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Wednesday, November 06, 2013


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In your CIA example you maintain that the CIA agent's statement over the phone is not a lie. But your reasons don't seem to be clear. You deny that it was a lie not merely because it was not a wrongful doing "but because it just doesn’t seem like a lie period."
First, here I agree with Bill; not all lies are wrong (contra Kant). But I am not sure I am clear about what you think seems to be absent in this case so that it fails to be a lie.

Bill thinks that in this case the failure is that the CIA does not know whether the target of the lie is in receipt of the message. However, in your example you clearly specify that the CIA know that Al-Qaida is listening. So Bill's amendment of his definition in order to accommodate this fact does not capture your intention as to what seems to be absent in this example.

Perhaps your intuition is that a necessary condition for a lie is that the deception is made either for the purpose of some personal gain or for the purpose of diminishing another. Since in this case the primary purpose of the deception is neither self interest nor diminishing another, it is not a lie.

Thanks for the response, Dr. Vallicella. I'm still stewing on it. For now, here is an annoying picky point and two more attempted counterexamples to your definition of a lie.

Annoying picky point: Some animals can be intentionally deceived via the making of false statements. So “person” might have to be relaxed to something like “an agent Q that can receive P’s statement, or group of such agents …”.

Case 1: Suppose that in an effort to deceive Americans, I make a robotic Obama doppelgänger that utters falsehoods like “if you like your insurance plan, you can keep it.” My plan succeeds, and many Americans believe the falsehoods. The robot is making the statements, but the intention to deceive is mine. Who’s lying, if anyone?

Here’s a structurally similar case:

Case 2: S, a colleague of Colin McGinn’s, is believed by all to be an honest, reliable person. Frustrated at the loss of credibility, McGinn implants a chip in S’s brain that, when activated, will cause S to make exculpatory falsehoods about McGinn at a hearing determining McGinn’s guilt. McGinn activates the chip, those present believe S and determine that McGinn is not guilty. S is making the falsehoods, but the intention to deceive is McGinn’s. Who’s lying, if anyone?

If you’re tempted to say that the statements made by the Obama doppelgänger and S are really mine and McGinn’s (respectively) by proxy, here’s a simple way to tweak the examples to accommodate that response: just suppose that the falsehoods made by the Obama doppelgänger are randomly generated and that McGinn knew only that the chip would cause S to make exculpatory falsehoods, not what the falsehoods would be. In this case, it’s hard to see how the statements made by the Obama doppelgänger and S would be mine or McGinns (respectively) by proxy. We didn't know what they statements would be, just that they'd be false.

Here are yet more purported counterexamples to the definition of a as "a false statement made with the intention to deceive.” Does this not leave out a familiar and well-populated category of lies, namely “partial” truths and equivocal truths?

For example, suppose I start a fight in school by punching a kid in the face, intending to deliver a one-punch KO. But the other kid doesn’t go down, and proceeds to wail on me. I fight back in defense. When asked by the principal what happened, I say “I was defending myself!” I made a true statement—one I believed to be true—but nonetheless lied to the principal. Or suppose I cheat on my wife with the pool lady. In response to my suspecting wife’s interrogation, I respond: “there is nothing going on between us,” where on one meaning of “is,” the statement is true and on another, false. I have said something true, and believe it to be true, but have nonetheless lied to my wife.

If you don’t like these particular examples, we can cook up more fitting ones.

You’re right, Peter; I haven’t made the reasons why I think the CIA agent hasn’t lied to the terrorist clear (yet). So I agree with you that Bill doesn’t capture my intention, but I also agree with Bill that lying essentially involves an interpersonal transaction.

I’m not sure that diminishing or using someone for personal gain is a necessary condition for a lie, though that’s an interesting thought. It is, in fact, close to what I have in mind.

You can’t lie to an agent with whom you can’t have a “moral conversation.” In Conversation and moral Responsibility (Oxford, 2012), Michael McKenna argues (roughly) that moral responsibility is closely analogous to a conversation: S does something morally significant, others within S’s moral community respond to S with appropriate reactive attitudes (e.g., praising, blaming, shunning, etc.) and S in turn responds by justifying, excusing, apologizing for, etc. S’s behavior. If S is comatose, or an infant, or an animal, for example, S is not fit to be held responsible, so you cannot have a moral conversation with S (the annoying picky point I made earlier may turn out to be significant: a definition of a lie according to which one can lie to an animal is mistaken). Further, S must have good moral standing in the community in order to contribute to the conversation in certain ways; a ‘take the plank out of your own eye’ kind of thing.

