Thursday, September 06, 2007

Non-deceptive Lies

Brian Weatherson writes:
In the middle of a post on Larry Craig, Mark Schmidt interestingly says “[I]n my world, if something’s none of my business, it’s o.k. for you to lie about it, in order to protect your privacy.” That would allow a much broader sphere of permissible lying than many philosophers would (I think) allow. Still, it sounds like a pretty plausible principle to me.

I'm more sympathetic to this idea now than I was last year -- in part because I'm less inclined to assume that (even intentionally) false statements are properly considered "deceptive". Cf. Nagel: "The point of polite formulae and broad abstentions from expression is to leave a great range of potentially disruptive material unacknowledged and therefore out of play... this is not a form of deception because it is meant to be understood by everyone."

I think it is always (pro tanto) wrong to intentionally deceive others, i.e. to take as your goal the manipulation of their beliefs so as to introduce falsehood. Ideally, we would have social norms such that "lying" to protect privacy is recognized as standard practice, so nobody would actually be deceived. But even failing this, we may introduce a kind of 'doctrine of double effect': if you say something false in order to protect your privacy, which has as an undesired (albeit predictable) side-effect that it gives rise to false beliefs in the listener, then that's morally okay. One did not intend to be deceptive; the listener's beliefs are mere "collateral damage".

One worry here is that the deception is no mere "side effect", but the essential means by which one's goal of privacy protection is achieved. This will depend on the case. I mean to defend those lies that serve a purely deflective purpose (i.e. "where refusing to answer cannot preserve the secret"). In other cases, one might lie for remedial purposes, i.e. to actively undo some damage that has already been done. If your privacy has already been violated, you might wish to manipulate others' beliefs back towards the state they were in before the violation. I'm not sure whether I have any general views on the im/permissibility of this (as opposed to case-by-case judgments), but such cases would count as genuinely deceptive lies, and so be at least pro tanto wrong (even if possibly justified in light of other reasons).


  1. if you need to lie to protect your privacy then that is a sign that there are issues regarding how others wil deal with the truth (and maybe the sort of questions they are asking).

    A bit like how it might be ok to kill someone as long as they intended to kill you. And it might be ok to lie as long as the other person intended to do somthing unjust with that information.

  2. I agree that there are times when intentionally deceiving others is wrong, but it's not always the case.

    I think that honesty is a very good general policy (it's better to be trustworthy and to be able to trust others). But I don't think you owe others the complete truth about everything they might be curious about.

    Sometimes you should deceive others to protect a confidence, or to prevent harm (as Genius indicated above). Sometimes, we have an obligation to lie convincingly! Not answering could be expected to lead to worse outcomes.

    I agree that it's wrong to deceive those who are in a relationship with you of a kind that gives them a right to the information they're requesting. And, it's wrong to unreasonably impose costs on others by misleading them (like giving a tourist wrong directions, as a joke).

    But, the notion that we should never deceive others is one of those memes that are easy to believe but don't really make sense, and hurt those who adopt them.

  3. I might just be tired, but that seems like a bit too much trouble. If you aren't trying to deceive, then shouldn't one be more interested in the truth? Or is the point that the truth in this case isn't all that significant?

  4. The idea is more that (in some cases) the truth isn't anyone else's business.

  5. I'm not sure that in itself is a reason in itself. (despite the fact that is what people say)

    For example I might say if I am holding a pen or not is none of your business and that would be true but it would also, surely, be a negative reaction from me to just lie about it or to respond in a hostile manner when I could just say the truth. It actually takes more effort to lie anyway.

    Can you imagine "you only get told the truth if I think it is specifically 'your business'". That doesn’t sound like a good situation.

    I think for lying to have a positive moral status you need to have an actual damage associated with telling the truth (Which might be of the sort where you reject a question with the idea if discouraging them from asking it in other situations where it might be harmful).

  6. Right, when people say "none of your business" they don't mean it so literally. Their complaint is not simply that you lack a pressing reason to seek the information (as in the pen example). Rather, the complaint is that the information in question is protected information, falling within 'the private sphere' (the bounds of which may be determined on broadly consequentialist grounds), and as such it is inappropriate for others to pry.


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