Friday, January 20, 2012

Jokes, lies, and jocose lies

Many years ago, arriving at a party at a friend’s house, I noticed a Jaguar parked out front.  The guy who answered the door didn’t know me, but I happened to know through my friend who he was, and that he was the owner of the car.  So I decided to have a little fun.  “Who owns the Jag?” I said with mock distress; “It just got totaled!”  The only thing more priceless than the look of horror on his face was the “Who the hell is this guy?” expression that replaced it when I told him I was kidding.

Was I lying?  No, I was merely joking.  So what’s the difference?

You’ll recall that I have argued on traditional natural law grounds that it is always wrong to tell a lie, even if the sin is often only venial.  Circumstances are irrelevant to determining whether lying is wrong, because the act of lying is intrinsically bad, given that it involves intentionally acting contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties.  However, circumstances are relevant to determining whether or not a given lie is gravely wrong.  They are also relevant to determining whether something counts as a lie, because language is conventional, and the conventions governing certain expressions determine that under certain circumstances they do not function to convey one’s true thoughts in the first place.  Hence to say “Fine, thank you” in response to the everyday greeting “Hi, how are you?” does not count as a lie even if one is in fact feeling terrible, because as a matter of linguistic convention these words function as a mere pleasantry under such circumstances, rather than a literal description of one’s mental or physical state.  Under other circumstances -- say when you are being given a medical examination for insurance purposes, and the questioner seriously wants to know how you are really feeling -- they would count as a lie.  (Earlier posts spelling all this out in detail can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Please don’t bother commenting on the claims I’ve just made until you’ve read the posts in question, which deal with the stock objections at length.  I’m not going to rehash it all here.)

Recall also that lying is not the same thing as deception, even though there is an obvious relationship between them.  One can be guilty of lying even when one knows one’s word is not likely to be believed.  And one can legitimately deceive someone without lying to him, as when one speaks evasively, but not falsely, to someone demanding information he has no right to.  As John Henry Newman wrote:

An instance is supplied in the history of St. Athanasius: he was in a boat on the Nile, flying persecution; and he found himself pursued.  On this he ordered his men to turn his boat round, and ran right to meet the satellites of Julian.  They asked him, "Have you seen Athanasius?" and he told his followers to answer, "Yes, he is close to you."  They went on their course as if they were sure to come up to him, while he ran back into Alexandria, and there lay hid till the end of the persecution.

Then there is what natural law theorists call a “broad mental reservation,” which is distinct from a lie insofar as, given the conventions governing language, one’s listener could reasonably determine from one’s words under the circumstances what one really thinks, even if he is likely not to.  An example would be a secretary answering “He’s not in, can I take a message?” to someone looking for the boss.  Given the conventions governing such expressions, it is well known that what is meant is “Whether or not he’s in, he isn’t seeing visitors right now.”  Though if the questioner went on to say “No, seriously, is he really in or not?  I need to know,” to respond “No, he really isn’t in!” when the boss is in would, it seems to me, clearly be a lie, even if only a minor one.

Now jokes of the sort I played on arriving at the party seem to me not to count as lies precisely for the sorts of reason that Athanasius’s words, pleasantries like “Fine, thanks,” and conventional expressions like “He’s not in” used under typical circumstances don’t count as lies, even if the listener is deceived.  Jokes are such a common part of everyday life that whenever something startling is said, people automatically wonder whether it is meant seriously.  The immediate response is, commonly, not belief, but rather to exclaim “You’re joking!”  Hence it seems clear that the linguistic conventions governing startling statements are relevantly like those governing pleasantries and certain kinds of evasive or ambiguous speech.  The listener could in principle determine from the context that what is said is not intended as if it conveyed the literal truth, just as he could in the case of “Fine, thanks” or “He’s not in.”  And the fact that the speaker foresees and even hopes that the listener is nevertheless deceived (at least momentarily) no more makes such an utterance a lie than the hope that Julian’s agents would be deceived made Athanasius’s followers’ words “Yes, he is close to you” a lie.  Moreover, the circumstances of an utterance that determine whether certain words count as a lie plausibly include more than linguistic conventions and what is going on physically in the vicinity of a conversation.  They surely include also what immediately follows a joking utterance of the sort I made about the Jag -- a smile, wink, or laugh, or the words “Just kidding!” or the like.  Just as the theatrical context makes “My kingdom for a horse!” a non-lie even when uttered by someone who has no kingdom to trade for a horse, so too does the overall conversational context typically surrounding jokes like the one I made about the Jaguar make them non-lies.

But suppose I had carried the pretense on for some time.  Suppose the guy at the door said “Wait a minute, are you serious?” and I answered “Yeah, it’s totaled.  Was that your car?  Sorry, man, some drunk driver just plowed into it!”  To make this plausible, suppose the guy’s car was parked a couple of blocks away so that he couldn’t know I was joking just by peering over my shoulder, and had to go check.  Here I think we would clearly have a lie, just as we would in the case of the person who falsely says “Really, I mean it, he’s not here” to someone who asks “Seriously, is the boss in or not?  I really need to know.”  In particular, we’d have what is sometimes called a “jocose lie” -- a lie intended to amuse.  Another example of a jocose lie would be making up some story and relating it as true so as to make one’s conversation more entertaining.  Of themselves such jocose lies are considered by traditional natural law theorists to be merely venially sinful, though circumstances could make them mortally sinful -- for example, if the one telling a jocose lie intended gravely to inconvenience or humiliate his listener.

The view I’m putting forward here may be more lenient than that of Aquinas.  We are told the following story about him:

One day a Friar in a jovial mood cries out: "Friar Thomas, come see the flying ox!"  Friar Thomas goes over to the window.  The other laughs.  "It is better," the Saint says to him, "to believe that an ox can fly than to think that a religious can lie."

I don’t know the circumstances under which this is supposed to have happened, but if the first friar’s remark about the flying ox was relevantly like my Jaguar gag, I’m inclined to say that it was not really a lie at all.  In any event, the distinctions that underlie the traditional natural law view that broad mental reservations, conventional pleasantries, and the like do not count as lies were hammered out in the centuries since Aquinas wrote.  They are grounded in Aquinas’s overall approach to the subject even if they go beyond what he actually said himself.

“New natural law” theorist Germain Grisez also seems to take a more stringent view.  In Living a Christian Life, volume 2 of his The Way of the Lord Jesus, Grisez writes:

Humorous lies manipulate others and often offend their dignity…  [They] aim to deceive someone, although usually only temporarily, and generally in the context of playful mocking or teasing (“kidding”).  For instance, someone first tells a credulous person something astonishing, embarrassing, or frightening but untrue, and by this deception provokes an emotional reaction; then the joker manifests the truth and at least implicitly ridicules the reaction. (p. 411)

I have already explained why I think such “playful mocking,” “teasing,” or “kidding” does not count as lying in the first place -- given the linguistic conventions governing surprising statements, the listener typically can figure out that the speaker is not serious, in just the way that he can figure out the truth when a speaker uses evasive language or a broad mental reservation.  

But then, Grisez, like “new natural lawyers” in general, eschews the “perverted faculty” approach to the subject that (as I explained in a recent post) motivates the traditional natural law theorist’s view that lying is inherently bad.  Grisez appeals instead to the value of “self-integration and authenticity” and a lie’s tendency to “attack[s] the real community that truthful communication would foster” (p. 405).  Yet the suggestion that playful mocking, teasing, and kidding “attack real community” and “offend the dignity” of persons seems to me to be absurdly overwrought, certainly if intended as a general statement about such practices.  (Grisez says that “humorous liars typically victimize people whom they regard as inferiors,” but this way of putting it only reinforces the impression -- which nothing in his discussion clearly contradicts -- that he regards even kidding between equals as a kind of “lying.”)  Of course, mocking, teasing, and the like is sometimes intended maliciously, and can sometimes cause real harm even to people who are not oversensitive -- hazing, schoolyard bullying, and the like are obvious examples.  But everyday pranks and the joshing that friends engage in are not at all like this.  The “victims” of such jokes typically enjoy them -- “Ha ha, you got me!  Good one!” -- and would rightly dismiss as ridiculously humorless any suggestion that in doing so they are somehow complicit in an assault on their “dignity.”  Indeed, the sort of bonhomie that typically surrounds such joking surely fosters community rather than “attacks” it.  (Here as elsewhere the “new natural law theory” tends towards an excessive rigorism born of an obsession with a quasi-Kantian understanding of “respect for the dignity of persons.”  Of course, neither moral rigorists nor Kantians are famous for having a sense of humor.)

So, I would say that playful kidding of the sort I engaged in in the Jaguar case does not count as a lie, not even a jocose lie (and is thus not inherently wrong), whereas falsely insisting that what I had said was true even when asked whether I was joking would have been a jocose lie (and thus would have been inherently wrong, even if only mildly so).  There are interesting middle ground cases, though, that are not as clear-cut.  In Volume II of The Science of Ethics (a work for which I have great esteem), traditional natural law theorist Michael Cronin rightly says that:

It should be remembered… that it is possible for the jocular element in our statement to become itself a part of the statement instead of remaining outside the statement, as merely the end to which it is directed.  And thus what is often incorrectly called a jocose lie is really not a lie, but a true statement, made up partly of words, partly of jocose acts, and partly, perhaps, of the circumstances, for even the circumstances sometimes “speak.” … Smiling, nodding, a jocular tone of voice may all be used to convey our meaning or part of our meaning, just as well as words; and, provided their significance is understood by people generally, they have a claim to be regarded as a substantive part of our speech, as adding to, or modifying the literal sense of the words used.  (p. 72)

I would argue that these sorts of considerations support the claim that jokes of the “totaled Jaguar” sort do not count as lies under the circumstances described.  But Cronin says the following about another example:

To say to a boy on All Fools’ day that his teacher wishes to see him, when it is known that this is not the case, is a lie -- a very minor lie, no doubt, but still a lie.  The innocence of the end aimed at diminishes, indeed, the sin of lying, but it still leaves the lying statement what it is in itself, just as any other end would.  (p. 71)

This, as I say, seems to me to be a middle ground case.  On the one hand, unlike my “Jaguar” example, the content of the statement in question is of itself not necessarily surprising enough naturally to lead the listener to suspect that the speaker might be joking, and if the speaker does not soon go on to say “Just kidding!” or the like but lets the boy go to see his teacher, there is nothing else in the immediate context to indicate the speaker’s true thoughts.  That much supports Cronin’s judgment that this case counts as a jocose lie.  On the other hand, the overall context is April Fools’ Day, and most people are aware that jokes and pranks are unusually common on that day.  Someone who remembers what day it is will likely be especially wary, suspecting anything remotely surprising or unpleasant that anyone says on that day of being a joke.  Hence it seems to me that there are grounds for holding that the overall context makes it plausible that the average person could figure out the speaker’s true thoughts, so that the overall communicative act is no more a lie than the utterance of a mere pleasantry like “I’m fine, thanks” (even when one is feeling depressed) would be.

