A Philosopher's Blog

Of Lies & Disagreements

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 7, 2015

When people disagree on controversial issues it is not uncommon for one person to accuse another of lying. In some cases this accusation is clearly warranted and in others it is clearly not. Discerning between these cases is clearly a matter of legitimate concern. There is also some confusion of what should count as a lie and what should not.

While this might seem like a matter of mere semantics, the distinction between what is a lie and what is not actually matters. The main reason for this is that to accuse a person of lying is, in general, to lay a moral charge against the person. It is not merely to claim that the person is in error but to claim that the person is engaged in something that is morally wrong. While some people do use “lie” interchangeably with “untruth”, there is clearly a difference.

To use an easy and obvious example, imagine a student who is asked which year the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The student thinks it was in 1944 and writes that down. She has made an untrue claim, but it would clearly not do for the teacher to accuse her of being a liar.

Now, imagine that one student, Sally, is asking another student, Jane, about when the United States bombed Hiroshima. Jane does not like Sally and wants her to do badly on her exam, so she tells her that the year was 1944, though she knows it was 1945. If Sally tells another student that it was 1944 and also puts that down on her test, Sally could not justly be accused of lying. Jane, however, can be fairly accused. While Sally is saying and writing something untrue, she believes the claim and is not acting with any malicious intent. In contrast, Jane believes she is saying something untrue and is acting from malice. This suggests some important distinctions between lying and making untrue claims.

One obvious distinction is that a lie requires that the person believe she is making an untrue claim. Naturally, there is the practical problem of determining whether a person really believes what she is claiming, but this is not relevant to the abstract distinction: if the person believes the claim, then she would not be lying when she makes that claim.

It can, of course, be argued that a person can be lying even when she believes what she claims—that what matters is whether the claim is true or not. The obvious problem with this is that the accusation of lying is not just a claim the person is wrong, it is also a moral condemnation of wrongdoing. While “lie” could be taken to apply to any untrue claim, there would be a need for a new word to convey not just a statement of error but also of condemnation.

It can also be argued that a person can lie by telling the truth, but by doing so in such a way as to mislead a person into believing something untrue. This does have a certain appeal in that it includes the intent to deceive, but differs from the “stock” lie in that the claim is true (or at least believed to be true).

A second obvious distinction is that the person must have a malicious intent. This is a key factor that distinguishes the untruths of the fictions of movies, stories and shows from lies. When the actor playing Darth Vader says to Luke “No. I am your father.”, he is saying something untrue, yet it would be unfair to say that the actor is thus a liar. Likewise, the references to dragons, hobbits and elves in the Hobbit are all untrue—yet one would not brand Tolkien a liar for these words.

The obvious reply to this is that there is a category of lies that lack a malicious intent. These lies are often told with good intentions, such as a compliment about a person’s appearance that is not true or when parents tell their children about Santa Claus. As such, it would seem that there are lies that are not malicious—these are often called “white lies.” If intent matters, then this sort of lie would seem rather less bad than the malicious lie; although they do meet a general definition of “lie” which involves making an untrue claim with the intent to deceive. In this case, the deceit is supposed to be a positive one. Naturally, there are those who would argue that such deceits are still wrong, even if the intent is a good one. The matter is also complicated by the fact that there seem to be untrue claims aimed at deceit that intuitively seem morally acceptable. The classic case is, of course, misleading a person who is out to commit murder.

In some cases one person will accuse another of lying because the person disagrees with a claim made by the other person. For example, a person might claim that Obamacare will help Americans and be accused of lying about this by a person who is opposed to Obamacare.

In this sort of context, the accusation that the person is lying seems to rest on three clear points. The first is that the accuser thinks that the person does not actually believe his claim. That is, he is engaged in an intentional deceit. The accuser also thinks that the claim is not true. The second is that the accuser believes that the accused intends to deceive—that is, he expects people to believe him. The third is that the accuser thinks that the accused has some malicious intent. This might be merely limited to the intent to deceive, but it typically goes beyond this. For example, the proponent of Obamacare might be suspected of employing his alleged deceit to spread socialism and damage businesses. Or it might be that the person is trolling.

