Every week, Curley sells a thousand tickets for a lottery, where the tickets are ten dollars each and the prize is fifty thousand dollars, entering the names in a ledger, numbered from one to a thousand. He then goes to random.org to choose a number between 1 and 1000, and that's the winner's number. Next he instructs his secretary, Moe, to type up letters to the thousand entrants, each of which expresses Curley's regrets that the entrant did not win the lottery. Curley never bothers to look up in the ledger who the winner is, but he knows that Moe does. Normally Moe then brings the thousand letters for Curley to sign, with the winner's letter—which of course also regrets to inform that the entrant did not win—on top, and Curley knows that.
Every week, thus, Curley rakes in ten thousand dollars less administrative costs by lying to one person—the "winner". The winner never comes to claim the prize, and so all is financially well for Curley.
This week, however, as Moe brings the letters to Curley, he trips in Curley's sight and the letters get all mixed up. Curley still signs the thousand letters. Each letter that Curley signs is very likely to be true.
It seems that in this week's lottery, Curley has managed to avoid lying. He does not assert to anybody anything that he disbelieves. He does, of course, sign the letter misinforming Patricia Hammerford, the winner, that she is not the winner. But while he is signing it, he believes it is very likely true, indeed has probability 0.999, that she is not the winner. Of course, there may be a moral problem with saying something that one thinks is very likely true but which one does not yet believe. But that does not seem to be a very large moral problem. It's not lying.
Here's one thing you could say. Each individual letter that Curley signs this week involves his asserting something that he does not believe, though he does take it to be probable. In itself, each letter is not a large moral problem. But in aggregate, especially as the signing of the letters is all a part of a single action plan, we have a large moral problem.
This could be. But I also think one might have the intuition that what Curley is doing this week is morally on par with the lying he engaged in during the previous weeks. And I am not sure the above aggregate story yields that.
Here's the start of a solution I like: Curley intends to assert to the winner that he or she is not the winner. He fulfills this plan by asserting a parallel claim to each entrant. The following seems true:
- Fulfilling the intention to assert to the winner that he or she is not the winner is morally on par with lying.
But I am having a difficult time formulating an appropriately general form of this principle.
An alternative approach is to say that one is lying whenever one asserts something that one does not believe, even if one does not disbelieve it either. Thus, Curley is lying, even though he believes that what he is asserting is true. A problem with this is that it makes Curley be lying a thousand times this week, while last week he only lied once. Maybe the thousand lies are small (because he thinks that likely he's saying the truth in each case), but they add up to an equivalent of the big lie from the previous week. But I am dubious of such moral arithmetic.