Lies are peculiar sorts of entities: while we often encounter them during our day, be it in the media or an acquaintance, they are actually hard to pin down. With time, scholars have individuated four standard conditions that seem to be required for lying. It turns out that each of them is problematic. Let ‘s see why.
The Four Standard Conditions
First of all, let’s rehearse the four standard conditions that have to be made in order to have 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.
Statement Condition and Its Troubles
Do you really have to state something in order to lie? Consider this: sometimes you may be lying to yourself, in full silence. Or, consider someone simply shaking her head or pointing her finger to offer false indications on purpose. "Did you do that?" a parent may ask the child, and the reply may simply be a head-shake, to signify denial, when the child knows perfectly well that she did it. Or, what about all those techniques we use to cover up what our body looks like, be it the skin, a body part, or our hair? Some people regard them as forms of lying. Or, even more, how about dressing up? You may do so to deceive people to believe you are more powerful than them, or more beautiful, or more intelligent. To confine lying to the realm of uttered sentences may be to take a very narrow approach to ways in which human communication works.
Untruthfulness Condition and Its Troubles
Do you always have to believe that what you are asserting is untrue, in order to be lying? What if you are self-deceiving yourself? Those circumstances are more widespread than what it might appear. Even Lance Armstrong may have self-deceived himself at some point of his career, as he admitted during his famous interview with Oprah Winfrey. What is truth anyway? Aren’t there plenty of circumstances in which it is utterly unclear, if not impossible, to determine the truth of the matter? And yet, wouldn’t one try and be insincere or unauthentic also in these circumstances?
Addressee Condition and Its Troubles
There seems to be also conditions in which lying is not involved with the intention to deceive an addressee. The liar may not know who her discourse is addressed to – you may aim to deceive whoever you can. In this sense, the addressee would not be thought of de re, as philosophers dealing with questions of epistemology and metaphysics use to say in their jargon, but de dicto: that is, you would not be able to point out the addressee, but only to contemplate of that person under a description (e.g. "that person I am going to deceive")
More importantly, there may be circumstances in which your speech or gesture is for no one, not even yourself: you are engaging in a deceitful behavior just for the sake of it.
Intention to Deceive Condition and Its Troubles
Finally, do you really have to have the intention to deceive? First of all, if you are self-deceiving yourself (as possibly in the case of Armstrong), you may not know you are deceiving someone else. Moreover, there may be circumstances in which the reply comes faster than the intention. You are having a bad day; you meet an acquaintance who asks: "How are you?" and – before you know – you replied "Fine, than you" and your acquaintance is on her way to another task. Well, you were probably lying, but you may have not really done so intentionally.
Further Online Sources
- The entry on the Definition of Lying and Deception at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.