Brief remarks on lying

Jean Kazez asks about lying (in the context of some internet drama):

It’s an interesting thing how offensive it is to be called, or even thought, a liar.  Liars don’t break anyone’s bones, but to be a liar is a really, really bad thing.  Why?

To be a liar is to betray, to do violence to a person’s projects by breaking their trust. Betrayals are the lowest form of devilry because they exploit the weaknesses of innocence in order to perform wrongs.

It’s offensive to be thought a liar for the same reason that liars are offensive. To be thought a liar, when one has not broken trust, is to have violence done to your projects even while you have kept trust. However, to be wrongly thought a liar also involves a degree of irony: you are having your projects violated and your trustworthiness questioned, for the reason that you are thought to have violated other projects and broken trust. That adds to the sting.

Brandon (in that thread) emphasizes the bad social consequences, as well. That’s true, of course. But that’s just to say that one’s projects, which involve cooperation with others, are going to be frustrated.

Lies of omission are more difficult to deal with. Unlike Jean, I’m not sure the protection of a source counts as a lie of omission, because the journalist surely acknowledges that there is a source from the start. For journalists, there is a representation of the anonymous source, X, and there is the actual person, (a); the journalist (tacitly) reveals that there is X, but does not reveal that it is (a). A lie of omission would involve failure to mention X, just in case that information were both not available to people and it would make a difference.

But that’s only the one case. A more general formulation of a lie, which captures both lies of omission and comission, might be whether or not X is relevant to the inferences that have been made in the discussion. We might call something “relevant” just in case it would change our verdicts concerning the truth-conditions of a great many statements raised in the discussion. (And let’s assume that truth-conditions of propositions have content that is knowable, finite, and at least to a reasonable degree reflective of the surface content of our utterances.)

Two relevant features there: the lie has to affect a “great many” statements, not just one, and it has to be about prior inferences in conversation, not future ones.

  • A great many statements. If I say, “The cat is on the mat”, it makes no difference whether I specify something about the color of the cat or the mat — unless the rest of the prior conversation involves a great many inferences about colors. If my leaving out the color of the cat and of the mat leads people to infer wrongly, and then continue on to conduct a conversation that is premised on those wrong inferences, then it is a lie of omission for me to participate in the conversation without flagging the counter-factual and speculative nature of what’s being said. Sadly, that has the consequence that it makes most contemporary puzzle-solving in philosophy to be the activity of liars.
  • On prior inferences. This seems like a necessary constraint, because relevance needs to be something we can talk about empirically, while future subjects of a conversation are not things we can arrive at by divination.

These features distinguish lies from other activities, including secrets. A mere secret makes no difference to the inferences in play, or only makes a difference to some irrelevant inference, or makes a differences to some possible inferences that nobody has expressed an interest in.

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