Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lies about lying

One of the most overused charges in the blogosphere is that someone has "lied." One of my scholarly projects (currently on hold) is a consideration of political lying and when the law might provide a remedy for it. In connection with that, I have given some thought to a taxonomy of political falsehoods.

In common parlance, we say that someone has "lied" when they say something that is untrue and know that it is untrue. This is what gives the charge its sting. It is - or it can be (are there "white lies"?)- immoral to deceive. We generally don't think its immoral to be mistaken.

I was reminded of this yesterday in discussing a collegue's paper on ethical limitations on rhetoric and by a link to Andrew Sullivan's list of Sarah Palin's "lies." I think you can put together a list like this for just about any politician, but my point is not to consider whether Palin is "better" or "worse" than, say, Joe Biden. Some of Sullivan's examples may be examples of a deliberate falsehood. Some of them may not even be false. A large number, it seems to me, are mistakes. Others are one view of contested facts and some are even matters of opinion or of Palin's subjective state of mind.

My point is not to engage in more talk about Sarah Palin (so commenters can forget about trying to provoke a response from me on that). There are many examples of people calling Obama a "liar" when the fact is that he was mistaken or taking a position that, in the writers' view, cannot be supported. My point is one that every lawyer understands. Mistakes are not lies. Opinions other than your own are not lies no matter how silly you think they are.

The hard cases are statements that might be literally true but seem intended to communicate - or have the effect of communicating - something that is false. (Yes, the ad at the heart of the Gableman ethics complaint may be an example of that.) Harder still are cases of wild hyperbole - Bush is a fascist, Obama is a communist. Are these lies or just silly exaggerations?

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whether they are all intentional falsehoods or not, Sullivan gathers such an extensive list of Palin's misstatements that one is reminded of Mary McCarthy's famous statement about Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Of course to think of Palin "writing" anything generates some cognitive dissonance. As someone has remarked, it's fortunate she has found a writer to assist her with her book.

gnarlytrombone said...

"The hard cases"

My wife called the other day as I was driving home from work. She said I should feel lucky, because a passionate, beautiful woman was awaiting.

"Where are you calling from?" I asked.

Then she hung up on me. Weird.

illusory tenant said...

Who needs Andrew Sullivan.

John Foust said...

We can't talk about Palin?

I think a famous lawyer once said "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the - if he - if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not - that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement... Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

And if we can't talk about lies because it's just too hard to figure out what's true and what's not, can you perhaps explain the funny feeling I get when I see some blogger say something really, really stupid when I know they're undoubtably smarter than that?

Anonymous said...

Foust

Probably H1N1.

Dad29 said...

IIRC, the Church has an 'escape route' for "white lies."

Suppose that the Brownshirts arrive at your door and ask if you are hiding a Jew. You know full well what will happen to that Jew if you tell the truth, and for that matter, what will happen to you.

So you say "No."

The Church allows this. She posits that there are some things which are not anybody else's business, and a deception about what is *not* their business is not a deception.

One could make a "greater good" argument in the case, too. But that's not the best case.

Anonymous said...

If a lawyer knows the real issue of a case but presents a red herring because he knows he cannot win the real issue; isn't that a deception or a lie?

Anonymous said...

or are both GB II and BHO fascio-communists? Good case for that...

I do not think it can logically be disputed that this (these?)is/are the directions we are headed. One economist states that the government owns or controls 1/3 of the economy. Scary to true free marketeers like myself.

Anonymous said...

Mouskateers?

illusory tenant said...

"If a lawyer knows the real issue of a case but presents a red herring because he knows he cannot win the real issue; isn't that a deception or a lie?"

It depends how closely the other lawyer is paying attention.

These are fun threads, by the way. If only I could understand what it is Prof. Esenberg is trying to say.

gnarlytrombone said...

If the fish is chartreuse, you must excuse.

John Foust said...

Thanks for the clarification, Fr. Dad29.

I guess we all know what happens when the church posits that there are some things which are not anybody else's business.

Anonymous said...

"It depends how closely the other lawyer is paying attention"

Pragmatism vs. principals?

At one time not so long ago, Americans could generally depend on other Americans not to screw or stab them in the back. Perhaps the professor is talking about the growing problem of distrust in our country.

gnarlytrombone said...

