Friday, August 05, 2016

Lies, Falsehoods, and Clinton's Email

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's State Department Emails provide a good example to use to illustrate some of the finer points about lying.

I would like to start by directing the reader to some background material on the topic.

Specifically, I wrote a post several years back on the ethics of lying. In that post, I described a liar as type of parasite. This parasite plants a mental state in another person's brain in order to cause that person to act in a way that serves the interests of the liar, rather than the interests of the infected individual.

A liar works in a way very much like the "zombie fungus". The zombie fungus effects ants and one of its symptoms is to effect the ant's behavior. The infected ant will leave its colony and find a warm, moist environment suitable for the growth of the fungus. Once there, it will fasten itself to a leaf and die - allowing the fungus to flourish.

Similarly, the liar intends to infect the brain of those he lies to. He hopes that her lie will alter the behavior of those that he lies to, causing them to act in ways that will serve the liar's interest. The infected person may give the liar money or something else of value, or help the liar in achieving some goal that the liar values. In one relevant option, the liar may seek to defeat a political candidate and, by infecting the brains of others with false beliefs, try to manipulate them into voting against the candidate he wants to defeat.

Desirism holds that, since liars effectively manipulate us into thwarting our own ends and serving theirs, we have many and strong reasons to condemn liars and, in doing so, to promote an aversion against lying. In looking at our current community, it is plausible to argue that a great many of our current (and future) problems can be grounded on the fact that we do not give liars the condemnation they deserve. We have entire news networks devoted to implanting false beliefs in others in order to manipulate them into serving the interests of their constituents.

On this measure, though I will be discussing Clinton's emails, I should specify that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made himself a paradigm example of a parasite in this sense. He shows absolutely no qualms about parasitically filling the heads of others with false beliefs that will cause them to behave in ways that serve his ends - and Trump's primary end in this sense is the promotion of Donald Trump. Actually, Trump cares absolutely nothing about whether a claim is true or false. He cares only about whether it is useful.

Let nobody get the wrong idea that this represents a partisan attack on Clinton. My intention is to discuss some relevant aspects of honesty and lying - and the server issue simply provides an excellent illustrative example.

Now, we do need to distinguish between telling a lie, reckless statements, and false claims. I wrote about this in my last post. A lie is a statement that the liar believes to be false. The statement might (accidentally) be true. What matters is that the liar thinks it is false and seeks to implant it in the brain of others to manipulate them into serving her ends.

An intellectually reckless statement is a statement that the agent reports to be true even though he put no effort into confirming or denying the claim. In this case, the agent effectively does not care whether the statement is true or false - what matters is its ability to influence others.

Sometimes, a person with an aversion to lying and an aversion to making intellectually reckless claims can still get the facts wrong. This is simply called a false claim.

In this context, this is relevant into looking at the claims of various fact-checkers to the claims that a politician may make. There are those who use the fact-checkers' scores as a measure of how honest a politician is. They argue that the politician with the lower fact-checker score must be a liar. In fact, it may be the case that the politician is not a liar at all - he is simply intellectually reckless. It's not that he believes that what he says is false and says them anyway. Instead, he does not care whether the claim is true or false - he only cares about whether he could benefit by infecting others with the belief that the proposition is true.

With these distinctions in place, I would like to bring forth what is true of Clinton's state department emails. This will allow us to determine which politicians and commentors are lying, intellectually reckless, or simply making false claims. (See the FBI report on Clinton's email.)

In turns out that, in order to discuss Clinton's state-department emails, we need to make another distinction.

(1) Emails containing information that was marked classified. Think of sending an email and attaching a document that had the word "Classified" stamped on the top.

(2) Emails containing classified information. Here, for example, imaging somebody writing an email that says, "John Smith is currently working under cover in Pakistan trying to infiltrate the Taliban." This information is not marked "Classified," but it still contains classified information.

(3) Emails that were up-classified. These were emails that did not contain information that was considered classified at the time it was written. However, on reviewing the emails, the reviewers determined that it contained information that should now be considered classified.

Here, then, are the true claims, according to the FBI report, about these emails.

With respect to Category (1), the FBI found three emails actually marked classified - but all three were improperly marked (See, They contained a "(C)" inside the document to identify specific information that was classified, but nothing on the document itself that told the reader that it contained classified information within. Thus, according to the FBI, these marks would be easy to miss. What is true: Clinton did not send or receive any emails properly marked as classified. Clinton sent or received 3 emails with information marked classified, but none of them properly marked. Remember, a lie is a statement that one knows to be false, whereas a false statement is a statement that happens to be false but which the speaker believes to be true. Clinton's claim that she did not send information marked classified could be false, but not a lie.

With respect to Category (2), the FBI found 52 email chains (110 emails total) that contained information that was classified at the time it was sent. This would be like an email where a person wrote something like, "John Smith is trying to infiltrate the Taliban" or "Obama will order an attack on the secret enemy hideout tomorrow afternoon."

"Eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information.

What is true: Clinton sent or received emails that contained top secret, secret, and confidential information. She discussed top-secret, secret, and confidential matters through email on her server. If she said she did not, she is wrong. It may be the case that she did not realize that she was talking about anything that was top secret or secret - that she did not lie. Yet, it is reasonable to believe that, at least in some cases, she was aware of the fact that, "This is not information we want everybody to know." Thus, if she claims that she did not talk discuss classified matters over her email account, that is probably a lie.