So here’s the thought: some people can lose good standing in the moral community by behaving in a morally blameworthy manner, thereby losing certain participatory rights/benefits in moral conversations. You don’t owe the Nazi at your door the truth, because they have removed themselves from the moral conversation. Same goes for the eavesdropping terrorist. This supports the following (tentative) definition of a lie (I’ve encountered something like this definition before but forget where):

A lie is any statement made with the intention of deceiving someone who deserves to know the truth.

Dr. Vallicella,

When you say "Can one make a statement without speaking or writing or displaying (as on a sign) a declarative sentence? I would say no.", doesn't that entail that one cannot lie using, for example, sign language?

(Of course, if one takes a broad enough definition of "display", then one can accommodate sign language; but then it seems difficult to articulate a principled exclusion for Chad's example of feints and porch lights.)

I have always thought of lying as something like:

Trying to cause someone to hold a belief that one does not share (i.e. the contrary/contradictory of one's own belief)

I mean, if the putative point of a lie is to cause someone to hold a (false) belief, then why should it matter what one does to achieve that end? If someone asks me "Where is Athanasius?", and I point to the north, knowing that my gesture will cause the questioner to believe "Athanasius is to the north", when I know, in fact, that he is to the south, why would my gesture not constitute a lie?

Similarly with truthful utterances: if my wife asks me if I cheated on her with Chad's pool lady, and I respond to my wife, "Honey, I never laid a hand on her", truthfully as it turns out given the nature of our dalliance, isn't the moral crux of the matter precisely that I am trying to cause my wife to believe "My husband did not cheat on me with the pool lady"? And isn't that straightforwardly a lie?

I think that I would also say that I lie when I believe P, and intentionally cause my interlocutor to believe ~P, even when it turns out that I'm mistaken about P; it is the intent to deceive that is dispositive here. Or so I would say.

I realize that my proposed definition is fairly plenary, and appears to make lying rather more easily and often done than seems intuitively plausible, but that is as may be, I suppose.

Bill, Chad, and Peter,

It seems we agree that in general lying is wrong, but that some forms of intentional deception are morally permissible. Perhaps, at least in some cases, the deliberate deception of one who has no right to the truth would not be an example of lying.

In addition to the essential definition of a lie, I'm interested in the metaethical and moral ontological grounds that, if properly understood, would enable one to determine when and why some forms of intentional deception would be permissible. Suppose an undercover police officer engages in intentional deception by claiming to be and behaving as a drug dealer. He does this as a means to penetrate a narcotics ring that is harming the community, and for the ends of bringing the guilty to justice and safeguarding the community.

In terms of moral ontology, what justifies his action? Is it the ontological nature of truth, justice, or goodness?

If truth is, roughly speaking, correspondence to reality; if lies and other intentionally deceptive behaviors are wrong because they are discordant with reality and because they violate the right to truth that persons have by reason of living as moral agents in a moral reality; and if in reality the officer has - through his professional obligations - temporarily adopted the cover of a drug dealer, then perhaps the officer’s claims and behaviors correspond to reality and are therefore not wrong after all.

Further, if persons have a right to truth, and if criminals can forfeit that right by acting immorally, then perhaps the officer has no obligation to be completely truthful with the criminals, and his deception would not be wrongful because it would not violate the criminals' forfeited right to truth. In a sense, the officer would be acting in truth with regard to his duties, but would not be providing the criminals with the whole truth because they would not have the right to the whole truth.

I’d be interested in further examination of how moral ontology bears on this topic.

If one holds the correspondence theory of truth – roughly, that a proposition, behavior, or any other intention to communicate in a declarative manner is true if its content corresponds to reality - then one could suggest that a lie must meet at least the following conditions:

1) It is an intentional effort to communicate in a declarative manner with another person, by written or uttered word, by behavior, by thought, or by any other intentional act;
2) The person producing the intentional effort believes the content of the effort to be false; in other words, the content of the effort does not correspond with reality and the person is aware of this;
3) The person producing the intentional effort does so with a harmful goal of deceiving another person;
4) The person receiving the intentional effort has a right to the truth;
5) The intentional effort is produced in a morally relevant situation whereby a) there is an obligation for truth b) there is a reasonable expectation for truth (e.g., a basketball player is morally permitted to execute a head fake or a look-away pass with the intention to deceive his defender, but a basketball game would not meet the conditions of a morally relevant situation, even though the players involved are persons and therefore moral agents with a right to truth in a morally relevant situation)

With the above in mind, here is a working definition: a “lie” is a harmful intention, acted upon or not, to knowingly bear false testimony to a person who has a right to know the truth in a morally relevant situation.

