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How to Tell a Lie?

Some Philosophical Remarks


How to Tell a Lie
When is it that someone is lying? In many scenarios, a definition like the one appearing on the Oxford English Dictionary would do: "To lie is to make a false statement with the intention to deceive." However, there are several circumstances that apparently involve lying yet do not fit the definition. Let’s review them, along with the four standard conditions for lying.

We may spend some time coming up with fantastic examples that show the inadequacy of the definition offered above, and we will; but, recent events also offer us the opportunity to consider a tangible instance: I’m thinking about Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. During it Armstrong, one of the most successful bikers of all times, admitted to have used some substances which were prohibited while training for the Tour de France. But this is not the point. In a passage of their long conversation, Oprah asked to Armstrong how he could have lied so adamantly. His reply was philosophically relevant: he had checked the dictionary definition for lying and, since he did not realize that what he was saying was false, he may have not been lying, after all!

The Four Standard Conditions
Lying, it turns out, is not that easy. Scholars have discussed four conditions that seem to have to be satisfied for an act to count as a lie.

  • The first is the statement condition: the liar has to actually state that something is the case, thus committing herself to having asserted that something is the case; what counts as a statement, of course, will depend on one’s theory of meaning.
  • The second is the untruthfulness condition: what the liar states needs to be false and the liar has to be aware of this.
  • The third is the addressee condition: every lie has to be addressed to an audience. That is, there is no lying taking place outside of a context of communication.
  • The fourth is the intention to deceive condition: the liar must have the intention to deceive the addressee.

Problems With the Standard Conditions
The four standard conditions, however, have a host of problems. Armstrong’s case is an example defeating the second condition: he may have not been aware of making a statement that was false.

But, consider also all circumstances in which the addressee is oneself: you may tell yourself that something is the case, when in fact you know it’s not. Does that count as lying? A habit of this sort may stand in your way to achieve authenticity and, ultimately, it is a form of deception. But in order to count as lying we may have to adjust at least two of the conditions. The first condition requires that a statement be made; but self-reflection may not involve any verbal statement; of course, there will be some thinking involved: thus, by "statement" we’ll have to intend simply some thinking. Also, the third condition requires that the statement be addressed to someone: we’ll have to tolerate that the audience may just be oneself. Finally, the second condition may be violated too, as when you are lying to yourself it’s unclear whether you are or aren’t aware of it – you can imagine scenarios going in both ways.

Now, since not lying is regarded as one of the premises of a functioning civic society (see, for instance, what authors such as Kant said about it), it is clear from those little remarks that such a premise is more obscure than what many may think. Whether institutions, companies, groups, or individual citizens are lying may be controversial. What we talk about when we talk about lying may be controversial. Thus, as in many other circumstances, we may have to exercise some tolerance before concluding that someone is, most definitely, lying.

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