So, in order to be justified in accusing a person of lying, it needs to be shown that the person does not really believe his claim, that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent. Arguing against the claim can show that it is untrue, but this would not be sufficient to show that the person is lying—unless one takes a lie to merely be a claim that is not true (so, if someone made a mistake in a math problem and got the wrong answer, he would be a liar). What would be needed would be adequate evidence that the person is insincere in his claim (that is, he believes he is saying the untrue), that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent.

Naturally, effective criticism of a claim does not require showing that the person making the claim is a liar—this is a matter of arguing about the claim. In fact, the truth or falsity of a claim has no connection to the intent of the person making the claim or what he actually believes about it. An accusation of lying, rather, moves from the issue of whether the claim is true or not to a moral dispute about the character of the person making the claim. That is, whether he is a liar or not. It can, of course, be a useful persuasive device to call someone a liar, but it (by itself) does nothing to prove or disprove the claim under dispute.


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  1. T. J. Babson said, on January 9, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Wow. One Dem who has principles. Too bad there is only one.

  2. TJB said, on January 9, 2015 at 12:39 am

    Mostly we get lies. Howard Dean:

    “Yes, this is a chronic problem. I stopped calling these people “Muslim terrorists.” They’re about as Muslim as I am. They have no respect for anyone’s life. That’s not what the Koran. Europe has an enormous radical problem and I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult, I think it’s a cult. And I think you gotta deal with these people.”

    Yes. ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. This is what I expect from Dems.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 9, 2015 at 8:41 pm

      ISIS claims to be Islamic. This does raise a problem that we have discussed before, namely the matter of defining groups.

      But, if the media can speak of Christian militias doing awful things then it would seem equally fair to speak of Muslim terrorists.

    • T. J. Babson said, on January 10, 2015 at 3:16 pm

      Mike, why would Howard Dean pretend to know more about Islam than this fellow? Your call, Mike. Is Howard Dean lying?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 12, 2015 at 2:36 pm

        He is probably telling the truth when he says that he thinks it is a cult. As a politician, there are good odds that he is saying things that are not true. But this is just me expressing my bias against the political class.

        Now, if you are asking about whether ISIS is really Islamic or not, that is actually a substantial issue. The easy answer is “yes”: the folks in ISIS claim to be followers of Islam, so they are Muslims. Just like Jim Jones claiming to be a Christian made his cult a Christian cult. A harder answer requires a due consideration of what it is to really be a follower of Islam (or anything). Was Jim Jones really a Christian? This can be seen as analogous to being a good person: is being a good person just a matter of claiming to be good or are there actual conditions that must be met to qualify to be good?

        It is, of course, common practice to claim that the extreme groups of X (Islam, Christianity, conservatism) are not really X, but perversions of X. But the fact that the practice is common does not show it is correct. Or incorrect.

        • TJB said, on January 12, 2015 at 2:53 pm

          Actually, Jones sounds more like an an exceptionally unhinged Dem than a Christian:


          Unlike most supposed cult leaders, Jones was able to gain public support and contact with prominent politicians in the local and national level. For example, Jones and Moscone met privately with vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale on his campaign plane days before the 1976 election, leading Mondale to publicly praise the Temple.[43][44] First Lady Rosalynn Carter also personally met with Jones on multiple occasions; corresponded with him about Cuba; and spoke with him at the grand opening of the San Francisco Democratic Party Headquarters, where Jones garnered louder applause than Mrs. Carter.[43][45][46]

          In September 1977, California assemblyman Willie Brown served as master of ceremonies at a large testimonial dinner for Jones attended by Governor Jerry Brown and Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally.[47] At that dinner, Brown touted Jones as “what you should see every day when you look in the mirror in the early morning hours… a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein… Chairman Mao.”[48] Harvey Milk, who spoke at political rallies at the Temple,[49] wrote to Jones after a visit to the Temple: “Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.”[50][51]

          In his San Francisco apartment, Jones hosted San Francisco radical political figures, including Davis, for discussions.[52] He spoke with friend and San Francisco Sun-Reporter publisher Carlton Goodlett about his remorse over not being able to travel to socialist countries such as the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, speculating that he could be Chief Dairyman of the Soviet Union.[53] After his criticisms led to increased tensions with the Nation of Islam, Jones spoke at a huge rally healing the rift between the two groups in the Los Angeles Convention Center that was attended by many of Jones’ closest political acquaintances.[54]

