A lie is not a statement to be analyzed logically

This will begin a trilogy of thoughts on the problem of lying, one of which will, hopefully, appear on another, more general site (but if it is not accepted there, I’ll post it here). Hopefully, recurrent readers of this blog will recognize the relation between this discussion and a recent post on collective fiction making – https://nosignofit.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/collective-fiction-making-as-reality/ (and other posts here concerning the fictive nature of much of our story-telling, rhetoric, and presumed knowledge).


After reading an article by Gerald Dworkin ( http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/14/can-you-justify-these-lies/  ), considering the possible ethical justifications for telling a lie, I realized that the Analytic philosophy tradition’s efforts to develop an adequate theory of the lie – as logically analyzable statement – is frankly rather impoverished.

From Dworkin: “John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X.”

This is the baseline definition of the lie, at least in Analytic philosophy. See James Mahon’s SEP article: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition/

Unfortunately, this definition, while useful in a dictionary, is misplaced in an encyclopedia. It is woefully incomplete.

From Mahon:
“Consider the following joke about two travelers on a train from Moscow (reputed to be Sigmund Freud’s favorite joke) (reference: G. A. Cohen):

Trofim: Where are you going?
Pavel: To Pinsk.
Trofim: Liar! You say you are going to Pinsk in order to make me believe you are going to Minsk. But I know you are going to Pinsk.

Pavel does not lie to Trofim, since his statement to Trofim is truthful, even if he intends that Trofim be deceived by this double bluff.”

Actually, Trofim is correct, Pavel is lying. The problem with the Analytic theorizing over lying is that, despite needing to contextualize lying, especially when considering it’s moral or ethical justification in certain situations, it doesn’t really grasp the profoundly social underlying structure, which necessarily includes audience expectations and the liar’s manipulation of these. Pavel knows Trofim doesn’t trust him, and so effectively lies to this expectation (not knowing how deeply Trofim distrusts him, to the point that he reveals the lie as a truth). This sort of situation, wherein a sentence can be both truth in one sense, and yet lie as to audience expectation, is not accountable in most Analytic philosophy, where the matter should be decidable on the basis of sentential analysis, predicated on a justified true belief model of knowledge. Real lying is not about sentences, and it isn’t even about what anyone believes; it’s about social relationships and expectations. One can speak a lie without needing to believe the sentence spoken to be untrue – or indeed, without believing anything about it at all. (Pavel may not believe he’s going to Pinsk, he just wants Trofim to think he’s going to Minsk.) What’s important is the expectation of the audience within the context.

So: when considering the ethics of lying, one has to approach the matter on a case-by-case basis; otherwise, injustice will be done to those who behave in good will, or those who feel socially compelled. I’m not sure a sustainable universal or general theoretical statement on the matter is even possible, given the social contextualization of the behavior.

Those wishing to maintain the purity of the logical analysis of lies as statements seek to maintain a rigid distinction between the lie and other forms of deception. In practice, this distinction cannot be maintained. Elsewhere in the SEP article, Mahon writes:

“If it is granted that a person is not making a statement when, for example, she wears a wedding ring when she is not married, or wears a police uniform when she is not a police officer, it follows that she cannot be lying by doing these things.”

But I do not grant this; or, rather, I hold that its incompleteness trivializes it *. The notion that an unmarried woman wearing a wedding ring (aware of how others will perceive this, in a given cultural context) is not a kind of lie, is uninformed as to how humans communicate through non-verbal signification, and the complex ways that the verbal and non-verbal relate.

Now, is the woman wearing the ring engaged in cruel play on innocents for the sake of vanity? or is she protecting herself in a threatening social context? That depends on the context, and on the expectations others have for her.

(Which. BTW, also tells us a little something about the social usefulness of cosmetics and apparel, doesn’t it?)

* As a matter of social fact, everyone who is not a professional Analytic philosopher knows full well that fashion makes a statement.

Developed out of a comment made at: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/platos-suggestions-9/


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