Wednesday, December 11, 2019

More on fake assertions

In my previous post I argued that if Bob writes and posts a letter of recommendation for himself purporting to be from Alice, and saying all sorts of false stuff like that Bob is very honest, then the contents of the letter are not asserted by Bob, and hence while they are deceptions—and, obviously, immoral—they are not lies.

Here are some more cases that I think support this. In all of the stories, I assume Alice is honest and well-informed.

  1. Bob has deceived Alice into thinking that he is actually very honest. She writes him a letter of recommendation asserting this, and Bob reads the letter (e.g., by steaming open the envelope) and mails it to the potential employer.

  2. Bob breaks into Alice’s office and finds a letter of recommendation for another guy—a really honest guy—with the same name as Bob. He sends the letter in support of his job application.

  3. After an accident, Alice has been engaging in handwriting exercises by writing joke letters of recommendation. One of these joke letters is a letter of recommendation for Stalin as a kindergarten teacher, praising his compassion, and another is a letter for Bob as a bank teller, praising his honesty. Bob breaks into Alice’s office, finds the letter for him. He knows full well it is a joke, since he knows what Alice actually thinks of him, but he posts the letter in support of his job application.

  4. Bob has a bunch of monkeys employed randomly typing on typewriters. One day, a monkey produces a letter praising Bob’s honesty and purporting be from Alice. He sends the letter as part of his job application.

  5. Bob obtains a letter of recommendation from Alice where one line ends with “Bob is utterly dis-” and the next line begins with “honest.” He carefully erases the “dis-” and posts the letter in support of his job application.

  6. The original case where Bob fakes the entire letter.

Case 1: There is no lie in the letter, and nothing in the letter is asserted by Bob. Bob is still being deceitful by knowingly mailing a letter containing false information about him, which false information comes from his deceit of Alice. But there is no lie in the letter.

Case 2: Alice asserts truths in the letter. Bob manipulates the reader into thinking that the letter is about him, which it is not. The reader misunderstands the letter as about Bob. But the one person doing any asserting in the letter is Alice, who cannot be said to be asserting falsehoods.

Case 3: Alice neither asserts that Stalin is compassionate nor that Bob is honest. She is just joking and jokes aren’t assertions. Bob manipulates the reader into misunderstanding the jokes as assertions. No one does any asserting in the letter, certainly not Alice, but also not Bob.

Case 4: This one is a little bit trickier, but in the end it’s hard to see a difference between case 3 and case 4. In both cases, the writer of the letter made no assertions. And Bob just posted it.

Case 5: Here things are, I think, even a little bit murkier. But imagine a version of case 5 where Bob sees his pet monkey playing with an eraser and erasing the “dis-”, and then he posts the letter. In that case, this is just like case 4 with respect to Bob’s authorship, and hence Bob is not lying in the letter. But I also don’t think it matters whether Bob physically does the erasing himself or the monkey does it with Bob’s knowledge. Bob isn’t lying in the letter.

I could imagine someone caviling at my judgment in case 5, so let’s go back to case 4 some more.

Imagine that Bob has all the time in the world on his hands, and he has hired a bunch of monkeys as secretarial staff. Whenever he wants to write a letter, he composes it is in his mind, and then waits for the monkeys to type exactly it at random. When they do so, he posts the letter. This is just an inefficient way of writing letters: the letter is just as fully from Bob as it would be if he typed it himself. If the letter is signed “Bob” and contains claims that Bob knows to be false, Bob is lying in the letter. But note that if the letter is signed “Alice”, this is just case 4, and in case 4, Bob isn’t lying in the letter. So, it looks like whether Bob is or is not lying in the letter depends on whether it purports to be from him, and hence in cases 5 and 6, Bob isn’t lying in the letter either.

Let me push a bit further. Go back to case 1, which was perhaps the clearest case of Bob’s not lying in the letter. Imagine that Bob has the following inefficient technique for avoiding doing any typing himself. When he wants to write a particular letter purporting to be from himself, he finds another person with the same name as his own, and he manipulates them into believing the content of the letter, and then puts them in circumstances where the other person has a reason to honestly write such a letter. He then steals the letter and posts it as if it were his own. This seems, once again, to be a case of an inefficient letter composition procedure, and Bob is the author of the letter, just as much as he would be if he waited for a monkey to type it at random or if he trained a monkey to write it. Yet the main difference between this and case 1 is that in case 1, Bob isn’t purporting the letter to be from himself, but from Alice, which it in fact is. So, if we grant, as I think we have to, that Bob isn’t lying in the letter in case 1, but that he would be if he used the inefficient secretarial technique of manipulating namesakes into writing letters just like the ones he wants, then we have to say that what makes the difference as to whether Bob is lying in a letter that he fully approves of despite knowing it contains falsehoods is whether the letter purports to be from Bob.

We can make similar points about some of the other cases. For instance, suppose we agree that there is no lie in the joke letter in case 3. But we can imagine Bob having an inefficient secretarial technique where letters from him are written by getting lots of people to do handwriting exercises until one of them writes something signed “Bob” that has the exact content he wants it to have. In that case, Bob is lying in the letter, if the letter has falsehoods.

If this is right, then lies are tightly connected to a personal endorsement of a claim. If instead of personally endorsing a claim one fakes an endorsement by someone else, one is engaging in deceit but one isn’t lying.


Heath White said...

FWIW, after looking at all these cases (good ones!) I agree with your analysis. Bob is arranging for the recipients to believe that Alice has asserted he is honest. She has not asserted this, but it would be a reasonable inference on the part of those who get these letters. So Alice is not asserting (that Bob is honest, anyway) and Bob is not asserting either.

The broader category might be something like "fake testimony." These letters have the evidential and moral status of those political ads that take quotes or video clips out of context and thus portray one's opponent in a misleadingly negative light.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I take it that by "fake testimony", you mean something that appears to be testimony but isn't.

I wonder, by the way, whether it makes much moral difference whether one posts a misleading video clip out of context or one manufactures the video clip from whole cloth. I think it might make a little, but not much.