Friday, March 17, 2023

Defining deceit

A plausible definition of deceit is an action aiming to get someone to believe something one takes to be false.

But I wonder if that’s right. Here are two possible counterexamples.

  1. Socratic conversation: One of my students believes some proposition p that I take to be false. Through Socratic questioning, I attempt to get the student to draw the natural conclusion q from p. Even if I take q to be false, it doesn’t seem I am deceiving my student.

  2. Mitigation of error: Suppose that Alice believes Bob to be culpable for some enormity. You know that Bob never committed the enormity, but you also know it’s hopeless to try to convince Alice of this. But you think you have some hope showing Alice that instead of her evidence supporting the claim that Bob is culpable for the enormity, it only supports the claim that Bob has inculpably committed enormity. You show this to Alice, in the hope that she will come to believe Bob to have innocently committed the enormity, even though that is also false.

In both cases, one is working along with the evidence available to one’s interlocutor. It seems that deception requires one to get someone to believe something true by means of hiding or masking the truth. And here there is no such thing going on. There is nothing underhanded. In both cases, for instance, it would be quite possible for the other party to know what one is really thinking about the case. I need not hide from the student that I disagree with q and you need not hide from Alice that you don’t think Bob committed the enormity at all.

We can add an underhandedness condition to the account of deceit, but I don’t exactly know what underhandedness is.

It is well-known that defining lying is tricky. It looks like defining deceit is also tricky.

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