Home

January 9, 2017

The Definition of Lying – Thomas L. Carson. Loyola University of Chicago

In the above paper, Carson gives his definition of lying based on three features:

  1. Standard dictionary definitions overlook a necessary condition of lying, namely, that the liar cannot believe that the statement she makes is true.
  2. Contrary to most standard definitions, [Carson] argues[s] that lying does not require that the liar intends to deceive others.
  3. [Carson] hold[s] that in order to tell a lie, one must make a statement that one warrants to be true.

Section 2 – Lies and Falsehoods

Carson states “In order to tell a lie, one must make a false statement.” For this to be true, a lie hinges on a “false statement.” This can be proven false when a truth is purposely given to deflect a correct answer. Carson uses the example of Bill Clinton denying sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky by going “through verbal contortions” in order to not give a “false statement” (285). Additional intention to purposefully speak without making a “false statement” allowed Clinton to state that he was not lying. Of course, this is all in the introduction to Carson’s paper and meant, along with two other examples, to show how a “false statement” need not be made to produce a lie.

Section 3 – Standard Dictionary Definitions of Lying

Definitions of Lying

Oxford English Dictionary: A false statement made with the intent to deceive

Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language: To utter a falsehood with the intent to deceive.

For Carson “these two definitions overlook an essential feature of lying. If a statement is a lie, then the person who makes it cannot believe that it is true” (286). A person must believe that a lie is false for it to be a lie. Section 2 shows that people can manipulate their speech to refrain from lying but in this case, Carson writes “the fact that I intend to deceive you by means of stating x does not necessarily imply that I believe that x is false” (286). There is the notion that I must believe that what I am saying is false for it to be a lie yet, there is the possibility that I believe what I am saying to be true yet it is still false. In the above example, although anecdotal, Clinton’s nonsense about not having sexual relations can be viewed as a true statement iff he believes fellatio does not constitute sexual relations.

Furthermore, Carson states that there are stronger and weaker conditions that determine what is and what is not a lie. For the strong condition, “one must make a false statement that one believes is false (or believes is probably false)” while the weak condition states “in order to tell a lie one must make a false statement that one doesn’t believe to be true” (286). If this is the case, then to call Clinton a liar in the stronger case, one would have to prove that he knowingly made a false statement about his sexual relations. In other words, one would have to show that Clinton was convinced that fellatio is a form of sexual relation and still making a false statement about having sexual relations with Lewinsky. For the weaker condition, the statement can be made easier by showing that Clinton’s determination that he did not have sexual relations is based on a false statement made while he thinks that fellatio is not a form of sex. The differences between the two conditions is tough, so Carson moves away from these two conditions and towards a broad and narrow concept of lying.

Section 4 – A Reformulation of the Dictionary Definitions

Carson bases the following summation on the preceding examples:

A person S tells a lie iff:

  1. S makes a false statement x
  2. S believes that x is false or probably false (or, alternatively, S doesn’t believe that x is true)
  3. S intends to deceive another person by means of stating x (by stating x, S intends to cause another person to have false beliefs)

for premise 1,

  1. S produces (utters, writes, signs, etc.) a linguistic token,t, that expresses a proposition, X.
  2. X is false
  3. S does this the intention of communicating X to someone or some group of people

In this case, part 3 of the second part shows that there must be intent to communicate to other parties. If one is bored somewhere and doodling or reading something aloud, this does not constitute intent to communicate. [there will be more on this in section 14]

Section 5 – Lying and the Right to Know the Truth

This is key to the thought experiment of “a killer comes knocking at your door and your hiding someone in your basement; what do you do?” The notion that it is no longer a lie if the person being lied to has no “right to know the truth” is summed up by Carson like this:

A person S tells a lie iff:

  1. S makes a false statement x
  2. S believes that x is false or probably false (or, alternatively, S doesn’t believe that x is true)
  3. S intends to deceive another person by means of stating x (S intends his statement to cause another person to have false beliefs)
  4. The person(s) to whom he makes the statement has (have) the right to know the truth about the matter in question

By adding the 4th premise to the initial argument of section 4, Carson shows that a lie is now contingent on whether or not the person being lied to has a right to the information in the first place. This contingency now frees S from lying to a “killer” because the “killer” has no right to the information of those that S is “hiding in a basement.” This is the question regarding Kant and any apparent contradictions with the absolute nature of lying because it is no longer a lie if premise 4 is invalidated. At any rate, Carson is still not convinced as to whether this entire premise still does not constitute a lie.

This is because there is a moral judgment that needs to be made on what constitutes a right to know. If we take the case of the killer, then it is understood that the killer intends to do harm to someone that we are protecting. Carson counters this with the example of “a man [who] has just had open heart surgery and is temporarily in a precarious state of health” (288). The man must avoid all traumatic events or risk death, and it so happens that his son dies in an accident. To prevent this man from experiencing the trauma of learning his son died, those around him lie to him to keep him safe. In both cases, the determination on “right to know” varies: the killer has no right to know because they want to do harm to someone but the father has a “right to know” that his son died, yet, no one will tell him the truth.

Section 6 – That the Intent to Deceive is not Necessary for Lying

Carson states that one can deceive but is compelled to do so for a reason other than lying that fit his previous arguments. If a person witnesses a crime and must testify in a case, they may make false statements to save their life from retribution by a guilty party. In that case, the “intent to deceive” is not to lie but lying is a consequence of their self-preservation. Furthermore, it might be that case that the person, in the interest of self-preservation, understands that by lying they can be sure the jury will not believe what they are saying and that they do not care how they are perceived by the jury, their “intent to deceive” is not based on a lie but on their indifference to how they are perceived. Again, the lie is a “side-effect” according to Carson (289). Essentially, Carson states that the lie that comes from “intent to deceive” can be a result of some other cause and not be the primary reason for a person’s intention to deceive.

It is key to understand what Carson defines as an intentional act: “the intended consequences of an act are those that one either: i) aims at for their own sake, or ii) foresees and regards as part of a causal chain leading to consequences that one desires or aims at for their own sake” (291). In other words, an intentional act is done for their own benefit or as a way to bring about some type of benefit. I intend to graduate from UCLA on time, so I take all my classes and study hard to graduate by June of 2018. That fulfills premise i. For premise ii, my actions surrounding my ability to fulfill the act of graduating June of 2018 constitute the causal chain that allows me to walk across that stage. I commit an intentional act of attending UCLA so that I can graduate in 2018.

Chisholm and Feehan’s Definition

Carson points to Chisholm and Feehan’s paper, The Intent to Deceive to explain the following:

[Person L lies to [Person] = df There is a proposition p such that:

i) either believes that p is not true or believes that p is false and

ii) L asserts p to D

The assertion moves as:

L asserts p to D = df states p to D and does so under conditions which, he believes, justify D in believing that he, L, not only accepts p, but also intends to contribute causally to D‘s believing that he, L, accepts p.

Carson finds a problem with this and shows it in a thought experiment of a witness on a stand who is a known liar. “Their definition implies that it is self-contradictory to say that I lie when I know that others know that I am lying (and thus are not justified in believing that I believe (accept) what I say)” (292). In other words, I cannot lie if everyone knows I’m a liar…no matter what I say, people will think I am lying.

I am a little fuzzy on this right now.