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Tuesday, December 10, 2013


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Hi Bill,

Do you understand ‘insincere’ in ‘insincere promise’ as an alienating adjective? That is my view; a promise implies the presence of an obligation, which endures after the promise itself lapses. An insincere promise is a lie: the speaker makes a false statement representing the presence of a promise, and thereby of the obligation, while knowing that no promising occurred, and that no obligation is present.


Thank you for the comment, Erol.

You raise an interesting issue that I raised in an earlier post but without taking a position on it. We need to distinguish two questions. The first is whether an insincere promise is a promise. If no, then a second question arises: Is an insincere promise a lie? One could maintain that an insincere promise is not a promise, but also that it is not a lie.

You are on fairly solid ground with respect to the first question. One could argue like this:

If S promises to do A, then S intends to do A; but if S insincerely promises to do A, then S does not intend to do A; ergo, insincere promises are not promises.

John Searle (Speech Acts, p. 62)suggests that 'S intends to do A' be replaced by 'S intends that the utterance of T will make him responsible for intending to do A.' This replacement allows for insincere promises to count as genuine promises.

But let's assume that an insincere promise is not a promise. I don't think it is therefore a lie. Suppose I insincerely promise Jack to come to his New Year's Eve party and bring pizza. I do this by uttering the sentence, "I wouldn't miss your party for anything, Jack, and you can count on me to supply the pizza, pepperoni and mushroom is what you prefer, right?"

My utterance is not a false statement because it is not a statement. Therefore my utterance is not a lie. Here is an example of a false statement: "The sentence I just uttered expresses my sincere intention to bring pizza to your party."

Divison of Labour recently had a post that discussed Obama's lies about Obamacare, including what might be called "why lying liars lie." I have compiled a list of 7 reasons politicians lie from his post. Your list characterizes the lies, but his post characterizes the liar. I think this makes an interesting companion piece for your post, and it might inspire another entry or two for your list.


1. Blunder or error (not a lie), an incorrect reading of facts
2. To protect national security
3. Desperate self-preservation
4. Puffery, optimistic projections
5. A disputed point
6. A tendentious or unusual characterization of a plan (such as FDR describing social security as an insurance plan)
7. A deliberate and intentional lie to the public in order to pass a law that could not otherwise be passed

Is an insincere promise a lie?

Promises are expressible via non-declarative statement. Granted. The question is: does lying imply that the liar utter the false statement or is it sufficient that the liar motivates the hearer to frame a false statement? If the former, then I agree that an insincere promise does not qualify as a lie. However, I think that lying is instantiated in the latter scenario also. For example, in saying "I wouldn't miss your party for anything, Jack, and you can count on me to supply the pizza, pepperoni and mushroom is what you prefer, right?" Bill anticipates the formation of a false statement in Jack’s mind, e.g. “Bill promises to do X, Y and Z”. And Bill knows that this is a false statement. After all, the utterance of a false statement in a unproblematic case of lying serves as a means towards the same end: of motivating the hearer to frame a thought with the same content. And it is the realisation of this end that is constitutive of lying. In the just described scenario, the same end was reached via different means.

I found these distinctions from Aquinas, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3110.htm#article2 , to be helpful. He considers lying in two ways(three really, but one is theological); in regards to the nature of a lie and in regards to the intention of the liar. In regards to to a lie's nature, he divides it into two classes; exaggeration or going beyond the truth, and falling short of the truth in some way(much like your 13 and 14, but in regards to lying rather than simply untruth). He also thinks one can suitably divide the intentions in a lie into three; officious, jocose, and malicious lies, or lies which help, please, or harm. Jocose lies are an interesting case, since one does not necessarily intend to deceive when one "lies" in a joke. Aquinas seems to think they are still lies because they are, "from the genus of the action, of a nature to deceive". This seems a bit unclear but it isn't entirely implausible. If I make a joke which contains an untrue boast or some such, it is possible that such a statement may deceive, even though that is not my intention. You covered something like this in a previous post, but perhaps Aquinas is offering a different way of thinking through that problem. Namely, what distinguishes a lie primarily is not an intention but the nature of the utterance regarding its potential to deceive(or something like that).

This made me wonder, given the split between the nature of the act, and the intention and beliefs of the speaking agent, how would one classify something like an untruth told by an ignorant agent for the benefit of some individual or political community? I'm thinking here of Plato's Noble Lie, or other founding myths. Are they lies in any sense? I was tempted to classify it with what you termed bullshit; but even if such a case isn't a lie it seems unfair to put it there. Can one perhaps not care about the truth of an utterance in either a malicious or in a harmless way? Sorry if the comment isn't helpful(still a student!). Love the blog!


Thank you for your meaty comments. Much to chew on. The Noble Lie is a topic I need to address. Do you have some Platonic passages/references for me?

Thanks for reading!

I do not have my copy of the Republic at hand, although I believe Socrates first mentions it at the end of book 3 of the Republic. Looking at book 3 using this : http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm#link2H_4_0006 I see that Socrates also states that, "Again, truth should be highly valued; if, as we were saying, a lie is useless to the gods, and useful only as a medicine to men" The noble lie is then intended as a kind of medicine, an untruth to protect his imaginary society. But there is certainly something true about his myth, or he would not be able to put it forward as something capable of deceiving even the rulers, whom Socrates believes, per book 3, are the only ones who should be allowed to(medicinally) lie. I am tempted to think that Plato introduces the "noble lie" as a kind of reductio of the praxis of lying. If one allows the rulers to lie to maintain the public good, then even the rulers are deceived. But for Socrates, then, it seems a lie, his intention is to deceive, he has no reason to believe the myth he constructs has truth in the way he wants it to be received( i.e. not allegorically), and so on. But the case becomes incredibly more complicated if say, such a state existed, and the rulers believed the lie. What does the expression of the lie become for them then? Certainly not a lie. But what?

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