Someone might wonder: Couldn’t considerations of the sort raised here be used to justify practices like telling children untruths about Santa Claus, or deliberately telling a falsehood to the murderer at the door (practices which in earlier posts I have argued count as lies)?  The answer is No.  Take the Santa Claus case first.  In most cases, there is nothing analogous to broad mental reservation, evasive speech, non-literal language and the like here; nor, even if there were, does a small child have the sophistication to know the difference.  When you tell an adult that you’re fine even when you’re not, he knows well that you might not really be fine at all and that you didn’t really intend in the first place seriously to be claiming that you are.  When you tell him that the sun rose at 6 am today, he knows well that you do not literally mean that the sun moved relative to the Earth but that this is just a loose way of speaking.  But when you tell a four-year -old that a man in a red suit comes down the chimney on Christmas eve, leaves gifts around the tree, and eats the cookies the child has left for him, he understands you to mean that this is literally what happens -- that you are describing an event no less real and in principle observable than a visit by Grandma and Grandpa would be.  He doesn’t think that it is a joke, or merely a delightful myth that you don’t mean seriously -- especially if you insist that it is true even when he says “But Bobby at school said there really is no Santa Claus!”  It is sheer sophistry to pretend that this is anything but a lie, even if the motivation for it is innocent.  

Regarding the murderer who comes to your door looking for his victim, I suppose that if the murderer presented himself as just an ordinary visitor paying a visit and you said “Sorry, he’s not here,” this (like the secretary’s words in the example given above) would count as a broad mental reservation rather than a lie, given the linguistic convention governing such forms of speech.  But suppose the murderer says: “Look, I intend to kill this guy but I’m on a tight schedule here and I don’t have time to fool around.  So, just give me a straight answer-- none of this broad mental reservation or evasive speech stuff.  Is he here or not?”  In that case, if you falsely say “No, he’s not,” then you’ve told a lie.  Not mortally sinful, to be sure -- and consult this article by Fr. Lawrence Dewan for an account of just how minor a fault such an act would be -- but still a slight defect.

But rest assured that you can still joke with the murderer about his Jag being totaled…

72 comments:

Tom Esteban said...

I love that Aquinas story, though I think it has less to do with lying and more to do with an example for Religious. I always see it in context of what the life of a Religious community is like; that is, Religious must have an absolute trust and love of one another with whom they live, and when someone makes light of this fact (even if by a joke) it is sinful for the Religious. In the cases of Religious, to make jokes that take advantage of their state of life - even if they are small jokes on the level of the Jaguar example - I think traditionally would be seen as mortally sinful (for the Religious who made the joke).

Anonymous said...

"On another occasion, John Paul II turned his own humor against that unhappy attempt at humor known as the Polish joke: in this case, the habit that Germans had, in the 1970s, of calling shabby goods, shoddy work, or any kind of foul-up “polnische Wirtschaft”—“Polish business.”

In the wake of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal of the early 1980s, in which the Vatican bank was embroiled, the pope summoned several cardinals known to be knowledgeable about finance to the Vatican to sort through the wreckage. After spending the morning listening to a tale of corruption, incompetence, bureaucratic self-preservation, and general stupidity, John Paul decided it was time for lunch. As he was walking with the cardinals toward the meal, he spotted the German Joachim Meisner, cardinal archbishop of Cologne, and walked up beside him: “Tell me, Eminence,” John Paul said, with that signature twinkle in his eye, “do you think we have some polnische Wirtschaft in the Vatican finances?” As Cardinal Meisner told me years later, his jaw dropped and he was “speechless.” Later, after lunch, several of his brother cardinals asked Meisner what the pope had said. “It can’t be translated,” was the German’s discrete reply."

Tom, obviously His Holiness John Paul II would not agree.

Tom Esteban said...

Anonymous, obviously he may not agree, but he isn't and wasn't a Religious, nor was he sinless, nor was I ever inferring that Religious do not have fun are make jokes.

Mr. Green said...

Prof. Feser: Then there is what natural law theorists call a “broad mental reservation,” which is distinct from a lie insofar as, given the conventions governing language, one’s listener could reasonably determine from one’s words under the circumstances what one really thinks, even if he is likely not to.

This is what makes no sense to me. Communication is all about acts that are "likely" to be interpreted a certain way. (There is always an element of probability because short of telepathy, no communication can be guaranteed infallible.) But given the right convention, any linguistic symbol can represent any thought. The only way to assign moral responsibility is to consider what the listener is expected to infer, not what he "could" infer, which "could" be anything. And either you expect to deceive your listener or you don't. Indeed, if you didn't expect to trick him somehow with a mental reservation, there wouldn't be any point to using one in the first place.

Now jokes of the sort I played on arriving at the party seem to me not to count as lies precisely for the sorts of reason that Athanasius’s words, pleasantries like “Fine, thanks,” and conventional expressions like “He’s not in” used under typical circumstances don’t count as lies, even if the listener is deceived.  Jokes are such a common part of everyday life that whenever something startling is said, people automatically wonder whether it is meant seriously. 

I was quite startled that you claimed the Jag gag wasn't a (jocose) lie, but I didn't think you were joking. I'm not sure about Athanasius's case (maybe he fully expected his pursuers to recognise that he was right there and seize him, being pleasantly surprised when they didn't); but the wrecked-car case depends on the listener being deliberately misled, and to an emotionally distressing degree — nobody ever jokes, "Who owns the Jag, a leaf just fell on the hood." (And as for the standard response of "you're kidding", it seems that that phrase has in itself picked up a conventional meaning of, "I don't think you're kidding at all, merely that you have related something weird or surprising.")

[Word verification: "subled" — not quite being misled; a mental reservation.]

Mr. Green said...

I guess I am the someone who might wonder why we can't apply this reasoning to Santa or Nazis, because that is exactly what I wonder. Horrifying people for fun may be worse than telling kids about Santa Claus for reasons other than lying, of course (just as issues of who deserves the truth still apply on top questions about the intrinsic wrongness of lying), but given that Santa is a real existing person while the car was really not harmed at all, I fail to see why the "sheer sophistry" doesn't lie [so to speak] on the other side. Can there be a reverse statute of limitations on lies such that they fail to be lies if exposed (e.g. by laughter) with the next thirty seconds? Why not the next thirty years? Or in the afterlife?

The killer at the door could most certainly determine that "no, your intended victim isn't here" is not "intended to convey literal truth" — in principle. After all, if he weren't in a homicidal rage, he ought to reflect that any decent householder would not want to aid him in his murderous quest. (Given that this reaction to killer-at-the-door scenarios is extremely widespread, one can't deny that this rises to the level of a convention even more than "The boss isn't in".)

(Indeed, "the boss isn't in" was presumably a plain lie once upon a time, before the convention became established; and it no doubt proved popular enough to take hold based on some notion that the general inquirer had no business knowing exactly where the boss was, only his availability. Perhaps in Athanasius's day, lying to killers was considered a plain lie too; but it certainly appears that in our society it is commonly expected, and thus really is an established convention. It may have been wrong to start accepting it, but any modern killer at the door should know better by now.)

Hence it seems to me that there are grounds for holding that the overall context makes it plausible that the average person could figure out the speaker’s true thoughts [on April Fools' Day], so that the overall communicative act is no more a lie than the utterance of a mere pleasantry like “I’m fine, thanks” (even when one is feeling depressed) would be.

But it's not impossible that a teacher might summon a student on April 1, so the student can't know the speaker's true thoughts; he can at best have a strong suspicion. Which is why I said before that we have to judge based on what we are expecting the listener to infer. It's always possible that he might suspend judgement until gaining further evidence, or he could suspect you were speaking Frenobulexian, so if that were good enough (as I said in some previous comments), you could rationalize any lie on the grounds that it "might" be taken in a true sense. But clearly that conclusion is absurd, so it must be necessary to take the expected interpretation into account. And thus if the butt of a joke believes, even just for a moment, that his car was smashed, you are guilty of telling a (perhaps trivial) lie.

And anyway, if the hearer did suspect a trick, then that would defeat the point of the joke, so it's plausible that the speaker wouldn't bother with a bootless joke, so it's not that plausible after all, so it's plausible that he's joking only if it isn't plausible, and it isn't plausible only if it is….

Mercury said...

Wow, Grisez's position seems unduly rigorous. I fail to see how such kinds of joking harm community. In fact, tge only people I play outrageous jokes on are my dearest friends and family. And vice-versa: we all expect it and enjoy it.

For example, within my family, my brothers and I are very very close to my dad - but we always try to come up with the most ridiculous stories and exaggerations about how he did something or acted in a situation or whatever - we all know it's a joke, and anyone who knows us knows it's a joke, and most importantly, my dad laughs as mich as anyone. And we tell stories about eah other in the same way. Again, no one would ever imagine it was true - it's too outlandish anyway.

For example, my father is indifferent about Alabama football, but we started a joke ghat he is tge biggest fan in the world. So my brother tell me (in front of my dad) that he painted the roof red with a big "A" and that he keeps emailing Nick Saban fan mail and has started to call himself "Wallabama" (his name is Wallace). It's ridiculous and outlandish and the whole joke is because everyone knows it's a joke anyway.

They all tell similarly ridiculous stories about me. So Grisez would consider such things as lies and against tge dignity of persons? But like I said, it's done among close friends and family, and seems to be an exercise of family and friendly humor.

Likewise, my grandfather loved to play jokes on April Fool's Day. So I guess he was a big sinner in thy regard too.

And can you respond to the contention that jokes and jocose lies among religious are mortal sins? Is there anything at all in tradition that supports such a rightist view as mentioned above?

Mercury said...

Above, "rightist" should be "rigorist". Stupid autocorrect "corrects" real words but doesn't touch "tge", "tgat", or "mich". Go figure.

David T said...

Mr. Green,

I found your analysis illuminating and, to the extent that we leave out the expected interpretation of our words in the analysis of lies, the result would seem to be to leave those who used to be called the "simple" particularly vulnerable to deception at the hands of the clever. After all, if it is permissible to play on the conventions of language regardless of how any particular person might interpret our words, then the person who is not especially clever at wordplay is more likely to be victimized - and legitimately so, according to this analysis. It's his own fault that he's too dumb to know that "the boss isn't in" really means the boss is in. I think St. Thomas might have been using irony to make a similar point in the flying ox story.

David J. Houston said...

Dr. Feser,

I'm attracted to Natural Law theory but I just don't see how it fits with Scripture. Consider the following passages pulled from an article by Dr. John Frame:

1. Ex. 1:15-21, the Israelite midwives in Egypt.

2. Josh. 2:4-6, 6:17, 25, Heb. 11:31, James 2:25, Rahab’s deception. Note that apart from what Rahab told her countrymen, even hiding the spies amounted to a deception.

3. Josh. 8:3-8, the ambush at Ai. As John Murray recognizes, God himself authorized this deception.

4. Judg. 4:18-21, 5:24-27, Jael and Sisera.

5. 1 Sam. 16:1-5, Samuel misleads Saul as to the reason for his mission.

6. 1 Sam. 19:12-17, Michal deceives her father’s troops.

7. 1 Sam. 20:6, David’s counsel to Jonathan.

8. 1 Sam. 21:13, David feigns madness.

9. 1 Sam. 27:10, David lies to Achish.

10. 2 Sam. 5:22-25, another military deceit.

11. 2 Sam. 15:34, Hushai counseled to lie to Absalom.

12. 2 Sam. 17:19-20, women deceive Absalom’s men.

13. 1 Kings 22:19-23, God sends a lying spirit against Ahab.

14. 2 Kings 16:14-20, Elisha misleads the Syrian troops.

15. Jer. 38:24-28, Jeremiah lies to the princes.

16. Luke 24:28, Jesus acts as if he intends to go further.

17. 2 Thess. 2:11, God sends powerful delusion so that his enemies will believe a lie.


