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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

What's in a Lie?

We all know what lying is, don't we? Well, don't we? You see, I get really confused on this. The dictionary says it is "a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth." Okay. So far so good. But then it goes on to say, "an inaccurate or false statement." Oh, now, see? One required "intent to deceive" and the other is simply any inaccurate or false statement. So if I fully believe that what I'm saying is true, I could still be lying. Well, that's not the same thing, is it?

I was thinking about this subject while I was reading a short science fiction story. There was going to be a war between Planet A and Planet B, so the people on Planet A who were from Planet B were leaving. The last flight out was stopped by the police force of Planet A. "Someone blew up an entire city. We know they're on this ship. We're going to find them." They used a lie detector. (See, I was getting around to the subject of lying.) They asked every passenger, "Do you know anything about the destruction of one of our cities." Everyone said no and everyone passed. As it turned out, three of them did know that they had actually miniaturized the city and stolen it. "But we were telling the truth when we said we knew nothing about the destruction of any city." And I thought, "But, that was a lie." You see, to me a lie requires the intent to deceive. They knew what the question was and intended to deceive. Everyone knows how we can substitute false information for true information in order to deceive people. This would be a case of providing true information with the intent to deceive.

Back in the George W. Bush presidency, we saw lots of "Bush lied; people died" kinds of signs. I didn't think then that President Bush had lied. I thought he had likely been mistaken. But so was everyone in Congress. (He didn't send troops into Iraq by himself.) I didn't classify "mistaken" as "lying". I don't classify not intending to deceive as a lie. But I think my position is in opposition to the majority.

And, of course, there is always the "no information" lie. You know that one. He never told her about the boat he bought. He didn't tell her he didn't buy it. He just never told her about it. An attempt to deceive. But, now, see, again I run up against the crowd here. I wouldn't classify unexpressed information as a lie unless it had an intent to deceive. She never told him about the guy she dated before him because she wanted him to think he was the only one. Lie. He never told her about the girl he dated before because he assumed everyone had prior relationships and didn't think it was an issue. Not a lie.

And the dictionary is no help at all. It could be that any false statement you make is a lie. Or it could be that a lie requires intent to deceive. So which is it? Is presenting mistaken information you sincerely believe to be true a lie? Or does it require an intent to deceive? Is withholding information a lie ... any information? Or does it require an intent to deceive? And is it possible to lie by telling the truth? What do you think? (And, of course, why? That would be helpful.)

5 comments:

Marshall Art said...

I think intent is everything. If there is no intent to deceive, then one must consider other possibilities. Intention is willful, purposeful. I think, for example, that one cannot be "mistaken" when corrected repeatedly. That is, if one is mistaken and continues with the mistake because it "seems" right or is personally preferred, it is no longer a mistake, but a willful deceit, and intention to perpetuate falsehood.

But even with intention, we then must consider if the lie was told with some level of malice as opposed to diverting evil. That is, to lie to a criminal in order to protect life or property is still a lie, but is this intent to deceive wicked or "bad"? I don't believe that to be the case. Yet, there is intent to deceive, so that constitutes a lie.

Stan said...

Whether or not lies are always wrong is a different question. More to the point, whether or not the intent to deceive is always wrong is a different question. (I don't believe it is.) But you seem to agree that a "lie" is defined as "intent to deceive".

I am also pretty sure that there is a distinction between lying and "bearing false witness." The famous command, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exo 20:16), specifies "false witness" and "against" someone. Seems to require malice.

Marshall Art said...

I dunno. Sounds like lying to me. Perhaps you could flesh out what you perceive as the distinction between the two.

Stan said...

Lying is the intent to deceive. "Bear false witness against your neighbor" is a malicious intent to deceive. To lie to a Nazi soldier about the presence of Jews would be an attempt to deceive the soldier, but not with malice.

Marshall Art said...

Got it. Then, the commandment covers well the issue at hand here. It isn't merely lying, or even intending to deceive, but doing so with evil intent. That is a logical expectation. It's the meaning I drew as well.