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  • Brother Daniel
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on Lying
On lying.

Suppose I make a declarative sentence that is universally interpreted as communicating some proposition X.

One possibility is that I actually believe X to be true, and I'm trying to enlighten someone regarding X.  Another possibility is that I don't believe X to be true, and I'm trying to deceive someone regarding X.  There are many other possibilities too.

I would suggest (though I don't think I can argue for it) that declarative communication can be divided fairly neatly into the "straightforward" and "non-straightforward" categories.  Both of the possibilities that I spelled out above would be straightforward:  I say X simply because I mean X.

Non-straightforward declarative communication would include joking, sarcasm, and probably a whole bunch of complicated rhetorical tricks that I can't think of at the moment.

Is such a division acceptable?  (Or am I in trouble already, even though I have not yet got anywhere near my point?)

If it is, then let's turn our attention strictly to straightforward declarative communication.  In which cases am I being "honest" (or "truthful"), and in which cases am I "lying"?  And is there a middle ground?

If I believe X, and I (straightforwardly) declare X, I think we can agree that I'm being honest, regardless of whether X is actually true or not.  If it isn't, but I believe that it is, then I'm mistaken.  If it is, and I believe that it is, then I'm right.  Yay.

If I don't believe X, and I (straightforwardly) declare X, then that's not so honest.  Again, it doesn't matter (for purposes of judging my honesty) whether X is actually true or not.  It's about what I believe to be true.  We can probably agree on that.

At what point am I lying, when I (straightforwardly) declare X?  If I believe ~X but say X, then I'm lying; that much is clear.  What if I neither believe X nor believe ~X, but say X?  If I think X is improbable but say X, then I suppose that counts as a lie too.  If I think X is fairly probable but not quite to the extent that I can be said to believe it, but I say X, then is that a lie?  Maybe it is.  I dunno.

But there's a further complication:  I'm not convinced that pure, idealized propositions are ever directly communicated.  Our declarative communication consists of rough approximations to propositions.

Suppose I make a statement by which I intend to convey the proposition X.  Someone misunderstands me as saying Y, something different from X.  Perhaps Y is even contrary to X.

Whose fault is the misunderstanding?  It could be mine.  Perhaps I misspoke or mistyped.  I may have forgotten a "not", and thus conveyed the opposite of what I intended to convey.

But in some cases, the fault could lie with the listener or reader.  I expect that nearly everyone here has had this experience, where you say something that (even on close review) seems to have a plain meaning, but someone else reads you as saying something entirely different.  And you're not responsible for someone else's shoddy inferences - are you?

In yet other cases, perhaps, there's no real "fault" anywhere.  After all, there is no objective standard by which a set of sounds (or a set of pixels) maps to a proposition.  Language is messy.

And don't people deliberately exploit ambiguity at times?

What if you make a statement that could in some contexts be interpreted as X, but you know full well that your audience is likely to interpret it as Y?  You may tell yourself that you're being honest (because you believe X to be true).  But if you don't believe Y to be true, and you know that Y is the message that your audience will take from your statement, what then?  I suggest that you're not being honest in this case.  I might even go so far as to say you're lying.

- - -
Example.

An old woman (let's call her Dorothy) decides that it is time to move into a nursing home.  Some of her children and grandchildren descend upon her apartment, to claim the items she is leaving behind.  Negotiations ensue.

One of Dorothy's daughters (let's call her Alice) declares:  "Dan wants an ironing board."  (Dan, who is not present for this discussion, is Alice's son.)  The other relatives agree to let Alice take the ironing board and give it to Dan.

Now Dan has no desire to add an ironing board to the clutter of his own small apartment, as Alice probably knows (and certainly would know if she consulted him about it).  Alice simply thinks he ought to have one, as it is one of those things that any civilized person should have (in her opinion).

Let's examine the honesty of the statement "Dan wants an ironing board".

Alice, as a former English major, is familiar with the archaic sense of the verb "want", and is using the verb in that way:  simply to mean that Dan lacks an ironing board.  Based on that intended meaning, her statement is honest (and indeed true).

But given that her siblings and nephews and nieces are relatively unlettered (some of them not even having finished high school), and probably familiar only with the more recent meaning of "want" (related to desire), one could argue that Alice is not really being honest.