          While Jones forged media alliances with key columnists and others at the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets,[55] the move to San Francisco also brought increasing media scrutiny. After Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff encountered resistance to publishing an exposé, he brought his story to New West magazine.[56] In the summer of 1977, Jones and several hundred Temple members abruptly decided to move to the Temple’s compound in Guyana after they learned of the contents of Kilduff’s New West article to be imminently published, which included allegations by former Temple members they were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused.[46][57] Jones named the settlement “Jonestown” after himself.>/em>

          • TJB said, on January 12, 2015 at 3:01 pm

            More from Wikipedia:

            By the early 1970s, Jones began deriding traditional Christianity as “fly away religion,” rejecting the Bible as being a tool to oppress women and non-whites, and denouncing a “Sky God” who was no God at all.[14] Jones wrote a booklet titled “The Letter Killeth,” criticizing the King James Bible.[40] Jones also began preaching that he was the reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi (murdered in 1948) and Father Divine (died in 1965), as well as Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama Buddha and Vladimir Lenin. Former Temple member Hue Fortson, Jr. quoted Jones as saying, “What you need to believe in is what you can see … If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father … If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.”[9]

            In a 1976 phone conversation with John Maher, Jones alternately stated that he was an agnostic and an atheist.[41] Despite the Temple’s fear that the IRS was investigating its religious tax exemption, Marceline Jones admitted in a 1977 New York Times interview that Jones was trying to promote Marxism in the United States by mobilizing people through religion, citing Mao Zedong as his inspiration.[37] She stated that, “Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion,” and had slammed the Bible on the table yelling “I’ve got to destroy this paper idol!”[37] In one sermon, Jones said that, “You’re gonna help yourself, or you’ll get no help! There’s only one hope of glory; that’s within you! Nobody’s gonna come out of the sky! There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!”[9]

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 12, 2015 at 8:01 pm

              Well, he did call his cult “The People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ”, just as ISIS claims to be an Islamic state. One could say that Jones was as Christian as ISIS is Islamic.

              What is needed is a principled and consistent way to sort out what is X (Christian, Islamic, Liberal, whatever). Most Christians (if not all) would not want to claim people like Jones and many other folks who have claimed to be Christians. Likewise, most Muslims do not want to claim ISIS. ISIS also seems to reciprocate-they are happy to kill people who also claim to be Muslims, just the wrong sort for them. This is similar to the Medieval heresies in Christianity and the religious wars in Europe. Well, other than the fact that this is going on now.

            • wtp said, on January 12, 2015 at 9:49 pm

              Well, he did call his cult “The People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ”

              “Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion,”


            • TJB said, on January 12, 2015 at 10:34 pm

              Mike, what does ISIS do that is un-Islamic? Can you name any belief or behavior that is not shared by other group we have no problem calling Islamic?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 14, 2015 at 8:30 pm

              Good question. Mainstream Islamic scholars and leaders repudiate and condemn ISIS as being against Islam-they could give a much better account than I. I had one class on the Middle East and no classes on Islam.

              On the one hand, they can be regarded as being Muslims. After all, they claim to be and can interpret the text to justify what they do as Islamic. On the other hand, there is the fact that (as I mentioned) mainstream Muslims reject ISIS and many of them are fighting it.

              I have no problem calling ISIS an Islamic group; but whether or not they are real Muslims is a matter up to whoever the authority is for being a real Muslim. Muslims would, of course, say that this is Allah.

        • TJB said, on January 12, 2015 at 2:58 pm

          Mike, there are some serious shortcomings to your “if you believe it, then it is not a lie” approach.

          For example, I think it leaves out two things:

          1) a person has a duty to put in at least some effort to determine the truth

          2) a person has a duty to believe only true things

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 12, 2015 at 7:55 pm

            I agree with those basic epistemic ethics.

            But, failure to meet those duties is different from being a liar (but both would be moral failings).

            So, if Dean believes what he says, then he is not lying. But, if he did not put in the required effort to determine the truth or falsity of his belief, then he has failed in this duty.