Chad writes:

>>Case 1: Suppose that in an effort to deceive Americans, I make a robotic Obama doppelgänger that utters falsehoods like “if you like your insurance plan, you can keep it.” My plan succeeds, and many Americans believe the falsehoods. The robot is making the statements, but the intention to deceive is mine. Who’s lying, if anyone?<<

No one. A lie is a false statement made by a person, a false statement that embodies that same person's intention to deceive the person or person he is addressing about some actual and knowable state of affairs.

A voice synthesizer does not utter sentences. Only a person can utter a sentence. For to utter a sentence is not the same as to produce the sounds that are produces when a person utters a sentence; to utter a sentence also involves an intention on the part of the utterer to express a meaning by making the sounds. But this intention is a type of intentionality, and no machine is the subject of intentional states. No voice synthesizer intends to express a meaning.

So I deny your view that robots can make statements.

If you insist that some one person is lying, then that is the person with the intention to deceive who uses the robot as a means to make statements. If I push a stone with a stick, I am doing the pushing by means of the stick. The stick is not pushing the stone.


Your proposal

"A lie is any statement made with the intention of deceiving someone who deserves to know the truth."

is interesting. However, I do have certain concerns.

First, the problem of desert: under what conditions one "deserves to know the truth"? I suppose a necessary condition is moral agency. But this clearly is not sufficient, for otherwise the condition of desert is more or less vacuous. Are there other conditions that need to be satisfied and if so, what are they?

Second, the proviso of "knowing the truth" may be too strong. One can at most tell another the truth as they see it (or believe it). And so at most the requirement can only be that one tell another the truth as they see it (or believe it). But, then, we might as well adopt Davidson's proposal that lying is misrepresenting what one believes to be true with the intention to deceive.

Consider a person A who thinks that B went to C; but unknown to A, B went instead to D. A tells E that B went to D with the purpose of deceiving E. According to your condition (and Bill's) in this story A did not lie to E; since what he told him is in fact true, although A fails to know that. Nevertheless, I think that A lied.

Third, can one lie to oneself? We certainly often talk that way. If it makes sense to say that one can lie to oneself, then imagine your favorite morally rotten person. Any non-vacuous criterion of desert would exclude this morally rotten person from deserving to know the truth. But then they cannot be lying to themselves, for they do not deserve to know the truth.

Fourth, imagine the same morally rotten fellow who hires a lawyer who is very well aware of the moral character and deeds of his new client. Do you think the the lawyer does not lie when he knowingly tells falsehoods to his client with the intention to deceive him simply because the client does not deserve to know the truth due to his rotten character and/or deeds?


The problem of partial truths is certainly relevant to this topic. Deserves a separate post.

A lot depends on what we think the vehicles of lying are. Individual, noncompound statements? If yes, "I am defending myself" from your example is not a lie.


The conditions under which one deserves to know the truth are very context sensitive. Sometimes they're clear (e.g., the Nazi case), sometimes they aren’t. But I take it that there's always an objective fact of the matter, even if at times hard to discern. Having said that, the more virtuous of a person you are (i.e., the more sensitive you are to what is right and wrong), the better you will be at discerning when someone doesn’t deserve to know the truth.

I should add that the contexts in which S doesn’t deserve to know the truth are always restricted to not knowing the truth about some topic x. So if S doesn’t deserve to know the truth about x, S has done something to morally disqualify himself from the conversation about x, not necessarily the conversation about y. For example, if the Nazi at your door asks what time it is for no other reason than to know what time it is, and you intentionally give him the wrong time, you have lied to him. In that situation, the Nazi has morally disqualified himself from the conversation about the whereabouts of Jews, not the conversation about what time it is.

Your point about the “knowing the truth” proviso is a good one, and the suggested modification can be accepted. But I don’t see how this collapses into the Davidsonian view, because there are plenty of cases where one misrepresents what one believes to be true with the intention to deceive that don’t count as lies. I took this to be illustrated by the Terrorist and Nazi cases.

Self-deception is interesting. I thought for a while about whether there could be cases of self-deception the cause problems for Bill’s view, but didn’t think about them with respect to my (tentatively) own. Maybe the thing to say is this. On my proposal, built into the concept of a lie is wrongful intentional deception. But the very act of intentionally trying to lie to yourself counts as a wrongdoing, and so, by the time you succeed, you have already in effect relinquished your own right to know the truth.

The question of whether two morally rotten people can lie to each other is prima facie problematic for the proposal. I don’t know quite what to say here. I’ll have to think more about this one. For now, here’s a more careful way of stating the proposal:

S lies to S* iff (i) S makes a statement p with the intention to deceive S* and (ii) S* deserves to know what S takes to be the truth that p is intended to conceal.

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