(end of example)
- - -

Of course, you don't always "know" how your audience will take a statement.  But often you can make a pretty good guess.

To what extent are you responsible for deducing how your audience will take your statements?

Again, suppose you believe X but not Y, and you make a statement that could be interpreted either way.

For purposes of judging the honesty of your statement, we might imagine that the key variable is "intent" - i.e. that the key question is which meaning you intend to convey.  And sometimes this does matter.  It can make the difference between lying and merely "misspeaking".  There's a difference between accidentally leaving out a "not" and deliberately leaving out a "not".

But intent (as someone once said) is not magic.  If you know, or can reasonably infer, that your audience will universally hear Y when you make your statement, it doesn't matter if you tell yourself that your intent was to convey X.  It's up to you to convey the message that you actually mean.

Another variable:  If you have prescriptivist leanings in your view of language, you might imagine that a grammatically "correct" parsing of your statement will lead to the X interpretation, while those who interpret your statement as meaning Y are simply wrong.  And you can't go through life worrying about what the idiots will think you're saying.  You're not responsible for them.  It's not your fault if your audience is unskilled in the language that you're using.

But that view doesn't really work.  If you know, or can reasonably infer, that your audience will universally hear Y when you make your statement, it doesn't matter if you consider the X interpretation to be the "correct" one.  It would mean that you and your audience are using similar but not identical languages, and that you are deliberately exploiting the difference in order to make a statement that means X in your private language while sounding identical to a statement that means Y in the language of your audience.  The misunderstanding, in that case, is your fault.

Discuss.

(I'll cheerfully take ownership of any internal contradictions in this post.  They are simply an indication of my confusion.)

  • SkepticTank
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Re: on Lying
Reply #1
I think the word you're looking for is 'literally'.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #2

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Re: on Lying
Reply #3
Holy shit that's a long post
Love is like a magic penny
 if you hold it tight you won't have any
if you give it away you'll have so many
they'll be rolling all over the floor

  • Brother Daniel
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Re: on Lying
Reply #4
sorry

:ashamed:

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Re: on Lying
Reply #5
That wasn't a value judgment, just an observation. On a phone, it was hard to follow.
Love is like a magic penny
 if you hold it tight you won't have any
if you give it away you'll have so many
they'll be rolling all over the floor

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Re: on Lying
Reply #6
That wasn't a value judgment, just an observation. On a phone, it was hard to follow.

One might even call it a declarative sentence.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #7
If it is, then let's turn our attention strictly to straightforward declarative communication.  In which cases am I being "honest" (or "truthful"), and in which cases am I "lying"?  And is there a middle ground?

If I believe X, and I (straightforwardly) declare X, I think we can agree that I'm being honest, regardless of whether X is actually true or not.  If it isn't, but I believe that it is, then I'm mistaken.  If it is, and I believe that it is, then I'm right.  Yay.

If I don't believe X, and I (straightforwardly) declare X, then that's not so honest.  Again, it doesn't matter (for purposes of judging my honesty) whether X is actually true or not.  It's about what I believe to be true.  We can probably agree on that.

At what point am I lying, when I (straightforwardly) declare X?  If I believe ~X but say X, then I'm lying; that much is clear.  What if I neither believe X nor believe ~X, but say X?  If I think X is improbable but say X, then I suppose that counts as a lie too.  If I think X is fairly probable but not quite to the extent that I can be said to believe it, but I say X, then is that a lie?  Maybe it is.  I dunno.

A distinction I've often seen is that this is the difference between "lies" and "bullshit".

If someone believes X and says X then they're telling the truth.

If someone believes ~X but says X then they're lying.

But if someone neither knows nor cares which of X and ~X is true, but they're going to say X anyway then they're bullshitting you.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #8

If someone believes X and says X then they're telling the truth.

If someone believes ~X but says X then they're lying.


Really?
"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man."
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  • MikeB
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Re: on Lying
Reply #9
Seems straightforward enough, why do you question this?

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Re: on Lying
Reply #10
oooh, meta.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #11
Really?

  • Brother Daniel
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Re: on Lying
Reply #12
A distinction I've often seen is that this is the difference between "lies" and "bullshit".
...
If someone believes ~X but says X then they're lying.

