Monday, September 21, 2015

What is Lying?

Here’s a simple question: what is lying?

“Ah, well, that’s easy,” you might think. “Lying is telling an untruth.”

But this brief definition doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. For we might think it includes some things as lying which ought not to be so regarded, such as telling a fictional story, or making a joke, or even playing certain kinds of games.[1] Further, it may exclude some things from qualifying which we want to say are lies. For example, if the teacher asks the class, “Did one of you draw that picture of me on the whiteboard?” and no one responds, no student told an untruth. However, supposing at least one of them is responsible and/or knows who did it, their silence most of us would count as lying to the teacher about their involvement. So, it appears this definition is both too broad (including things we don’t want) and too narrow (excluding things we do).

So, suppose you reconsider and reply: “Lying is deceiving others.”

This at least accounts for lying by omission, as in the case of the teacher. But this runs into a problem we’ve seen before: it includes things we do not really want to say are actual lies. For example, consider your favorite football team. They often come to the line of scrimmage attempting to disguise their defense, or on offense make a fake move before unleashing their real play, and so on. Are these all lies, all moral violations, and hence evil? It would seem not.

So, suppose you think for another moment and suggest this: “Lying is an attempt to have another person x believe P, when not-P is true, and x should have a reasonable expectation (or else a “right”) to receive the truth about P.”

Now this has some merit. In order to defeat a proposed definition, one will typically want to show it is either too broad or too narrow. Does this definition survive? Let’s test it against some of our examples: First, if we’re telling a fictional story, we get the right answer that we’re not lying, since x does not have a reasonable expectation that he will receive the truth about P.[2] Making a joke is also excluded, as are games. There is, of course, the worry jokes or stories are taken too far—but we tend to agree it’s not in virtue of these being jokes and stories that they are lies. It also includes lying by omission.

It also provides what many of us take to be the “right” answer in some classic ethical quandaries. Consider the family hiding Jews in WWII Germany and the Nazis come by. They ask, “Are there any Jews here?” If you answer “no,” then you are lying and thereby violate a moral norm. If you answer “yes,” however, you are not protecting the innocent (at least not very effectively, anyway). While there are answers that vigorously defend the “yes” position, we typically want to say protection of the Jews by saying “no” is morally justified. But it also seems bizarre to claim lying is ever morally right or permissible. In fact, it’s a violation of the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16)! But on this view, answering “no” is not lying. The Nazi does not have a reasonable expectation for the family to tell him the truth about the Jews, given that he intends to persecute, torture, experiment on, and ultimately kill them.

There is one worry here, and it’s about rationality. Suppose the Nazi thinks, “They know, or should know, that telling me an untruth about the presence of Jews will result in their incarceration or death, and the risk that I will check their home anyway is decent. Thus, the rational thing for them to do is to tell me the truth.” Here, it seems the Nazi has a reasonable expectation after all (is it really unreasonable, given the thought process?). But this is why I added “the right” portion above. Given that it’s a moral atrocity, if such people are hiding Jews, it’s because they have moral sensitivities (most likely); if that is the case, does he have the right to expect such people to move against these sensibilities and answer him, revealing the presence of the Jews? It seems not. The one committing a moral crime is not necessarily owed—or does not have the right to reasonably expect—the truth in a particular situation in which he is involved directly with moral evil.

And now we can apply this in the biblical narrative. In an ethics/moral philosophy course, we were once asked how many of us thought Rahab’s lie to cover for the pair of Jewish spies was justified, and how many thought it was not. The prof noticed my hand not going up for either, and I communicated I didn’t think it was a lie at all. We moved on for the sake of discussion, but I think it’s the right answer. It was not truth-telling, but as the enemies of God they did not satisfy what I am calling the reasonable expectation condition, and so should not have expected to hear the truth. Again, it must be noted that this condition deals with the rights one has to the truth in a given situation involving direct moral issues. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether or not telling people they look good when they don’t qualifies. J

[1] Here I am thinking of the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” where the winner is the one who convinces the others of the truth of the story when it is in fact false.

[2] Note also that if one protests that we could tell x “What I am about to tell you is absolutely true,” that it would be a lie. But this comports perfectly well with the definition given: in those circumstances, all being equal, x does have a reasonable expectation to be given the truth.


  1. nicely does this fare with the "graded ethics?"

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for commenting! Strictly speaking, this seems compatible with both graded and non-graded absolutism. In this case, then, a graded absolutist would just say that this is not one of those cases where moral norms actually conflict (if they accepted this account of lying). Of course, a graded absolutist may not want to accept this account, since some of the most potentially persuasive examples of conflicting absolutes are the Nazi stories I told above. If I haven't tipped my cap, I am a non-conflicting absolutist, if only because of the Incarnation (it seems not quite right to say Jesus faced conflicting moral choices and could not fulfill a particular moral duty; and it's not quite right to say he didn't face this particular type of temptation). Even if I am wrong about all of that, one can still accept this account of lying. :)

  2. This is really great work Randy! However, I worry that "reasonable" is ill-defined. I worry that some will take "reasonable" very liberally to justify various actions that should be considered lying by all accounts. Or at the very least will be ambiguous in certain circumstances. What would you say to this example:

    I am, imprisoned, is trying to escape by digging a whole. A guard passes by and sees this asking what the guy is doing. The prisoner lies and says he's not trying to escape because he thinks his imprisonment is unjustified. Because he has been imprisoned unjustly the guard does not have a reasonable expectation to know. Conversely, in one sense the guard is just doing his job and in another he is of the opposite opinion that the prisoners punishment IS just. Therefore, he thinks he does have a reasonable expectation to know. What ought happen in such a situation?

