It is strange that, on an ethics blog, I do not spend time on the fundamentals of morality – the basic ideas of right and wrong – such as lying.
I shall define a lie as any statement or act that an agent performs with the intention of causing another person to believe a proposition that the agent knows to be false.
Of course, sign language is a clear cut example of how a person can communicate by an action – the acts of sign language are intended as ways of communicating to others. Just as sign language is a form of communication, so is ‘looking at a book as if one is reading it’ or ‘packing one’s bags as if one is getting ready for school’ (when one intends to cut school). These are lies.
I include sophistry in the category of lying. Sophistry is the use of logical fallacies that aim to cause people to believe a proposition that the premises do not support. Global warming denialists and the tobacco lobby have proven to be particularly adept at this form of lying. Indeed, many (most? all?) public relations firms) of the world are nothing less than professional liars – people who have found a way to make money by manipulating others into believing things that the speaker (the members of the company) know not to be true, even when those that the agency is trying to convince are known to have an interest in the truth.
Lying does not include silence, even where silence causes a person to believe something that is not true. If you ask me what color my car is, and I refuse to answer, you may take my non-answer as evidence that it is red. That is your mistake, that would not be a lie on my part. Even if I knew, by my silence, that you would draw the conclusion that the car was red, I would not be lying by remaining silent. (However, if I know you have a false belief, and I exploit that false belief to my benefit and your detriment, I have committed a moral crime. However, I have not committed the moral crime of lying.)
Lying is a prima-facie wrong. By this I mean that people generally – you, dear reader, and I, and nearly everybody we meet – have many and strong ‘reasons for action’ for promoting an aversion to lying. We seek to fulfill our desires, but act so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. False beliefs prevent us from fulfilling our desires. A person who drinks from a glass, thinking that it contains clean water, when in fact it contains poison, is an example of somebody who suffers as a result of false beliefs.
Lying exploits this gap between the goal of bringing about a state that fulfills our desires, and the reality of acting so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. A liar is a parasite – somebody who seeks to alter our belief so that, while we think we are acting to fulfill our desires, the parasite has used false beliefs to divert our energies to fulfill his desires instead.
The energy companies and tobacco companies practice this form of parasitism. The give money to public relations firms whose job is to infest us with false beliefs. Those false beliefs divert energies that we would have put into securing a better future for ourselves and our children, and prompt us instead to sacrifice those interests while we put money in their bank accounts of energy and tobacco company executives instead.
So, we all have reasons to point to people who lie and say, “That type of person deserves our contempt." We have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to lying, and one of our tools for doing so is to point to those who lie – even hypothetical people in stories and parables – and say, ‘That person is a liar, and somebody who good people will view with contempt.’ We have reason to encourage the parents of other children to teach their children not to lie, so they will not lie to our children. They have reason to encourage us to teach our children not to lie, so that our children will not lie to their children.
It is not possible for any desire to be an absolute master over all others. The aversion to lying will always sit on the scale with countless other desires that we may have. Sometimes, the aversion to lying will be outweighed by other concerns. Sometimes, the aversion to lying should be outweighed by other concerns.
There are two types of qualifications on a moral principle; ‘exceptions’ and ‘outweighings’. ‘Exceptions’ are written into a desire itself, whereas ‘outweighings’ occur when another good desire should be stronger than the desire in question. The psychological difference between an ‘exception’ and an ‘outweighing’ is that an ‘exception’ leaves no residual regret or passive guilt, whereas an ‘outweighing’ does.
For example, it is permissible to lie except to defend an innocent person from a wrongful aggressor. The Nazi soldiers come to your house asking if you know anything about a Jewish family that used to live down the street. You lie and tell them you know nothing. There should be no guilt in this. If it is permissible to shoot the Nazi soldiers to protect the Jewish family, then it is also permissible to lie to the Nazi soldiers.
An example in which a moral principle will be outweighed – imagine that some criminal is holding your daughter at knife point. He tells you to lie to the neighbor who has come to your door in order to get rid of her. You lie to your neighbor. In a morally good person, this lie should come with some regret – some guilt – because of the thwarting of the aversion to lying. However, the aversion to telling a lie is outweighed by a desire to save one’s daughter from the assailant. You owe your neighbor an apology for lying to her. At the same time, your neighbor should recognize the greater moral concern you were under and forgive your dishonesty.
You do not owe the Nazi soldiers any type of apology, nor do you need to seek the Nazi soldiers’ forgiveness. They did not deserve the truth. They deserved far worse than a lie.
So, what about the little white lies? What about the surprise birthday party, or the answer to the classic question, “Does this make me look fat?”
In all of ethics, we allow for a person to perform a prima-facie wrong, and to gain permission for the (otherwise) wrongful act after the fact. If we were in a theater, and I saw a bank of lights falling right where you were standing, I may push you out of the way. This is a prima-facie wrong of assault. However, it is reasonable for me to believe that you would want me to push you out of the way, and that you would have given me permission to do so if there were time enough to ask. I may be wrong, but, in the absence of information, and the absence of time to collect more information, I will have to find out after the fact.
Many lies are like this. They are not parasitic acts that aim to divert the victim’s energies away from fulfilling his own desires and towards fulfilling the desires of the liar. They are attempts to create a situation where (one hopes) the desires of the victim will be better fulfilled. These are the ‘white lies’ – the permissible lies.
In promoting an aversion to lying, we have good and strong reason to make sure that people are careful in their use of permissible lies. People like to rationalize – to convince themselves that a wrong is permissible by putting it in a category that it does not belong. The rapist will conceive of has act as an act of justice (she deserved it) or of charity (she liked it). Liars do the same thing – conceiving of their acts as ‘deserved’ by their victims or as ‘charity’ in that the agent was just trying to help.
The wider we make the category of permissible lies, the easier we make it for people to rationalize wrongful lies. To put some sort of barrier up against these sorts of lies, we have reason to demand that the ‘permissible liars’ be particularly careful, and that any step outside those boundaries deserves the full measure of our condemnation.
We currently live in a culture where we are not giving acts of deception nearly the level of condemnation they deserve. Because of our tolerance of the various forms of deception – of sophistry and outright lies – we have whole populations parasitically diverting the resources of good people into activities that are not in their interests.
If we were a culture that gave lying the condemnation it deserves, than emails spreading lies about political candidates would die an early death. People would be too embarrassed to send on such an email out of fear of being charged with promoting a culture of lies. Representatives who dared propose something like House Resolution 888 with its litany of lies and sophistry about the relationship between church and state would fear for their jobs as much as the representative caught sending love letters to teenage pages. Evidence that a reporter had fabricated a story would end his career, not get him hired as a host of his own show on Fox News.
Condemning liars and sophists not only requires saying, “This person is a liar and I condemn him.” People need to be reminded of why lying is such a bad thing. People need to be reminded that liars are in fact parasites. They are thieves. The person who lies to you has robbed you of your labor, your money, your effort, and your emotional concern, diverting it away from accomplishing the things you care about, and tricking you into spending them on things the liar cares about instead.
These are not good people. Yet, they have done such a good job of taking over our society that they have blinded us into realizing them for what they really are.