Plato - and Irving Kristol - tell us the Church is a noble lie.

Dad29 said...

You may kiss my ring, Foust.

John Foust said...

Is that one of those Church euphemisms, Padre?

Those darn liberal media commentators, always picking on Palin!

Clutch said...

IIRC, the Church has an 'escape route' for "white lies."... She posits that there are some things which are not anybody else's business, and a deception about what is *not* their business is not a deception.

I have not heard of any Church doctrine to this effect. The longest and most robust tradition in Catholicism, dating back to Augustine's two powerful pieces on the topic, is that lying is never permissible. To this tradition was grafted a significant literature (which took on a particular significance during the Reformations and subsequent persecution of Catholic clergy in some regions) arguing for the permissibility of lies of necessity -- in effect, consequentialist arguments. Even these arguments tended to emphasize the importance of speaking the truth if possible, using ambiguity or implicature rather than direct falsehood to mislead. (As with a hooded Athanasius, accosted by aspiring murderers seeking him, who answers their query about the whereabouts of Athanasius by saying "He is nearby.")

The idea that it counts as a white lie simply if the matter is none of the questioner's business would fit very, very poorly with any aspect of this tradition, since it would permit an enormous amount of lying. After all, how much of our communication is premised on the idea that our responses are strictly someone else's business? Much casual conversation obliges some volunteering of information that is not owed ("So, what do you do for a living?"; "What's your favorite team?"; "Are you a golfer?"). It is no wonder that the Church would not adopt a view of lying that would permit lies for non-overriding consequential reasons in these situations.

That's not to say that the issue of entitlement to truth has never been raised in the literature on lying. It has, both in secular and Catholic contexts. But the online Catholic Encyclopedia does a nice job of summarizing both the weakness and the marginality of this view in the Catholic context:

A recent writer in Paris series, Science et Religion, wishes to add to the common definition some such words as "made to one who has the right to truth." So that a false statement knowingly made to one who has not a right to the truth will not be a lie. This, however, seems to ignore the malice which a lie has in itself, like hypocrisy, and to derive it solely from the social consequence of lying. Most of these writers who attack the common opinion show that they have very imperfectly grasped its true meaning. At any rate they have made little or no impression on the common teaching of the Catholic schools.

Dad29 said...

Clutch, I'm sure you noticed the "IIRC" qualifier, and I am happy I put that there.

On further review:

The Scholastics, while accepting the teaching of St. Augustine on the absolute and intrinsic malice of a lie, modified his teaching on the point which we are discussing. It is interesting to read what St. Raymund of Pennafort wrote on the subject in his Summa, published before the middle of the thirteenth century. He says that most doctors agree with St. Augustine, but others say that one should tell a lie in such cases. Then he gives his own opinion, speaking with hesitation and under correction. The owner of the house where the man lies concealed, on being asked whether he is there, should as far as possible say nothing. If silence would be equivalent to betrayal of the secret, then he should turn the question aside by asking another -- How should I know? -- or something of that sort. Or, says St. Raymund, he may make use of an expression with a double meaning, an equivocation such as: Non est hic, id est, Non comedit hic -- or something like that. An infinite number of examples induced him to permit such equivocations, he says. Jacob, Esau, Abraham, Jehu, and the Archangel Gabriel made use of them. Or, he adds, you may say simply that the owner of the house ought to deny that the man is there, and, if his conscience tells him that this is the proper answer to give, then he will not go against his conscience, and so he will not sin. Nor is this direction contrary to what Augustine teaches, for if he gives that answer he will not lie, for he will not speak against his mind (Summa, lib. I, De Mendacio).--Catholic Encyclopedia

In addition:

When a statesman, or a doctor, or a lawyer is asked impertinent questions about what he cannot make known without a breach of trust, he simply says, "I don't know", and the assertion is true, it receives the special meaning from the position of the speaker: "I have no communicable knowledge on the point." The same is true of anybody who has secrets to keep, and who is unwarrantably questioned about them. Prudent man only speak about what they should speak about , and what they say should be understood with that reservation. Catholic writers call statements like the foregoing mental reservations, and they qualify them as wide mental reservations in order to distinguish them from strict mental reservations. These latter are equivocations whose true sense is determined solely by the mind of the speaker, and by no external circumstances or common usage. They were condemned as lies by the Holy See on 2 March, 1679.

