Monday, January 27, 2020

Lying and the right to the truth

Some people say that a lie is an assertion contrary to one’s mind to someone who has a right to the truth. Grotius introduced this, but Grotius was clear on the fact that this is not an account of what the word “lie” means in ordinary language. Rather, this was introduced as a technical sense of “lie” for purposes of “natural law”, in order to save an absolute prohibition on lying.

I can see two kinds of accounts of what that is means for x to have a right to the truth regarding p:

  1. it is wrong to assert about p contrary to one’s mind to x

  2. x has a right to correctly believe, or to know, or to be correctly informed regarding p.

Both options lead to an unsatisfactory saving of the absolute prohibition on lying. On (1), we get the trivial account that it is always wrong to assert about p contrary to one’s mind when it is wrong to do so.

On (2), we get a deficient account that doesn’t cover all the cases of lying. Most of the time when we have ordinary conversations, the other person doesn’t have a right to correctly believe, know or be informed about the matter. If a stranger asks you on the street what time it is, and your phone is buried at the bottom of your backpack, you have no moral obligation to pull out your phone and inform them, as you would if they had a right to be correctly informed. But it would be wrong to deliberately give them your time. It is only in the rare case of special relationships relevant to the conversation that a right to be correctly informed comes up: patients have a right to know about their medical condition; the court has a right to know what the witness saw; etc. If the prohibition on lying is restricted to such cases, then the prohibition fails to cover the vast majority of what we ordinarily take to be lies.


Martin Cooke said...

Presumably you should say that the person who asked the time had the right not to be lied to, rather than that s/he had a right to be told the truth. You could then say that with a few exceptions, everyone has the right not to be lied to. You can then list those exceptions, and maybe find patterns in them. I would definitely count the proverbial nazi-at-the-door as one exception, for example. It might take some time to build up to a comprehensive account, but it ought to be possible, for someone with good intuitions. (Identifying the nazi-at-the-door as an exception seems to me to be a matter of having good intuitions about lying.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

But then to have the right not to be lied to just means that it is wrong to lie to one, and the principle becomes trivial.

Martin Cooke said...

Does the list of exceptions not make it non-trivial? If not, then some pattern discovered in the list might, and so this might still be the way to go.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suspect the alleged exceptions are going to either be a single utilitarian rule (lie when it maximizes utility) or else will be really messy.