Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lying and being sincere at the same time

Sam is a politician speaking to a large multilingual audience, and is planning on offering them slogans that uniquely appeal to each language group. By coincidence, there is something, s, that he can say which is such that in Elbonian it means that he loves to hunt while in Baratarian s means that he is an avid cyclist. Sam actually loves to hunt but hates cycling, but knows that saying that he loves to hunt will tend to appeal to Elbonian speakers, whom he also tends to respect and does not wish to deceive, and that saying that he is an avid cyclist will tend to appeal to Baratarian speakers. So Sam utters s.

In so doing, Sam is sincerely asserting to Elbonian speakers that he loves to hunt and lying to Baratarian speakers that he is an avid cyclist. But there is Jane in the audience who is a completely bilingual Elbonian and Baratarian speaker. Did Sam lie to Jane?

One might say: It depends on how Jane understood him. But that's not right. To lie to someone does not require the interlocutor to understand one at all. If I write to you in a letter of recommendation that says that Jim is the worst student I have ever had, while in fact I know he is the best student I have ever had, and you misread the "worst" as "best" in the letter (after all, typically, in a letter of recommendation a superlative is positive, so you're primed to read it as "best"), nonetheless I lied to you, but unsuccessfully. Jane might have understood s in Elbonian, or in Baratarian, or just been confused by s. But nonetheless it seems that Sam both lied and spoke sincerely to Jane. He lied to Jane qua Baratarian speaker, since he asserted to all Baratarian speakers that he was an avid cyclist, and he spoke sincerely to all Elbonian speakers, including Jane, that he loved to hunt.

But this is odd. And it also means that it is difficult to make the token the unit of meaning. And that's a problem for nominalists of the Goodman and Quine variety.


Heath White said...

I think I would say the proper question is whether Sam lied, not whether Sam lied to Jane. “X lied to Y” should be analyzed something like “X lied, and X was speaking to Y.”

I also would say that the unit of meaning (the thing that lies) is not a token sentence but a speech act, assertion. As you have described it, Sam is making two assertions, one in Elbonian and one in Baratarian. The first is truthful and the second is a lie. (I can imagine a case where the Baratarian sentence is not intended but merely a side-effect of the Elbonian sentence, and does not count as a lie, but that’s not your description of the case.)

(There are other reasons to take assertions as the thing that lies. Here’s one. Suppose you are on the stand in court and you testify, “I solemnly assert that Joe was the shooter” when you know perfectly well that Joe was not the shooter. In one sense you have told the truth—you do ASSERT this. On the other hand you are clearly guilty of perjury. The solution is that you have made two assertions with one utterance, one of the form “I assert that p” and the other “p”, and while the first is true the second is a lie.)

I would individuate assertions the way other actions are individuated, in terms of the reasons for which they are done. That is, since one of the reasons Sam says s is to get Baratarians to believe that he is an avid cyclist, he counts as asserting that, and hence as lying.

On the question of whether Sam lied to Jane, I would say that he told the truth to her in Elbonian and lied to her in Baratarian.

Unknown said...

Perhaps the point about Jane's perception would work better with "deceive" rather than "lie".

However, I think sincerity is a matter of Sam's emotional state and his intentions. If Sam could simultaneously speak Elbonian sincerely and Baratrian detachedly, why would we assume that the Elbonian sincerity transitively applied to the Baratrian? Why not assume that the Baratrian detachment modifies the Elbonian statement's sincerity?

I think it's a moot point, because the mind can only consciously attend to one statement at a time. So his sincerity is going to depend on which language he's consciously attending to while uttering. If he's consciously attending to Elbonian, then he'll be sincere in Elbonian, and his sincerity with respect to Baratrian will have to be tracked back to the last moment that he consciously attended to what was going to be said in Baratrian. That is, there is a moment when he made the decision to cause his lips to go through the motions of uttering a Baratrian sentence, and put the course in motion, and at that moment he was not sincere. Alternately, if he is consciously attending to the Baratrian while uttering, he won't be sincere.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Sincerity surely does not require attending to the meaning of what one is saying while one is saying it. Imagine you want to express a proposition you know to be true. You carefully choose just the right words. And then you say them. When you say the words, you may not be attending any more.


