Magda is a spy. Her handler gives her a spiel consisting of ten statements that she is to make to her enemy contact. Magda has no personal knowledge of whether the statements are true or false, and with a smile asks her handler: "I take it these are mostly false, but there is probably a truth or two tucked in just to mislead them even more?" Her very reliable and honest (she lets Magda do all the lying) handler responds: "Actually, this time it's the other way around. Eight of these statements are true, and two are false."
When Magda tells the spiel to her enemy contact, each of the ten assertions that she makes is an assertion that she thinks is likely, indeed 80% likely, to be true.
Does Magda lie to her enemy contact?
No one of the ten statements on its own seems to be a lie. When I think something is 80% likely to be true and I assert it, I may not be entirely sincere, but surely I am not lying.
Are the ten statements put together, into a spiel, a lie? After all, Magda knows that the conjunction of the ten propositions is false. But a series of statements does not become a lie just because one knows that one of them is false. Just about any non-fiction author of a decent level of humility knows that at least one of the statements in her book is false. So one doesn't utter a lie just because one utters a series of statements at least one of which one knows to be false. For exactly the same reason, the fact that the ten statements make up a single literary unit, a spiel, does not make them a lie, since typical books make a single literary unit and yet are not lies.
At this point, one might react as follows: Who cares whether Magda is lying? Whether she is lying or not, she is clearly dishonest, and her dishonesty is of the same sort as lying.
Here's another case. Magda is one of ten spies, each of whom is given a statement to convey to the enemy. They all know exactly two of the ten statements is false. Is Magda lying? I feel that she's not. She's simply saying something that she thinks is 80% likely to be true, in support of a deceptive plan by her organization.
If Magda isn't lying in the case where the statements are spread out between the spies, I think she isn't lying in the case where she makes all the statements. I do feel that in the case where the statements are spread out, Magda's dishonesty is less. But she is, nonetheless, being dishonest by supporting a deceptive communicative plan.
And maybe that is all we can say about the original case. Magda isn't lying. She is engaging in a dishonest communicative plan that is roughly morally on par with lying. Surely it makes little moral difference that unlike the ordinary liar, Magda doesn't know which of her statements is false. After all, ceteris paribus, there is little moral difference between the person who sets up a trap to kill one particular person and the person who sets up a trap to kill a random person.
But what makes her communicative plan be morally on par with lying? What moral norm applies equally to Magda's activity in the original case and to a variant where she knows which two of the ten statements are false?
I am inclined to think that the basic rough-and-ready moral rule behind the prohibition of lying is something like:
- Strive to assert only truths.
Not every violation of the rule to strive to assert only truths has the same moral weight. Lying is, perhaps, morally graver than BS—speaking with no regard for truth or falsity. And both of them are definitely morally graver than putting some effort into asserting only truths but not enough, say because one isn't being sufficiently careful to follow the evidence.