When Is a Lie Really a Lie?

September 25, 2009

From the hallowed halls of Congress to town hall meetings to network TV to the big screen, lying is a hot topic these days.

The president is charged with telling lies. A popular TV show, “Lie to Me,” conducts a poll that shows the average person lies 42 times a week. And the concept for a new movie, “The Invention of Lying,” is that no one is able to tell a lie.

With all this conversation about lies and lying, James E. Mahon, a Washington and Lee University philosophy professor who wrote the definition of lying for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, says that, strictly speaking, there is far less real lying in society than we might think.

Mahon, who chairs the philosophy department at W&L in Lexington, Virginia, and has taught a popular course called Lies, Deception and Secrets, describes his definition of a lie this way:

“Certain conditions have to be in place for a statement to rise to the level of a lie. First, a person must make a statement and must believe that the statement is false. Second, the person making the statement must intend for the audience to believe that the statement is true. Anything else falls outside the definition of lying that I have defended.”

Lying is about what you believe as well as what you intend, Mahon says. If a person believes that what he or she is saying is true — even if it can be shown to be false — then the person is not telling a lie.

“In his speech to Congress, President Obama was not telling a lie as I define it,” Mahon says. “He said: “The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” He was talking about his proposals and not any current bills, so he would have to be making untruthful statements about his proposals to be lying in this case. He believed the statement he made to be true.”

On the other hand, Mahon maintains that a person can be lying when they say something that is verifiably true. “If you believe that the statement you’re making is false, even when it isn’t actually false, but you try to get others to believe it’s true, then you have told a lie by my definition,” Mahon said. “Some people would probably argue that if they accidentally get it right, if what they say is true when they think it’s not, that they’re not lying. I don’t excuse them on that basis. They have set out to deceive, and I set a slightly stricter standard than some others might.”

In Mahon’s view, the vast majority of lies are told for self-interested reasons — saving face or self protection. “I believe that very few lies are told to hurt others,” he says. “And when someone does lie, they usually end up telling two lies — the original lie and the cover-up of the lie.”

Moreover, he argues that the public will allow lies that are not for personal gain but in the interest of some greater good such as national security. “When we are told, ‘No choppers have been sent to rescue the POWs,’ when the choppers are actually in the air, the public will later accept that lie, especially if those telling it fully intend to tell the truth when the danger has passed.”

See Mahon’s full definition of lying here.

Source: Washington and Lee University
via Newswise

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