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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Truth and Honesty ... and Otherwise

What is a lie? Is it really always a lie to knowingly speak untruth? I mean, really?

My thesis in this little essay is that most of us have a childish (and not in a good sense) understanding of what a lie is, and what it means to lie. And, it surely doesn't help that, at least in English, we don't have a positive word meaning something like "to intentionally deceive another in accord with the dictates of morality."

To look at the question of language in another way, if 'to lie' really does mean something like "to intentionally deceive another in discord with the dictates of morality," then it seems to me that it cannot be the case that the person who "lies" to the Nazis about the Jews he has hidden in the cellar has actually lied. And yet, we are forced to use the same word for deceiving others when we should not, and when we should ... leading to confusion for all, and distress, often intense, for the unsophisticated or literal-minded.

I've tried to discuss this before, on someone else's blog ... and caused distress to the, hmmm, unsophisticated or literal-minded. But, as this is my blog, perhaps here I may be better able to ease the distress of anyone who may be distressed on reading these thoughts.


Recently, as a comment to me in the "Random Thoughts on 'Game'" thread, Athol Kay said:
Game is in essence "applied female psychology". There is unquestionably a dark side to it, but also a light side as well. ...
I mention this here because part of my response, should I ever get around to composing and posting it, would have been a small disquisition about the co-mingling of "dark sides" and "light sides." Something like:
I don't believe that "Game" *is* in essence "applied female psychology". But, let us suppose, at least, that it contains that. From my perspective, as a man who values truth and reason above all things, the "unquestionable dark side" of "Game" weighs heavier that this (supposed) "light side." That is, even with this (supposed) "light side," "Game" is a deception and wicked.

Now, the best lies (from the point of view of the liar) always contain truth; the more truth, the better the lie. And, the epitome of the art of lying would be to speak only what is true, and yet deceive one's marks.
I trust Gentle Reader can see that this is here because it is about the current topic.

For example, concerning what I say is the "epitome of the art of lying," that is what Bill Clinton aims for, or used to aim for; but he's just not nearly half so good as he imagines he is. The main reason Clinton was considered such a "good" liar when he was president is because half the country *wanted* to be lied to. We all saw, did we not, that the bloom was off *that* particular rose during the election of 2008? Clinton was no longer a "good" liar, not because of any change in the quality (nor likely quantity) of his lies, but because no one any longer wanted to believe *his* lies ... for, after all, there was a new kid in town.

Now, as I've already intimated, and as is part of the thesis here, I don't believe that it's merely the deception of a lie which makes it a lie. And, if it is true that the epitome of the art of lying would be to speak only what is true, and yet deceive one's marks, then it cannot be merely the untruth of a lie which makes it a lie. At the same time, Gentle Reader can take comfort, at least, that I do not seek to upset the understanding that lying requires intention; that is, to speak untruth that one honestly believes to be truth is not to lie.

So, if it's not necessarily the intentional falsity of a statement which makes it a lie, and if a literally true statement may in fact be a lie, and if it's not necessarily the intentional deception of a statement which makes it a lie, what is it that makes a lie a lie? The defining characteristic of lying, as the term is commonly understood, is the intention to deceive when one has the moral duty not to deceive -- that is why and how a true statement may be a lie and a false statement, knowingly made, may be a not-lie.


'The Anchoress,' in recently defending Christine O'Donnell (who is mentioned here only in passing), relates a story about Corrie ten Boom:
A decade ago, O’Donnell asserted that she would not lie to a Nazi about hiding Anne Frank in her attic. These rhetorical scenarios are amusing “gotchas” in casual discussion-panel debates, but O’Donnell’s soundbite has been found objectionable by some, precisely because it is a soundbite; as such, it encourages reactions rather than reasoned musings. First Things’ own Joe Carter writes: “As a virtue ethicist I believe it would be immoral to not lie in that situation . . . If your [sic] hiding some of the Chosen People from enemies who want to kill them, it’s your duty to lie to protect them.”

No less then the Jew-hiding heroine Corrie ten Boom might disagree. In her book The Hiding Place, ten Boom recounts an episode where Nazis sought her nephew, Peter, who had been hidden in a root cellar, a rug and table hastily placed over the trapdoor. When soldiers demanded to know Peter’s whereabouts, his young cousin Cocky replied, “Why, he is under the table.”

The soldiers peered under the table while the family suppressed nervous chuckles. Humiliated, the Nazis threatened the family, then left. As others chastised Cocky for putting Peter-and the whole family-at such risk, her mother defended her, saying, “God honors truth-telling with perfect protection!”

Simplistic, right? Some might say “fundamentalist” and “anti-intellectual” to boot. But the story bolsters O’Donnell’s position; it suggests that power resides in a complete abandonment and surrender to the will of God and his laws, a faithful reliance that says, “If God is truth, he will be found only within truth, and not in a lie.”

This is the sort of heart-over-head theology that invites mockery, even as it zeroes in on Christ’s urging toward “childlike faith.” Jesus enjoyed the sophisticated reasoning of Nicodemus, but he rewarded the Centurion whose servant was sick, and who approached him wholly on faith. Intellectual debate did not lessen his appreciation of simple trust. ...
First off, I'll freely admit (after all, it's not as though God doesn't already know) that I don't have the faith -- I don't have the depth of trust in God -- to do as young Cocky did and stop trying to control what I cannot control.

