3.22.2006

Lying

What does it mean to tell a lie?
It was recently brought to my attention how mixed our intuitions are here.

Here are five possibilities:
1. To utter something that is false.
2. To utter something that the speaker believes is false (but it is true).
3. To utter something that conversationally implicates something that is false.
4. To utter something that conversationally implicates something that the speaker believes is false (but it is not).
5. To utter something that the speaker believes will conversationally implicate something that is false (but it does not).

The parenthetical remarks are to clarify and distinguish the five possibilities.

To explicate what I mean by 'conversationally implicates' I will give an example from my childhood. My parents would often ask me if I had washed my hands or brushed my teeth. Often, I would answer, 'Yes, I brushed my teeth.' knowing that this would implicate that I had done so on the day in question -- though I explicitly uttered no such thing.

So where are your intuitions? I have a strong intuition to accepting (1), but it is difficult to accuse some one who accidentally utters a falsehood as a liar. I think that this can be accounted for by appealing to something like secondary norms: that speaker is to be praised in a sense since she was trying to follow the relevant norm of not lying. Perhaps this secondary sense of following a norm is even more important than actually complying with the primary norm -- actually not telling a lie.

8 comments:

chaz said...

Doesn't Searle give an account of a lie? What do you think of his account?

danny boy said...

Lies, lies, and more lies. Tricky stuff. Like you had in your examples, I think you have to take into account the speaker, the hearer, and the ‘real world’ to figure out what constitutes a lie – ultimately meaning should God exist, only He could render complete and accurate judgment (He being the only one immune to deception). But I suppose #1 would usually be a lie, #2,4,5 I don’t think so (just a deceived speaker who believes a lie), #3 I’d probably usually call deception, but I think it could be defended as a ‘partial truth’ (which perhaps can be justified on occasion – excluding the tooth brushing example ). I tend to think of evil as being a deviation from good, so I’d probably think of lies as deviations from the truth. But in matters of definition, it seems that a liar is one who communicates or reflects that which is not true – whether intentional or non-intentional. I’d argue that partial truths aren’t necessarily always lies, although if the intent is to elude truth, and one does so knowingly, then categorically, I think it’d be alright to put them in the rank of being a liar. Now while you might have literary devices that use ‘lies’ to communicate truth or ‘lies’ used as humor, I suppose you need to have some disclaimer for social conventions or culturally understood usages. I guess I’m lumping together ‘lies’ and ‘error’, but maybe in contrast to truth that’s ok to do.

Similar to the your toothbrush accounts, I’ve been reading the story of a church father name Athanasius. He was in trouble with the Emperor, and so imperial authorities were trying to arrest him. He tried to flee to the desert up going upstream on the Nile, but soldiers were advancing in a faster ship in pursuit. When the soldiers came upon Athansius’ ship they shouted, “Have you seen Athanasius?” and Athanasius replied, “Yes, he is just ahead of you, and if you hurry you shall overtake him,” and so he escaped.

jon said...

Chaz, I'm sure Searle does have a view. It's not in the one philosophy of language book of his that I have. If I can find some time I'll look for it.

Danny boy, so you think that I was lying about brushing my teeth [and/or Athanasius' crew]? I agree that there is something less than optimal going on, but I don't think that it is lying, and I'm not even sure if it is morally wrong -- though it is likely wrong under some other (less important)standard.

If lying is correctly captured by (1), is lying morally wrong? It seems like this would be too strong. Perhaps adherence to the secondary norm attached to lying would be what we are morally accountable for: whether or not we justifiably believe that we are telling the truth.
[Or, perhaps for moral implications we would need (2), if not the combination of (1) and (2) -- to utter something false when the speaker believes that it is false.]

This might influence what we think a lie is -- that is, whether we think a lie is necessarily a moral wrong. But I think that accepting (1) can account for this.

jon said...

Here's an example of why I don't think a false implication is problematic. Suppose that I say to you 'Some triangles have three sides'. By convention, this implicates that not all triangles have three sides. However, I don't see anything wrong with me saying 'some triangles have three sides.'

danny boy said...

I suppose what you're calling a false implication, I'm calling a partial truth. There again I would argue that partial truths aren’t necessarily always lies, although if the intent is to elude truth, and one does so knowingly, then categorically, I think it’d be alright to put them in the rank of being a liar. So in matters of partial truth, intent - namely to demonstrate or distort truth - determines whether or not you or Athanasius is lying.

jon said...

Danny boy,
well I think that both my intentions and the crew's intentions were clear. Were they intentions to elude truth? I don't know exactly what you mean here. In both cases the person was definitely trying to say something that *was* true; truth was taken to be something very important. Now obviously neither party wanted to do anything like 'full disclosure', but we often don't fully disclose things and don't seem to be subject to blame for so doing -- language would be quite burdensome if this was required. Is the idea that we are not telling the inquisitor something which they want to know? This does not seem to be lying. Is it that we are also not saying something else that is true? This certainly can't be required or no one would ever stop talking. So I still need help here understanding what my and Athanasius' problem is (if there is one).

danny boy said...

I’m starting to wonder about rendering this judgment on both you and Athanasius just cause I like you both so much. But I guess I’ve gotta be consistent, so may you both have mercy on me. I think though both you and Athanasius technically told the truth, but the manner in which the message was communicated was a deliberate attempt to mislead or deceive. Because such actions entailed technical truths with an attempt to mask or distort a more complete awareness of truth (hoping that the hearers of such proclamations would themselves be given to believe falsehoods), I think it’s appropriate to call one who knowingly directs others to such ends a liar (the Serpent himself employed similar techniques in the garden). So what do I mean by an intent to elude truth – perhaps an effort have others believe what is false. Here again, anyone who knowingly takes part in such activity would then be a liar. I think that while Athanasius perhaps honored the technical nature of truth, by no means did he show greater respect for truth by compelling others to believe falsehoods. Now whether or not it is best for someone to lie in certain circumstances in a whole different question, and in that sense we could try to relate the lie to an effort for true justice or something of the like, but I’m simply referring here to truth as that which is actually the case. I fully agree that full disclosure is neither necessary or possible, nor is one obligated to satisfy every desire of an inquisitor (certainly silence is always an option – which again raises questions of silence in the face of falsehood which I think is certainly merited on occasion), but here again I’d look to the intent of the speaker. It still seems to me that one who knowingly hinders the communication or accurate transferal of truth is a liar.

jon said...

Am I *knowingly* hindering the transfer of truth? That's a hard question. Can I *know* how you are going to interpret what I say? Now we have brought the entire mess of the nature of knowledge into the mix. Perhaps you might want to retreat to saying that one should not *believe* that they are hindering the transfer of truth. But why do we have to assume the speaker has any beliefs about this whatsoever? In the least I could just not think about what the hearer will interpret me as saying, or only believe that if I said something more specific they would surely believe something different.

Another question: why does this responsibility on your account seem to fall entirely on the speaker? Isn't the other individual partially to blame for asking a bad question or reading too much into the answer? Communication is not so one-directional.

In the end, you might just have a broader definition of a lie. But do you think that your definition lines up with 'not bearing false testimony'? I don't think so.
To me, both lying and bearing false testimony can only concern something one actually says. To make this clear it would have been inappropriate for mom or dad to have referenced my speech and said, "Jon said he brushed his teeth today." That is not something that I ever asserted.