There’s a monster under my bed! True or false?

I saw a monster under my bed.

A  philosopher in the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Sciences, has been fine-tuning what is meant by “to lie.” Don Fallis strips the accepted definitions to the bare essentials, insisting that, to lie, one can’t merely hide the facts or deceive, but must “assert” that something is true that he or she actually believes to be false. The liar’s intention is that whomever is listening to him will accept his or her deliberate lie as the truth.

Fallis cites the semanticist Paul Grice’s “first maxim of quality,” which requires a social agreement that one should not say what is not true. If you say something you believe to be false, knowing the agreement to tell the truth is in effect [as in a court of law], then you have violated “the norm of conversation.”

In addition to verbal assertion, there are other forms of blatantly lying; plagiarism is one; the person who claims a work is his or hers knows he/she is going against the accepted norm by claiming authorship. 

Digging deeper, Fallis posits several less clear cut situations, for example, when you are lying deliberately, fully aware that the person you are lying to will know you are lying and yet also knowing that you will not be punished unless you admit the lie. It is a familiar dodge of children, especially among siblings. He did it! She started it! Another commonly-used tactic is a lazy child’s skilful refusal to go get something a parent asks for: I don’t know where it is.

That excuse also can be given when you lose something and don’t want to admit it. I imagine we all have been guilty of this behavior.  Or we may pretend we didn’t hear something someone has said because we don’t want to have to respond. Or we misunderstood.

I’m concerned about a problem of justice that even Don Fallis did not directly address: What if a person testifies in court according to different cultural standards? Suppose this person grew up in a society where it was necessary to lie in order to survive beatings or worse.

Suppose — for that person – lying is the accepted norm. 

Take it a step further: Suppose he/she even takes others into his/her confidence, believing they will understand that the purpose of the lie is to “win,” because the liar is afraid of any other judicial outcome and fully believes he/she is entitled to his/her preferred outcome. Now the moral responsibility falls on those whom he/she has confided his/her intent to lie. Do they care? What’s in it for them? Will they speak up? Will they even be asked to speak up? 

Alternatively, suppose the liar believes others know he/she is lying but also believes they cannot prove it. And suppose, even, that the others might wish to prove the liar is lying but cannot, so they remain silent. Or they might avoid being in that courtroom. Does that make them morally irresponsible?

Or what if they are afraid of the liar, or afraid of the consequences of being proved wrong? Will they enter into  an unspoken contract to say nothing? Is that contract with the liar? Or is it with themselves?

Ultimately,  the question is whether the person lying is inherently “bad” or simply has employed bad means for a good end. 

Professor Fallis referred me to a book by Sissela Bok. In the preface to the 1989 edition of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, the scholar quotes, of all people, a fiction writer, Iris Murdoch, who points out that we spend much of our life in truth-seeking. I am not convinced that is apparent today, a quarter century later. I believe we are currently living in an era of self-deception. That aside,  I like Murdoch’s observation:

“A portrayal of moral reflection and moral change (degeneration, improvement) is the most important part of any system of ethics.”

Out of that come more questions:

(1)  Do we have a clear system of ethics in the American courtroom today

(2) Is a deliberate liar capable of moral reflection?

(3) Is lying to get something you believe is your right to have — whether or not it is — any different than lying to avoid a beating? 

(4) Do our courts have the means and the will to punish liars?


[1] Don Fallis, “What is Lying?” Journal of Philosophy, 106, 1 (2009), 29-56. [Herbert] Paul Grice wrote extensively on the theory of meaning in language and communication. This reference is relative to intention bases semantics, in Studies in the Way of Words (1989 edition), Harvard University Press.

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