Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Lying and normative views of assertion

I find some version of the following normative partial analysis of assertion very plausible:

  1. At least a part of what makes a speech act an assertion of p is that it is the kind of speech act that should not be made if one believes p to be false.

But now:

  1. If it is sometimes permissible to lie, it is sometimes obligatory to lie.

Why? Well, people’s main intuitions that it is sometimes permissible to lie are driven by cases—such as the murderer at the door—where they think it is obligatory to lie. Moreover, if an action is permissible, then typically it becomes obligatory when there is enough at stake. Thus, if it’s permissible to eat meat, it’s obligatory to eat meat when doing so is necessary to save an innocent life (e.g., an evildoer says: “Eat this burger or this innocent dies”).

Thus, to argue that lying is never permissible I just need to argue that it is never obligatory.

Now here is a flatfooted argument against lying ever being obligatory. If lying is ever obligatory, then sometimes one should assert that p when one believes p to be false. But that contradicts (1).

Of course, this is a bad argument, for two reasons. The first is that perhaps all the argument shows is that there is a real dilemma sometimes: one should lie and one shouldn’t lie. The second, and more serious, is that the norms in (1) and (2) are different: the norm in (1) is a social norm of assertion, while that in (2) is a moral norm.

However, the argument can be fixed to get around both problems. For morality is overriding in the following strong way:

  1. A non-moral norm is null and void insofar as it requires what is morally forbidden.

E.g., a law requiring an immoral action is just a piece of paper with no normative force. But this means that a norm of assertion that forbids one from a speech act under circumstances in which in which that speech act is morally required is null and void under those circumstances. But a null and void norm is no norm at all and generates no “should” of the action-guiding sort. And the “should” in (1) is of the action-guiding sort. And hence the idea that sometimes lying is morally obligatory contradicts (1) precisely when we understand the “should” in (1) as expressive of an action-guiding non-moral norm.

Here’s another way to show the intuition behind the argument. The normative picture of language nicely fits with the following modified Wittgensteinian picture of language: The meaning of language comes from its normative use. But if lying is permissible, then a norm-abiding speaker of English will say “Bob is not at home” when asked by someone at the door who wants to murder Bob. Thus, the norm-abiding use of “Bob is not at home” will fail to distinguish between two candidate norms:

  1. Say “Bob is not at home” only when you believe Bob is not at home.

  2. Say “Bob is not at home” only when you believe that either Bob is not at home or the interlocutor wants to murder Bob.

And hence it will not be possible to read the meaning of “Bob is not at home” from its norm-abiding usage.

The argument works with minor modifications if we replace the belief norm by a truth norm, a knowledge norm or a justified belief norm.

I do, however, have a serious objection to the argument. The argument as it stands only works when the norm of assertion is of an action-guiding sort. But norms of assertion could be a different critter altogether: they could be Aristotelian teleological norms. These aren’t norms that say, at least directly, what is or is not to be done. Rather, they are norms that say what is or is not defective. Thus, a broken leg is defective, but it is, of course, a category mistake to say that a broken leg is something not to be done (and it’s a moral mistake to say that a broken leg is something not to be produced: there are times when it is obligatory to break a leg, say in the defense of the innocent). Thus, it could be that what (1) says is that a part of what makes a speech act be an assertion of p is that it is a speech act that would be defective should p turn out to be false.

I do not know how satisfactory this reading of (1) is. It seems to me that we think of the norms of assertion as something that persons are criticizable for failing to meet in a way in which no one is criticizable for having a broken leg (though one might be criticizable for breaking one’s leg).

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