But if someone neither knows nor cares which of X and ~X is true, but they're going to say X anyway then they're bullshitting you.
Yup.  I've seen that distinction too.  I'm not sure how well it corresponds to the usual common usage of "lies" versus "bullshit", but that probably doesn't matter.  I think this qualifies as an example of the philosophical tradition of taking commonly-used words and refining their meaning.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #13
If somebody tells you something, that isn't true, and they know it isn't true, it's always a lie.  That's what a lie means.  The motive doesn't matter. 

A lie is a statement that is known or intended by its source to be misleading, inaccurate, or false. The practice of communicating lies is called lying, and a person who communicates a lie may be termed a liar.

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man."
― Mark Twain 🔭

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Re: on Lying
Reply #14
And everybody lies
"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man."
― Mark Twain 🔭

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Re: on Lying
Reply #15
A distinction I've often seen is that this is the difference between "lies" and "bullshit".
...
If someone believes ~X but says X then they're lying.

But if someone neither knows nor cares which of X and ~X is true, but they're going to say X anyway then they're bullshitting you.
Yup.  I've seen that distinction too.  I'm not sure how well it corresponds to the usual common usage of "lies" versus "bullshit", but that probably doesn't matter.  I think this qualifies as an example of the philosophical tradition of taking commonly-used words and refining their meaning.

What is the difference between bullshit and horsehit?
I seem to remember a movie scene from decades ago where a guy was explaining the differences between, bullshit, horse shit, chickenshit, and fly shit.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #16
If somebody tells you something, that isn't true, and they know it isn't true, it's always a lie.  That's what a lie means.  The motive doesn't matter. 

A lie is a statement that is known or intended by its source to be misleading, inaccurate, or false. The practice of communicating lies is called lying, and a person who communicates a lie may be termed a liar.



What if it is true?
What if I talked about a certain crossing guard in a certain way about how after 25 years on the job she picked up a kid and threw him as far and hard as she could? And that she was no longer a crossing guard.

What if I purposely left out the part where she was put in the hospital by getting hit by the car that was about the hit the kid she got out of the way, just in time?

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Re: on Lying
Reply #17
(1)
If somebody tells you something, that isn't true, and they know it isn't true, it's always a lie.  That's what a lie means.
(2)
A lie is a statement that is known or intended by its source to be misleading, inaccurate, or false.
These two are not equivalent.  Pick one.

hint
Spoiler (click to show/hide)

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Re: on Lying
Reply #18
What is the difference between bullshit and horseshit?
I seem to remember a movie scene from decades ago where a guy was explaining the differences between, bullshit, horse shit, chickenshit, and fly shit.
No idea.  I don't think I saw that movie.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #19
What if I talked about a certain crossing guard in a certain way about how after 25 years on the job she picked up a kid and threw him as far and hard as she could? And that she was no longer a crossing guard.

What if I purposely left out the part where she was put in the hospital by getting hit by the car that was about the hit the kid she got out of the way, just in time?
That example gets a lot closer to what I was hoping for this thread.

On the one hand, you could argue that everything you said was precisely true, and you're not responsible for the invalid inferences made by your audience.

On the other hand, you could argue that your story, as told, was deliberately crafted to mislead people.

So where does it fall on the honesty scale?

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Re: on Lying
Reply #20
What is the difference between bullshit and horsehit?
I seem to remember a movie scene from decades ago where a guy was explaining the differences between, bullshit, horse shit, chickenshit, and fly shit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CltFANnzxk8

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Re: on Lying
Reply #21
What if I talked about a certain crossing guard in a certain way about how after 25 years on the job she picked up a kid and threw him as far and hard as she could? And that she was no longer a crossing guard.

What if I purposely left out the part where she was put in the hospital by getting hit by the car that was about the hit the kid she got out of the way, just in time?
That example gets a lot closer to what I was hoping for this thread.

On the one hand, you could argue that everything you said was precisely true, and you're not responsible for the invalid inferences made by your audience.

On the other hand, you could argue that your story, as told, was deliberately crafted to mislead people.

So where does it fall on the honesty scale?
Assuming that the story is conveyed to cast a bad light on the crossing guard, it seems low on the honesty scale to me.  Smells like a lot of our mainstream political discourse.

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Re: on Lying
Reply #22
Also known as a continuing misrepresentation, a lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception.
"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man."
― Mark Twain 🔭