Thursday, September 30, 2010

A lie with no deceit

Let's say you and I believe that there is life outside the solar system. But you're overconfident. So I tell you that there is no life outside the solar system, in order to reduce your confidence. I am not trying to get you to believe that there is no life outside the solar system. I am not even trying to get you to believe that I believe there is no life outside the solar system. I am only trying to reduce the probability you assign to the claim that there is life outside the solar system to a more reasonable level. I am acting epistemically benevolently.

This is still a lie, and so a lie does not require an intention to deceive. A lie can be epistemically benevolent.

And it's still wrong.

14 comments:

Duns Scotus said...

Here's another example:

A student is caught cheating in class. There is video evidence and testimony from lots of sources that he cheated. Everyone knows he cheated. He knows he cheated and he knows everyone knows he cheated.
The student council sentences him to be expelled. They ask if he as any last words. As a last act of defiance he says, "I didn't cheat."

He lies. But he intended to deceive no one.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That example reminds me of an example I saw recently, maybe one attributed to Fallis.

I actually have mixed feelings about this case. Maybe this is cheek rather than assertion. (Cheek is compatible with assertion, though.)

TP said...

You say:
"I am not even trying to get you to believe that I believe there is no life outside the solar system."

I think you are trying to get me to believe that you believe that there is no life outside the solar system. After all, if I didn't think you really meant it (i.e., believed it) I wouldn't reduce the probability. What leads me to lower my credence is my belief that:

you think that there is no life outside the solar system

It isn't merely that:

you said that there is no life outside the solar system.

There are lots of reasons you might say it that wouldn't lead me to lower my credence. For instance, I might write that sentence on the board and ask you to repeat it. Or you might be playing a character who says it in a play. Neither of those would lead me to lower my credence. To lower my credence, I would need to think you said it and you meant it, that is, you said it and you believed it.

You are trying to get me to believe that you do not believe that there is life outside the solar system as a means to lowering my credence.

Alexander R Pruss said...

TP:

I was imagining a case where you're not going to stop believing that I believe that p (that's why I said I'm not trying to get you to believe that I believe that ~p). But my plan is that you'll decrease the probability you assign to the claim that I believe that p, and therefore you'll decrease the probability you assign to the claim that p (since maybe a part of your reason for believing p is that you believe I believe it).

Heath White said...

The Soviet practice of ritual self-denunciation comes to mind. No on believes you have been working for the capitalists, nor do you believe it, nor does anyone believe you believe it, etc. Still, you are made to say it. Part of what's egregious about the practice is just the divorce--which everyone knows about!--between assertion and belief, or between assertion and truth.

Maybe this is not quite the same ethical issue but it seems connected.

Mike Almeida said...

It's odd that the intention to deceive is neither necessary nor sufficient for lying. I might intend to decieve you into believing that 2+2 = 4 when I believe it's 5. But I would not have lied in saying that 2+2 = 4. I'd have done something wrong, though. So the wrongness of intending to deceive is distinct from the wrongness of lying.

Duns Scotus said...

Mike,

I guess I find it hard to see how you wouldn't be lying if you intended for me to believe that 2+2=4 when you believed that 2+2=5. Even if you don't say anything false you're intending to say something false to get me to believe something false. That seems like a lie to me. You can say something true and still lie.

Mike Almeida said...

That seems like a lie to me. You can say something true and still lie

I can't see it. It seems a minimal condition on lying that I utter a falsehood, not that I utter what I believe to be a falsehood. In the case I describe I utter a truth, indeed a necessary truth. So I don't think I'm lying. I don't decieve you either. I just intend to deceive (and intend to lie).

James Bejon said...

It would seem odd if two people could assert a subject-independent proposition--e.g. "2 + 2 = 4"--and one of them could be lying but the other telling the truth. I think a good definition of truth-telling should preclude such things.

enigMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
enigMan said...

This post seems to refute the second part of the OED definition, that to lie is to make a false statement with the intention to deceive. Regarding the first part, there does seem to be some sense in which someone could by lying and yet be telling the truth, for all that there does seem to be another sense in which she would have to be telling an untruth if she was lying. E.g. suppose that we all presume something false. Do we really want to say of obvious liars that they weren't then really lying?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should say that there is a connection between the case in this post and work by Sorensen on lying.

awatkins69 said...

Doesn't the morality of an action depend on whether the action contributes to human "flourishing", based on human nature. So, if deliberately speaking an untruth in a given situation would in fact contribute to the actualization of the person's formal end, it seems speaking an untruth would in fact be good, no?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It might not contribute to the speaker's well-being. And it may not contribute to the listener's well-being in non-epistemic respects.