Monday, February 02, 2009

Silence and Lies

There was an interesting exchange in the comments section between two members of the studio audience that generated some interesting comments on the nature of lying, the nature of punishment, and what counts as a moral reason.

Since this is an ethics blog, I thought I would weigh in on some of those comments.

This post concerns the question of whether an omission is a lie.

Eneasz wrote:

"First - is not an omission of crucial and possibly life-destroying information as morally reprehensible as a lie?"

Katecickle responded:

Why does the type of information being omitted matter? Either not mentioning something is the same as lying, or it isn't--the actual information being omitted should not matter.

Katecickle added:

(I would like to add that while companies may omit things when giving information freely, such as in marketing, it is not acceptable to omit information that has been directly asked about. I probably made that clear already, but I just wanted to be sure).

Ultimately, we cannot consider the omission of information to be the same as a lie.

In any given instance of communication, there must necessarily be a huge quantity of information that people do not give. We simply do not have time to say everything. So, we must pick and choose which information to give, and which to refrain from giving - for the sake of efficiency.

However, Eneasz did not say that withholding information is the same as lying. Eneasz said that withholding "crucial and possibly life-destroying information" is as reprehensible as lying.

Assume that I was comparing my wife to a rose bush outside of our house. I could say, "The rose bush is as tall as my wife." In saying that, I am not saying that my wife is a rose bush. I am merely saying that they have a common property. In this case, I am comparing their height.

Accordingly, Eneasz is comparing the moral quality of crucial and possibly life-destroying information to lying.

Not all lies have the same moral qualities. In fact, the lies associated with surprise parties and "white lies" are not morally bad at all. So, I am going to assume that withholding information, in this case, has the same moral quality as lying.

So, let's take an example. I invite my noisy, obnoxious, co-worker to my home for dinner. I then poison the food (because we are both in line for the same promotion and I want the job).

As luck would have it, my guest does not as what is in the food. Consequently, following Katesickle's recommendation, I do not have to tell him what is in it. If he had asked, "Is the food poisoned" or even "What's in this?" I would have been obligated to say that it contains a deadly poison. Fortunately, I was not asked, and I am not under any obligation to reveal information not asked for.

Katesickle, then, would have to conclude that I am not guilty of murder. Or, at the very least, under the presumption of innocent until proven guilty, prosecutors will have to demonstrate not only that I intentionally put poison in the food, but that I was asked if the food was poisoned and did not provide an honest answer.

Actually, Eneasz was mistaken. It is not the case that an omission of crucial and possibly life-destroying information is the same as lying. Instead, the omission of crucial and possibly life-destroying information is the same as attempted or actual homicide.

We would have to ask about the agent's intentions to determine if the agent is guilty of an intentional murder (wanting the victim dead), or a lesser form of murder (simply not caring that the victim ended up dead), but the charge is murder either way. This defines not only what the moral crime is, but what the legal crime should be.

I have defined lying elsewhere as an act of communication that seeks to persuade the victim to adopt a proposition that the agent knows to be false.

It is possible to lie through silence. However, for this to happen, silence has to be given a meaning within a language. Silence itself has to communicate a proposition that the speaker knows to be false.

For example, if we agree on a convention that says, "If you answer my question with silence, I will understand to mean that you were out with your wife." I then ask the question, and the person asked remains silent. In this case, the silence is a lie.

However, in general, it is not a lie.

Yet, there are a lot of different types of wrongs in the world. Lying is just one of them.


anton said...

Hi Gang:

One of my former wives constantly failed to "tell the truth that needed to be told". She insists to this day that she never lied as if not telling a lie was the important factor. I continue to insist that morally, the failure to tell the truth that needed to be told was particularly devious and loathsome. I also found that many "believers" would back her stance stating that "the Bible" doesn't say its wrong. I would add, that "the Bible" also doesn't say it is right.

Martin Freedman said...

Yes the Bible only says "do not bear false witness". So did she omit the truth and thereby bear false witness?

Then there is the act of omission versus commission and the principle of double effect... neither of which stands up in most (decent) courts of law. They were needed to deal with the absolutism of those biblical laws.

Now I think it would have difficulty outlaw lying per se given the absolutism of those laws - certainly not all lies are immoral as noted in this post. Still many christians do lie and bear false witness especially against non-believers...

Much simpler and more coherent to encourage a desire for honesty and an aversion to dishonesty. One is dishonest when one omits telling the truth such as a person being blamed for an act that one knows is innocent whereas one is not dishonest when one lies to create a surprise birthday. (Dis)Honesty being a moral label determined by whether such actions - including omissions - tend to fulfil (or thwart) others desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, my response to those who do not say that "The Bible does not prohibit it" would be, "Well, that proves how poor the Bible is as a moral guide. This is just another case of people using the Bible to justify actions that no decent person would ever do."

anton said...

So did she omit the truth and thereby bear false witness?

She was very careful to never be caught telling a lie and therefore did not "bear false witness".
She was very good at this . . . after all, she fooled me enough to marry her. Obviously, the marriage didn't last long and I became a single parent of a four-month old. In this case, I had absolutely no regrets!

Katesickle said...

Should I assume, Alonzo, that you support the endeavors of some obese individuals to sue fast-food chains for not telling them the food was unhealthy? Sure these people could have simply asked for the nutrition information, and it would have been provided--but McDonald's doesn't say "our food is unhealthy as crap" in their advertisements. So were those people right in suing the company?

Anonymous said...

Katesickle - this would probably be covered under the "reasonable man" consideration. Any reasonable man already knows, in this day and age, that this food is bad for you. Much like you couldn't sue a car salesman for not telling you that a car requires gas to run. It's assumed you already know that.

I'm not judging the case. It may have merit, who knows? Maybe fast-food was marketed as healthy in their area.

At any rate, we aren't talking about low-quality foods here. We're talking about poison that gives you cancer, and people who diliberately withheld that information for decades.

Any decent person will have an aversion to harming and killing others. This should extend to cases of letting someone know that your product is poisoning them, ESPECIALLY if it's not common knowledge. Someone who lacks an aversion to harming others is a bad person. Allowing your actions to kill others because you are exploiting their ignorance is potentally the equivilant of a murder.

Can you imagine if before any exchange everyone had to recite an exhaustive list of questions simply to ensure they weren't legally killed? Rather, we work under the assumption that those we are trading with will have an aversion to killing us. If it is shown that they don't have this aversion we understand that they are EVIL and should be punished. How is this in any way arguable?