Monday, February 8, 2016

Lying and norms

I want to explore an argument against the moral permissibility of lying. Start with this thought:

  1. To assert p contrary to one's beliefs violates a genuine norm.
I don't, of course, mean the norm to be a moral one: that would beg the question against those who think lying is morally permissible. Rather, I am thinking that there is a norm at least partly constitutive of assertion which is violated when one asserts contrary to one's beliefs. It seems that a speech act just isn't an assertion if it's not governed by a norm that makes (1) true. (But if one thinks the norm of assertion doesn't require anything like belief but only truth, then I can modify my argument to work with that.)

Next, I want to bring in this thesis which generalizes Aquinas' idea that legislation that commands immoral activity is null and void, an empty gesture, and not a law:

  1. No genuine norm requires one to do something immoral.
All authority is limited by morality, after all. A theist might say that all authority is either God's authority or an authority that flows from God's, and derivative authority has no force against God's authority, whereas God forbids all immoral activity (I am not affirming a divine command theory, just the weaker claim that immoral activity is in fact forbidden by God).

Finally, let's add an uncontroversial observation:

  1. If lying is sometimes morally permissible, then lying is sometimes morally required.
After all, the main motivation people have for affirming the permissibility of lying is the thought that you should lie to the murderer at the door inquiring whether her intended victim is in your house (when the victim is indeed there). But what gives force to the thought that this is permissible is the thought that it is required in this case. If we think lying is never morally required, then the view that lying is sometimes permissible is left largely unmotivated.

Now, let's see what follows from (1)-(3). For a reductio, suppose lying is sometimes permissible. Then it's sometimes required by (3). Suppose then you're in a situation where lying is morally required. But when you lie, you assert contrary to your beliefs. So by (1), when you lie you violate a genuine norm. Hence a genuine norm requires you to do something immoral, namely to refrain from lying in this case. But that contradicts (2). So, it can't be the case that lying is sometimes permissible.

I worry that the argument proves too much. Suppose that you're playing cards with a tyrant. If you win, innocents go free; if you lose, they are killed. Surely you should cheat. But cheating violates the norms of card-playing, so a parallel argument shows it's wrong to cheat.

I say that the rules of the game lack normative force in this case, and indeed that, as we would say, this is not a game anymore. I don't know exactly how to characterize games, but it seems essential to a game that, roughly, they just be a bit of fun. Russian roulette is not a game, and its rules have no normative force. Just as property rights cease in cases of grave need according to Aquinas, so too when so much is at stake it's not a game, and if it's not a game, the person who pulls cards out of her sleeve to save lives isn't cheating in a game because she isn't playing a game.

Could one, then, say the same thing about the person who says to the murderer at the door regarding the intended victim: "He's not at home"? The parallel claim would be that the norms of assertion don't apply, and hence the words aren't an assertion at all. The murderer is deceived into taking the words to be an assertion, but they aren't one at all. There is something attractive about this view, in that it would allow one to maintain the traditional Christian view that lying is always wrong while allowing one to solve the murderer-at-the-door problem. But I think this doesn't work. Unlike playing cards, asserting isn't a game, something that ceases when there is too much at stake. It isn't even like the institution of private property, which dissolves according to Aquinas in cases of grave need since it's ordered to the preservation of life. Assertion is ordered to a different good than the preservation of life: truth. Moreover, it just seems quite implausible to say that the person saying "He's not at home" to the murderer isn't making an assertion.


entirelyuseless said...

Suppose there is a computerized gate that opens when it hears the password, which is "Two plus two equals five." Surely someone who speaks this password in front of the gate is not making an assertion. So in a similar way, the person responding to the murderer might think that the murderer has basically renounced his humanity and is little more than a robot, programmed to kill if it hears one thing and to refrain if it hears another. Then if he says the words that prevent killing, he is not making an assertion.

This may or may not be an accurate way for the speaker to think, but it surely is a possible way, in which case the speech act would not be an assertion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Right: that could happen. Similarly, it is not clear what exactly happens when one "speaks" to someone who is insane.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But I should add that the fact that someone is a murderer does not mean that he is a robot. If he were, then punishment would make little sense.

Heath White said...

