Questions About Lying

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I'm still working on some replies to comments on the slavery stuff, both here and at other sites. It's going to take more work than I could do in the couple hours since we got back from the city. I don't have much energy for any post today, but I do have some questions that came up as I was preparing for teaching about lying tomorrow night. I'm curious to see what people think about these.

1. Is it lying to say something you believe to be false, to say it in order to deceive, but to be wrong about it. In other words, if you attempt to lie, but the thing you say turns out to be true, was it a lie? Can you lie by saying something that's true but that you mistakenly believe to be false?

2. Are actors lying when they perform. They're deliberately saying false things. Two views seem possible to me. One is that it's not a lie if people would be expected not to believe you. But then the perpetual liar isn't really a liar, right? The other view is that it's a lie but not a morally wrong lie. It's only wrong to lie if the people you're lying to aren't in on the lie, and here they're included in it by knowing it's all a fiction and by consenting to the lies. It's still a fiction, and therefore a lie, but it's a morally legitimate lie. I suspect most people don't like this idea, but it seems quite possible to me.

3. How does consent affect lying? In particular, I'm wondering if hypothetical consent makes a difference. Most people seem to think it's ok to lie to someone to get them to a surprise party while keeping it a surprise. Some will insist that they can do so without stating anything false, and thus it's not technically a lie if you just leave out all the information, but you can deceive someone quite well by stringing together a bunch of truths in the right way, and that seems just as immoral as lying is in cases when lying is unquestionably wrong. So the deceit here, if it's ok, should be ok whether the statements are technically lies or are just deceitful truths. What I'm wondering is why it's ok and if it has something to do with consent. If people would reasonably consent to being lied to in such cases, is that what makes most people think it's ok to lie for such purposes? Is that really a justification of lying in such cases?

8 Comments

Perhaps in all three scenarios, but especailly the first and the third, the question is about intent. The other issue is a difference between the act ("to deceive") and the action ("the deceit" or "lie").

The morality question probably is more about the act (which in turns is largely a question about intentions, which involves the question about the actor as well), than about the action (whether or not this or that action is moral).

What makes it wrong to do the action in the first case seems to be intent. That's not what I'm asking. I'm asking if it's a genuine lie because of the intent or whether 'lie' is a success term. Do you need to hit the truth to be able to lie. In other words, can you attempt to lie but fail because the thing you said turned out not to be false in the same way that you can attempt to murder but fail because the person lives.

I do think intent matters with lying, but I'm wondering if consent or hypothetical consent also plays a role. If you intend ill, I think it's wrong, period. But is it better if you intend well and there's hypothetical consent than if you intend well and the person still wouldn't want you to do it? Perhaps the case of The Truman Show will help here. You might intend well by lying to Truman and wanting him to have a good life in the sense of enjoying himself and thinking everyone in his life loves him. The fact is that they're all actors. If he knew that, he wouldn't approve, as the movie shows as things develop. Is intent good enough to lie, or does it have to be the kind of thing the person being lied to would approve of? Another example might be in the first Matrix movie. The traitor wanted to be put back into the Matrix and forget. He was asking to be lied to. Is it less bad (or even not bad) to do something like that to him who consents than it is to do something like that to someone who doesn't? It seems that way to me.

I'm not sure what you mean by distinguishing an act and an action. They seem to be the same thing. Virtue ethics focuses on character rather than actions. Another relevant distinction might be between the action in this case, given this person's current state and the factors relevant to the case, as opposed to this type of action no matter what other factors are present. Did you mean either of those distinctions?

It depends on your definition of a "lie". When you get a maths question wrong, are you lying? I would say that you are lying when you assert something as true that you do not actually believe to be the case. So in question 1, you are bearing false witness about your own beliefs. In other words, we take it for granted that when someone says that something is true, they are actually telling us that they believe it is true. So if I answer a mathematical question incorrectly, I'm not lying, I'm just wrong.

Question 2 is a not too distant relation of the whole biblical inerrancy debate. Language has figures of speech, and story telling is a well-known means of communication. I'm not lying when I tell the joke about the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman who met on a train, because everyone knows that I am not intending to communicate an actual event. Thus it is only a "lie" if we insist that my words must be taken at literal face value even if I did not intend them to be so taken.

On a related note, I knew someone who believed that all the parables related actual historical events because it was unthinkable for Jesus to "bear false witness".

