Are Live Action’s “Undercover Video” Techniques Immoral?

The rise of undercover “stings” in recent months has brought a vexing moral question back to the fore: when, if ever, is it okay to lie?  The stings I’m referring to, if you’re not familiar, are ones like the following:

  • James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and prostitute, and secretly videotaped members of the liberal community-activist group ACORN saying horrifying (and illegal) things, like that if you bring underaged prostitutes into the country, but put a roof over their heads, you can probably write them off as “dependents.”
  • Live Action, the brainchild of pro-life activist Lila Rose, did a similar thing to Planned Parenthood in 2011, showing PP workers giving advice to a fake “pimp” on how to cover up his alleged crimes against underaged women.
  • James O’Keefe’s group, Project Veritas, most recently turned its sites on NPR.  Two of Project Veritas’ members posed as members of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organization, and claiming that they were considering giving $5 million to NPR, went to lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s head of marketing.  At the lunch, Schiller talked about how Tea Partiers are “racist, seriously racist,” xenophobic, white middle-Americans, and about how they’re Evangelical, and not really Christian.  He also mentioned that NPR would be better off without federal funding, a wish he may soon see granted, although he won’t be there to enjoy it.  Both Schiller, and NPR’s CEO (Vivian Schiller, no relation) resigned.
In every case, the videotapes of the “sting” are posted. Generally, an edited tape is sent out first, highlighting the parts where the “stung” person says really offensive or stupid things; the full tape usually follows shortly afterwards.  As political tools, these have been very effective techniques.  Planned Parenthood claims to be pro-women, but when forced to choose between “more abortion” and “helping young girls trapped in the sex trade,” they go for the abortions.  NPR relies on taxpayer funding, but is run by people who seem to look down on most taxpayers, finding their money worse than worthless (since federal money always comes with strings attached).  And so on.
But as Christians, we should be alarmed by this tactics, and by the fact that there are so few other Christians who’ve even raised an eyebrow about this.  Because Live Action is more clearly fighting evil (abortion, as opposed to NPR), that’s who I’m focused on here.  They’re fighting for what’s right, but using evil means to arrive at those just ends. We can’t support this. In Romans 3:8, Paul condemns those who think it’s okay to do evil for a good result: “Why not say–as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say–‘Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is deserved.”  And we know that lying is evil, because Jesus tells us that Satan “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).  Lying’s of the devil, while “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), and as Christians, we follow Our Lord, who calls Himself, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).

I know, I know.  There are various forms of deception.  Everything from lying under oath, to intelligence and counter-intelligence, to tricking someone into going to their surprise party, to answering the old “Does this dress make me look fat?” question. There are some instances of deception in which no sane person objects.  For example, in football, players often juke left, and then run right.  By deceiving their opponents into thinking they’re going the other way, they get a strategic advantage, but of course, nobody thinks that’s sinful.  But even if there’s a gray trim around the question of deception, we know that lying is immoral, and we know that as Christians, we can’t do it.  The Cathecism tells us that lying is “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving,” and calls it “the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord” (CCC 2483-84).

But here are two other things which I haven’t heard discussed much:

  • Scandal. As the Catechism says: “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (CCC 2284). There’s no question that what Planned Parenthood was doing was already a horrible, unspeakable sin that cries out to Heaven for justice. But Live Action piles condemnation upon the PP workers when, through their deception, they encourage  Planned Parenthood representatives to help cover up imagined sex crimes.  It doesn’t matter that the sex crimes weren’t real. They convinced the workers at Planned Parenthood (human beings loved by God) to internally consent to a whole set of sins that they weren’t already doing.  This is a serious offense against the PP workers, as our neighbors, and against God.
  • Denying Christ. Live Action isn’t guilty of this, but Project Veritas is. They sent two people to pretend to be Muslims to help advance their goals. If it’s okay to deny Christ to help defund NPR, how is it not okay to deny Christ to keep from being killed? Thousands of Christians globally, in places like China, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq proclaim their faith openly, even though they know it’s often a death sentence

Even if the logic presented here isn’t 100% persuasive to you, even if you want desperately to find some way to defend Live Action,  why in the world should we intentionally tread even into a morally gray area?  There are plenty of other tools in our arsenal. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6,

1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

If we start to think that the unadulterated Truth isn’t enough to win the culture war, we’re no longer fighting on the right side. Finally, if you’re interested in what better people than I have to say on the issue, Peter Kreeft defends Live Action, while Mark Shea shows why Kreeft and others are wrong to do so.


  1. I think this is right as far as it goes–that Live Action is acting wrongly–but its just not clear what is intrinsically evil and what may be justified when it comes to deceit. The typical distinction between “lying” and “deception” isn’t helpful to me.

    As Prof. Kaczor says, many of the hardliners arguments prove to much: “They would seem to exclude undercover sting operations undertaken by law enforcement. They would exclude infiltrating a terrorist cell. They would exclude spies working to foil enemy battle plans. They would exclude investigative journalism that cultivates trust with the object of investigation. It could be that morality demands an end to all such activities, but it seems more likely that such activities are ethically permissible for serious reasons.”

