Tuesday, April 11, 2017

GPS signals, normativity and the morality of lying

I will argue that lying is never permissible. The argument is a curious argument, maybe Kantian in flavor, which attempts to establish the conclusion without actually adverting to any explanation of what is bad about lying.

GPS satellites constantly broadcast messages that precisely specify the time at which the message is sent together with precise data as to the satellite orbit. Comparing receipt times of message from multiple GPS satellites with the positions of the satellites, a GPS receiver can calculate its position.

A part of the current design specifications of US GPS satellites is apparently that they can regionally degrade the signal in wartime in order to prevent enemies from making use of the signal (US military receivers can presumably circumvent the degradation).

Now, let’s oversimplify the situation and make up some details (the actual GPS signal specifications are here and the points I am making don’t match the actual specifications), since my point is philosophy of language, not GPS engineering. So I’m really talking about GPS satellites in another possible world.

Suppose that normally the satellite is broadcasting the time n in picoseconds up to a precision of plus or minus ten picoseconds, and suppose that currently we receive a message of n in the time field from a satellite. What does that message mean?

First of all, the message does not mean that the current time is n picoseconds. For the design specifications, I have stipulated, are that there is a precision of plus or minus ten picoseconds. Thus, what it means is something more like:

  1. The current time is n ± 10 ps, i.e., is within 10 ps of n ps.

But now suppose that it is a part of the design and operation specifications that in wartime the locally relevant satellites add a pseudorandom error of plus or minus up to a million picoseconds (remember that I’m making this up). Then what the message field means is something like:

  1. Either (a) this is a satellite that is relevant to a war region, the current time is n ± 106 ps and [extra information available to the military], or (b) the current time is n ± 10 ps.

In particular, when wartime signal degradation happens, the time field of the GPS message is (assuming the satellite is working properly) still conveying correct information—the satellite isn’t lying. For the semantic content of the time field supervenes on the norms in the design and operation specifications, and if these norms specify that wartime degradation occurs, then that possibility becomes a part of the content of the message.

Suppose lying is sometimes morally obligatory. Thus, there will be a sentence “s” and circumstances Cs in which it is both true that s and morally required to say that not s. Suppose Alice is uttering “Not s” in an assertoric way. Morality is part of Alice’s (and any other human being’s) “design and operation specifications”. Thus on the model of my analysis (2) of the semantic content of the (fictionalized) time field of the GPS message, what is being stated or asserted by Alice is not simply:

  1. Not s

but rather:

  1. Either (a) Cs obtains, or (b) not s.

But if that’s the content of Alice’s statement, then Alice is not actually lying when she says “Not s” in Cs. And the same point goes through even if Alice isn’t obligated but is merely permitted to say “Not s” in Cs. The norms in her design and operation specifications make (4) be the content of her statement rather than (3).

In other words:

  1. If lying that s is obligatory or permissible in Cs, then lying is actually impossible in Cs.

But the consequent of (5) is clearly false. Thus, the antecedent is false. And hence:

  1. Lying is never obligatory or permissible.

Note that a crucial ingredient in my GPS story is that the norms governing the degradation of GPS messages are in some way public. If these norms were secret, then the military would be making the GPS satellites do something akin to lying when they degraded their messages. But moral norms are essentially public.

Objection 1: The norms relevant to the determination of the content of a statement are not moral but linguistic norms. The moral norms require that Alice utter “Not s” in an assertoric way only when (4) obtains. But the linguistic norms require that Alice utter “Not s” in an assertoric way only when (3) obtains. And hence (3) is the content of “Not s”, not (4).

Response: This is a powerful objection. But compare the GPS case. We could try to distinguish narrowly technical norms of satellite operation from the larger norms on which GPS satellites are controlled by the US military in support of military aims. That would lead to the thought that the time field of the satellite (on my fictionalized version of the story) would mean (1). But I think it is pretty compelling that the time field of the satellite would mean (2). The meaning of the message needs to be determined according to the overall norms of design and operation, not some narrow technical subset of the specifications. Similarly, the meaning of a linguistic performance needs to be determined according to the overall norms of design and operation of the human being engaging in the performance. And it is precisely the moral norms that are such overall norms.

Second, linguistic norms are norms of voluntary behavior, since linguistic performance is a form of voluntary behavior. But a norm of voluntary behavior that conflicts with morality is null and void insofar as it conflicts, much as an illegal order is no order and an unconstitutional law is no law.