            Now, you could work out a system in which a person is lying by failure of duty (that is, they make a claim that they failed to properly investigate) and that certainly would be interesting.

            • TJB said, on January 12, 2015 at 10:38 pm

              Mike, if you say something untrue and people point out that it is untrue, and yet you keep saying it anyway then one is lying. For example, Obama keeps repeating the 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college statistic, even though it has been debunked over and over again. It is no longer a mistake–it is a lie.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 14, 2015 at 8:35 pm

              Well, whether a person is lying or not does depend on whether they still believe what they say. For example, some years back I kept telling an associate that the claim that we use only 10% of our brains is not true. Yet she still believed it and kept saying it. Also, consider the folks who claim that vaccines cause autism and who refuse to accept any evidence to the contrary. They are wrong, but as long as they are saying what they believe they should not be cast as liars. They are doubling down on their mistaken belief, rejecting reason and so on-which are all failings and perhaps moral errors as well. But as long as they believe, they are not liars.

              So, if Obama believes that, he isn’t lying. If he knows it is in error, yet keeps saying it seriously, then he is lying.

            • WTP said, on January 15, 2015 at 10:35 am

              Parody is dead. Irony is dead. When are you gonna learn, TJ? It’s all a big game. If you call out a liar for a lie, we go all George Costanza by narrowing the meaning to the point that “It’s not a lie if you believe it”. But if we’re using a word like “impose” as in “Hobby Lobby is imposing it’s religious beliefs…”, we take the word to its broadest, most loosy-goosey meaning. Which still doesn’t work because it’s still a lie. But then it’s not a lie if you really believe it…so there you go. As Voltaire said, “Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust.” So what does this portend for students of an “ethicist” such as this?

              For future reference, The Seinfeld Rules of Lies:

              1. It’s not a lie if you believe it.
              2. It’s not a lie if it doesn’t help you.
              3. It’s not a lie if it hurts you.
              4. It’s not a lie if it helps someone else.
              5. It’s not a lie if it doesn’t hurt someone else.
              6. It’s not a lie if everyone expects you to lie.
              7. It’s not a lie if the other person knows the truth.
              8. It’s not a lie if nobody can prove it.
              9. It’s not a lie if you don’t get caught.
              10. It’s not a lie if you don’t need to tell another lie to cover it up.
              11. It’s not a lie if you were crossing your fingers.
              12. It’s not a lie if you proceed to make it true.
              13. It’s not a lie if nobody heard you say it.
              14. It’s not a lie if nobody cares

              Every new topic, you’re like Leonard encoutering Teddy for the first time. Except this Teddy is nowhere near as cunning.

              Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. — George Orwell

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 12, 2015 at 8:02 pm

            There are other problems as well, such as cases in which people deceive by telling the truth.

            • ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 12, 2015 at 8:56 pm

              I wonder. What if the Holocaust is a lie? If there were no plan to exterminate Jews. If there were no homicidal gas chambers? If 6,000,000 Jews didn’t die? It’s a crime to say or write this in Germany and much of Europe. And I doubt Professor Mike would be able to keep his job were he to say or write this, were he to believe it. Is it possible the history of World War II was written by the victors, in order to instill certain beliefs, even myths, into the minds of the peoples of the Western world? It’s funny that we can criticize Muslims and Christians all day long, but were not allowed to criticize Jews? Why? Is this freedom or speech? Or the criminalization of politically incorrect speech? Holocaust, Hate Speech and Were the Germans so Stupid? — Updated: http://youtu.be/1uJEE3thwmk via @YouTube

            • TJB said, on January 12, 2015 at 10:16 pm

              AJ, have you ever heard of Noam Chomsky? Why is he famous?

          • WTP said, on January 13, 2015 at 12:16 pm

            TJ, have you ever seen the 2000 film Memento?

            • TJB said, on January 13, 2015 at 8:45 pm

              Sure. Guy with no short term memory writes notes to himself.

  3. TJB said, on January 10, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia:

    “A Saudi Arabian blogger has been publicly flogged after being convicted of cybercrime and insulting Islam, reports say.

    Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail, was flogged 50 times. The flogging will be carried out weekly, campaigners say.”

    I wonder if Howard Dean thinks he is more Muslim than those Saudis.t

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