(Here's the link to the article: http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2005Must.htm)

I think he's read the Scriptures rightly so I was wondering how you might respond or if there is anyone who defends the natural law position while maintaining that is sometimes permissible or even virtuous to lie.

God bless,
David Houston

David J. Houston said...

I wasn't terribly impressed with Thomas' treatment of the Hebrew midwives passage but I was surprised that he offered no comment on Rahab since this is the strongest counter-example for anyone who believes in the authorityy of the Scriptures.

Mercury said...

Mr. Green and David T - are you implying that ANY deception is lying and therefore sinful? I think it's clear that Athanasius meant to deceive - that's tge point if tge story - he deceived without lying.

What about times of war, or jokes, as Mr Feser pointed out - are Christians supposed to be humorless curmudgeons, never teasing their friends or playing practical jokes?

AffableAgnostic said...

Delving into such esoteric subtleties of lying is, in my view, pointless. Neuroscience has firmly established that there is no free will, that every thought and feeling we have is determined by physical, neurological processes completely outside of our control. We cannot stop the way that our neurons form, arrange, and fire anymore than we can stop the sun from rising. Hence, there is no moral responsibility, and consequently no morality.

And there goes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.

some kant said...

Yeah, that's a great position to support when you don't want to be held responsible for making really bad posts on the Internet.

Brandon said...

David Houston,

One of the difficulties with the sort of argument you note in Frame is that it's not making an important distinction between lying and deception generally. This is not an uncommon conflation, but if the distinction is not being made,the argument has to be broken down point by point by point in order to handle the question of whether the passages are really consistent with Aquinas's position, and in what way. It's rather like people who try to use Cassian and Chrysostom as a counter to Augustine and Aquinas; the term in Cassian and Chrysostom is so much broader than the corresponding term in Augustine and Aquinas that most of their discussion actually doesn't apply to what Augustine and Aquinas are talking about.

I don't think Rahab is the strongest counterexample on this point -- the Hebrew midwives seems a far stronger candidate to me. And, after all, Rahab also engaged in prostitution (Jas. 2:25), and it is precisely this handy occupation, with its excellent privacy protections, that enabled her to save the spies, but almost no one takes this as an argument that prostitution is perfectly fine despite, e.g., Tamar also being accounted righteous while also prostituting herself. Also, Aquinas would almost certainly give a reading of the Rahab case analogous to the one he gives to the Hebrew midwives; if I recall correctly, Scotus writing later and differing from Aquinas on this point only in some secondary details, deals with the Rahab passage explicitly and does precisely that. Of course, the question in this sort of case is not whether an interpretation of a passage seems impressive on its own; the real question that needs to be asked is simply whether it is an interpretation a reasonable person could give, and then out of the candidates that are reasonable one chooses as best the one that best fits the analogy of Scripture. And thus, for instance, one cannot simply consider these sorts of passages but also have to consider passages (to take just some examples, Pr 8:7, Ps 52:5, Isa 59, Eph 4:24) where Scripture seems both to condemn lying and, in context, to understand it in a way at least pretty close to the Augustinian understanding of lying as speaking falsely in order to deceive. It's the whole nine yards that matters.

Daniel Smith said...

On a side note, if I may: Can someone here explain briefly - or post a link that explains - the difference between potential to ACT and potential of BEING.

What I mean is this (to use Dr. Feser's rubber ball example): a rubber ball has the potential to bounce, which is an ACT that does not change the makeup of the ball in any way. It also has the potential to become a puddle of goo if melted - which DOES change the ball.

So are there different categories of potential? Or is the potential to ACT something other than "potential" in the Aristotelian sense?

Thanks!

Aquinas3000 said...

"Delving into such esoteric subtleties of lying is, in my view, pointless. Neuroscience has firmly established that there is no free will."

Then why are you urging us not to? We can't help it.

Brian said...

He can't help but to urge us not to.

If it weren't to defend a specific ideology, I doubt anyone would deny free will. It's tantamount to denying the reality of the external world.

Anonymous said...

@ 'some kant' @ 'affableagnostic',

haha. nice.

Mercury said...

Maybe it's been explained before, but is the malice of lying based on the perversion of the speech faculty and not the deception per se? Because if it were deception itself that were evil, then one could not defend, for example, creating a false trail or covering one's tracks when being followed - or even hiding itself, for that matter, which is a type of deception.

And Mr Feser, maybe you have addressed it before, but are misinformation, feints, creating false intel, or deep cover espionage in wartime considered lying? What about when the US government intel agencies send people overseas to participate in language immersion or other endeavors, but have them registered under pseudo-organizations in order to protect them from prying or harm, even if NOT in wartime?

Brandon said...

Mercury,

Aquinas is very clear that the malice of lying is in the falseness of speech, not in the deception as such. But this is one of the disputed points of the tradition; almost everybody agreed that lying was speaking falsely in order to deceive, and pretty much everybody who did agreed that it was intrinsically wrong; but the Dominicans, following Aquinas, tended to argue that the wrongness was primarily in the falseness, while the Franciscans, following Bonaventure and Scotus, more often argued that the wrongness was primarily in the orientation toward deception. I would have to go back and look at how they handle ambushes and the like.

Both sides, again, agree that you need both for a lie; they just disagree on where the emphasis falls when assessing what about the act makes it intrinsically wrong.

Mary said...

Like a crazed archer scattering firebrands and deadly arrows, Such are those who deceive their neighbor, and then say, "I was only joking."

Tony said...

Ed, I am not sure I can follow you in your analysis of the jocose lie, or non-lie in this case. It's not that I disagree on the larger point: there are times when we tell things as jokes that are not lies, and there are times when the jokes are lies. The mere fact that the telling isn't true isn't enough to say whether it is a lie. That I am fine with.

Here's my problem. In the Jag example, it isn't even funny if the guy doesn't for a moment think your are telling the truth. If he rightly grasps the truth, that you are pulling his leg, the whole thing kind of falls flat and is pointless. The only way the joke "works" is if, for at least one moment, he accepts what you say.

My thinking is that because you want the joke to "work", it is unavoidable that you want him to accept what you say, for at least one moment. That is, you want to deceive him. You want him to accept the false statement. That's a lie.

Here is the only reason I see any room for debate: in OTHER situations, the joke can be considered to "work" not if the victim fully accepts what you say, but if he at least is in doubt about it. It is possible to have suspended judgment on things, one can delay accepting or not accepting the statement. On April Fools Day, the victim should be on his toes about anything out of the ordinary, and if you tell him something odd, he reasonably suspends his judgment until he verifies.

I personally don't think this works for the verbal type of joke (instead of physical pranks). I think that when we think of the April Fool's joke being successful, we consider it the more successful precisely to the extent that the victim didn't withhold judgment and "bought" what you told him. If he COMPLETELY withholds assent, and checks out your story with nary a single comment of acceptance, then we think that the joke failed - he "saw through it".

I DO think that the withholding judgment aspect does make some jokes count as not a lie, but the circumstances are different. If you are engaged in a bull session, with one person topping the prior story with a whopper of his own, you know right off the bat that some aspect of the story is not likely to be wholly accurate...but you don't know WHICH aspect of it. The really clever story-teller melds truth and exaggeration (or other looseness with the truth) so well that you have trouble picking out the inaccuracies while he is going along. The more he strings you along without your being able to see through it, the more he can lull you into a "suspended disbelief" attitude, though it is all with your initial consent. The truly successful joker can have a whole crowd going for half an hour this way, until he comes to the final denouement that reveals where the nonsense was all along. Everyone knew that they should have been on their guard, and indeed in a sense they were to begin with. But his clever interweaving of truth and fiction lulled their suspicions to sleep, and at the denouement the falseness comes at them from a wholly unexpected angle, and EVERYONE enjoys the effect, including those who had swallowed the bait. For an absolutely perfect example, read "The Virginian", here:

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/wister/ch16.html

I think the trick of the "not lie" sort of jocose fib rests on the suspension of judgment. Where the success of the joke is rooted in a situation where the victim had no basis to suspend his judgment, the joke really isn't just a story, it's a lie. So it is really critical whether, in the circumstances and in your presentation, there is any reasonable basis for the hearer to see signals that say "wait for it, this may be something else". If there aren't, it is certainly a lie. If there are some such signals, it can become a judgment call as to whether the signals and circumstances are sufficient for a reasonable man to withhold simple assent.

Mercury said...

Mary, is that a quote from somewhere? So you are of th opinion that friends and family playing jokes on each other are in fact, sinning and angering God?

So getting my co-workers at the restaurant to "empty the hot water in the coffee machine" or "replace the magnet battery" (both impossible tasks, but not immediately apparent), are in fact not acts of workplace comeraderie, but hateful and despicable acts that pave the way to hell?

Of course telling someone "your son died" as a joke would be appalling, but "look at the flying ox" must be different.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Tony,

Hoping that one's utterance will lead the listener to a false conclusion does not suffice to make something a lie, otherwise Athanasius's words, and broad mental reservations like "He's not here" would be lies, and they are not. A lie (as the Thomist understands it) is speech contrary to one's mind, and these ways of speaking are not contrary to one's mind. For given context, conventions, etc. the listener could reasonably deduce from the overall communicative act what is really in the speaker's mind, even if he is in fact not likely to. This is different from strict mental reservations -- such as using words in a completely novel and bizarre way that most people would have no knowledge of -- which are lies.

Now, I have argued that jokes like the kind I played on the guy with the Jaguar are not lies for precisely the same sorts of reason. For there are two parts of the context that make it possible for the listener to deduce what is really in the speaker's mind. First, surprising statements are commonly meant unseriously even when someone utters them with a straight face; as with broad mental reservations, a normal listener is likely to think it plausible that the speaker is only joking. Second, what immediately follows the joke is part of the overall communicative context; hence if within a few moments the speaker says "I'm kidding!", that, I maintain, is just as much a part of the overall act of communication as a wink or smile given during the utterance would be -- again, especially given that the average listener is going to assume that a surprising statement may well be a joke, and will often wait to see what is said next before deciding whether to believe the speaker. (Nor is it plausible to say that a time lag of only a few moments before someone says "I'm joking!" suffices to make the initial statement a lie. Otherwise we'd have to say, absurdly, that someone who utters a sentence like "I never drink alcohol or smoke tobacco, except when I'm out with friends" is a liar, because the qualification "except" comes later in time than the statement "I never etc."

Consider also that a listener like the guy with the Jag is very unlikely to say "Feser lied to me!", even if he had been annoyed at me. And indeed it sounds very odd to say that in the normal case. He, and others, would instead say "Feser was joking." That indicates that, as a matter of linguistic fact, people really do treat jokes like the one I played as something distinct from lies -- and, I think, precisely because the "I'm kidding!" follows soon after. (As I've said, if it does not follow soon after, the utterance would in that case plausibly be considered a jocose lie, because the overall communicative act has plausibly ended without a revelation of the speaker's true thoughts.)

Edward Feser said...

I should emphasize also that actual suspension of judgment is not necessary. What is necessary is at most only that the average listener plausibly might suspend judgment. Again, compare broad mental reservations like "I'm fine" (in response to "How are you today?"), "Very good, thank you" (in response to "How is your meal?"), or "He's not in" (in response to "Can I speak to the boss?"). Many listeners will in fact take these to be literally true and may well draw a false conclusion ("He really likes the food!" "The boss is not in the building" etc.) But that does not make them lies, because the average listener may well plausibly regard them as mere pleasantries or euphemisms. That's enough to make them non-lies in standard circumstances. Same thing, I maintain, with "The Jag just got totaled!"