With respect to Category (3), over 2000 emails were up-classified. The information contained within them was not classified when the email was received or sent but, once the reviewers saw the email, they determined, "This should be classified." Clinton has admitted that she had discussed matters that were not classified in any way when she discussed them, but was classified later.

At this point, I can shine a spotlight on two aspects of honesty or dishonesty that are particularly interesting.

First, there is the issue of the ambiguous question or the equally ambiguous answer, and the related issue of the evasive answer.

"Ms. Clinton, did you send or receive classified material through your private email server?"

Answer: "No."

Is this a lie?

Actually, it depends on how one interprets the question. If one interprets the question as, "To the best of your knowledge, did you send or receive information that was marked classified?" Under this interpretation, the "No" answer is - or is likely to be - an honest answer. However, if one interprets the question as, "Did you use your private email system to discuss classified matters?" - that is a different question, and a "No" answer would not only be false, it is probably dishonest. Either it is dishonest, or Clinton can be accused of being incompetent in her inability to recognize the sensitive matter of some of the subjects she discussed through her email.

This leads to the subject of the evasive answer.

It is still possible that a person, when asked the question, "Did you discuss classified information through your email system," that one can answer with the true proposition, "To the best of my knowledge, I did not send or receive anything that was marked classified."

This does not answer the question that was asked. The (probably) honest answer to the question asked would be, "Yes, I did." By instead answering with the statement provided, the individual can provide an answer that she knows to be true - and thus avoid the charge of lying, since a lie is a claim that one believes is false. However, on the model of honesty presented at the top of this paper - that a liar is a parasite to plants false beliefs in others in order to manipulate them into serving the interests of the liar - the evasive response proves to be morally no better than a lie. It is still an attempt to provide a false belief in others - a false belief generated by taking the answer provided to be the answer to the question asked.

Second, many readers have likely encountered some example, usually in a crime drama, where a person is asked a leading question and told to answer, "Yes or no." That is to say, the person being asked is prohibited - usually by the judge - to explain or qualify his answer.

The question, "Did you use your server to send or receive classified information?" may be interpreted as asking, "Did you use your server to transmit materials that were clearly marked 'classified'?" Under this interpretation, the correct answer is "No", but the original question requires an answer as "Yes" that somebody can interpret to be an answer to the second question.

We can perhaps see this better in a different example, such as, "Yes or no. Did you tell Mr. Smith the combination to the gun safe?" The answer, we may assume, is "yes" but the person answering the question is not being permitted to add, "Mr. Smith came wearing a cop's uniform and what looked like a search warrant."

In this example, In the case of the leading question, it is the questioner, not the person answering the question, who is behaving like a parasite. The questioner is trying to manipulate others by planting a belief in their head that is false. In this case it plants the false belief that the person on the stand gave Mr. Smith the combination to the gun safe while knowing it was Mr. Smith who was asking and (perhaps) knowing that Mr. Smith wanted the weapon to use in murdering somebody who had angered him. The tactic of refusing to allow the person asked to explain his answer is the questioner's way of protecting the parasitical false belief he generates.

In this type of case, I would suggest that, contrary to contemporary practice, the person answering the question has every right to interpret the question in a way that is least likely to generate a false belief. In this case, the person answering the question may say, "No, I did not. I gave the combination to what I thought was a police officer with a search warrant. It was only later that I learned that this was Mr. Smith in disguise." If an authority figure continues to insist on a "yes" or "no" answer, the proper response would be, "I can't know which answer is correct until I have a better understanding of what he is asking. If he is asking whether I gave the combination to somebody I knew to be Mr. Smith, the answer is 'no'. If, instead, he is asking whether I gave the combination to somebody who ultimately turned out to be Mr. Smith, the answer is 'yes'. Let me know which question you are asking and I will answer it." People need not feel obligated to give answers that may be misleading.

As far as the specifics of Clinton's case goes, it seems to be true that she did not knowingly send or receive transmit clearly marked classified materials through her email system. However, she did use it to discuss, in some cases, top secret matters. To say anything different would be false. Intellectual responsibility requires looking into the matter before saying anything. Honesty requires saying that which is true.


Anonymous said...

Your intellectual acrobatics are not amusing. You are a Clinton apologist.

Anonymous said...


Nailed it. The guy is clearly in the tank for Clinton.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If there is a flaw in my analysis, then, please, tell me where it is. If, instead, your only objection is that it failed to reach a conclusion that you like, then you are telling us something about yourself, but nothing about the subject matter of this post.

Anonymous said...

@Alonzo Fyfe

I remember leaving a detailed comment on a post here about a week ago (about Islam, immigration policy, and "Trumpian ethics"), pointing out what I took to be flaws in your post. But no response was given. Why would I continue writing those types of comments if no response is given?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am still thinking about that one.

That being said, I don't see an obligation to respond to every post. Every conversation has to end somewhere and I typically allow those who post comments to have the last word. Sooner or later, there has to be a post to which no response is given.