Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Magda the spy

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.
That's very rough. But it marks a difference between Magda and the non-fiction author. Both foresee that they will assert falsehoods. But the non-fiction author is, or so we hope, striving to avoid every instance of this. Not so Magda.

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.


Huume said...

I need to spend some serious time processing this.

Gabriele Contessa said...

Nice, but I'm not convinced by your assertion that your principle discriminates between the case of Magda and that of the author. If the author knew that at least one of the sentences in her book is false, shouldn't she refrain from publishing the book if she were striving to assert only truths? What about:

* Strive to assert only propositions you genuinely believe to be true


Alexander R Pruss said...


Good point!

I don't think your suggestion works due to a different set of cases. Also, depending on what you think of mis-speaking, it could be subject to a counterexample along similar lines: The author has good reason to think some statement in the book doesn't assert her beliefs, because she has good reason to think that she mis-wrote somewhere.

Maybe it's a per-proposition duty. For each proposition p, it is your duty to:

* Strive to assert p only if p is true.

I worry now, though, that Magda could say that she fulfilled this just as the author did. For suppose the author asserts p. The author knows that she is taking a risk that p might be false, but she has striven to ensure that what she is saying is true, and she accepts the risk, because of the benefits of telling the truth if it's true. Couldn't Magda in principle say something similar? She has striven to ensure that what she is saying is true, perhaps because she refuses to accept such assignments when the proportion of truth to falsity is below some threshold.

So maybe my per-proposition duty doesn't solve the problem.

Maybe I should go back to an intention formulation that I used in a paper. When asserting, you should have the intention of refraining from this assertion if it's false. Magda doesn't have this intention. She intends to make the false assertion, too.

Kevin Megill said...

When the author writes her book, she can assume that her readers are just as aware as she is of the possibility of her getting something wrong. Everyone already knows that's a possibility; it's built in to the meaning of everyday discourse that the speaker could be mistaken about something.

Magda's doubt about 20% of her statements is based on knowledge that her hearers do not have. She can't assume that they are making the same assumptions as she is about the degree of certainty of her statements.

Could that have something to do with it? Could background assumptions about the implied trustworthiness of statements be somehow built into the definition of what lying is?

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's an interesting solution.

But people generally also know that whenever you say anything there is a possibility of your getting things wrong. So is Magda going wrong simply because 20% is higher than our usual error probability (whatever that is)?