Monday, December 9, 2019

Fake assertions

Suppose Bob faked a letter of recommendation from his dissertation director Alice, in which letter lots of stuff was said which Bob knew to be false, and then posted the letter to Carl.

Bob clearly deceived Carl, or tried to. But did he lie to Carl? Let’s consider three representative example sentences from the letter:

  1. I am Bob’s dissertation director.

  2. I think the world of Bob.

  3. Bob is impeccably honest.

I will also take that Bob knows that Alice is his dissertation director, that Alice thinks poorly of him (which is why he faked the letter) and that he’s dishonest, and I will also assume that Bob thinks the world of himself.

If Bob lied, which of these sentences did he lie in?

One important question is who “I” refers to in the letter. If it refers to Bob, then (1) and (3) are false and (2) is true. If it refers to Alice, then (2) and (3) are false and (1) is true. Basically, we need to decide which of (1) and (2) is true.

It seems clear that by (2), Bob intended to communicate that Alice thinks the world of him, and he had no intention at all to communicate that Bob thinks the world of himself (indeed, perhaps another sentence in the letter is “I have never met a humbler person”). So it seems that “I” refers to Alice, and hence (2) and (3) are false, but (1) is true.

On this reading, Bob has knowingly written two false things: (2) and (3), and one truth: (1). Has Bob lied in the false things he wrote? I have some doubts. The reason is this. What makes lying be lying is that one is betraying a trust that one has solicited in speaking. But Bob has not solicited Carl’s trust in Bob: rather, he is relying on Carl’s trust in Alice. But one can only betray trust in oneself. So Bob cannot betray Carl’s trust in Alice, and hence Bob is not lying when Alice is the object of Carl’s trust. Here’s another way to think about this: To lie is to stand behind a falsehood. But Bob isn’t standing behind the falsehood—he is, instead, putting Alice in front of it, as is clear from the fact that “I” refers to Alice.

In asserting something one implicates that one believes it. But Bob isn’t implicating that he believes it, only that Alice does. And it’s not, it seems, that Bob has canceled the implicature of belief (as one sometimes can, pace Moore). I think Bob not only isn’t lying, but he isn’t asserting anything.

This seems paradoxical. But consider this. Suppose Drew, who is dishonest but not a racist, fakes an open letter from Adolf Hitler, hoping to sell it off to the Holocaust Museum.. The letter contains all sorts of false statements, such as that various minority groups are subhuman. Drew is clearly committing fraud. But is he making racist statements? I don’t think so. Rather, he is faking racist statements by Hitler. Similarly, the falsehoods in the letter are not lies by Drew, for if Drew were lying in the letter, he would be making racist statements. But he is faking, not making, racist statements.

I think the same may be true of Bob: he is faking, not making, various assertions in the letter. There is a difference between Bob and Drew, of course. Drew is not trying to get the audience to believe the fake assertions, but only to believe that they were made. Bob is trying to get the audience to believe the fake assertions. But this difference aside, I still suspect that Bob is deceiving, not lying.

Of course, this difference doesn’t let Bob or Drew off the hook. They have engaged in a massive failure of integrity, indeed in fraud.

But the difference between deceiving and lying could still be relevant. I think a challenge for those of us who think lying is always wrong is to articulate some sort of a theory of clandestine military and police operations that allows for non-lying deceit. If lies require that the liar be taken to be the author, then this opens up the way for various things like Operation Mincemeat being deceit but not lies.

I fear, however, that at this point I am engaging in the kind of casuistry that gives casuistry a bad name. Here is one way of highlighting this. Surely one can’t just write a letter with falsehoods putatively from oneself and claim that one faked one’s own letter, and hence one didn’t lie in it. But now imagine that Alice and Bob conspire to each write a fake letter purporting to be from the other. Surely that shouldn’t escape the moral prohibitions against lying. Maybe, though, it depends on the details of the conspiracy. If Bob is just writing in the letter putatively from Alice things that Alice asked him to write, then the letter is no fake, and Bob is just Alice’s secretary.


Michael Gonzalez said...


I'm dubious about a few steps in your reasoning here:

1) I don't think your (1) is true. Namely: I think writing "I am Bob's dissertation director" is meant to convey "I, the one writing these things down, am Bob's dissertation director, Alice". And that is false.

I don't think this is an irrelevant correction, since I think it colors the rest of the analysis.

2) I think writing things down in the guise of someone else is precisely meant to solicit trust in the document and its writer, otherwise why pretend to be someone else at all?

3) Lying seems to me to be any intentional deception where the recipient was entitled to the truth. That leaves a lot of wiggle room, I'm sure, but I think it's clear that Bob has done this while military operatives who deceive enemies have not.

Michael Gonzalez said...

A tiny correction to my point #1: "I am Bob's director" conveys that "I, the source of the here-written information (even if conveyed through secretary or other means for actually writing it down) am Bob's director, Alice". I didn't mean to give the impression that the statement entails the actual writing is Alice's doing, so much as that she is the source.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Ad 1: If that's right, then "I have the highest opinion of Bob" in the letter would actually be true.

Ad 2: One solicits trust for oneself in asserting.

Ad 3: First, even if the recipient is not entitled to the truth, it's still lying to tell them a known falsehood. It may be (I disagree) morally justifiable lying, but it's lying. Second, only communicative deception can be lying. Laying down a false trail for the police is not lying.

Michael Gonzalez said...


1) Wouldn't it actually be regarded in the light of the (1), and therefore be the false claim that Alice thinks highly of Bob? Claim (1) is a lie because it says that the writer is Alice. The other two claims, in light of the false impression from (1) are said as though Alice has written them, and so are also false.

2) But when one is self-referentially asserting that they are something else, they cannot (for fear of vicious circle) be asking that the real them be trusted that they are someone else, right?

3) That makes sense. Fair enough.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Ad 2: Right, which is why I think in such cases one is not asserting.

Michael Gonzalez said...


That just seems very counter-intuitive to me. I would instead take this approach: When one reads written information, whoever they take to be the writer is also the one they are deciding whether to trust or not. If the actual writer intentionally and falsely writes that they are someone else (Alice), then already the reader is being lied to; and it colors everything else that is said, since the reader will take it to be written by Alice.

So (1) is a lie (it asserts that "the writer of what you are reading now is Alice", when it is actually Bob). (2) is a lie (having established that the writer is Alice, it goes on to assert that the she has an opinion she doesn't really have).

To put it another way, the "I" stands for "the one writing" until the writer falsely claims to be someone else. Then their statements (which still clearly intended to mislead) are attributed to the one they claimed to be.

Ben said...

Alex, can you elaborate on this: "Bob is trying to get the audience to believe the fake assertions." If Bob succeeds, what kind of thing is the audience believing, or what is the originating speech act assuming it's not an assertion?

Secondly, why should we think that lying requires betraying trust? Sure, maybe that's a reasonable view in general, but if we grant that one can only betray trust in oneself, and we manufacture a situation where betrayal technically doesn't happen, then one of my first impulses is to say, "Let's back up and reconsider our view that lying is wrong because it betrays trust, because maybe betrayal isn't exactly the right concept or isn't the only concept that fits there. Clearly, the good of sociality is still being acted against in some way, even if "betrayal" isn't happening.


Alexander R Pruss said...


The audience believes propositions that they believe have been asserted but which have not been asserted (as far as the story goes).

Nothing that strange about this by itself. Alice is super trustworthy. I lie to you: "Alice told me that Bob is really honest." I am trying to get you to believe two propositions:
1. that Alice told me that Bob is really honest, and
2. that Bob is really honest.
The second proposition was not actually asserted by anyone.