Monday, January 4, 2010

More on lying

As per my previous post, the two main accounts of the wrongfulness of lying are that what is wrong is insincerity—saying something that one doesn't believe—and that what is wrong is false-telling. Here is another argument against the insincerity account, and hence in favor of the false-telling account. However, I will end by offering yet another account of the wrong in lying, which has significant attractiveness.

Case 1: You are the manager of a motel and you hate the owner. Consequently, you always put up a "no vacancy" sign when you have a vacancy and a "vacancy" sign when you don't, in order to ensure the motel not only does not get much custom, but gains ill-will among travelers. Plainly, you are lying by putting up the sign, and both the false-telling and insincerity accounts condemn your action. You are wronging not only your employer, but also wronging readers of the sign and not just by inconvenience. The action is made wrong by that which makes lying wrong.

Case 2: You are employed by a motel, and you install a computerized sign, linked to the motel's occupancy computer system. You program the computer system to post "no vacancy" when there is a vacancy and otherwise to post "vacancy." You do this with the same motives as the manager in case 1.

I don't think there is a significant moral difference between cases 1 and 2. But in case 2, we cannot analyze the deceitful sign in terms of insincerity. Granted, when the sign says "vacancy", you don't have a belief that there is a vacancy. But even had you programmed the sign to be correct, it might well be the case that you or anyone else would have a belief that there is a vacancy when the sign says "vacancy"—the computer has the information, and maybe no human does. So the fact taht you don't have the belief that there is a vacancy when the sign says "vacancy" is not the reason you've done wrong. Since in case 1, the action is, inter alia, made wrong by that which makes lying wrong, we have to say the same about case 2.

The false-telling account handles case 2 fairly easily. While it is not quite the case that you're asserting that there is or is not a vacancy, you are the person responsible for the correctness of the communication, the one who is being trusted by the reader. (That "vacancy" is not a sentence in standard English is clearly irrelevant, as it means something like that tThere is a vacancy at this establishment.) The false-telling account can be extended to say that one should not make oneself responsible for the correctness of a false communication. The precise sense of "responsible for its correctness" needs some more clarification—an interesting project—but it is plausible that there is a univocal sense of responsibility for correctness present in cases 1 and 2.

I suppose the best bet of the defender of the insincerity account is to modify the account to be conditional: One should not make oneself responsible for a communication's correctness (say, by causing that communication to be produced) when one does not believe that the communication would in fact be correct.

However, it now occurs to me that there is a third account of the wrong in lying, differing from the insincerity and false-telling accounts. This is the intention account. On this account, one is only permitted to make oneself responsible for a communication's correctness when intending that communication to be correct. What is nice about this account is that it handles the counterexamples to the insincerity account, both from this and the previous post. For instance, when one says a German sentence which one believes to express a truth that one does not believe, one is intending to make a correct communication. Likewise, when one makes a prediction that is only going to be true if one speaks (say, the statement: "I am saying the difficult word 'supercilious'"), one is intending to make a correct communication. And finally in the crooked computer programmer case, one is not intending to make oneself responsible for a correct communication.

In fact, the intention account is superior to the false-telling account and to the conditionally-modified insincerity account in the computer programmer case. Suppose the programmer is not crooked, and does things correctly, but knows that sometimes the computer memory will malfunction and misinform the code that controls the sign as to the hotel's vacancy status. On the false-telling account, the programmer has done wrong when such malfunction happens—she has caused a false communication in a way that makes her responsible for its correctness (computers aren't responsible, so all the responsibility flows back to the programmer). On the conditional insincerity account, the programmer knew that sometimes there would be a malfunction, and so she caused a communication that she believed would be incorrect—not specifically, though, but as part of a set of communications. So both of these accounts seem to make the innocent programmer who knows about the likeliness of screwups a wrongdoer.

One might bite the bullet and say that she's inculpably doing wrong, but the intention account is much neater: While she foresees that she will be correctness-responsible for a communication that is false, she does not intend that. She intends the communications to be correct, and regrets the times when they won't be.

