15 April 2011

Conditions of Lying

(Edited from a recent email of mine to Dr. Vallicella.)

In a fairly recent post, Bill Vallicella states (i) that ‘[e]very lie is a false statement’ and (ii) that in order to lie ‘one must make the false statement with the intention to deceive.’  Dr. Vallicella has elsewhere declared these conditions ‘individually necessary and jointly sufficient’ for a speech act to constitute a lie.  Both, however, appear to admit of counterexample:

1.) Suppose that Fritz is an SS soldier charged with bringing a number of Jews from a ghetto to a concentration camp at location L.*  Once they get to L, Fritz tells his victims in an attempt to pacify them, they will find greater liberty, sufficient food, and protection from harm by the government.  Unbeknownst to Fritz, however, the Allies have taken the concentration camp at L and make sure that, upon the arrival of Fritz' flock, his Jewish charges will receive all the benefits promised them by their captor.  Now Fritz is surely guilty of lying in saying what he did to the Jews entrusted to him, despite the fact that his lies conveyed truths rather than falsehoods.  So (i) seems wrong.

2.) Suppose that you are being administered a polygraph test.  In order to check its efficacy in revealing your honesty, the administrators of the test order you to answer ‘yes’ to five questions while you are connected to the machine.  Both you and the administrators know (and know each other to know) an affirmative response to questions one, two, three, and five to be correct and a similar response to question four to be incorrect.  In asking of you that you so answer question four, moreover, it seems acceptable to say that the administrators of the test are asking you to lie.  (A confirmation of this might be that we can plausibly imagine someone intelligent and ethically opposed to lying, perhaps a Kantian or Augustinian, refusing to follow these orders as a matter of moral principle.)  Exercising the virtue of docility, you comply with the administrators' order and untruthfully answer question four with a ‘yes.’  You are lying, but you do not intend thereby to deceive anyone.  So (ii) also looks problematic.

*I do hope that my German reader(s) do(es) not take offence at this example and will forgive me of any undue insensitivity.


  1. Actually in his works specifically discussing lying, Augustine allows for it in some cases. It's never cast as being something good in his thought -- so far as I can see -- but it's sometimes not-bad, or not so-bad. So, someone following Augustine's reasoning could indeed "lie" on the polygraph, i.e. provide a diagnostic baseline.

    For that matter, a Kantian would properly describe the action as providing a diagnostic baseline for a procedure that is intended to ferret out lying. Their maxim would then be universalizable, and be able to be willed as such, so it wouldn't constitute a problem for the Kantian either

  2. Fair points, both. But I still think we could plausibly conceive of such a scrupulous person, no?

  3. The confirmation part of your argument in (2) seems like it could be simply reversed: sure, we can imagine someone intelligent and ethically opposed to lying refusing to follow the orders, but we can equally imagine someone intelligent and ethically opposed to lying following the orders. And while the former may suffice to establish that the action is at least in some way lying-like, the latter surely would establish that it is also at least in some way like something that is not lying. Or, in other words: even given the argument, the question remains open as to whether it's a lie in a proper sense or simply something that we might call a lie in a loose sense.

    With regard to (1), for many kinds of actions we distinguish between a proper form of it, in which it is successful, and a secondary form of it, which is indistinguishable as far as intention goes but is unsuccessful. Murderous acts, for instance, divide into murder in the proper sense and attempted murder. Your argument here would seem to require that there is no such distinction for lying: that it is impossible for someone intending to lie to fail at it. Obviously Fritz at the time is engaging in the act of lying in the sense that he is acting with an intention to say something false in order to deceive; just as an attempted murder at the time of the attempt is engaging in the act of murder in the sense that he is acting with an intention to kill an innocent, or what have you. (If you happened on it occurring, you'd be entirely reasonable to say, "X is murdering Y!") And there are lots of circumstances where we would still call an attempted murderer a murderer; but in the proper sense we would look back on the latter and say that he failed -- it's an incomplete act of murder, and thus not murder in the strictest sense. So the question with regard to your counterexample in (1) becomes: Why shouldn't we simply take Fritz to be guilty of an incomplete act of lying, an attempted lie that fails to be a lie in a proper sense?

  4. I have class in a few minutes, so this reply is bound to be inadequate. I'll respond further later.

    With regard to your concern with (1), I agree that a complete/incomplete distinction is relevant here, and that my thesis would be greatly weakened if the counterexample proved analogous to attempted murder. There seem to me, however, some pretty severe disanalogies between an attempted murder and a truth-conveying lie: for one, the difference between an attempted murder and a successful murder is something intrinsic to the act, whereas Fritz' lie would be intrinsically the same had the Allies not captured the camp. That the success or failure of an act could be determined entirely by a factor incidental to the act itself, to me at least, seems strange.

  5. Further thoughts about the completeness of operations, not meant to be decisive:

    The perfection of an operation is the fullness of being of an action. But whether or not something attains to being, and likewise the fulness of being, is something internal to the operation itself. Therefore, the perfection of an operation is internal to it; therefore, the perfection or imperfection of an operation is not determined by anything leaving the operation internally the same.

  6. But the difference between attempted murder and murder is not, as far as I can see, generally something intrinsic to the act. For instance, many cases of murdering someone consists of simply putting poison in their food with the intent to kill them, etc.; in such cases it's often going to be purely a matter of external whether it results in their death or not. (E.g., if someone comes along in time to revive and save them, or if they just happen not to eat the food you prepare for them; or if what you thought was poisonous actually wasn't.) It would be strange to say that you aren't actually murdering someone when you simply put cyanide in their water knowing that they will likely drink it, and they do; but in such a case the success or failure of the act is determined entirely by factors incidental to the act itself.

    I would concede your argument in the second comment as regards the operation on its own without regard to its further ends, and deny it insofar as the operation is considered as having further ends, which human operations almost always do. It's true that you can succeed quite well at putting this thing, which you think cyanide, in someone's glass, and your operation will be complete in that sense; but you will nonetheless have failed to put cyanide in someone's glass if you were mistaken, and thus your action will be incomplete in that sense. Likewise, every act of murder, considering only what is internal to the operation, is simply attempted murder; what makes it murder in the full sense is that this attempted murder is successful, which can depend on factors external to the operation.

  7. (Sorry for the delay: I've got a lot of work to do for school. Will give a proper response soon. The long and short of it: you've forced me to seriously weaken my original contention.)