Mr. Green said...

Tony: My thinking is that because you want the joke to "work", it is unavoidable that you want him to accept what you say, for at least one moment. That is, you want to deceive him. You want him to accept the false statement. That's a lie. […] I think the trick of the "not lie" sort of jocose fib rests on the suspension of judgment.

The Profeser: Hoping that one's utterance will lead the listener to a false conclusion does not suffice to make something a lie, otherwise Athanasius's words, and broad mental reservations like "He's not here" would be lies, and they are not.
[…] For given context, conventions, etc. the listener could reasonably deduce from the overall communicative act what is really in the speaker's mind, even if he is in fact not likely to.


I agree with Tony here (in fact in my conversation with him in the other thread, I'm pushing for an even stricter conclusion). Given the Thomistic premise, it seems to me that such things are in fact lies. How are they not contrary to one's mind? (He actually is here, or the car actually isn't wrecked, and you know it.) To say that the listener could "reasonably" interpret an utterance in the truthful way contradicts that he is not "likely" to — how can something unlikely be reasonable, unless "able to be reasoned" here simply means "possible" — and in that case, the bizarre techniques (like, e.g. switching from English to Frenobulexian in mid-conversation) would be acceptable, because it's always "possible" that the listener could figure them out too, in theory.

It strikes me like saying, "Sure, I wanted that guy dead, but I'm not really guilty of murder, because although it was likely that that movement in the bushes was a man, it plausibly might have been a deer." To convey the truth, you not only need the truth, you need the conveying. If you choose words that are unlikely to convey the truth that is in your mind, then you have frustrated your act of communication. And if done deliberately, with intention to deceive, then it's a lie. Attempts to put off the killer at the door count, because you are choosing the ambiguous phrasing precisely in hopes of deceiving him. ("The boss isn't in" probably doesn't count, because it is in fact likely that people will take it in the non-literal sense.)

Nor is it plausible to say that a time lag of only a few moments before someone says "I'm joking!" suffices to make the initial statement a lie.

It depends how few. Finishing a sentence with "…except with friends" is unarguably quick enough, because pauses or punctuation make it clear that you haven't actually finished the thought yet. If there is time enough for a look of terror to cross someone's face, that suggests that it's too late. (Especially if, to go back to Tony's point, you're intentionally waiting just long enough for that to happen.) Consider how this kind of joke often breaks off into laughter or "just kidding" before the sentence ends, in order to forestall such a misinterpretation.

Consider also that a listener like the guy with the Jag is very unlikely to say "Feser lied to me!", even if he had been annoyed at me.

Hm, that's an interesting point. But maybe it's just because most people aren't Thomists. (I bet that guy also lies to killers at the door and tells his kids about Santa Claus.)

Edward Feser said...

Mr. Green,

I don't know if you've bothered to read my earlier posts on this subject, but you don't seem to understand the difference between a broad mental reservation and a strict mental reservation as that has been spelled out by natural law theorists writing on this subject. No one is claiming that the fact that a listener could under some bizarre circumstances or other figure out your true thoughts suffices to keep it from being a lie. That would be a strict mental reservation, and it is indeed considered to be a kind of lie.

A broad mental reservation, by contrast, involves using words which are such that, given the actual conventions governing language, the typical speaker could in fact plausibly figure out what you mean, even if they are not likely to. E.g. Athanasius's followers' listeners could in fact plausibly have figured out what they really had in mind from the words they used plus the circumstances, even if they were not likely to (in a way they would not plausibly have been able to do so had the speakers been using words with some entirely bizarre novel meaning).

You also do not seem to understand the Thomistic view. The claim isn't that speech must always in fact actually communicate one's true thoughts. It is only that it must not be positively contrary to one's true thoughts. That is to say, the overall communicative act must not directly contradict one's actual thoughts. It doesn't follow that it must actually convey them (since as I have noted many times now, the Thomist does not claim that we always actually have to communicate what we know. We just can't lie.)

Now I have argued that the same reasons why evasive talk, broad mental reservations, etc. don't count as lies (according to the standard natural law view) also show that jokes of the sort we've been talking about (the Jaguar example sort) don't count as lies either, given linguistic conventions and circumstances. And it seems to me that no one has shown otherwise.

To be sure, I gather that you don't agree that broad mental reservations, evasive talk etc. of the sort under discussion are non-lies. But that's a separate question. I suspect that Tony would agree with me that those are non-lies -- that is, that he agrees with the standard natural alw view even if you don't -- and if so (I argue) he should also agree that jokes of the sort I've been discussing are not lies either. (Not that you've presented good objections to the standard natural law view anyway -- I don't think you have.)

Re: your last remark, it's cute, but it misses the point. I was making a point about linguistic conventions, not trying to settle a philosophical point by taking a poll. And what most speakers would say is obviously relevant to that subject. I wasn't saying "Most people would agree with my views about lying overall" (of course they wouldn't). I was saying "Actual usage provides evidence in support of my linguistic claims."

And I think, by the way, that most speakers would agree that falsely telling the murderer at the door that the victim is miles away, and telling children that a guy in a red suit literally comes down the chimney, are lies. They would just claim also (as I would not) that these are "white lies" and therefore morally unproblematic. But that's a separate, philosophical and non-linguistic question. In short, what the average language user says about language is (obviously) relevant to determining how language is actually used; but it is (obviously) not necessarily relevant to settling disputes over abstract philosophical points. So, your insinuation that I am somehow being inconsistent is ungrounded.

Edward Feser said...

(continued)

Anyway, in short: All I've been arguing in this post is that the same considerations that would (on the standard natural law view) show that broad mental reservations, evasive talk, etc. are non-lies would also show that jokes of the sort under discussion (e.g. the Jaguar example) are non-lies. And I think that neither Tony nor anyone else has shown otherwise.

If you want to say "But I don't think even these other things are non-lies," well, fine, you can make that case -- though I don't think you have -- but it's a separate issue.

radp said...

I agree with Dr. Feser in principle. Its the overall communicative act that counts. But I have doubts whether the jag example constitutes one communicative act. It seems to me that saying "Your Jag was totaled." is already one completed act.

But what about this one:

"I thought I need to tell you in all earnesty that your jag was totaled..." (making a small pause here, just enough so that he gets what "happened", still not finishing the sentence) "...but then I realised that its not right to tell jocose lies."

Edward Feser said...

radp,

It seems to me that saying "Your Jag was totaled." is already one completed act.

It depends. As I keep pointing out, a very common (even if not absolutely universal) response to this sort of thing is to say "You're joking!," which indicates that the listener is "waiting for the other show to drop," as it were. And that shows that as a matter of linguistic fact, the communication of surprising statements is not considered "completed" until it has in some way been confirmed that the statement is meant seriously rather than as a joke. Usually this is accomplished within a beat or two -- the speaker winks, smiles, or utters "Just kidding!," which breaks the suspense and thereby completes the act; or he indicates by a grave expression, or by saying "Is there any way I can help?" or the like that he is serious, and thereby completes the act in another way. No communicative act is instantaneous in the first place, and given the "suspense" that the listener is held in in these sorts of contexts, it is evident that the act is not completed until that suspense is broken in one direction or the other. (And again, for reasons already given, that the listener momentarily draws a false conclusion is irrelevant.)

Anonymous said...

I think that several people are missing a key point in Ed's jaguar joke--there was almost certainly an incongruency between the message that the jag had been totaled and the manner of delivery and that incongruency is integral to the difference between a joke and a jocose lie.
Several years ago, I taught a class in which I gave oral quizzes on the reading material. In about the 4th quiz, in something like the 5th question out of 10, I gave in a perfectly straight voice a question that was almost impossibly difficult to answer and received immediate complaints from the class. I said "just joking" and the entire class burst into laughter. There was an incongruity between the delivery as if it was a normal question and the content that it was an (almost) impossibly difficult one. However, if I had prefaced my question by saying,
"The next question is very difficult but I want you to try" and then presented the question, and then after everybody failed to get it right told them I was just joking, it would not have been received as a joke. Likewise, if Ed had come in and yelled, "Everybody come outside now; some drunk driver has just ploughed into the jag outside and utterly destroyed it" it would not have been received as a joke.

Edward Feser said...

Exactly. Communication is not words alone but context -- the physical setting, social surroundings, delivery, linguistic conventions, and so forth. And also temporal context, for a communicative act is not instantaneous. Hence you're not going to be able to understand an utterance just by looking at the words in isolation or by thinking of them asserted robotically in an instant.

It's ironic, really, that critics of the natural law view accuse it of taking too black-and-white view of lying -- and then immediately go on in their criticisms to ignore all the complexity that language involves, complexity natural law theorists are careful to take account of!

Mr. Green said...

Prof. Feser: I don't know if you've bothered to read my earlier posts on this subject, but you don't seem to understand the difference between a broad mental reservation and a strict mental reservation as that has been spelled out by natural law theorists writing on this subject.

I have read all the earlier posts (it was no bother, I quite enjoyed them), but this one has been the clearest on mental reservations, I think. However, what I still don't understand is why the line gets drawn between "typical" and "likely". That seems to me to be too arbitrary and not justified by the situation.

A punch in the nose will not kill a typical man. However, if I know that the person standing in front of me is of particularly frail constitution such that punching is in fact quite likely to kill him, and I proceed to punch him in the nose and kill him, then I am guilty of murder — right? The typical case is morally irrelevant (except insofar as I honestly believed the case before me to be typical; and even then, it is not its typicality that makes it relevant but rather its likelihood — that I thought in this case the typical result was in fact the most likely outcome).

Similarly, it seems to me than in weighing the moral outcomes of my speech, I must take into account all the particulars of the situation and the person I am speaking to. The "typical" person may speak Chinese (statistically speaking, that's presumably true), but if I am talking to someone who speaks English, it is clear that I must consider a typical English speaker. And a child will plausibly not understand conventions like "the boss isn't in", but if I am speaking to an adult, it is reasonable to consider what a typical English-speaking adult would understand. And if he's an Australian, I should take into account Australian idioms (that a typical American or British speaker might not know), and if he's a physicist, the jargon of physics, and so on. But if I take all the details [of which I am aware] into account, then I am simply considering what this actual person is likely to understand in these actual circumstances. And if I stop short and consider only some "typical" understanding, what justifies stopping there, and not a little more generally, or a little less?

The claim isn't that speech must always in fact actually communicate one's true thoughts. It is only that it must not be positively contrary to one's true thoughts.

Well, I meant in the case of actually speaking, as opposed to remaining silent. But it's entirely possible that I am still missing something.

I suspect that Tony would agree with me that those are non-lies -- that is, that he agrees with the standard natural law view even if you don't -- and if so (I argue) he should also agree that jokes of the sort I've been discussing are not lies either.

In fact, Tony was defending the standard natural law view against my objections in a different thread, but the fact the he disagrees with one particular example plays into my confusion over the arbitrariness of where to draw the line — he seems to draw it in a slightly different place although starting from the same premises. Again, the only way I see to make sense of it is to consider what's likely rather than what's typical. (We could still disagree about how a given person is likely to interpret a given statement, but that's a separate issue — our knowledge is always limited, and we're morally responsible for any act based on our most reasonable understanding at the time.)