My previous post's analogy with adultery then suggests the following moral rule: A married person is only permitted to have sexual relations when the intention is to have sexual relations with the spouse. This has the interesting, and I believe importantly correct, consequence that it is wrong for a married person to have sexual relations in which the fact that the other person is their spouse is deliberationally irrelevant, and wrong in the way adultery is. It would be equivalent to adultery for a married woman to intend to have sex with the nearest attractive person, even if that nearest attractive person were the spouse (unless "attractive" is understood in a way that makes the spousal status be a part of the attraction). This is closely related to John Paul II's remark that it is wrong to lust after one's spouse.

This may, in turn, suggest an argument against pre-marital sex. If pre-marital sex is permissible, then it seems plausible that the couple who are married could intend to have sex with one another in the same way in which they had intended it when they were not married. In other words, it would be permitted for them to intend to have sex without intending marital sex. But on the above account of adultery, it is required that the married couple intend marital sex, and hence it is very plausible that sex without that intention is wrong simpliciter.

12 comments:

Heath White said...

Another virtue of your intention account is that it identifies what is wrong with "bullshit" (in Frankfurt's terms), namely assertions in which people simply don't care whether what they say is true or not. Such assertions need not be lies, but they are widespread and pernicious. I have often thought that having an ethical theory of bullshit is a pretty pressing need in contemporary society.

Mike Almeida said...

Another virtue of your intention account is that it identifies what is wrong with "bullshit" (in Frankfurt's terms), namely assertions in which people simply don't care whether what they say is true or not.

Is there sometihng in general wrong with BS? The quickest way to bore people is to recite facts that you're certain of, and avoid saying what you're not. Surely, an ethical theory of boring others to tears is at least as pressing....:)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

The BS application is interesting. It shows that there is an advantage to positively requiring an intention to convey something true, as opposed to simply prohibiting an intention to convey something false.

Everybody:

Here's one worry about the intention account. Suppose I think that the probability that p is true is 5%. What if I assert p, intending to convey something true? (Come up with a situation where if p is false and I assert it, I gain nothing from the assertion; but if p is true and I assert it, I gain something.) I think it is possible to intend an outcome that one thinks is only 5% likely.

Maybe, though, this is not so crazy a conclusion. There seems to be a morally significant difference between x's hoping that p is true and affirming p, while thinking that probably ~p, and x's intending to deceive by means of p. But I am uncomfortable with saying that the first is not immoral.

I'm lost.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or maybe one needs to have a pair of intentions: an intention to convey a truth and an intention to refrain from conveying a non-truth?

That's a bit weird.

Mike:

The boredom issue reminds me of Aquinas' discussion in the STh of the vice of "curiositas". If memory serves, one of the kinds of curiositas involves trying to find out minute truths in abstraction from a larger explanatory project. The phenomenon reciting unconnected facts is a communicative variant of this intellectual vice.

Heath White said...

It seems to me that what's at issue is that, in asserting, you are conscientious about communicating the truth. In asserting, you are as it were exercising a fiduciary responsibility with regard to your interlocutor's trust. (Even if you know ahead of time they aren't going to trust you.) So the point is that you are trying in good faith to communicate accurately.

Mike:

The absence of conscientiousness in communication is what is in general wrong with BS. There may be other strictures against being boring, but that's okay.

Alex:

I would think that asserting something which you think has p=0.05 is not particularly conscientious, unless you are quite sure your audience is also aware of the probabilities. ("I just know this lottery ticket is a winner! I know it!") However, failures to be conscientious can be of different kinds: being intentionally deceptive is different, and worse, than just being overenthusiastic or naively hopeful.

Ψ said...

There is an intuition that "lying" is wrong and so you have tried to etch out a definition of "lying" that accords with your intuition. Lying, however, is desirable or undesirable to/in/for/with person(s).

Obviously if one were playing the game of poker, lying would not only be not undesirable, but desirable for the game's participants as a whole, being an integral part of the activity of the game itself.