We are working from the same article, by the way. Thought you'd appreciate the more extensive quotation.

All of that, of course, is carefully qualified--as is (now) my initial "IIRC".

Clutch said...

Of course I noted and quoted your "IIRC". Why would you doubt this? I simply corrected your (tentative, qualified) conjecture.

Thanks for the additional quotations from the CE article, though neither of them really adds to the basic position of Augustinian absolutism (silence or the truth) modified with a somewhat vague notion of consequentialist exceptions.

If you're interested in this stuff, I can tell you that that article, while useful as far as it goes, is fairly weak on the late medieval/early Renaissance history of ideas on lying within the Catholic tradition. The author is clearly convinced of the "common opinion", and glosses much interesting literature. Augustine himself covers a lot of subtle ground that the article doesn't mention. It's a very interesting topic that rewards a bit of research.

Dad29 said...

Well, clutch, it's up to you to deal with the SS when it comes for the Jew you are hiding--or the armed rapist seeking your 12-year-old daughter.

As for me, I'll take the road afforded in my second excerpt: The same is true of anybody who has secrets to keep, and who is unwarrantably questioned about them. Prudent man only speak about what they should speak about , and what they say should be understood with that reservation --which also happens to be the foundation for my initial (albeit ill-phrased) post.

I can do that without a grotesque caricature of "mental reservation."

illusory tenant said...

"the armed rapist seeking your 12-year-old daughter."

The response to which is likely more expeditiously unfettered than by first determining with what variety of Roman Catholic doctrine it best conforms.

But yeah, "situational ethics," Heaven forfend.

Anonymous said...

IT said:
"But yeah, "situational ethics," Heaven forefend."


More precisely "self defense" would be a better portrayal of protecting ones family by word or by sword.

Clutch said...

Well, clutch, it's up to you to deal with the SS when it comes for the Jew you are hiding--or the armed rapist seeking your 12-year-old daughter.

As a non-Catholic, I am spared the need to square my moral intuitions with the writings of Church fathers, authorities, and popes.

"...what they say should be understood with that reservation" --which also happens to be the foundation for my initial (albeit ill-phrased) post

The bit you quote(d) concerns how such demurring speech should be understood by any reasonable person -- for example, a questioner in a legal proceeding who demands an answer that the witness clearly cannot ethically provide. To say "I don't know" in such cases is not deceptive, precisely because everyone ought to understand that it's basically elliptical for "I don't know anything that it's my obligation to tell you."

Obviously this is rather different from murderers-at-the-door cases, in which deliberate deception is among the conscious aims of framing the utterance in that way.

Dad29 said...

Clutch, I will re-post the pertinent phrase:

The same is true of anybody who has secrets to keep, and who is unwarrantably questioned about them. Prudent man only speak about what they should speak about , and what they say should be understood with that reservation.

"Anybody" who has secrets to keep.

Looks clear to me, Clutch.

Clutch said...

"The same is true of anybody who has secrets to keep..." Looks clear to me, Clutch.

It is. What do you suppose "the same" refers to? Look at the actual quote:

When a man bids the servant say that he is not at home, common use enables any man of sense to interpret the phrase correctly. When a prisoner pleads "Not guilty" in a court of justice, all concerned understand what is meant. When a statesman, or a doctor, or a lawyer is asked impertinent questions about what he cannot make known without a breach of trust, he simply says, "I don't know", and the assertion is true, it receives the special meaning from the position of the speaker: "I have no communicable knowledge on the point." The same is true of anybody who has secrets to keep...

You just have to read it to see it. "The assertion is true" precisely because the utterance is short for something true that "any man of sense" will understand. That's why it's not a lie -- because any competent person will recognize that what's being asserted (as opposed to the elliptical sentence uttered) is true. That's "the same" that can be applied more generally.

If you think that true assertions accomplished using elliptical statements, whose truth consists in their being recognizably true to any person of sense, are the same as false assertions deliberately constructed to deceive a sensible but malevolent audience, then I can't help you. I assure you, however, that both Augustine and Aquinas would have laughed this out of the room.

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