Thursday, May 3, 2012

Curley's crooked lottery

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 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:

  1. 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.


Heath White said...

My instinct is to say that Curley is BS-ing on the final week, saying something to each ticketholder without regard to its truth. His motive is to keep the money, and he just says what will accomplish that.

On the other weeks, he is lying, in that he knows, of one particular letter, that it is false, and thus he is intentionally deceiving that person in order to accomplish his end of keeping the money. He cannot be said to be acting on this letter without regard to its truth.

What is worse about Curley than other BS-ers is that we know he is prepared to lie even when he is only BS-ing. Many BS-ers avoid knowing the truth in one way or another, and that is at least some kind of regard for the truth. Curley lacks that.

I am not sure it can be said that Curley intends, this last week, to lie to the winner of the lottery. I suppose he is lying to the winner, though I have some tug toward saying that you have to know you’re lying if you’re lying. But even putting that objection aside, we have to describe this oddly. It is not true that he intends to lie to #1, or that he intends to lie to #2, or … that he intends to lie to #1000. We have to say something like: of the winner, whoever that is, he intends to lie to them. I have some tug toward saying that intentions cannot have this “whoever it is” structure. But I can’t figure out a good reason for that instinct, so like I said, I am not sure.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am inclined to think Curley is not lying to the winner. He's just doing something morally on par with lying.

Here's a case that to me seems similar. Suppose I apply for a job where teaching Derrida is essential. I can't do it. I am also a poor liar. So I brainwash myself into thinking I can teach Derrida, in order that I might convincingly assert at the interview that I can teach Derrida.

I don't lie when I assert at the interview that I can teach Derrida. Indeed, I am being quite sincere. But in intentionally bringing it about that I assert that I can teach Derrida, I am doing something on par with lying.

But I can't formulate a general form of a principle that says what exactly is wrong in cases like the Curley case and the brainwashing case.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe positive intention requirements work better.

Something like: one is only permitted to assert p with the intention to refrain from asserting a falsehood.

Or maybe: every assertion should be made at least in part in order to communicate a truth if the assertion comes off.

(If lying and BS were sometimes permissible, these would be ceteris paribus shoulds.)

And intentions and goals can be elicited from the rational plan of action. We cannot correctly attribute to Curley the intention to communicate a truth or to avoid asserting a falsehood, since such intentions would clash with his plan to communicate to the winner that s/he is not the winner. (I suppose if Curley were really irrational, he could have such contradictory intentions. But then his irrationality might excuse him to some degree.)

On the other hand, the virtuous but fallible author's assertions are made with the intention to communicate a truth, and to avoid asserting falsehoods, as is seen from her care in investigating the subject matter. Where such care is lacking, one may suspect that the correct intention is lacking as well.

Of the two suggestions, I think the second may be too strong.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Curley is running this lottery scheme. Moe is writing letters of condolance to all the suckers. What's Larry doing? :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Larry is investing the proceeds in a Ponzi scheme which draws upon the inhabitants of infinitely many universes to generate wealth without robbing anybody.

Mike Almeida said...

This is a very intersting case. Let's simplify it for convenience. The following two claims might both be true.

(1) I don't know that x won or y won.

(2) I know that x or y won.

If I say to x that he did not win and I say to y that y did not win, I did not say anything I was not justified in believing. But consider (3),

(3) I'm justified in believing that x did not win and I'm justified in believing that y did not win only if I'm justified in believing that neither x nor y won.

(3) sure seems a true closure principle. So, it is probably better to describe Culey's epistemic state as not knowing that he is not justified in beliving that y won and not knowing that he is justified in believing that y won (similarly for x). He should remain agnostic on this score, and not inform either that she did not win.

Anonymous said...

Sure, Curley is lying. He is communicating with intent to deceive, and that he does not know exactly which letter is which is as irrelevant as his not knowing which mail truck will deliver a particular letter. Perhaps the puzzle comes from trying to reduce things too far. Curley plans to cheat people, and false communication is part of that plan, so he's morally culpable of lying. Similarly, in the case of Magda: she is a knowing accomplice in a plan to lie to the victim, so it makes no difference whether her line in the script happens to be the false one or not. (Just as if, were she and Curley to conspire to kill someone, it would make no difference who actually pulled the trigger: they would both be guilty of murder.)

Likewise, the brainwashing case is a (convoluted) equivalent to lying to one person who will pass the message along to a second. Your course of action as a whole is communicating to both of them in a deliberately deceiving way, so you are guilty of lying to both of them. To be culpable, you have to know enough to choose that course of action; you do not need to know how it all happens. (Madga doesn't need to be an expert in physiology to shoot you; it's still murder even if you die unknown to her only hours later in the hospital.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Not all deceitful communication is lying.

If Curley lies, he lies to the winner. But he tells the winner something that he thinks is very likely true. So how can he be lying?

Anonymous said...

"Not all deceitful communication is lying."

The definition may need a little tweaking, but I'm not sure what you have in mind. (I take "deceit" to include intention, as opposed to accidental falsehood or misleadingness.)

If Curley lies, he lies to the winner. But he tells the winner something that he thinks is very likely true. So how can he be lying?

He deliberately communicates the meaning "You didn't win" to the winner — this is undeniable from the whole setup as given. So how can he not be lying? I think that focusing on the particular moment when he is writing his signature is misdirection, because the lie cannot be reduced to a single instant of time. (Some lies, maybe most common ones, perhaps more or less coincide with the moment of utterance, but surely that is just a simplicity borne out of those lies not being elaborately planned out.)

Or maybe consider it this way: when signing the letters, Curley is not sure which one is contributing to his act of lying. He knows he is lying, he just thinks (out of ignorance) that at any given moment, the letter he is signing is very likely not materially contributing to this act. But it is wrong to try to pin the lie down to a single discrete moment of letter-signing. That would be like trying to pin down a murder to the particular finger-atoms that were squeezing the trigger, or the particular instant that the poison was administered. How can Magda be guilty of murder when she was in a different town when the victim died? Easily: her act of murder is the entire course of action, not merely the moment when the victim died of poisoning; and Curley's act of lying is not merely the moment when he signs a particular letter.

Kraig said...

Of each of the 1000 letters, Curley did not know of them that there were losers. Yet, he informed each of them that they were losers. At least when operating in an official capacity, one ought not assert what one doesn't know. He violated that rule 1000 times.

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