Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Truth and Lies

What is a lie? It's not really the opposite of telling the truth, for one can be honestly mistaken in speaking falsehoods. An initial modification would be to say that lying is telling falsehoods on purpose. But do lies actually need to be false? I'm not sure if the concept is clear on this point. I would have thought that actual falsehood is unnecessary: whether a statement is a lie depends solely on the intentions of the speaker. But sometimes people seem to treat the concept differently, and I guess it does sound a little strange to say that a true statement could be a lie.

Consider the following case: Weevil believes the Earth is flat. But, nasty little bugger that he is, he wants Columbus to sail over the edge and fall into the abyss. So when Columbus asks him whether the Earth is flat, Weevil says it isn't. He was intending to deceive, but accidentally ended up telling the truth. Did Weevil lie?

Setting the factive issue aside, intending to tell a falsehood is still insufficient for lying. After all, one might be telling a story or a joke, or engaging in hyperbole or sarcasm. The speaker's higher-order intentions clearly matter here. The speaker must intend to deceive the audience into mistaking what he truly intends, thus leaving them vulnerable to false belief formation. Anyway, that's all pretty straightforward stuff. I'm mainly just curious to hear whether people think lies have to be actually false, or if the intent to deceive suffices.

What if the speaker 'slips' and accidentally says what they believe to be true, when they meant to say something false. Although they acted with intent to deceive, it seems odd to call the slip a 'lie'! So I don't think we should be too subjectivist here. Lying involves more than just deceptive intent; I think the liar must also say something that they genuinely believe is false. If they slip up, then they failed in their attempts to lie. They intended to lie, but ended up speaking honestly by mistake. This seems possible. The question now becomes: how far does this objectivity extend? Is it possible to think you're lying when in fact you're not, just because what you think is false actually happens to be true? Or are actual truth values strictly irrelevant, so that there's nothing problematic about true lies?


  1. Once had a commenter calling himself "Christopher Smith" who kept twisting what we said into something with the opposite meaning. This continued over so many posts and days that I gave up trying to correct the bastard and simply banned him. He seemed to consider the popularity of our blog as some sort of invitation to engage in a campaign of deception to boost his own politics and insult us.

    Was it intentional? Who knows. He certainly created the impression he regarded lying as an acceptable debating technique.

    He's the only person banned for that. There's been a couple of others banned for posting foul-mouthed insults.

  2. lie .... in my oppinion is a statement with the intent to hide the truth... but now comes the question of what one precives as the truth ... this preception is a personal quality 'one man's truth may be another man's lie'... this however does not change the intent with which the "truth" was spoken
    this defination of lies is a very flexible one and makes an effort to include in itself partial truths; or jus telling a part of a truth so as to hide the bigger meaning... i'm however sceptical bout the sufficiency of this defination for wouldn't a lie told, with no intention of hiding the truth, still be a lie?????

  3. Richard I think this is an interesting post. I think lying has a more or less purely instrumental value. That is it is used to acheive some end and so usually invoves an intentional misdirection which may entail whole falsehoods, half-truths or even whole truths but used in such a way to affect a desired end. The value of lying I think is contigent for while it might be generally true to be undesirable it maybe by its instrumental nature useful for getting people to cooperate especially when it is to their benefit.

  4. I think I'm on the team that thinks that it can't be a lie unless it is false. However, if the greek gods curse some poor sap for his dishonesty so that for any claim he's disposed to lie about, he is tricked into falsely believing how things are so that in spite of his intentions, he is a perfect guide to the truth for others to use, the gods have left his character defect perfectly intact. He's still completely, well, I don't want to say dishonest exactly but he has the same flaw he had all along which we typically call dishonesty.

    Now, one interesting question is whether there is a rule of the form 'One should not be dishonest'. I think not. I think there is only the defeasible rule 'Do not assert falsehoods'. If, after the curse, the guy tried to comply with the first rule, he'd assert falsehoods all day long. He shouldn't do that. Sincerity is nice but truth is what matters. If it doesn't matter to you, you're insincere.

  5. I think the definition of an intentionan and an "unintentional lie" is not all that distinct. People lie unintentionally to avoid having to do it intentionally.
    when in a situation where you would be disadvantaged by telling the truth you can choose between a whole set of things that are effectively lying
    from ommissions to misleading to white lies and so forth.
    In fact not knowing that you are lying to an extent amounts to you lying to yourself as well.

  6. If someone "lies" all the time (ie tells untruths) but is a bit pathological about it (ie it isn't really intentional) would we really say he never lies?