Third, on a view on which linguistic norms have the kind of independence from moral norms that the objection requires, it is difficult to specify what makes them linguistic. For we cannot simply say that they are the overall norms governing linguistic behavior. Moral norms do that, as well. A distinction like the one in the objection would make sense in the case of something where the rules are formalized. Thus, there are circumstances when the rules of chess require one to do something immoral. (For instance, suppose that a tyrant tells you she will kill an innocent unless you move a pawn forward by three squares. The rules of chess require you to refrain from doing that, but it is immoral for you to refrain from it.) But the rules of chess are simply a well-defined set of statements about what constitutes a game of chess, and it is relatively easy to tell if something is a rule of chess or not. But linguistic norms are just some among the many norms governing human behavior, and it is hard to specify which ones they are, if one can't do it by the subject matter of the norms. (I am also inclined to think that the rules of chess might not actually be norms; they are, rather, classificatory rules that specify what counts as a victory, loss, draw or forfeit; the norms governing play are moral.)

Objection 2: Content is not normatively determined.

Response: If that’s right, then my line of argument does fail. But I think a normative picture of content is the right one. In part it’s my Pittsburgh pedigree that makes me want to say that. :-)

Objection 3: Bite the bullet and say that when Alice utters “Not s”, she is in fact asserting (4) and not lying even if Cs obtains. While on this view, technically, lying is never permissible, in practice the view permits the same behaviors as a view on which lying is sometimes permissible.

Response: This just seems implausible. But I wish I had a better response.


Angra Mainyu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angra Mainyu said...

I might write something longer later, but just a quick objection:

P1. It is morally permissible for a person to assert that a Jew is not hiding in her home, in order to save the Jew from the SS, and to save herself and her family from being horribly punished by the Nazis.
P2. The assertion in P1 is a lie (assume a Jew is in fact hiding in her home).
C: Lying is sometimes morally permissible.

Given that the conjunction of P1 and P2 is clearly true and much more probable than the normative picture of content you provide, then it's very probable that either the picture in question is false, or some other premise of your argument is false.

Granted, you might (and I expect) would reject my assessment about the conjunction. But then again, that's not going to be persuasive to those of us who make intuitive assessments like the one I'm making here on this matter.

Angra Mainyu said...

Here's a more direct objection:

Clearly, it's morally permissible sometimes for people to assert falsehoods. Apart from the cases of morally permissible lies ;-), there are plenty of cases in which a person non-culpably believes and sincerely asserts s, but s is false. Yet, your line of reasoning, if correct, would show that it's impermissible to assert falsehoods: assume otherwise, so there are conditions Cs, a proposition s (or statement, or whatever you prefer), and a person A such that A permissibly asserts s (for example, Cs may involve a situation in which A has been told that s by generally trustworthy people, she's seen video footage, etc.; but - alas - she was deceived).
But in reality, A is asserting:

P: Either Cs, or s.

Now, that is actually true, so A is not asserting any falsehoods, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's a good point.

I have in the past been attracted to the idea that it is always impermissible to assert falsehoods, but sometimes non-culpable. So that could be a cool argument for such a view. :-)

But suppose I don't go that way. Then the question is to how we read the content off of the norms. I was initially thinking of a fairly straightforward way of doing it:

1. When the norm is "Say 's' only if p", then take p to be the content of 's'.

But perhaps the norm is actually of the form "Say 's' only if you believe p". If so, then the way to read the content off the norm would be:

2. When the norm is "Say 's' only if you believe p", then take p to be the content of 's'.

If we think this is the form that the norm takes, then probably the norm about conditions is also going to be subjectivized/internalized to something like: "Say 's' only if you believe (Cs or p)." (For instance, rather than specifying that you may say "There are no Jews in the house" when you are speaking to a Nazi who wants to kill them, the norm will say that you may say "There are no Jews in the house" when you *think* you are speaking to such a Nazi.) If so, then you still read off the content as Cs or p.

But I think the truth norm is better.

Angra Mainyu said...

In my view, necessarily, X is an immoral act iff X is a blameworthy act, and necessarily, if it's morally impermissible for A to do X and A does X, X is morally culpable, etc.

But assuming that that's not the case and furthermore, that the argument you give (or the modification I mentioned, to be precise) shows that it's always impermissible to assert falsehood, I would say that even if it's always immoral to lie, sometimes, it's not culpable, and in fact, sometimes an act of lying is not blameworthy, a person who lies is not blameworthy for that reason, etc. Granted, I also hold that sometimes it's obligatory to lie, and I would have to concede otherwise, so my moral sense would be pretty damaged in that regard, but at least, people who lie would not be culpable - so morality would be a bit less bad ;-).