    I think that last sentence is right. I might add to it “by certain people or groups legitimately authorized to pursue those ‘reasons’.” This is vague, I know, but I think a bright line rule is inadequate for the hard cases that arise. A vague rule guided by Christian charity, I think, is the best we can do. Am I wrong?

  2. I was ready to say I agree with you Joe, and then I read Robert’s comment. This is a tough one to judge when others are fighting evil.
    I did these things on a small level in the past. However, I presently prefer to stay out of the gray area and tell the truth/not deceive.

  3. @Robert: What you are referring to is most properly called an officious lie.

    This is till a sin according to the genus of action taken, i.e. a statement against the truth. The sin is diminished considerably in gravity according to the good intended. However, this is not the case if grave scandal is involved in the lie. Since no one is directly saved in a planned parenthood sting, and the only good is speculative, and not prudently foreseeable, it is hard to justify the ensuing scandal. In the case of things like sting operations and spies, etc. the case of gravity is much more grey but, it is almost impossible to assert that the lying done is not in and of itself a sin, and such operations are really less commendable than pregressive ethics would lead us to believe, though sometimes tolerable (apparently, and only because they can be venial). The above link is to St. Thomas’s treatment of the subject and all 4 sections are pertinent to this discussion. I’m not sure who this professor is, but it seems similar to Kreefts arguments which are not helpful for Catholics to follow. Hope this helps you too Bill.



    PS: always be cautious around arguments that say, “St. Whoever really over-analyzes something and is just being too juridical or causuistic.’

  4. Thanks Ryan. One of my goals is to always follow official Church teaching. The Church is so amazing in explaining the moral high ground on difficult issues and over time,always proves itself to be right. Examples: abortion, stem cell, contraception.

  5. Jarrod,

    There are three issues with that…

    (1) It’s not entirely clear that is apples to apples. The State is permitted to do a number of things the individual can’t. What’s taxation to the State would be theft if I did it; what’s capital punishment to the State is murder if I do it. When Jesus said “Render unto Caesar,” He made clear that some categories of rights (never specifying which) belong to Caesar qua Caesar. So it’s possible that spying would be in a different moral category.

    (2) Not all spying involves deception or lying. For example, in Joshua 2, the spies are just sneaking around. They’re not pretending to be anyone else, they’re just being stealthy. That’s clearly morally licit.

    (3) Rahab, on the other hand, DOES lie, to protect the spies (Joshua 2:4). And we’re never told what God thinks of this lie. We do know that Rahab is blessed by God, but we’re told in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 that it’s for hiding the spies.

    Likewise, the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1:15-22 lie. Pharaoh ordered them to kill the male children, and they don’t, out of fear of God. When he asks them why they’re not obeying, they lie, claiming that the Hebrew women are so strong that they give birth without midwives. We hear after this that God blesses them, but Exodus 1:21 clarifies that it’s “because the midwives feared God,” not because they lied for a good cause.

    In short, the Bible doesn’t really tell us whether lying is acceptable in the course of spying or in the course of trying to save babies’ lives. Here, though, we’re not in a “lie or the baby gets killed” situation, as I mentioned — there are other, honest, effective techniques which we should be using instead.

  6. Here’s a thought:

    I think this sheds light on the whole problem people have with seeing the permissiveness of NFP and still not condoms. Consider what Sandel says about evasions:

    “The intention is arguably the same in both cases. [I.e. w]hether I lie to the murderer at the door or offer him a clever evasion, my intention is to mislead him into thinking that my friend is not hiding in my house . . .

    The difference, I think, is this: A carefully crafted evasion pays homage to the duty of truth-telling in a way that an outright lie does not. Anyone who goes to the bother of concocting a misleading but technically true statement when a simple lie would do expresses, however obliquely, respect for the moral law.

    A misleading truth includes two motives, not one. If I simply lie to the murderer, I act out of one motive–to protect my friend from harm. If I tell the murderer that I recently saw my friend at the grocery store, I act out of two motives–to protect my friend and at the same time to uphold the duty to tell the truth. In both cases, I am pursuing an admirable goal, that of protecting my friend. But only in the second case do I pursue this goal in a way that accords with the motive of duty.”

    Now the issue that many people find so perplexing about contraception is, as Ross Douthat puts it: “The natural law permits me to rigorously chart my temperature and/or measure my cervical mucus every day in an effort to avoid conception, but it doesn’t permit me to use a condom? Really?”

    But do you see the connection? Only by practicing NFP do you pursue the goal of unity with your spouse “in a way that accords with the motive of duty” to be open to procreation.

    What do you think?

  7. Adding to the analogy is that neither deception or NFP are permissive without weighty reasons justifying them. It is not as if NFP is an uncompromised moral good and neither is deception. That’s why the people hiding Jews could have used a deception morally, but Bill Clinton’s evasions were likely morally impermissible.

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