    I think most english words need "a reasonable person" and "appears" and other such things peppered through them because that is how language works.

  7. My initial take...

    A statement is a lie if

    1) it is deliberately misleading (i.e., contradicts what the speaker believes to be true), or

    2) it is false hearsay misrepresented as truth for the purpose of motivating some action.

    If you ask me "What is the square of 13?" and I make an error and respond "167," I'm not lying, I just made a mistake.

    If I tell you that "The increase in hurricanes is due to global warming, so you should cut CO2 emissions," I am lying if I'm not correct. This is because:

    a) I don't know if global warming is actually reponsible for hurricanes. My statement misrepresents my actual confidence in its veracity. I'm confident that global warming causes plenty of other bad things, I'm just not confident that it causes hurricanes in particular.

    b) I'm trying to get you to drive a hybrid automobile. I have something to gain by my misrepresentation.

  8. I don't know if we can settle on a single definition of "lie". First, there's the question of whether the speaker must believe that the statement is false, or if he must believe that it will cause the listeners to interpret it as meaning something that is false, or if it must meet both criteria, or if it must meet at least one of the two criteria. None of these options is perfect. I want to say that carefully worded statements that are technically true but are designed to induce listeners to interpret them as meaning something that is false are just about as bad as outright falsehoods. However, incompetent, transparent attempts at deception do not seem to be lies. In some cases, as with jokes, etc., false statements are not lies if there is no deception. However, in some contexts, as in court, a knowingly false statement is a lie even if everyone knows that it is false. This also occurs with open secrets, and it can be a sign of a pathological liar.

    The second question is the objective/subjective one. Is what matters whether the speaker believes his claim to be false (taking "false" to stand in for whatever we concluded about the first point)? Or, is what matters whether the claim actually is false? Or, is what matters whether the claim was generated by a procedure that reliably produces false statements? Clayton claims that it is the second point (falsehood) that matters, but his example throws in the third point (reliability) as well. When the first and third criteria are met, actual falsehood seems less important. I'm reminded of an example from Sartre's The Wall (warning: spoilers):

    A member of the Resistance is captured by the military, and they will execute him immediately unless he tells them where the Resistance is hiding. He wants to buy some time to live a little longer, so he lies and tells them that the Resistance is at a base out in the woods. In fact he'd recently been in the Resistance base, which was in the middle of the city. But the Resistance had moved their base when their member was captured, and when the military go search the woods they find that the Resistance is there.

    Did the member of the Resistance lie about their location? Do we want to say that his lie backfired, or that his attempt to lie failed? Both sound correct to me. And the issue, I think, is not merely the word "lie" having multiple meanings or an ambiguous meaning. The question of what lie-like concept matters is also up for grabs.

    By the way, I recently wrote a post about Kantianism and lying that is tangentially related. The main relevance is the idea of treating statements as the transmission of information that can lead listeners either towards truth or away from it.

  9. > "are just about as bad as outright falsehoods"

    this is the key thing to me
    clearly you are trying to define the connotations of "lie" rather like "bad things people say" I think such attempts are doomed to failure. You can generally only define the non connotative portion and then must admit that the definition might seem odd to those who apply connotations.

  10. I think Korsgaard has a wonderful Kantian treatment of lying under the humanity formulation of the categorical imperative in the Kingdom of Ends book For my part, let me suggest make yet another "good will" comment. The sort of ground-level Kantian principle that a good will is the only absolutely good thing seems to form the notion that one's subjective intent is all that matters. Your person who intends to lie but accidentally states something that (s)he believes would still be a liar under this formulation, because (s)he willed (ineffectively) the result that the other person be deceived. This willing isn't universalizable because it wouldn't be effective always (hell, it isn't even effective in the one case), it attempts (again, albeit unsuccessfully) to treat the humanity of the lied-to as a means (cf. Korsgaard), etc. etc. [apply your favorite Kantian argument here]. So at least from a Kantian perspective, the truth-teller-who-meant-to-utter-different, lying-words-than-he-did would seem to be morally indistinguishable from an actual liar.

  11. geniusNZ: "you can generally only define the non-connotative portion and then must admit that the definition might seem odd to those who apply connotations."

    1) Here you seem to say that a definition is fine even if many people (and many people do apply connotations - that's why the connotation exists) find it odd ie. even if many people disagree with the definition. Is that what you want to say?