I was making a point about linguistic conventions, not trying to settle a philosophical point by taking a poll.

Yes, and I didn't mean to suggest you were being inconsistent. It's a good point that I hadn't considered; I was merely noting that it's always possible the linguistic agreement masks an underlying position that might be closer to Tony's, or to none of our positions.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Mr. Green,

Similarly, it seems to me than in weighing the moral outcomes of my speech, I must take into account all the particulars of the situation and the person I am speaking to.

Yes, and natural law theorists recognize that. Hence what the average adult is capable of understanding and what either a child, or a non-native speaker, or an extremely unintelligent person is capable of understanding are different, and what would not be a lie when said to the former might be a lie when said to one of the latter. But this doesn't affect the point I'm making. It doesn't show that broad mental reservations, evasive speech, jokes, etc. are per se lies, but only that there are certain special circumstances in which they might amount to lies. And no one is denying that in the first place.

Well, I meant in the case of actually speaking, as opposed to remaining silent. But it's entirely possible that I am still missing something.

That doesn't matter, because the reason lying is intrinsically wrong on the natural law view is not because you haven't communicated the truth. The reason it's intrinsically wrong is that you've perverted a faculty -- you've positively directed the faculty toward conveying error. Remember, using a faculty for something "contrary to" its end is what is inherently bad; sing it for something "other than" it's end, or not using it at all, is not inherently bad. Hence, just as you could keep silent, and thus not communicate, you could also speak in all sorts of ways and not communicate - by mumbling, or singing an irrelevant song, or speaking Etruscan, or whatever. Or by using evasive speech, or a broad mental reservation, or a joke. You just can't lie. And the difference is that the nature of these other utterances is such that the typical speaker is capable of concluding that you're not intending your utterance as literally true. That's just part of the nature of the language used, and competent language users are aware of this.

"Likeliness" is not relevant, by the way. I assume you'd agree that Athanasius's followers' statement "He is very near," since it was literally true, was not a lie. But the listeners were not at all likely to realize just how near he was! So, the listeners' likeliness to deduce what you're really thinking is not in itself necessary to make something a non-lie.

Anyway, I don't see the relevance of that consideration to the current example. Jokes of the sort I've been talking about are extremely common. And the "You're joking!" response is, accordingly, also extremely common. Hence it is in fact likely that the listener is going to realize that you may well be joking, and despite his shock will suspend belief until this is confirmed or disconfirmed. And we are, keep in mind, talking about a context that might last only a few seconds. I'm not talking about a case where you say "Your car was totaled!" and then only an hour later admit that it wasn't -- I've already acknowledged that that would be a lie. I'm talking about a matter of seconds, where the "suspense" hasn't been broken yet one way or another. And a careful analysis of the way language actually works has to take account of the fact that communicative acts have a temporal dimension of this sort.

Tony said...

Ed, I agree with your principle: For there are two parts of the context that make it possible for the listener to deduce what is really in the speaker's mind.

I have no problem with this. I think it comes to the application of it to practice, and here I think it is just a different judgment of particulars between us as individuals as to what "convention" covers.

For the Jag, if you had some kind of minimal acquaintanceship with the owner, and in that relationship he knew you as someone with a wit, someone who is ready with a joke or to laugh at others' jokes, then in that context your surprising statement might well evoke the "you're kidding" sort of response (or at least some suspension of assent), indicating at least a small recognition for a reason to suspect funny business might be going on. But with no relationship with him at all, as a complete stranger, I don't think that it is in the least bit typical or natural for the owner to think or even suspect "he might be kidding".

Suppose that you (again as a complete stranger) were to hang up the phone and say, "I am sorry, but your daughter just died........just kidding." This would be considered in the WORST possible taste as a joke, because he very reasonably wouldn't think "fun being had at my expense". Subjecting a person to thinking this as true even for the bare moment before you say "just kidding" is a gross violation of the inherent motivation we have to trust each other. It hurts him, and in that hurt it hurts society's reliance on each other to be granted a hearing when we speak.

I think that the convention in favor of the potential ambiguity needs to be stronger than what is actually present in the Jag case, unless there are very distinct clues of an incongruity.

Second, what immediately follows the joke is part of the overall communicative context; hence if within a few moments the speaker says "I'm kidding!",that, I maintain, is just as much a part of the overall act of communication as a wink or smile given during the utterance would be -

I don't think that quite works, Ed. The joke is _successful_ if the guy receives your statement with some degree of acceptance. For that to happen, the "just kidding" delivered 5 seconds later HAS to be later enough for him to have time to absorb the initial statement and then give it some degree of credence, and express it. That time lapse is critical to the joke. But that hoped for act of credence is the heart of the joke, and so you have an initial stimulus, a reaction, and denouement as three distinct elements. You cannot really have the joke without all three, and with all three it is clear that the last act is a separate communication from the first act - separated by HIS act. It is a communication about the first communication, not a mere continued communication about the Jag.

What is necessary is at most only that the average listener plausibly might suspend judgment.

"Plausibly might" is a bit thinner than I would put it. Can we go with saying the average listener would "recognize room for another meaning"? And on that ground, I don't think the average car owner would do that in those circumstances. Different judgment about particulars. Maybe the parties you have been are a different kind than the parties that I attend.

Tony said...

Here is my worry about the jocular fib (not lie) that skirts the very edge of convention about expected and anticipated meaning. Deep down, we all have a basic built-in readiness to accept what another tells us. This readiness is NECESSARY for society to function. It makes it possible to take at face value (just as an example) a judge's statement that the law says X and therefore I owe a $100 fine, or to accept a group of scientists who say they have run a series of Y experiments and the results bear out Boyle's law, and the jet mechanic's comment that he checked out the engine and it is A-OK. If we had to verify EVERYTHING that we need to operate, we could not have a society at all, it would be a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world. And we could never give ourselves to our spouses in expectation of a gift of like kind in return.

Jokes that play on an IMMEDIATE recognition of 2 distinct meanings of your words (word plays and puns) don't even begin to violate that sense of trust, because there is no moment of adherence to only one meaning to the exclusion of the other. Jokes told in the context of an already granted suspension of disbelief (i.e. inside a story-telling) also don't violate the trust, the hearer already is prepared to discount some portion of what you say.

Jokes that succeed by getting a person to grant your words more acceptance, more adherence, than their truth (in total context) actually warrants, I think, DO damage that innate sense of trustingness. And this is where to total context with verbal and non-verbal cues becomes a judgment call. If you give the guy too many cues to the fact that your statement is nonsense, he never even begins to to consider whether to accept your statement, and it is just a silly comment without any verve to it. If you don't give him enough cues, he should not reasonably have withheld an initial assent, and thus the "just kidding" becomes, to him, a grievance: he with sound reason responded actively in that innate trustingness we have built in, but the trust was ungrounded in fact. So you have to give him enough cues to make him agree, after the denouement, that he could have and should have withheld assent, but DIDN'T withhold assent at least in part. In that case (if you do it right), the joke really is on him, and he should laugh along with you.

But surely you can see how that narrow middle ground is fraught with mines. If you don't know the guy, you should not be taking such liberties with him, because you are unfamiliar with his internal roadmap of thinking, and you are doing mere guesswork whether you have hit the middle range. If you do know the guy some, but you haven't been around him for the day (or week) you may misjudge his current mental state, and misjudge whether in this current condition (which includes his mental state) your verbal and non-verbal cues are sufficient to hit the middle range.

I am not one of those sour-pusses that always look down on jokesters, I put out at least as many as anyone around me. And I have done some that were bad ideas, stupid, wrong-headed, failures. What I am suggesting is that the jokes that are meant to be _capable_ of being seen-through but fail to hit the mark DO in fact damage the sense of trust we ought to have toward each other, and that they are therefore of concern. Morally speaking, I think it is more defensible to always err on the side of caution and always give more cues than would be absolutely required, even if this means some of the jokes fall flat. A number of failed jokes is better than the other side of the fence, damage to social trust. We have to respect the fact that people have a bias toward accepting what we say, that bias is a good thing, and we should not be working to break it down to the point where we doubt everything everyone says.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Tony,

The "dead daughter" example would be indeed be in bad taste, but it would be in bad taste even if there is no doubt even for an instant that it is a joke. It seems to me that you are fallaciously inferring from "The listener is momentarily in distress" to "The utterance is a lie," and that you are doing so because the listener's distress is evidence that he has drawn a false conclusion, at least momentarily. But as I keep pointing out, that the listener draws a false conclusion simply does not entail that the utterance is a lie, contrary to what people keep suggesting -- otherwise Athanasius's followers' words to his pursuers would have been a lie, and they weren't.

Nor is it as significant as you suppose that the guy didn't know me. The suspense that typically follows at least momentarily upon surprising statements follows as much or more from the content of the statements as from the speaker. Suppose I had instead said to the guy "Martians just landed!" or even just "The cops are coming!" (It was not at all a rowdy party.) Even though he didn't know me, he wouldn't think "Omigosh, it must be true, since a perfect stranger wouldn't joke with me!" Indeed, he wouldn't know for sure what to think for a few moments, no matter who the speaker was and no matter what the content of the statement, if that content was surprising enough. And that's the point -- the surprising content by itself generates suspense that must in one direction or another be broken before the communicative act is completed.

Nor does it seem plausible to suggest that what I said would have differed in its essential character if instead my friend himself had answered the door and I had said "The Jag's been totaled!" to him, followed by "Just kidding!" In both cases, I think the average listener would say, not "Feser lied" but "Feser was only joking." Which, as I have said, supports my claim that ordinary linguistic usage does not count these sorts of utterances as lies.

The most you have shown, then, is that my joke was in bad taste, not that it was a lie. (Not that I think you've shown that much -- it's just a car, after all, not the guy's daughter, and I don't think he would have said it was in bad taste.)

Edward Feser said...

Re: your followup comment, Tony, it does seem to me that it is rather overwrought. It seems to me quite silly to think that my little joke shook the guy's sense of social trust, or whatever. I mean, come on -- it was a joke, and he knew that it was within a second or two. Big deal. (And even if I had actually lied by carrying on the pretense and making him go out to check his car or otherwise inconveniencing him, etc., he wouldn't have thought "Oh no, how can I ever trust my fellow human beings again?" but at worst "That Feser guy is an @#$!%!")

Anyway, for reasons I've already given, your points here don't show that such jokes are lies, but would at most show only that they are objectionable for some other reason.

Pattsce said...

I think people are having trouble here for two reasons:

One, something is only inherently wrong if it used Contrary to its natural function. One can communicate as long as he is not frustrating the end of communication---here, lying. Joking clearly doesn't do this, nor does a nicety. This issue of "contrary" is always a really difficult one for people, and it seems to be the root of a lot of problems here.

And two, this: "Anyway, for reasons I've already given, your points here don't show that such jokes are lies, but would at most show only that they are objectionable for some other reason." Communication can be wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with whether they are lies or not.

These two issues, in one way or another, always trip up people when dealing with natural law, I think. Take the other natural law issue that always gets people up in arms: sex.

One, sexual acts must culminate in their natural end. People construe this natural end requirement as ridiculously strict, and it's not. They attempt to label completely neutral acts as morally repugnant as a sort of "ah ha!" when all they've done is misunderstood the principle to begin with.

Two, whether sex results in ejaculation into a vagina is not the Only issue to consider when analyzing whether a particular sexual act is morally licit. There's a great deal to consider that depends on circumstance. But people always seem to view natural law as simplistic, something that can't work with the nuances of life.

