivity, and good will. If she had known, we can be sure that Mother Teresa would have been both forgiving and amused.

© Derek Harrison 2013

Derek Harrison teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and Saint John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.

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