Likewise if two persons, perhaps a couple, have a mutual understanding that sometimes they might lie, lying might not be wrong. Even if one lied to the other in a way that went beyond that mutual understanding, that might by that very act and fact evolve or change the mutual understanding. To the extent that the mutual understanding sits alongside misunderstanding, lying may in fact be communicative, i.e. increase the mutual understanding and decrease misunderstanding.

Let me know if my thoughts here were not clearly expressed for you.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't play poker, but it is my understanding that the game does not involve lying, but bluffing. Lying essentially involves communication.

I think it is possible to have a context in which sentences are not required to be all true. For instance, the stage. But in such a context, the illocutionary force of the sentences is not assertion, but something else. In such a case, there is no lying, since there is no assertion.

Marc said...

Dr. Pruss:

I don't play poker, but it is my understanding that the game does not involve lying, but bluffing. Lying essentially involves communication.

But doesn't bluffing also essentially involve communication, specifically the sort of communication with the intent to deceive? If I attempt to bluff, I'm endeavoring to get my opponent(s) to believe something untrue. While I don't wish to claim that bluffing and lying are identical or undistinguishable, it seems that one engages in lying when trying to get others to believe something untrue. The intent to deceive appears to be an indispensable component of both bluffing and lying, and deception is impossible when communication is absent.

-- Marc

Alexander R Pruss said...

Lying is a species of deception, but not all deception is lying. For instance, if I lay a false trail while running away from my enemy, I am not communicating--but I am deceiving. The kind of communication that lying involves is based on trust--I assert something, and expect you to trust me and thus to believe. Trust is not involved when you follow my trail, and probably not in poker, either.

Marc said...

Lying is a species of deception, but not all deception is lying. For instance, if I lay a false trail while running away from my enemy, I am not communicating--but I am deceiving.

I wonder if it's sensible to consider the laying of a false trail, along with other relevantly similar activities (like bluffing), as a type of communication, albeit quite indirect. By laying a false trail, you're hoping to send believable misinformation, thereby indirectly communicating something false to your pursuer. I worry, though, that this suggestion might be too tenuous to be sensible.

The kind of communication that lying involves is based on trust--I assert something, and expect you to trust me and thus to believe. Trust is not involved when you follow my trail, and probably not in poker, either.

But it doesn't appear the the trust always must be exclusively placed in or associated with a person. Given that certain states of affairs (like a trail in the forest) tend to accompany or indicate corresponding patterns (a person in the forest to cause the trail), inferences from the former to the latter are generally warranted. Your pursuer's trust, then, could be said to reside in the integrity of such an inference. If I bluff while playing you in poker, I'm attempting to use your trust in the reliability of the aforementioned inferences to my advantage.

-- Marc

Alexander R Pruss said...

Communication is an activity whose nature is directed at the communication of truth, and it becomes perverse when it is directed away from truth. On the other hand, the patterns laid by persons running away, whether intentionally or not, are not directed at truth.

On reflection, bluffing in poker is a little more complex, because it may involve control over facial expression, in such a way as to make the facial expression mislead. I don't know if that is permissible, because facial expression is indeed by its nature directed at the communication of truths (such as that the speaker is expecting something good). However, there is nothing wrong with simply setting a neutral poker face.

Marc said...

Communication is an activity whose nature is directed at the communication of truth, and it becomes perverse when it is directed away from truth.

Interesting characterization. Why do you suppose it's naturally (essentially?) "directed at the communication of truth"? I think I'm inclined to characterize communication more broadly -- as, roughly, an activity in which the transmission or exchange of information occurs, either intentionally or unintentionally.

The disjunction at truth or away from truth seems only to account for intentional communication. But there appear to be instances of unintentional communication, like involuntary, nonverbal communication. Presumably, this sort is neither directed at nor directed away from truth since intentionality is absent.

A further question: when you say "it becomes perverse when it is directed away from truth" are you referring strictly to the communication or to the communicator (or both)?

-- Marc