I'm not sure I get your point about norms, but I would raise the following issues/questions:

a. Sometimes, it's clearly permissible to say "P" even if one believes ¬P. For example, actors do that permissibly (though maybe you'd like to say that it's about asserting, not merely saying, and that's not an assertion?).
b. How would you make your argument in that case? (i.e., could you write down the argument agains the moral permissibility of lying, so that I have a more clear picture of how you're deriving your conclusion?)
c. What is the evidence in support of the hypothesis that there are norms like that?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it's likely that sometimes people lie nonculpably, and even might be culpable if they didn't lie. For we are obligated to follow our conscience, even when that is mistaken. So someone whose conscience says to lie and who lies is acting non-culpably. In fact, they may even be praiseworthy.

Yeah, the "say" is just a toy example. In the original post, I talk of saying assertorically.

Angra Mainyu said...

That seems problematic to me. For example: Joe's conscience tells him it would be immoral not to lie. But - let's assume - it's always immoral to lie. So, if Joe lies, Joe behaves immorally because he lies. But if he fails to lie, he behaves immorally because he fails to follow his conscience.

Here's another issue: if people always have an obligation to follow their conscience but their conscience might go wrong, are moral rules always public (which you seem to assume in your argument)?
Let's say Alice's conscience goes wrong and she believes she has a moral obligation to lie. How is she supposed to figure out that that's not the case?
We may assume she's not a philosopher, and has neither the time nor the means to study philosophy. Alternatively, we may assume that the philosophers she can ask - like most philosophers - would say that in her situation, she has a moral obligation to lie. What would make the moral rule public?

More generally, we're debating matters involving whether a normative picture of content is correct, and even if it is, how it should be construed, etc. I think that many people (most, but that aside) do not have the knowledge to understand the argument. Sure, it's possible for them to learn. But metaphysical possibility doesn't cut it, in this context. There are plenty of people who in practice have neither the time nor the access to information that would be required to assess the arguments. And yet, doesn't knowledge of one's moral obligations hinge on that argument? (personally, I think not, since I think the intuitive reply that lying is sometimes permissible is correct and available to nearly everyone at least, but assuming lying is always immoral).

Here's an analogy: Encrypted communications can be decrypted with the right means, but an encrypted communication would not meet the publicity criterion in the case of the military satellites, or generally in most cases. Neither would a communication that, while not encrypted, requires a receiver that most people do not have access to.

Anonymous said...

A couple of points:

1. "Nazi" is a derogatory slur, analogous to labelling someone a communist. The word "National Socialist" sounds more professional (and polite).

2. Lying has a biological basis, encoded in our genes ( to improve survival odds?), whereas GPS satellites and time are social constructs. If telling a lie helped improve one's survival (the greatest moral obligation?), would it not "negate" the sin of lying?

3. Lying seems to be part of a deeper, complex survival system of emotions. Are some lies encrypted as truths (or visa versa) to aid survivability? Your war scenario is dedicated to the idea wars are fought for survival.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Following Mark Murphy, I am inclined to think that cases of mistaken conscience may be cases (and may be the only cases) where one has genuinely conflicting moral demands. The person who has a false justified belief that she ought to lie in a case where in fact she ought not is indeed obligated to follow her conscience and lie and is obligated not to lie. Fortunately, while she cannot escape doing wrong in this case (without her conscience changing), she can escape culpability by following her conscience.

I also don't think the weird argument I gave about norms is the only argument that lying is wrong. I like Jorge Garcia's account that lying is wrong as in lying one simultaneously solicits and betrays interpersonal trust, and I think something like the conviction behind this is written in our conscience, though in the face of difficult cases many people retreat from the conviction.

On reflection, I am not sure that the publicness of the norms is as important in the GPS case as I thought. But I am not sure exactly how to modify what I said.

Angra Mainyu said...


Regarding Murphy's view, that's interesting. As I mentioned, I believe there is no non-culpable immoral behavior, but you believe otherwise, so I guess you won't find the matter so problematic. Would you say that in those cases, ought does not imply can? Or would you say that in those cases (and/or generally), that A ought to X and that A ought to Y does not imply that A ought to (X and Y)?

As to Jorge Garcia's argument (based on your account, as I understand it; I've not read his argument), I don't think the evidence supports the claim that the conviction in question is written in our conscience, but in the face of difficult cases many people retreat from the conviction. One reason is as follows: At least in my experience, most people (including most philosophers, most moral philosophers, and most non-philosophers) seem to reckon it's immoral to not to lie in some (many) cases, and that in others, that it's permissible and even praiseworthy to lie (and that there is no obligation not to; let's set aside the case of a mistaken conscience). The cases in question are hypothetical scenarios that the people making the assessments are not at all likely to face in real-life conditions. They're not actually facing difficult circumstances.