    Grace and peace to you brother!

    1. Thanks man! :)

      My first inclination is to say only one of them is really justified or reasonable. And this is because I am using "justified" or "reasonable" more in a moral, rather than epistemic, sense. Now you bring up a case that I think to be difficult, if only because of some moral complexities. Typically, it's good to submit to the state, even when it disadvantages you. (I'm assuming, for strength of argument, it's either the state or a state-authorized agent, otherwise we're just describing a kidnapping!)

      So, if it is really true that any unjust imprisonment results in the guards not having a reasonable justification or expectation to be told the truth, then it seems to me that the prisoner is doing fine. However, a very interesting fact is brought out that is a very big difference, in my opinion. It might even be worth restating the principle (although I am not sure we need to do that): in the paradigmatic cases, the person not telling the truth is doing so mostly, or perhaps even solely, for the benefit of others; whereas in this case, presumably he's just doing this for himself. It may make a serious difference as to whether the guard has a reasonable expectation. Even still, though, I am not persuaded we need to amend the definition. For let us just describe a kidnapping: why can't you tell your captor you have to go to the bathroom (when you don't) and escape out the window? This is presumably in self-interest, but it's not selfish.

      And perhaps here is the rub. If one is selfish, not just self-interested, in his act of non-truth-telling, it seems he is doing something wrong. But is this something wrong in virtue of not telling the truth+selfishness, or just selfishness simpliciter? Suppose the kidnapping victim simply wants to get home to all his money, to gorge himself on material possessions. Selfish, yes, and for that he is culpable. But I don't think that selfishness results in a lie.

      So, my conclusion is this: insofar as one's ethic permits one to resist imprisonment by the state, then if one is imprisoned unjustly, one could permissibly do what is stated. However, in order to be morally "pure," one would also need not to be selfish in the act. I also have some doubts about unjust imprisonments and whether one is permitted to resist.

    2. I think this really sheds some light on some Biblical passages, as you mentioned. In fact, I'm not really sure I've ever heard a response to Rahab's lie so your response seems to be the only game in town as far as I'm concerned!

      I'm reminded of a story Ravi Zacharias was telling in one of his speeches about a Christian man being held prisoner in some foreign communist country. Having found a way to escape, during his preparations the guards saw him and asked him if he was trying to escape (presumably it wasn't obvious). He said no, he wasn't. Having gone back to his cell he was overcome with incredible guilt having lied to the guards. Praying to God, he made a promise that should they ask him again he would not lie. Sure enough, next time he's making preparations to escape the guards come by and ask him if he's trying to escape. He replies, "Yes, I am". Probably a little stunned at first, the guards turned to him and said, "That's wonderful! Can you take us with you?!" Apparently it was terrible for them too! And they all ended up escaping!

      It seems in this scenario God rewards the Christian man for telling the truth. Yet, by your definition, that can't be so because he wasn't telling a lie in the first place! (The communist guards didn't have a responsible expectation to know anything). What do you think is going on in this situation? Would you say that God was rewarding the Christian man for listening to his conscious rather than anything to do with telling the truth?

    3. I think that's a great story! However, I do think God may reward the man in the story even if my account is right. But first I want to cover a couple of things. Biblically and philosophically, if you believe it is wrong to do x, then even if it is actually permissible to do x *on the whole*, it would actually be wrong for you to do x. For surely your attitude of wanting to do wrong (or intending to bring about wrong) is itself wrong, and James tells us that whatever is not done that ought to be is itself sin; if the man thought he ought to tell them the complete story, then his omission upon their asking is wrong--because he thought he was bringing about a great wrong. Second, if we believe that the act may be permissible on the whole, but believe that God is leading us to refrain from the act, then again our doing the act is wrong--because we believe that, in this instance, we ought not to do that act. One or both of these things is going on in the man's case.

      But suppose neither went on in the man's case, and he never felt guilty, but just decided to tell the truth. In this, we have a case of "supererogation." An act is supererogatory just in case it is morally praiseworthy but not morally obligatory. If my account is correct, the man who answers "yes" to his captors' question if he is trying to escape has performed a supererogatory act, and so can be rewarded and considered praiseworthy.

      However, it's not *always* clear such truth-telling is praiseworthy. Consider the Nazis and the Holocaust. If you say, "Yes, I have Jews, and they're in the basement," it's not clear the act is supererogatory. But whether it is or isn't is not essential to my account. What's essential to the account is that we feel we get the "right" answers when we use what we take to be paradigmatic or clearer cases. If we come up with one of these that the principle gets wrong, then we have justification for rejecting the principle. This is why I suggest paradigmatic or clearer cases: the more obscure a principle is or the more unsure we are of the answer, the less clear it will be the principle has failed. But in any case I think it survives these cases so far! :)

    4. Very good! I think it survives too ;)


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