    2) But some of the most important words we try to define are defined mainly or solely by their connotations. What does "well-being" mean if you ignore its connotations? What does "good" mean if you ignore its connotations? I don't think we can treat these kinds of words in the same way we treat, say, the word "electron" or "apple."

    This is the answer that the Oxford English Dictionary gives:

    Lie: “An act or instance of lying; a false statement made with intent to deceive; a criminal falsehood.”

    Clearly the OED isn’t very precise on this matter, but that is probably because the actual meaning of the word is so loose. Nevertheless, the dictionary supplies both of the elements that everyone has identified as features of a “lie”: it should in some sense be a “false” statement; and it should in some sense be maliciously conceived. It does not say whether “false” is meant objectively or subjectively, probably because there are so few instances of “true lies”, so the word “lie” has not been used very often, so it does not have an established meaning in this context. As a result, I think it is open for us to suppose that “false” can be meant in either a subjective or an objective sense.
    According to a strict interpretation of the OED, a benevolent lie is impossible, even though we can think of statements that might be meaningfully described as “benevolent lies” (Santa Claus perhaps, or Plato’s “magnificent myth.”). This is probably because the meanings of words are multiple and loose, and that different parts of a word’s meaning are used in different contexts. The context of “benevolent” brings out the “falsehood” element in the OED’s definition and suppresses the “malicious intent” element.

    I suppose the OED doesn’t say much more about lying than Kant says or a thought experiment says about lying, but as a guide to the normal accepted meaning of the word I think it is just reliable, if not more reliable, than either of the more philosophical sources.

  12. Well personally I actually don't like the way connotations are attached to words I see it as the root of a lot of evil. I would like it if language was purely litteral - but ANYWAY if you are not using a literal language then it is a bit meaningless to walk around talking about the "definition" of a word (or asking "What is a lie?") - it doesnt really exist.

  13. But then if we admit that most of the important words (and the words we want to define, such as "lie", "well-being", "the good", "the moral", "justice") have connotations, and come to very little when we remove the connotations, then we must admit that we cannot really define most of the words that philosophy really wants to define.

    Instead of ignoring connotations, perhaps we could instead try to define the connotations of words, but do so with the knowledge that such a definition is shifitng and uncertain. (although, since we haven't defined "connotation" yet, it is possible that we are really trying to say the same thing!)

  14. I think the reason why we spend so much time and have so much trouble trying to define words like "justice" and "the good" is because we are trying to define aspects of the word on which there are no grounds for expecting agreement.

    Someone asks "what is justice" and actually it is not the same question to everyone since the world is in a sense defined subjectively. therefore there is no point debating it at all unless we really want to debate some objective subcomponent of it and if so we should seperate that out and acknowledge we are doing that.

    Exactly what we seperate out will be rather arbitrary.
    In as far as we allow debate to do this it will probably decend into a battle for control of the language (if you control the definitions of the worlds you control the conclusions).

  15. In the dictionary, a "lie" is seen as intentional, with cause. However, there is yet one defininition for a "lie" that is simply deceit. Deceit is not always intentional, as "your hair can be deceiving", for example. This topic is truly controversial- and every dictionary is different. It is really the way our society uses this word. Is the word "lie" misused? Not really. If this is language, people will use the word how they want and form a definition. But I think losing trust in someone can only come from an unintentional lie of course. I think that the person who said the Earth was round WAS INTENTIONALLY lying. Whatever the correct word to use- lie or not- he was trying to present falsehood. He ended up being correct! That was by chance. He is seen as a "liar." A liar is someone who INTENDS to deceive. I think the definition of "lie" truly contradicts itself. There, blame it on the dictinary! lol. It really does though. People are not clear when clarifying. WHatever the case is the word "lie" sucks bc it is vague and too ambivulent.

  16. a lie would constitute a direct question and a direct answer... for example.... i ask john:: have you spoken with mary sage in the last seven days... his answer is no... however you look at his phone, email, and other correspondence, and you see mary sage's phone number, the minutes they talked, emails, back and forth.... that is a lie... a direct question was asked and was not answered truthfully.... lies are not based on perceptions,, perceptions are simply one's definition of their reality... who defines that???

  17. Basically, what you start out saying is that there are multiple definitions of a lie. So it is in the context that you use the word that helps to convey the meaning that you intend, therefore it is also up to the reader to understand what you mean by the word "lie". So, obviously there is no true definition of a lie, in the sense of true that there is of a mathematical concept, and because of this we cannot debate a definition unless there is a context.


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