Monday, August 8, 2011

What does it mean to lie?

I've been thinking about lying recently, for several reasons. First is because of accusations of lying that I see flying back and forth between people of different political persuasions. Second is because I'm writing a story entitled, "The Liars." Third is because I have children.

You might think that since I say I have children, I would be saying that they lie. Not so. Instead, what they do is they make me question how lying is defined in the first place.

Consider the following situations. What do you think of them? Are these people lying?

1. A person testifies before congress and says that a study defined nuclear families as having one mother and one father when this was not in fact the definition used by the study.

2. A person hears a loved one tell a story of an injury, and proceeds to tell another story about a nearly identical injury she herself sustained, but for which there is no evidence.

3. A person tells a group of curious but unwary outsiders a lengthy story about how he used to ride to school on a kangaroo, including details of what the kangaroo ate, what kind of saddle it wore, etc.

Okay, so let's go through. As I see it, there are two possibilities for the person in situation 1. Either he was lying, or he was in error (possibly as a result of insufficient research). The difference between the two, to my mind, would be whether this person had indeed read the real definition and then decided intentionally to disregard it.

There are also two possibilities for the person in situation 2. Either she is lying to take attention away from the injured person, or she is expressing empathy for the injured person by imagining herself in a similar situation. The difference between the two, to my mind, would be whether the person is maliciously inclined toward the injured person or not.

Just as in the first two situations, there are two possible interpretations for situation 3. Either the storyteller is lying to deceive a group of people as a result of their ignorance, or he is playfully telling a joke and trying to engage their skepticism and enjoyment of hyperbole/sarcasm as well as their curiosity. The difference between the two is whether he intended to fool or belittle the listeners.

I know from personal experience that the people in situations 2 and 3 were not lying (because I know them). I don't know anything about the person in situation 1 except that many people believe he was lying. In all three cases, the situation is ambiguous, not because of any question of factual accuracy (all three cases involve factual inaccuracy!), but because of the implication of intent.

If the inaccurate statement is made with malicious (or selfish) intent, then it is a lie.

Of course, factual accuracy (or inaccuracy) is much easier to judge than malicious intent. In the case of situation 3, the intent of the storyteller was playful, but the culture of the listeners didn't actually allow for this as a possible interpretation, and therefore they thought the speaker was lying (inexplicably!) and the speaker had to explain to them that the whole thing was a joke. And then of course there are "white lies" which people don't seem to mind so much, which are told with explicitly benevolent intent... and there are lies which are told because they are required for reasons of politeness... [See my other article about this, Honesty and Politeness]

I find this an incredibly rich source of ideas for stories. There are plenty of situations when an error or omission by one party can be interpreted as deliberately malicious by the other. Cultural differences only exacerbate these situations. Have you ever been in an ambiguous lying situation? Have you ever seen someone accused of lying when they didn't deserve it? Was the factual accuracy at issue, or the intent behind it?

It's something to think about.


  1. Ooh, interesting! I took a rhetoric course in college that was all about truth and lying and we had lots of fascinating discussions about what it means to lie. For example, what if someone meant to make an inaccurate statement with malicious intent but was in error and spoke truth? Or what if someone spoke a falsehood with good intentions? Does it matter if it causes harm or not? Does it matter if the speaker intends for the listener to believe the falsehood or not? There are so many different aspects to the issue, and people will disagree on what counts as lying, but it certainly is a very interesting topic to think about. :)

  2. Thanks, Linda! That sounds like a very interesting discussion, and I appreciate you adding your questions to the mix.

  3. So funny that you have posted this - my youngest daughter brought this up just today. Periodically, she and one of her sisters get quite upset with themselves about lying -- usually it's when they have told a classmate that we were planning to be somewhere, and then it turns out that there's a change of plans, or maybe the girls misunderstood the plans altogether. I'm used to reminding them that there has to be some intent to mislead. Otherwise, we call it a mistake.

    Other than having to explain this to them, I don't recall thinking about it so carefully outside this one class I took in college!


  4. The classical natural law position was that a lie is an abuse of the power of communication, whose proper object is the truth. Specifically, it is to speak contrary to what is in your mind. It is never a lie to say something incorrect simply because it is incorrect. If you genuinely believe it to be true, you have not lied.

    But that it is always wrong to lie does not compel you to babble everything you know. If Helen's abusive boyfriend comes to your door and demands to know where Helen is, you can say "I don't know" even if she is hiding in your house. That is because you don't actually know specifically where she is in your house at that moment. (That is also why the Court Oath compels you to tell not only the truth, but the whole truth.) You could also deflect or be non-responsive. "What's it to you?" "How would I know?" etc.

    Interestingly, the injunction against lying is not an injunction against deceiving.

    There was an extended discussion of the topic of lying from a natural law perspective on a philosophy blog some months ago.

    Is it wrong to lie to HAL?

    There is no Santa Clause

    Murderer at the door

    What counts as a lie?

  5. Thanks for your comment, Amy! I'm glad your daughters are so concerned about doing right. They sound like great people.

    OFloinn, thanks for contributing to this discussion! I'll check out the links. I particularly like your phrase, "an abuse of the power of communication."