Have you been lied to recently? Perhaps you’ve told a lie?
The question of lying and dishonesty is a fascinating one. I’ve touched on the issue of men’s lies before. I suggested that, while men are not more dishonest than women, men resort to blatent lying more than do women in part because they do not have women’s subtle finessing, alluding, etc. skills. Generally speaking, of course.
Today I want to lump all untruths under the heading of lying and show how tricky it is to define lying or the lie. (See Harry G. Frankfurt’s ‘On bullshit’.
Is lying the intention to deceive?
Classic example: “I. Did. Not. Have. Sexual relations. With that woman. Miss Lewinsky.” President Clinton, it’s generally accepted, was attempting to deceive by telling a blatant untruth. He employed the words ‘have’ and ‘sexual relations’ legalistically so that he could always say, “Well, it depends what one means by ‘have’ and ‘sexual relations’.” The wiggle-wording is obvious and we can agree that he was lying. Or can we? I’ll come back him later.
Is a lie a falsehood?
Take another famous case – Colin Powell testifying to the UN about the existence of WMD. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Powell was misled (yes, lied to) by others who knew there was no WMD, but he fully believed that the intelligence was legitimate. He said what he believed to be the truth (but the facts show it to have been a falsehood) – is that a lie?
That’s a harsh call. Take another instance: a scientist announces his lab’s findings. This is the truth, right? Well, no – some time later (as inevitably happens) another scientist’s research disproves him. We don’t want to say the first scientist was lying, even if what he said is/becomes an untruth.
Is lying deception?
Maybe it doesn’t matter that there’s no intention to deceive, the point is that others were misled. “I was totally taken in by Joe’s appearance. I thought he was fine, but he wasn’t” – even Joe was unware of the deception of his demeanour. Is that it – is the deception the lie? Well, obviously not. To turn it around: say I don’t fall for a lie, that doesn’t stop it being a lie. (I’ll suggest below that Joe is lying.)
Can we seperate lying from the lie?
A statement might be called a lie, even if we concede that the speaker is not lying.
Example: The media has been full of Scott McLellan’s account of the leaking of the identity of CIA operative, Valerie Plame. McLellan claims that he inadvertantly lied to the press because he had been lied to by White House officials above him – including President Bush.
We might say that McLellan wasn’t lying (assuming he’s not lying now) but that his statement was a lie. We don’t call a dummy a liar, though his words may be a lie – the ventriloquiist is the liar.
How about this: someone might intend to lie but inadvertently be telling the truth. Here we might call the act lying, and the content not a lie.
Like the Cretans, are we all liars constantly lying?
A mindbender: a) all statements are partial truths (if only because they are necessarily selections of everything else that might have been said), and b) all communication is the attempt to influence another (otherwise what’s the point of communucating?). Therefore, are we all liars constantly lying?
To me there is little point in calling every untruth or partial truth a lie. Firstly, there’s not use having the concept of lying in that case. Secondly, it matters how language is actually used by regular folks. Lie and lying have negative connotations and imply intent to mislead.
Two unconscious problems
one can lie to oneself
one can want to be lied to
Lying to oneself
What if Clinton, a famous compartmentaliser, actually believed what he was saying? Can he be accused of lying? We might say that Clinton at that moment was lying to himself. When we lie to ourselves there is no concious intention to lie (if there was the lying wouldn’t work!) but we’re still trying to fool ourselves, right?
The role of the one who wants to be lied to
Hypothetical: Let’s say the heads of three university labs come out one after another with their findings on, say, peanut butter and health. A says its bad for you, B says its good only in small amounts, and C says that it’s so good for you you should eat it every day. And say C is actually right, but I have no way of knowing this. So three people have believed that they were telling me the truth, two of whom have inadvertantly told me falsehoods. Now let’s say that I happen to love eating peanut butter and so decide to take the advice of C. Remember, I had no way of knowing that C was right.
Now let’s say, that actually A was right, peanut butter is bad for you. Irrespective, I’d have listened to C anyway – truth wasn’t what I was after, the impression of truth was enough as long as it fitted with my preconception. Can we not say that there is some deceit going on here? Not by the scientists but by me.
What qualifies something as a lie, then, is not its truth or falsity, but the conscious (or unconscious) attempt to deceive (or be deceived by) others (and/or oneself).
These questions have exercised greater minds than mine. Tomorrow I’ll provide a list of aphorisms on the topic of lying.