Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Lying and consequences

Suppose Alice never lies while Bob lies to saves innocent lives.

Consider circumstances where Alice and Bob know that getting Carl to believe a proposition p would save an innocent life, and suppose that Alice and Bob know whether p is true.

In some cases of this sort, Bob is likely to do better with respect to innocent lives:

  1. p is false and Carl doesn’t know Alice and Bob’s character.

  2. p is false and Carl doesn’t know that Alice and Bob know that getting Carl to believe p would save an innocent livfe.

For in cases 1 and 2, Bob is likely to succeed in getting Carl to believe p, while Alice is not.

But in one family of cases, Alice is likely to do better:

  1. p is true and Carl knows Alice and Bob’s character and knows that they believe that getting Carl to believe p would save an innocent life.

For in these cases, Carl wouldn’t be likely to believe Bob with regard to p, as he would know that Bob would affirm p whether p was true or false, as Bob is the sort of person who lies to save innocent lives, while Carl would surely believe Alice.

Are cases of type (1) and (2) more or less common than cases of type (3)?

I suppose standard cases where an aggressor at the door is asking whether a prospective victim is in the house may fall under category (1) when the aggressor knows that they are known to be an aggressor and will fall under category (2) when the aggressor doesn’t know that they are known to be an aggressor (Korsgaard discusses this case in a paper on Kant on lying).

On the other hand, category (3) includes some death penalty cases where (a) the life of the accused depends on some true testimony being believed and (b) the testifier is someone likely to think the accused to be innocent independently of the testimony (say, because the accused is a friend). For in such a case, Bob would just give the testimony whether it’s true or false, while Alice would only give it if it were true (or at least she thought it was), and so Bob’s testimony carries no weight while Alice’s does.

Category (3) also includes some cases where an aggressor at the door knows the character of their interlocutor in the house, and knows that they are known to be an aggressor, and where the prospective victim is not in the house, but a search of the house would reveal other prospective victims. For instance, suppose a Gestapo officer is asking whether there are Jews in the house, which there aren’t, but there are Roma refugees in the house. The Gestapo officer may know that Bob would say there aren’t any Jews even if there were, and so he searches the house and finds the Roma if Bob is at the door; but he believes Alice, and doesn’t search, and the Roma survive.

Roughly, the question of whether Alice or Bob’s character is better consequentialistically comes down to the question whether it is more useful, with respect to innocent life, to be more believable and always honest (Alice) or to be less believable and able to lie (Bob).


steve said...

That cuts both ways. If, one the on hand, we know that someone never lies, because they think lying is always wrong, then we can trust whatever they say.

Mind you, there are people who take that position because it was never put to a severe test. Depending on the situation, they might change their mind and lie.

On the other hand, many of us couldn't trust someone who'd never lie for us under any circumstances. Part of friendship is covering for a friend. I don't necessarily mean covering for him when he does wrong. You can get into trouble for doing the right thing.

Can I trust someone to be my friend if I know that he'd never tell a lie to protect me, even if I did nothing wrong? Although I respect him at a certain level, I can't count on him to watch my back. I can't trust him with my life, because he places truthfulness above friendship.

So lying has differential consequences, depending on the situation.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Isn't this like the claim that I can't trust a moral person to be my friend, because a moral person will value morality above friendship?

scott said...

Two thoughts:

First, I think that Alice and Bob do not exhaust all the relevant character types. Among other possibilities, we might have:

Claire: She is careful to cultivate the impression that she firmly believes lying in order to save lives is absolutely forbidden and is committed to not doing so. But she actually believes lying in order to save lives is just fine. And she is willing to do so under the right circumstances (especially if she can do it without tarnishing her image).

It might be hard for the Gestapo/Jury to distinguish between Bob and Claire. If so, Claire will get all the utility Bob gets plus all the utility Alice gets from lying.

Second, people who care about consequences typically care about the consequences of acts rather than character. So they might ask: Suppose Bob has a better character utility than Alice. Why care about that? What we care about is act utility.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I want to use this to try to help figure out what is actually right. Act consequentialism is just plain wrong. But I accept a weak principle that the fact that a character type is beneficial to society is evidence that the character type is morally good. This principle nicely fits with Natural Law, with Divine Command and with some forms of moral intuitionism, I guess.

The evidence provided by the beneficiality of character is defeasible. For instance, I think it is very plausible on independent grounds that good people have a kind of transparency about their moral commitments, in order to foster our joint investigation into moral truths and be open to critique from others. Given the rarity of cases where lying actually saves lives, I think the lack of transparency in Claire defeats the thought that her character is the good one.

scott said...

OK. I thought you were trying to make a case to people with consequentialist sympathies that they shouldn't lie. But I see now that your purposes were different.

Alexander R Pruss said...

See today's post. :-)

scott said...

Looking forward to it!

steve said...


In this post, you weren't arguing that lying is wrong in principle (although I think that's your position). Rather, you were taking a different tack. You were arguing that even on pragmatic grounds, lying undermines trust.

I was pointing out that that cuts both ways. The question is not whether you can trust a moral person to be your friend because he will value morality above friendship, since your argument wasn't directly about the morality of lying. Rather, I took you to be arguing that even on pragmatic grounds, the good results of a white lie are offset by the bad results. And I noted that that's reversible.

Also, as you know, this is tangentially related to the claim that unitarians can't be friends since they refuse to make an exception for friends.