Imagine that instead of speaking to a crowd, Sam is shaking hands of people individually in the crowd, uttering s to each. He doesn't know who is Elbonian and who is Baratarian, but either option works for him. He's lying to all the Baratarians he's speaking to, and being honest with all the Elbonians. When he speaks to a unilingual Baratarian or Elbonian, he's making one assertion. When he speaks to a bilingual Elbonian-Baratarian, he's making two assertions.

Does that sound right?

Heath White said...

It is an odd case, but yes that sounds right to me.

Heath White said...

I take it back. On reflection, I think the thing to say is that in each case he is making two assertions, at least one of which will be understood by his hearer.

My change of mind is driven by the idea that we should decide whether Sam is asserting by looking at Sam, not at his audience. (Of course HE is looking at his audience and his beliefs about them and intentions toward them help hiim decide what to assert.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am inclined to think of it as something like two conditional assertions (if you're Elbonian, I hereby assert...; if you're Baratarian, I hereby assert...), and then which unconditional assertion is made depends on which antecedents of the conditionals are true.

Joshua said...

For the scenario you outlined, I took "sincere" to mean something like "a feeling of belief in the trueness of one's intentions, which tends to manifest in body language, intonation, and other hard-to-counterfeit signals which listeners use to assess your honesty". The best way to convince someone you're sincere is to actually *be* sincere. I suppose it's possible to imagine a scenario where Sam was sincere about the content of his speech *before* addressing the crowd, had no such feelings while addressing the crowd, but somehow succeeded in persuading the crowd that he was feeling sincerity while speaking.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Even though I an bilingual like Jane in this post, I'll vote for Sam any day. Sam actually loves to hunt, so do I. Us Elbonian hunters have to stick together and Sam is our man in Washington. And by hunting, I don't just mean using guns. Hunting involves so much more than guns. Hunting is an integral part of conservation and stewardship of resources. The money from the purchases of hunting licenses goes into a fund for wildlife conservation and cannot be used for other things. Hunting also involves the preservation of wildlife habitat. This preservation effort is crucial to the maintenance of wetlands, farmland, etc. It is the hunting laws and the funds raised from the sale of hunting licenses that have allowed many game species populations to rebound from the low almost extinction numbers in the 1920's. Sam may have his faults, but the Baratarian cyclists can thank him and people like him that as they cycle through the country side, they can still see a deer, a quail or pheasant, look up in the air and see a flock of geese.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I have had time to look up the actual Government Act behind hunter liccense fees supporting wildlife conservation. This act is the Pittman-Robertson Act (Federal Aid In Wildlife Restorataion Act) of 1937. Hunters because of this act provide 185 million dollars a year to conservation efforts through payment of hunting license fees. It is not just through hunting license fees, put also 11% of the cost of purchasing firearms, ammo, and archery equipment go to conservation efforts. A water fowl stamp is required on a hunting license and the purchase of these stamps generates 11 million dollars a year for wetlands. Here are the URLs:

So you see, Sam the politician and avid hunter does far more for Elbonians and Baratarians than they realize. He also does far more for wildlife and the environment than vegans and PETA realize.

Michael Gonzalez said...

What happened to my post? I thought I'd posted my reponse here a week ago, but I can't see it now.... Anyway, the point I attempted to make was that whether you are lying or not depends on your intent, and unless he intended to deceive Jane (or someone like her), he did not lie to her. He may not even have been aware that there were bilinguals in the audience. But, if he was aware of them, and he had an intent toward them with regard to his statement, then that intent is what determines whether or not he lied.