But, regardless of my so-small trust and willingness to fully cast myself upon God, as I don't believe that the dictates of morality require one to not attempt to deceive the Nazis, I don't believe that, were I in such a situation, the intentionally deceptive answer I'd likely have given would be a lie (that is, as 'lie' is commonly understood).

And, understand this, young Cocky did actually deceive -- and he intended to deceive -- the Nazi soldiers (and, of course, I fully believe that God aided in that deception; and, for that matter, that God put the words in his heart which he uttered). What he managed to pull off is the not-lie version of what I said above is the "epitome of the art of lying" -- he spoke the literal truth in all that he said, and thereby deceived (as he intended). He spoke the truth, but he did not speak *all* the truth: he failed to mention to the searching soldiers that while Peter was "under the table," he was *also* under the rug, and in the root cellar. And, speaking the (partial) truth, he said it in such a way so as to be disbelieved: he counted on the soldiers misunderstanding what he said, he counted on the soldiers believing that he was "lying" to them and therefore on them not believing what he said. And, I think his answer angered them, for they took the answer as mockery, and made them careless. Had no one said anything, I think the soldiers would have found Peter (this isiwhy I think God was guiding Cocky in what he said).


Allow me one more outrageous claim -- you *already* understand, and likely agree with, what I've said. You just haven't carefully thought about it and thus haven't articulated the fullness of your understanding of what lying is and is not.

5 comments:

Drew said...

I don't really understand the point of the post. The traditional solution is just to say that not all lies are wrong, and you never really explain why there is anything wrong with that formulation.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

I believe the philosophy is something like measured in terms of "harming the truth."

Ilíon said...

Drew: "The traditional solution is just to say that not all lies are wrong, and you never really explain why there is anything wrong with that formulation."

Certainly I did. I just didn't go into extensive, example-by-example, detail. I said: "... And yet, we are forced to use the same word for deceiving others when we should not, and when we should ... leading to confusion for all, and distress, often intense, for the unsophisticated or literal-minded."


Drew: "I don't really understand the point of the post."

1) To help people see that "the traditional solution" is inadequate, and actually unworkable.
2) To help people see that (for the most part) they don't actually subscribe to "the traditional solution," in any event.
3) To help people think more clearly about something that is very important --

One of the reasons that "moral relativists," deniers of actual morality, are frequently able to use "values clarification" exercises to convince (without explicitly arguing for the position) the inexperienced to conclude and believe that there is no such thing as morality is that these inexperienced persons are operating with an understanding of "lying" which is appropriate to very young children, but not at all appropriate to adults.

The reason Christine O'Donnell said, a decade ago, that she'd not have lied to the Nazis about having Anne Frank hidden in the attic is because (at least at the time) she didn't know how to differentiate a lie that is wrong from a "lie" that is not wrong.

"The traditional solution" is no help -- one needs a way to know *why* this un-true statement is a non-permitted lie, but that un-true statement is a permitted (ore even required) "lie."

And, it would make understanding the distinction ever so much easier if we were not using the same word for both.


Drew: "The traditional solution is just to say that not all lies are wrong ..."

Does that "solution" give anyone any guidance at all in differentiating immoral lies from not-immoral "lies?"

Suppose I say that all (immoral) lies are deceptions, but that not all deceptions are (immoral) lies. Now, true as that is, does it help anyone know the difference?

Or, suppose I say that all murders are manslaughters, but not all manslaughters are murders. Now, I've said something which differentiates -- because we have different words and differents concepts by which to categorize and understand -- acts which are identical in result, and perhaps even in the activity by which the result obtained, but profoundly different in motivation and moral meaning.

Ilíon said...

The reason we teach small children that all deceptions are lies and are never morally permissible is that they are not yet sophisticated enough to grasp the proper distinctions between immoral lies and not-immoral "lies." That, and that being small children they are most unlikely ever to be in a situation where grasping the distinction matters.

Even if we had in our language and were using different words to denote "regular" lies in contrast to permitted "lies," small children would be unable to grasp the distinction. This is because to grasp the distinction, one must first grasp the content of morality itself (the lions' share, at any rate), and not just the true-false distinction. Children understand true-false before they can even speak, but their understanding of the content of morality is cultivated over years.

Drew said...

//Does that "solution" give anyone any guidance at all in differentiating immoral lies from not-immoral "lies?"//

Well, no, but neither does the statement that we must only tell the truth when we have a moral obligation to tell the truth. Anyway, I think errors like O'Donnell's just demonstrate the error of simplistic legalism divorced from a thorough knowledge of God and of the Bible. (Either that, or she was just using your definition and everyone misunderstood her.) There are plenty of things that are generally wrong but are not always wrong. For example, murder is generally wrong, but it was not wrong to drive a stake through Sisera's head while he slept. Working on the sabbath was wrong, but pulling your donkey out of a hole was not wrong.


//One of the reasons that "moral relativists," deniers of actual morality, are frequently able to use "values clarification" exercises . . . //

Morality is *complicated*, as God is complicated, but that does not in any way prove that two different options are wrong for any one situation. There are even some aspects of morality that the Bible itself seems to classify as subjective, but the fact that morality is complex does not in any way cast doubt on the fact that it is primarily objective.

Anyway, I don't have a problem with your definition of lying, but I also don't see why it is necessary. Do most languages, or even the biblical languages, have different words for good lying and bad lying?