I'd also like to say that I hope you are going through all of these nitty gritty ethical issues, Ed, because you are currently working on a book dedicated to natural law.

Tony said...

But as I keep pointing out, that the listener draws a false conclusion simply does not entail that the utterance is a lie,

I agree.

The suspense that typically follows at least momentarily upon surprising statements follows as much or more from the content of the statements as from the speaker..

I think you and I are perceiving different internal responses that we are honing in on. Take something different from the Jag example, like "Hey, did you realize you left your lights on....Just kidding." Unless a statement is wholly unbelievable (like "the Martians have landed"), and absent definite cues that suggest some sort of incongruity in your statement (and its context), I think that the natural response is for the hearer to receive the meaning of the statement and begin to credit it as being true. This initial movement wherein he begins to credit it, this initial motion of adherence to the statement as true is due to our built-in bias of receptivity toward each other, part of our social natures. It's natural. And this natural initial motion toward credence is what is what BECOMES the incongruity of the joke that everyone laughs at when you reveal the truth, because there wasn't any prior incongruity before that: there is nothing that has an aptitude for being humorous about "Hey, you left your lights on" that makes it funny of itself, what becomes the laughing matter is that the guy _believes_ it when it wasn't true. When people laugh, they are laughing at his credulousness. BUT THERE WAS NO REASON for him to withhold crediting the statement. THIS damages our aptitude for crediting others.

In other words, I am not clear that there is any "natural" suspense merely on account of there being a moderately high degree of unlikelihood about the event claimed. I think that unlikely or not IN GENERAL, if it is know as something that can happen, (i.e. unless the person already has a prior basis to think the statement is incredible - there are no such thing as Martians, for example), he naturally moves toward crediting it. However few parked cars get totaled by drunks on average, it IS an event that happens and could have happened here, it is credible.

The whole matter comes down to whether, in the circumstances, there is sufficient reason to WITHHOLD credit to your statement. It is my stance that the crediting going on in the hearer is the PRESUMPTIVE reasonable action, and that failing or refusing or withholding credit is what needs a special reason, a basis that stands out. Social cues such as (a) a wink, (b) a raised eyebrow, (c) a lopsided smile, (d) an affected pose, are all reasons to consider withholding credit. But whether they are enough to a reasonable person is a judgment call in any given circumstance - the mere fact that one single cue of a possible incongruity is present may not be enough by itself to make it reasonable to a reasonable man to withhold his credit. (And reasonable men will disagree about particulars, too.)

Tony said...

Indeed, he wouldn't know for sure what to think for a few moments, no matter who the speaker was and no matter what the content of the statement, if that content was surprising enough. And that's the point -- the surprising content by itself generates suspense that must in one direction or another be broken before the communicative act is completed.

That's probably the heart of what I disagree about. Surprising or not, if the statement is internally credible (and is not delivered with cues of incongruity), then CREDITING it is the first thing he thinks, and dis-crediting it is what takes an additional reason - time and effort and re-thinking. He doesn't NEED a reason to credit it beyond the fact that you told him, that's what our built-in social bias of receptivity is all about.

Surprise is not a reason to doubt someone's word. That a thing is surprising, or unlikely in a certain respect, just _isn't_ a basis to think the teller is not being forthright. Lots of things that are unlikely in one respect or another happen each day: it is unlikely that I eat would salmon on any given day, but darn and by golly if it didn't happen just yesterday. What a surprising thing! But nobody would think it incredible to be told "Tony ate salmon yesterday." You need more reason that "it is unlikely to have it happen to me, today" to withhold credence, because surprise alone isn't a reason for discrediting it.

Now, surprise taken together with additional motives of doubt would begin to provide a basis for a rational person to withhold credence. And with sufficient such motives, the person would laugh along with everyone else when the truth comes out, because he can legitimately say "I really could have known something was up." But if after the truth is out he is unable to see that (even though he is a reasonable man with a reasonable grasp of the language ans social niceties), then the joker failed to give sufficient cues that there was reason to withhold assent. And, if the joker tells in words something contrary to what he thinks, and does not supply sufficient signals of "incongruity here", he tells a... jocose lie.

I mean, come on -- it was a joke, and he knew that it was within a second or two. Big deal. (And even if I had actually lied by carrying on the pretense and making him go out to check his car or otherwise inconveniencing him, etc., he wouldn't have thought "Oh no, how can I ever trust my fellow human beings again?" but at worst "That Feser guy is an @#$!%!")

Please don't paint me as a straw man. Nobody becomes a social misfit from one or two tiny incidents in life. I am not saying anything like the Jag incident being a horrible maiming of trust-ability. Such a joke would be tiny and inconsequential to almost everyone. But each incident has the capacity to builds with others, as each individual venial sin builds up toward a readiness to commit a mortal sin. As does each little white lie that brushes away a little bit of unpleasant truth. And each little lie to the boss about your time spent on X project. And please don't make me remind you of all the (agreed) comments you've made about how many lies are extremely little faults, without changing their nature as lies.

The default position must be that the statement is presumed true, and that default can be overcome with enough additional signals to displace the presumption. It is the joker's obligation to supply the additions.

Anonymous said...

Tony, perhaps I can mediate between you and Ed, although I am closer to Ed's position. There is a sense in which a joke does break trust to a small degree. Take my ludicrously difficult exam question mentioned in my earlier post. If I had done the same joke a few classes later, it probably would have broken trust with the students and they would start wondering with each question that sounded slightly hard "Is this one meant seriously?" Therefore,we do need to err on the side of caution, as you suggested, and use such jokes with considered moderation. But, when done with moderation, it actually builds bonds of trust because it is a shared human connection of loving a good joke. And it is the person who rarely jokes in this fashion (again, I agree with you we should err on the side of caution) that has the best chance of pulling off a really good one because it is unexpected.
One other way I shall try to mediate is that I agree with you that the joke does work by playing upon the normal operating assumption that what the speaker says is true. However, if it is to be a joke rather than a jocose lie, there must be an incongruency such that if the speaker's statement really was true, he would not (or should not) have said it in the fashion he did. The success of the joke depends on whether the hearer catches the incongruency or not in time.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Pattsce,

Exactly. I thought about bringing up the parallel with sex, but then decided that one can of worms was enough. ;-)

BTW, just to clarify, the ethics-related book which is (among other book projects) currently in the works (and which I'll formally announce when the time comes) is not on natural law in general. But I'll probably get to something like that at some point.

Hi Tony,

Yes, the listener "begins" to think it is true, as you say, but my point is that this initial tendency toward credence is not fulfilled at least until the communicative act is completed. And it isn't completed until the suspense created by the fact of the surprising content is broken one way or the other -- in an "I'm kidding" direction or an "I'm serious" direction. Not until that suspense is broken do we have even the possibility of a lie.

Notice that we have parallels in the other cases -- the natural tendency of the hearer of "He's very close" is to think "Oh, they mean that Athanasius is a few hundred feet away," and only later -- much later than the "I'm kidding" in the joke example -- might they realize "Wait a sec, they may have meant that he was a few feet away!" But that example is clearly not a lie.

So, I'm inclined to say that in principle, even a joke might be much subtler and a little more drawn out than the example I gave -- e.g. a case where someone deadpans it all the way through and only a few seconds later raises the corner of his mouth very slightly as the listener starts to rush out to check, at which the listener says "Heeey, wait a second...!" I don't think that even that counts as a lie, because deadpanning a joke is itself part of the convention that most speakers will be familiar with. It's only the cases where the listener obviously doesn't get the joke but isn't disabused of his erroneous judgment, or where he asks if it's a joke but is assured that it isn't, where I think we do clearly have a lie.

But even if you disagree about that, the sort of case I was talking about in my original example -- where the "I'm kidding!" comes at the latest only after only a beat -- is, I maintain, clearly not a lie.

The reason this doesn't undermine our tendency to trust others is that joking is itself just part of the use of language, and every normal speaker knows that. It's already built into the practice of language, like singing, playacting, etc. are. People's expectation isn't "People are telling the truth, unless they are lying"; it's "People are telling the truth, unless they are lying, or joking, or singing a song, or acting in a play, or what have you." What would undermine trust is if people regularly gave no indication of whether they were joking, or insisted that they weren't even after being asked.

(cont'd)

Edward Feser said...

(cont'd)

Nor is it just the likelihood of the situations described in the joking statement that matters, but the degree of surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, that they cause. Otherwise people would respond "You're joking, right?" only when we say things like "The martians are coming!" But that isn't the case. They also regularly say it when we say things like "I just got fired" or "I just found this twenty dollar bill on the ground" or "She broke up with me" or "I failed the exam" -- events which occur frequently. Anything pleasantly or unpleasantly surprising is the sort of thing we regularly joke about, and thus something the average listener is likely at first to think might be a joke.

Again, if by "crediting" it you mean that we are inclined to accept it instantly, that may be true, but it isn't relevant, because the inclination doesn't settle into actual conviction until we judge that the speaker isn't joking. And that is, again, precisely why people do say things like "You're joking!" even when they hear something relatively mundane like "She broke up with me" or "I found a twenty dollar bill." There just isn't this 100% instantaneous total conviction, disabusement from which will destroy our social trust, that your position seems to presuppose.

With all dues respect, your view seems to presuppose that we all walk around like Data from Star Trek or Chance from the movie Being There, naively taking every utterance in the most literal way and unsure of how to process something that turns out to be a joke. As if, hearing too many jokes of the sort we've been talking about, we're the walking wounded and have had to form psychological calluses to prevent ourselves from losing all trust in our fellows!

But real human life just isn't like that, because jokes are as common as rain and no one even thinks to call them lies, not because they've somehow become accustomed to excusing lies -- if that were the case, they would call such jokes lies but then characterize them as "white lies" -- but rather because everyone knows that surprising statements are frequently not even meant seriously in the first place, and thus don't meet one of the criteria for lies.

Perhaps you have in mind really vicious jokes, or hazing, or harassment and teasing of the sort that can drive its victim to despair or suicide. That would certainly destroy social trust. But the innocent sort of thing I'm talking about is as different from that as an after dinner cocktail or a few beers at a picnic is from a raging frathouse kegger. And (again, with respect) it seems to me that your objections are analogous to saying "A cocktail or a few beers at a picnic tend to lead in the direction of Animal House."

Edward Feser said...

Hi Anonymous,

I agree that excessive joking of the sort under discussion would undermine our trust in a person, but that has nothing to do with whether such jokes are lies. Compare: Athanasius's evasive ploy wasn't a lie and neither are broad mental reservations, but if someone constantly used language in those way we would stop trusting him -- not because we would think "He's a liar," but rather because we would think "He's always evasive, and never states things straightforwardly."

Similarly, if someone constantly joked in just the way I've been describing, no one would say "He's such a liar!" Rather they'd say "He's never serious, all he ever does is joke around, and it gets tiresome when you just want a straightforward conversation!"

radp said...

I tend to agree with Tony here.

Feser: "because everyone knows that surprising statements are frequently not even meant seriously in the first place, ..."

If that were really the case, then such jokes wouldnt work anymore. Just like with the guy who joked in that way constantly.