On your last paragraph, which is where the action is, I think: the main question is whether the norms of assertion are suspended/overridden/dissolve (pick your predicate) in cases of e.g. grave need. (Other cases: when the truth doesn’t matter much, but people’s feelings do; when you are a spokesperson for someone/something else, and you don’t necessarily agree with them.)

I don’t think this question is answered by the observation that assertion is not a game (true, but neither is property) or that assertion is ordered to truth rather than life (why is truth more demanding than life? That is part of the point at issue.) It is indeed a stretch to say that “he’s not at home” is not an assertion; on the other hand it is also a stretch to say that some farmer’s apples, or some merchant’s bread, did not really belong to him after all, though I will grant that the latter is less of a stretch than the former.

I think the difference is that rights to use are constitutive of property rights (if you have the right to use something, that makes it your property), whereas the duty to assert the truth is merely regulative of assertion (if you assert non-truthfully, your assertion is defective or infelicitous, but that doesn’t make it a non-assertion). Maybe the Christian tradition does not recognize any such thing as regulative but non-constitutive norms. It would be interesting to explore this for other cases. (Marriages made under duress? Rulers who take power by force, or illegally? Illicit sex performed under coercion?)

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. I wasn't thinking that truth is more demanding than life. But I was thinking that when the telos of a norm is ordered to a good G, then a case can be made that the norm might be suspended when it conflicts with G. My use of "grave need" was imprecise. Aquinas is thinking specifically of grave danger to life. So property is ordered to life, and hence there is a case to be made for a suspension of property norms in cases of grave danger to life. But the norm wouldn't be suspended due to other goods than life. Thus, one shouldn't steal a book simply in order to get truth. (But if that truth is needed for survival, that's a different story.)

2. I think the duty to be truthful is constitutive of assertion. The analogy to "if you have the right to use something, that makes it your property" is "if you have the obligation to only say something whose semantic content is true, that makes your saying it an assertion". (Neither is quite right as it stands--the antecedents need to be filled out more thoroughly.) The analogy to "if you assert non-truthfully, your assertion is defective or infelicitous, but that doesn’t make it a non-assertion" would be "if you take something that is someone else's, your taking it up is defective, but that doesn't make the thing not belong to someone else."

Domenic Marbaniang said...

The murderer at door presents a serious challenge to deontological ethics. Aquinas and Augustine would ask to not lie, at least stay silent.. However, I think it provides a true situation for testing the moral nature of both morality and humans. A normative clear rule is easy command for a machine to follow, but when two commands are in conflict, the free being must make a choice: either to be truthful or to protect a life. It seems more easier with the law of Sabbath; save life. But, I want to ask if speaking a truth itself isn't evil at times (like killing isn't murder always). For instance, a secret agent revealing information to the enemy speaks truth but also breaks faith of the nation; such speaking itself constitutes traitorship and unfaithfulness. I am not a mathematician, but I would like to try a simple formula as an analogy.
Say lying is a privation of good; therefore, evil (-1)
Murder is also evil (-1)
Truthing is good (+1)
Then, (+1) (-1) = -1 Truth revealed to someone who will use it for evil purposes will only further evil. This amounts to evil.
But, (-1) (-1) = 1
I am just wondering...
Rahab deceived her countrymen and helped the spies. Hebrews 11 calls her justified by faith. Schindler used bribery and deception to save Jews. He is named as one of the righteous among the nations. Richard Wurmbrand thought it okay to deceive the communists.
Let's explore another situation. A man vows to kill his enemy. But, later realizes that this is evil and repents. Instead, be goes and embraces his enemy. Has he lied? Of course, this situation may not satisfy the definition of lying as speaking something contrary to belief. But, it does involve a situation that the normative of speech must address.
But, certainly it also asks for a clarification on definitions and the nature of morals...of what is meant by required...
For instance, when is civil disobedience wrong and when is it right involves a question of both essence and function... Probably, similar to the mathematical function.. Please shed light..

Alexander R Pruss said...

Even if lying is always wrong, speaking the truth can be wrong, too. Sometimes one needs to be silent. Or to tell a misleading truth, perhaps.
Promises to do wrong are null and void. They have no force. Also, breaking a promise is not lying - it's a different offense.

Domenic Marbaniang said...

Certainly, to try to overcome evil by evil will only increase evil.

Domenic Marbaniang said...

In such situations, where both acts equally satisfy the definition of evil:

Domenic Marbaniang said...
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