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Thursday, November 07, 2013


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Anscombe famously noted that statements containing the future tense are ambiguous and can, depending on the circumstances, express either an intention or a prediction. I think promises should be interpreted as explicitly expressing an intention and not only a prediction. If to say, "I will..." is equivalent to saying, "I intend to..." (and one does not have to be overly nuanced to see this meaning in the word), is that enough to make promises which are not kept into lies?


Your analysis of promises is very interesting. Do you hold that future-tense statements about future contingent events are either true or false?

It seems to me that, assuming the correspondence theory, future-tense statements about future contingent events are either true or false, and that we can have probable knowledge about at least some such events because we know with varying degrees of probability that some will exist (A-Theory) or do exist (B-Theory).

If this is the case, then (b) and (c) of your argument seem questionable. With (b), future contingent events don’t exist now (A-Theory) but we know with probability that some will exist, which provides grounds for statements about them to be either true or false; or such events exist tenselessly (B-Theory), we have probable knowledge of them, so statements about them are either true or false. With (c), if future-tense statements are true or false, then one can maintain that a lie is a harmful intention to bear false testimony to a person who has a right to the truth in a morally relevant situation, and that such false testimony can be made in future-tense statements about future events that are knowable with probability.

For example, if Jack promises to cut Frank’s grass tomorrow at noon, knowing with high probability that the state of affairs tomorrow at noon will not include his cutting Frank’s grass, and knowing he has no intention to do so, and if Jack’s promise is made with a harmful intention to deceive Frank in a morally relevant situation, then Jack is lying.

In sum, one might argue that all declarative statements that are: (1) false; (2) made with a harmful intention to deceive a person in a morally relevant situation; and (3) about past events, present events, or future events knowable with probability; are classified as lies. Some false promises are declarative statements made with a harmful intention to deceive a person in a morally relevant situation, and are about future events knowable with probability. So some false promises are lies.

The key question is: are future-tense statements about future contingent events either true or false?

For the record, Obama did make claim the "if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it" as a promise. Just a few seconds in:



Obama used the word 'promise,' but that doesn't make what he said a promise. The bill states what it states, and he lied about what it states. It shows confusion to refer to “if you like your health plan you can keep it” as a promise.

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