It may also be that our socio-linguistic intuitions are conditioned a bit differently.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Dr. Feser--

You said above:

***"The reason it's intrinsically wrong is that you've perverted a faculty -- you've positively directed the faculty toward conveying error. Remember, using a faculty for something "contrary to" its end is what is inherently bad;****

But here is where things get a bit murky for me--you've indicated elsewhere (if I've understood correctly) that one cannot lie outside of communication to another *person*--you can't lie to a dog or to a chair or to the forest.

So the "perversion of faculty" is not merely the conveyance of error in itself or the mere that one has spoken "at variance" with one's own mind. If this were the perversion, then one *could* be guilty of "lying" to a dog or a chair--or to no one in particular--merely by using speech or signs in a manner that contradicts what's in one's own mind.

So in my view the question becomes, "what else *besides* speaking at variance with the mind causes the perverted faculty when one lies?"

Or more to the point, what it is about lying to a *person* that perverts the faculty of speech? Doesn't it have to do with a "right to truth" at some level? The right to the "common good"?

Since we can distinguish between uttering falsehood to a wall and to a person, and make some distinctions between what convention will tolerate (such as the conventional deception or social pleasantries you touch on in this post), shouldn't we further identify the "natural end", so to speak, of the use of *interpersonal* speech?

Hope the point I'm getting at isn't too murky. Thanks for your posts, which are quite helpful.

Sigh said...

What an interesting discussion. I'm afraid I'm going to lower the bar by posting a link to an article on free will by a remarkably ignorant fool-Jerry Coyne.

http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2012-01-01/free-will-science-religion/52317624/1

Coyne like creationist Duane Gish likes to ruminate on matters which he does not understand and hurl the resulting absurdities at the public. Unlike Ghish he's much, much more obnoxious. The Maverick philosopher has already put paid to Coyne's nonsense on his blog but I'm hoping that Prof Feser will take this opportunity to tear Coyne a new one. Seriously, the guy is asking for it by peddling the ignorant nonsense in that piece to the public as if it were fact.

Anonymous said...

Sigh,

Yeah. He's so stoopid and rong. I mean he didn't evoke swerving atoms, ghosts in the machine, an immaterial soul, or magic. What a dummy. Sheesh.

Do you need emotional support? Is that why you hope Dr. F can disrobe the clown? "Please, say it ain't so Dr. F"

Anonymous said...

You can work your way through these three Coyne posts as well:

Free Will 1

Free Will 2

Free Will #

Anonymous said...

I can't wait for the soul-ution to the free will problem. We've been waiting thousands of years for some progress. And finally we're gonna get some answers Sigh.

We may not be able the tell the difference between a lie and a joke or a prank or a white lie or a... but finally some resolution on the free will question.

Anonymous said...

Swerving atoms were proposed by greek atomists, who materialists like Coyne claim as their intellectual forefathers.

Coyne doesn't know what he's talking about (quite literally, since he believes that the idea of having a self to do the talking, as well as intentionality, to be illusory), and it doesn't take Feser to show it. Even materialists cringe when that blowhard speaks on something that doesn't have to do with his very, very narrow expertise.

But his idiot fanboys bristle whenever he's taken down, despite it happening so often.

Tony said...

Again, if by "crediting" it you mean that we are inclined to accept it instantly, that may be true, but it isn't relevant, because the inclination doesn't settle into actual conviction until we judge that the speaker isn't joking. And that is, again, precisely why people do say things like "You're joking!" even when they hear something relatively mundane like "She broke up with me" or "I found a twenty dollar bill." There just isn't this 100% instantaneous total conviction, disabusement from which will destroy our social trust, that your position seems to presuppose.

Could be, I suppose, but you'll have a hard time establishing convincingly a contrary to the suggestion that the reason we respond so readily with "your joking" to surprising statements is the regularity of jocose lies. That is, if jocose lies are a commonplace, then people get used to them and they build up a resistance to them, the develop a second-nature second-guessing of simple statements that - other than being surprising - have nothing about them that suggest a reason to withhold judgment. You cannot easily prove that your proposed scenario, where the hearer does NOT settle into actual conviction until we judge that the speaker isn't joking is due to a natural reticence to credit the hearer without additional proof. My suggestion is that it ISN'T natural to suspend accreditation to his statement, what is natural is to hear him say something, understand what the words mean, and just accept it as true. It doesn't take extra time and additional mentation to credit it, there is no natural reason to have to develop a habit of second-guessing people's straightforward statements, surprising or not. (Obviously, I am speaking of statements that are not accompanied by their own cues of incongruity. Cues that come a few seconds later are by definition distinct.) Ed, you seem to be assuming that the act of hearing the declaration and accepting it as true requires in itself a drawn-out process of analysis, evaluation, and judgment that of necessity takes not less than a few seconds. What I am saying is that it doesn't take any time at all (after understanding the meaning of the words) to give the statement some credence, and THAT giving of credence is being abused in the jocose lie. Even if the victim says to himself "good chance this guy might be wrong or stupid or joking, but there's enough here that I have to at least check it out", and barges out to look at his Jag, that's enough initial credence being given to be at odds when 5 seconds the joker says "just kidding".

Look, I think we agree on the general principle: (apart from a joke) if you want to deceive the hearer, and you tell him words that wherein a reasonable man cannot find a discernible reason to think the same thing you are thinking, THAT is a lie. If in a jocose event you give the guy NO cues of incongruity and simply say "your Jag got totaled," you (a) want him to give the statement SOME credence, and there is no discernible reason a reasonable man would interpret your statement to mean "your Jag did not get totaled." That's a jocose lie. Telling him 5 seconds later doesn't undo the wanting him to give some credence to the false thought for those 5 seconds. Amount of time is irrelevant, you want to deceive him.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Deacon Jim,

Yes, a communicative act is of its nature directed toward some person, but it doesn't follow that a defect in the act must always be a defect that involves the speaker's relationship to that person.

Compare: Even if a painting represents some particular person and thus can only be understood qua the painting it is by reference to that person, it doesn't follow that any defect in the painting must have something to do with that person, e.g. a failure to represent the person accurately. It could instead be something totally intrinsic to the painting itself, e.g. cracks in the paint, or a brittle canvas.

Similarly, you can't lie except to a person, because you can't communicate at all in the first place, even defectively, except with a person. But it doesn't follow that the defect in lying must involve something about the speaker's relationship to the other person, any more than a defect in a painting must involve something about its relationship to the thing it represents. it could be something totally intrinsic to the act itself.

Consider that the fact that a lie is still a lie even if the person has no right to the truth is something we can see even apart from controversial examples like the murderer at the door. The nice old lady who lives up the street doesn't have a right to know how much money I make -- if I refused to tell her, I'd be doing her no injustice -- but it hardly follows that if I deliberately (and, sadly, falsely) told her that I make a million dollars a year that it wouldn't be a lie. Of course it would be a lie. And it would still be a lie even if it caused her no harm whatsoever, didn't undermine her trust in others, etc. That it is a communicative act at all requires that another person be involved, but that it is a lie, specifically, does not have anything to do with any special relationship to the person.

Kerry Joyne said...

Poor Adolf didn't have free will. His actions were all determined by previous states.

Let us show some compassion for poor Adolf. Those who are not determined to be compassionate will be ostracized (this has been determined too).

Anonymous said...

"...speaks on something that doesn't have to do with his very, very narrow expertise."

I guess that explains your irrelevance here. What's you're expertise, blowhard? What results have you to show us?

Bet you within our lifetime you'll be wishing you'd spent a little more time reading neuroscience rather than the worldview of a 13th century religiously motivated pure thinker.

Ok, everybody back to pondering if a joke is a lie and if it's an improper use of our mind and vocal chords.

Edward Feser said...

Sigh,

Yes, Coyne's piece is (as usual) pretty lame, but since I'll be addressing arguments of the sort he gives in a forthcoming installment of my series on Rosenberg (who uses similar arguments) I'll wait until then to say anything about it.

Anyway, let's not get off-topic, please.

Anonymous said...

Kerry,

Provide a coherent definition of free will please?

I'll wait.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser,

When reviewing Coyne and Rosenberg will you please give us your thoughts on the latest findings in neuroscience?

Now back to the topic at hand. Sorry for the interruption.

Thanks

Edward Feser said...

Hi Tony,

but you'll have a hard time establishing convincingly a contrary to the suggestion that the reason we respond so readily with "your joking" to surprising statements is the regularity of jocose lies.

You're aware, aren't you, that calling them "jocose lies" begs the question? -- since whether they are really lies in the first place is precisely what is at issue.

Anyway, you seem to me to be making this out to be way more complicated than it really is. No one's claiming that people typically consciously go through some formal step-by-step thought process over the course of several seconds. What I'm talking about is something very simple and familiar from everyday life:

Bob: I'm getting married!

Fred: What? You're kidding!

Bob: No, really, I popped the question last night and she said yes.

Fred: Wow, congratulations!

No conscious thought process on Fred's part and no instantaneous settled conviction either. Just the normal momentary hesitation at a surprising announcement that people often exhibit. Happens a million times a day. Really, what's the big mystery?

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous,

Sure, but I'll tell you now that they certainly don't cast doubt on free will.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

Hi, Dr. Feser--thanks for the reply, which I think I follow and agree with--"right to truth" isn't really up to the task, given your example.

And yet there must be some reason that speaking falsehood to a wall is different from speaking falsehood to the curious neighbor who wants to know your salary but has no right to know it. Perhaps the "right to truth" language doesn't apply unless it's in a generic sense or maybe should be rephrased "right to freedom from error." That is, the "perverted faculty" argument regarding lying has, in my view, more to do with the effect or "end" that "truth" has on the individual with whom one communicates.

A joke such as the "jag joke" in your post involves a use of speech that is at "variance" with your mind and leads the hearer into believing (albeit momentarily) an erroneous assertion. Yet, it's not lying, jocose or otherwise, I would suggest, because you have no intention of depriving the person from the truth via the spoken falsehood--rather your intention is to create a momentary amusement.

While Aquinas probably wouldn't agree that this is not a lie (as you mention--btw, isn't it interesting how Aquinas seems to consider *self-deprecation* a form of lying, like boasting is?), it's reasonable to attach no venial fault to a jokester like in the "jag" example.

But why couldn't one approach the "murderer at the door" scenario along a similar line--that a spoken falsehood intended to deceive may indeed *not* be venially sinful (any more than the joke is)--but for a reason that has more to do with the "right to freedom from error" concept I mention above?

Lies apparently have to do with the..."quality" of the state of error one is left in after deceptive falsehood is spoken. In the case of a joke, the "quality" of the state of error is different from the quality of the state of error in the nosey-neighbor-salary example.

In this view, the state of error of the nosey-neighbor is a detriment to her and to the common good. It's a lie, at least venially sinful. But the "quality" of the state of error induced in the murderer-at-the-door scenario seems to me to be decidedly different--in such cases, the *truth* as to the location of the murderer's intended victim is detrimental both to the would-be murderer *and* the common good. Does the unjust aggressor have the *same* "right to freedom from error" that the person of good will has?

I think we'd all agree that, no, an unjust aggressor has *no* right to freedom from error when it comes to truth that compromises his own soul or the common good or truth used to kill another. In this situation, we move from mere "ignorance" (e.g. generated by silence) to deliberation "deception" (e.g. generated by use of broad mental reservation) in which we *want* the would-be murderer to embrace an error regarding the victim's whereabouts.

