Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! (Falstaff)

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.


15 thoughts on “Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! (Falstaff)

  1. I think it’s hard to go past ‘intent to decieve’ as a definition of lying. Though perhaps we need to add ‘to people who don’t want to be deceived’. Otherwise fiction writers and stage illusionists are all liars.

    A different question is: is lying wrong? In all situations? Do the consequences need to count? I think the lies we mostly object to are malicious ones, those designed to hurt or injure.

  2. When it comes to your peanut butter example, I agree there is a level of deceit in choosing the option that most suits you. On the other hand with that sort of information most of us can only do the best we can with the research that we have available to us and ultimately we do have to choose what makes most sense to us in some manner. That example hit home for me because I am a diet and nutrition freak. I know that I don’t actually know with ultimate certainty that all I do in order to be healthy is indeed the best way to go, but I do believe that making my best educated choices based on the limited information I have (I’m not conducting the actual research and I’m limited in my access to original documentation) that I eat much better than the average American. I feel sure that I take good care of myself, but I am not always sure that every one of my choices are the very best option. Am I deceiving myself at all in your opinion? Once I make a choice I tend to stick to it religiously. For example, I suffer from hypoglycemia and I virtually never touch sugar in any form other than fruit.

    Is making a choice when the ultimate truth cannot be known a deception by nature?

  3. evan – Ah, nicely done sir. Let’s take professional wrestling. The wrestlers are deceiving (right?) and the audience wants to de deceived. Seems silly to call that a lie. But then what about the leader who lies about the enemy and the people want to buy in to the lie for reasons of national pride, say – the result is war. Here, I think we would be right in attibuting lying to both parties.
    So, what’s the difference? Well, the wrestlers and their fans have a kind of contract to deceive and be deceived (and which has to remain unspoken otherwise the fun is spoiled). Do the leader and the people have such an agreement?
    No, they have fool each other and themselves that they’re honorable people. Which might explain the viciousness with which people turn on leaders when things turn to custard (and vice versa – Hitler said that if the Germans lost the war they deserved to be annihilated becaue they were obviously an inferior race in that case.)

  4. giannakali – The comments are becoming really challenging! Thanks for yours.
    I’d certainly not want to call doing the best one can with faulty info lying to oneself. However, if I cherry-pick those bits of info which suit me while telling myself that I’m doing the best I can then I can be said to be lying to myself.

  5. Dr. Steve,
    You didn’t answer my question:
    Is making a choice when the ultimate truth cannot be known a deception by nature?

    Aren’t we all doing this all the time? Are we all liars? Should we put a caveat before every statement of “faith” we’ve chosen to live by? I don’t necessarily mean spiritual faith here, but all the little ways in which we live by faith. We do not know we will be here tomorrow, but in general we believe or assume we will. Or to get back to my example of nutrition I believe I “know” that certain of my dietary measures have made clear and palpable differences in my life, but how can I be sure it’s not placebo? Again, am I a liar? Again, should I preface everything with, “I can’t be sure, but”

    Sorry if I’m being a pain in the behind! Please tell me if you don’t want to have hair splitting done. I am actually curious about pursuing this line of thinking though.

  6. giannakali – Hey, ‘hairsplitting’ is the only way to get some clarity on issues like this! A couple of thoughts:
    1. “We do not know we will be here tomorrow, but in general we believe or assume we will.” There’s no intention to deceive in this example so I feel safe in saying it’s not lying and that we don’t have to – strictly-speaking – preface everything like that with, “As far as I know…” or somesuch.
    2. Placebo effect. Here you’ve really got my interest. Medical research is down on anything that’s “just” a placebo effect even though it’s a real effect! For purposes of our discussion it might be that the only way to figure out whether any lying is going on is to go into the mind of the subject. Is it a case of, “Deep down I know that I was choosing in bad faith, i.e. choosing the one that suited me” (lying). Or, “I believe echinachea works because I get fewer colds” where the truth, say, is exactly the reverse (not lying because there was no intention to deceive).
    You do raise the spectre of the ethical/useful lie. If it’s possible to lie to ourselves for a good cause can that be OK? E.g. “Even though I know that 1/100 of these operations is a failure I’m going to choose to believe that I’m not that one because I know that worry makes my chances of a good recovery worse.” This may not be a good example – maybe it’s about choosing what to believe not lying per se.
    OK, how about this one: When I choose not to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a friend I’m lying. But it would serve no useful purpose to be brutally honest (with the emphasis on the brutal). Is that OK? Well, it might be merciful, etc., but unless we recognise it as lying don’t we run into all kinds of trouble – justifying any shonky behaviour because it’s for a good cause? Or being thoroughly phony? Perhaps it’s a good practice to consciously go through a process of asking oneself, “Am I preparede to lie about this?” Sometimes we might answer yes, but at least we know we’re walking in muddy waters.
    I don’t know whether I’m answering your question, am I?
    3. This phrase of yours has got me thinking, “deception by nature” – i.e. nature is deceiving one.

  7. Eyes for Lies – Thanks, glad you like it. By a strange coincidence I happened to come across and bookmark your site yesterday! I look forward to paying a proper visit soon.

  8. I couldn’t understand some parts of this article o.us poetry, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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