Question 3 is related to the perennial "white lie" problem. If someone asks "did you like the cakes I made you", you might avoid an outright "no, they were disgusting" with diversionary tactics - "oh that was so nice of you to make them for me, thankyou". If you do it well, you 'deceive' them into thinking something false. I think this falls into a different category to "lying" per se, but it is a lot less necessary than we sometimes think. Also, deciding whether someone would "consent" to our lie is something we are not often well placed to do.

When you get a maths question wrong, are you lying?

I'm not sure how this is relevant. It's about stating something false that you believe to be true. I'm wondering about stating something true that you believe to be false. I would have thought it obvious that the former isn't a lie. It's the latter that I'm not sure is obvious.

Actually, I think question 2 is getting at something different. I take it that most people assume such literary devices are morally ok. What I'm wondering is whether that's because it's a lie but not one that's morally wrong or because it's not a lie at all. In either case, there's nothing wrong with the action.

OK, I didn't explain myself very well. Suppose I mistakenly think that 8x7=57. If I were to say "8x7=57" then you would not consider me a liar because you understand my sentence to be shorthand for "I think that 8x7=57". As I said before, wrong but not lying.

Now say a small child struggling with their maths homework asks me "what's 8x7"? And suppose I am feeling mean and decide to lie, so I say "56". Now technically I have spoken the truth, but analagously to my previous example (which you agree was not a lie), I have lied because this answer is similarly shorthand for "I think that 8x7=56" which in this case is not true.

Whenever we are asked direct factual questions, or we offer plain facts, people take it for granted that we are speaking "to the best of our knowledge", even though we don't explicitly put that disclaimer on every sentence.

As I said before, it boils down to your definition of "lie". It seems like you mean something like "asserting something that is false as though it were true". I am thinking more along the lines of "asserting something that you believe to be false as though you knew it were true". In other words, in my definition a lie is always morally wrong (or at least always an attempt to deceive).

For a biblical spin on this see Rom 14:23 - "everything that does not come from faith is sin".
This suggests to me that in God's eyes, its about whether we speak the truth with a clear conscience. (And if we speak falsehood with a clear conscience this presumably counts as a lesser "unintentional" sin that needs to be put right if and when we become aware of our error).

I don't think a statement X is shorthand for "I think that X". I don't think our statements are talking about ourselves at all but are talking about the things X is about. The way you've put this, it sounds like a strange subjectivism about what our sentences mean. The rules of our language do imply that if we say something we mean it. Therefore, it's breaking the rules of communication to say something you don't think is true (unless other rules kick in, e.g. in the acting case).

I haven't taken a view on what counts as lying. I'm not sure if it means asserting something false as though it were true or assering something false as though you knew (or more likely believed) it were true. I'm just not sure your arguments established the one you think is correct.

I think you're confusing that issue with the morality issue, because you gave your definition of lying and then said that definition requires that lying is always wrong. It doesn't. Neither of those two definitions requires that lying is wrong. Both definitions require that lying is an attempt to deceive. You have to establish independently that attempts to deceived are always wrong. I think it's fairly clear that they're not always wrong, and I've argued for that here.

I don't see how speaking falsely because you have the wrong information can count as a sin at all, even an unintentional one. If you really believe science tells us that atoms are the fundamental building blocks of the universe, and you teach that in schools, do you need to repent of that sin when scientists discover more fundamental particles? It's an error, but it's an error about the facts, not a moral error.

On either of your two possible definitions, the statement you have to articulate must be false for a lie to take place. Which answers your original question 1 - no it is not a lie. On my definition, you have to believe what you are saying to be false (intent to deceive) in which case question 1 is a lie.

Let A be what I believe on a given subject
Let B be what I assert to be true
Let C be what is actually true

If A=B and B=C I speak the truth
If A=B and B!=C I am just wrong
If A!=B and B!=C I am definitely lying
If A!=B and B=C I intended to deceive but failed

dictionary.com has two definitions of lying:
1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.
2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.

Both of these definitions produce a different answer to your first question. (definition 1 says its not a lie because its not a false statement), (definition 2 says it is because it was meant to deceive)

Right, so the question is whether the dictionary is right in trying to capture how the word is actually used. Maybe it really is used in both senses. I haven't seen an argument that convinces me for either.

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