So, it seems reasonable to note that the unjust aggressor has a much more limited "right to freedom from error" than a person of good will. But even a person of good will does not possess an ironclad "right to freedom from error" such that we are to avoid something like the "jag joke" used to elicit humor but *still* is a spoken falsehood (at variance with the mind) intended to (briefly) lead one into error.

So, why can't we treat the unjust aggressor with such a false statement?

Is my "right to freedom from error" approach problematic at the start? Let me know--what I'm trying to get at is that "truth in speech" has some value that is being upheld by labelling its negation as the sin of lying--the lie causes something to be "lacking" in the outcome of the communication--"what" is it that is lacking? I'm trying to pin that down and appreciate the dialogue.

Gene Callahan said...

"This is what makes no sense to me. Communication is all about acts that are "likely" to be interpreted a certain way. (There is always an element of probability because short of telepathy, no communication can be guaranteed infallible.) But given the right convention, any linguistic symbol can represent any thought. The only way to assign moral responsibility is to consider what the listener is expected to infer, not what he "could" infer, which "could" be anything. And either you expect to deceive your listener or you don't."

Right. The upshot of the Athanasius post is that's it is fine to lie, so long as you do it in a tricky fashion.

Mr. Green said...

Edward Feser: by mumbling, or singing an irrelevant song, or speaking Etruscan, or whatever. Or by using evasive speech, or a broad mental reservation, or a joke. You just can't lie. And the difference is that the nature of these other utterances is such that the typical speaker is capable of concluding that you're not intending your utterance as literally true.

Thanks. What I still don't understand is why the "typical" speaker determines where the line is drawn; if we rightly consider atypical characteristics of our listener such as being a child or foreigner, etc., why not being a killer-at-the-door? And we know very well that door-killers are going to interpret certain phrases in certain ways, because that's the whole reason we would even attempt evasive speech in the first place. Or conversely, given the vast majority of people who consider it defensible to "lie" to killers, clearly the typical person should expect such a thing just as much as in the expression "the boss isn't in", and thus (at least nowadays), it would count as a broad mental reservation. ("Your intended victim isn't in… to you!") Since we're dealing with an intrinsic disorder, the criteria can't be arbitrary or vague; real-life cases may be difficult to pin down, but an idealised case (e.g. stipulating that we know exactly how the listener will interpret the given statement) should be precisely definable. And I'm not seeing that.



"Likeliness" is not relevant, by the way. I assume you'd agree that Athanasius's followers' statement "He is very near," since it was literally true, was not a lie.

Actually, no, it's not clear to me that that statement was not a lie (or more exactly, that it was not perverted communication, and allowing for some devil's advocacy here); this is a bit clearer on another version of the story that I've heard, in which Athanasius himself says, "He is near". Now referring to oneself in the third person is not linguistically or logically problematic per se, but it definitely is atypical, and not something most of us do except in rare circumstances (such as, perhaps, wanting to disguise our meaning or to be funny). In fact, it would not be expected in this case precisely because it is not typical. So I don't see why it shouldn't be considered a lie, morally speaking.

(I might be persuaded that for someone else to say, "he is near" is truthful, although given the context it really seems that "near" cannot legitimately mean "right here". If you ask me where your glasses are, having absent-mindedly forgotten that they are perched on your forehead, and I say, "they're near!", you're going to think that I mean they are "close", "at a short distance away", not at no distance away. "Near you", given the context, does not mean the same as "on you". You'd probably call it a joke rather than a lie, given the triviality of the circumstances, but you wouldn't typically consider it a serious statement of the truth.)

Jack "Vaughn" Bodie said...

So, is the “Jag joke” relevantly like the example of St Athanasius? I think so, but a detail in Dr Feser’s retelling makes me wonder if a line was crossed.

And, do startling statements receive a special meaning from conventional usage, or due to, say, the speaker’s manner? Again maybe, but if so not always a special meaning that aids the joker.

While I do find Dr Feser persuasive in arguing that the “Jag joke” is just a joke, I’m not clear what the special meaning is that conventionally applies to startling statements. A wide mental reservation is not reckoned a lie because, given the convention(s), the special meaning of the assertion is true, not because judgement is suspended pending further information. What is the special meaning attached to “Your jag’s just been totalled,” that would make the assertion true? The answer to this question would clarify things for me I think. If there is none then I can see why Mr Green and Tony think the “Jag joke” is not like other wide mental reservations.

The success in selling the joke/lie depends on your ability to suppress other communications that would reveal the truth contrary to your statement (these would be predominantly nonverbal though you may need to choreograph the words and/or actions of others). Is this like St Athanasius’s deception without lying? Well St Athanasius’s followers answered the pursuers’ (ill chosen) question with a truthful statement; it just wasn’t the whole truth. So here it would seem that a poker face revealing no tell that a joke is being played would make it relevantly like St Athanasius’s cleverness, while any believable expression of sincerity or feigned horror (ie, your mock distress) would be to lie even if we would otherwise grant a special meaning conventionally. Dr Feser’s first quote from Cronin’s Science of Ethics would seem to support this as mock distress, unless poorly acted, is not a jocose act in the same way smiling, or winking, or giggling in anticipation of the punchline would be.

I think this is important because the distress, if its “significance is understood by people generally [...] as adding to, or modifying, the literal sense of the words used” at all, is telling the listener that joke protocols do not apply; the look and the startling statement say "I want you to take what I've said seriously".

I’ve linked to this clip of Eddie Izzard, who has just finished a joke about how Gerry Dorsey and his management team must have decided he’d have greater success singing under the name “Englebert Humperdinck”. The clip starts as an apparently sombre tangent where he informs the audience “But he’s dead now - did you hear that?” It’s very funny, and convention would seemingly have us conclude a cross-dressing comic is telling a joke, not a lie. However the joke is extended far beyond the initial startling statement. For me, it’s a jocose lie. What do others think?

Edward Feser said...

I think some of these most recent comments focus too much on the words of the statement considered in isolation. But that's not the only consideration. What matters to whether a statement constitutes a lie is not whether the words in isolation are literally true or false but whether the overall communicative act of which they form a part is contrary to what is really in the speaker's mind. And words that are false when considered by themselves can obviously be part of an overall communicative act that does not amount to a lie.

Hence, an actor on the stage who says "Oh what a beautiful morning!" during a nighttime performance of Oklahoma! is not lying even though the statement is false. And this is true even if the performance is so good that the audience isn't thinking of the speaker as an actor, but is absorbed in the story and is thinking of him as a happy Oklahoman who thinks it is morning.

Or suppose a student comes into my office and says "Prof. Feser, what do you think of the idea that God could have been a contingent being?" and I sit back in my chair and utter: "Hmmm. God is a contingent being," as I roll the idea around in my mind considering how best to point out the confusion in this statement. I'm not lying because even though the words are false and I know they are, I'm not asserting them. I'm just "putting the idea out there" as an object of contemplation. And this is so even if the student mistakenly thinks "Wow, I've said something really clever and Feser thinks I might be right!"

Now my claim is that a joke of the sort we're discussing is relevantly like this. The words "The Jag was totaled!" are false but they are not being asserted, but only mock-asserted, as an actor mock-asserts things. And the context makes this clear, because as a matter of linguistic fact it is part of the nature of surprising statements that we don't fully assent until we get some indication from the overall situation -- a smile, wink, the words "Just kidding," or whatever -- that the speaker is serious.

The natural law writers are quite clear that it is the overall act that is important, not merely the words. And that is why they say what they do about evasive speech, broad mental reservations, conventional pleasantries, and the like. As I've said before, it really is ironic that the critics of their view accuse them of being simplistic about the issue of lying but then go on to attack them with arguments that presuppose a very simplistic view of how language works!

(This is analogous to criticisms of the natural law view of contraception, BTW. The view is criticized as simplistic, but then the critic goes on simplistically to ignore all sorts of clear and crucial distinctions that the natural law theorist makes between e.g. acting versus refraining from acting, using a faculty contrary to its end versus using it for something other than its end, etc.)

Mr. Green said...

Edward Feser: The natural law writers are quite clear that it is the overall act that is important, not merely the words. And that is why they say what they do about evasive speech, broad mental reservations, conventional pleasantries, and the like.

(Since my puzzlement lies in the opposite direction, does that mean I don't think the conclusion is simplistic enough?!) Taking the overall act into consideration rules out broad reservations — at least if the whole act, including all the possible context, is considered. The view as presented stops short of certain pieces of context (e.g. it stops at a typical meaning even if I know full well that my listener will interpret it differently). It's one thing not to know how your listener will interpret something, and resort to the "typical" interpretation as a fallback. But when you do know (or think you know, which is all that's relevant to your moral responsibility), how can it not be relevant to take all such details into account?

Gene Callahan said...

"And that is why they say what they do about evasive speech"

And the overall context is why what they say about evasive speech is silly: the speaker *intends* to deceive! That is the overall context.

Edward Feser said...

Hi Gene,

Yes, the listeners were deceived in that case. So what? As I've noted several times now, deception is not the same thing as lying, even if they are related. Nor does natural law theory say that deception is inherently wrong. It's lying that is inherently wrong.

And Athanasius's followers were certainly not lying, even though their act was deceptive. For they said something true, and they knew it was true. How could it be a lie? (Speaking what you think is false is not a sufficient condition for somethings being a lie -- again, actors in a play aren't liars -- but it is surely a necessary condition.)

You might respond: "But the speakers knew that the listeners will draw a false conclusion!" Yes, but that doesn't entail that they were lying. Telling a lie is not the same thing as saying something true under circumstances in which the listener will draw a false conclusion. Suppose you ask someone how much money he makes and he says "I'm not going to tell you that," or maybe just says nothing at all. You might conclude from that that he makes very little money and is embarrassed about it, and he might know that you'll conclude this. But suppose that in fact he makes a lot of money and doesn't want you to know that, or makes a moderate amount but just thinks it's not your business to know how much he makes. Has he lied to you? Obviously not. (Certainly if you want to hold that saying "I'm not going to tell you that" is a lie, or that just keeping silent is lie, then it's you, and not the natural law theorists, who is saying something highly counterintuitive!)

You might say: "But why is lying inherently bad while deception is not inherently bad?" Because the former involves the perversion of a faculty in the way I've explained in an earlier post, and the latter does not. To this you might say that you don't buy perverted faculty arguments, or that you think that there are other moral considerations that would make deception also always and inherently bad. Well, fine, but those are separate issues. What is at issue here is the specific question of whether evasive speech, broad mental reservations, jokes, etc. count as lies. And so far neither you nor anyone else has shown that they do.

Martin said...

1. Actors do not lie when that say untrue adjustments because they are acting, not making attachments of fact.

2. Actors need not be on stage to act eg, " candid Camera" or one of the reality shows.

3. Lila Rose and her friendput on odd clothes, put a camera in a bag and played actors I'm their own reality show.

Therefore they did not lie.

Anybody buy that?

January 25, 2012 5:54 PM

Hannah Shive said...

Love the Aquinas analysis. I don't think the issue is whether or not lying is right or wrong but rather what constitutes as lying from a moral standpoint. I think Aquinas would say that simply stating an untruth is lying and therefore immoral but I would disagree. I believe morality would only be compromised if it was with the intent to deceive or hurt.

Sue said...

I think you are missing the larger point about what was perhaps wrong with your Jag joke:
You were mocking someone. You were assuming a person with a fancy car would be the type to care about it too much.
I've done this kind of thing too, but I later regret it. Not because I lied, but because I was purposely cruel.