Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Self control


The relationship between memory and personal identity has long been of interest to philosophers, and it is also a theme explored to good effect in movies and science fiction.  In Memento, Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) has largely lost his ability to form new memories following an attack in which he was injured and his wife raped and murdered.  He hunts down the attacker by assembling clues which he either writes down or tattoos on his body before he can forget them. 

In Philip K. Dick’s short story “Paycheck” (which is better than the movie adaptation starring Ben Affleck), the protagonist Jennings has agreed to work for two years on a secret project knowing that his memory of it (and of everything else that happened during those years) will be erased when the task is completed.  When he awakens after the memory wipe, he learns that he had, during the course of the two years, voluntarily agreed to forego the large paycheck he had originally contracted for in exchange for an envelope full of seemingly worthless trinkets.  He spends the rest of the story trying to figure out why he would have done so, and it becomes evident before long that it has something to do with the secret project’s having been a device which can see into the future. 

(Readers who haven’t either seen Memento or read Dick’s story or seen the movie version are warned that major spoilers follow.)

Memento is a terrific movie and deserves the hype it has gotten.  Its philosophical interest lies not only in its relevance to discussions of memory and personal identity, but also in the way it illustrates the problems of interpretation and indeterminacy raised by twentieth century philosophers like Wittgenstein, Quine, and Davidson.  Leonard supposes that taking photographs, writing himself notes, and getting tattoos will allow him to preserve the information he acquires before he can forget it.  The trouble is that he still forgets the context in light of which the photographs he took and the words he writes down or tattoos got the sense he originally had in mind.  Deprived of this forgotten context, he is unable correctly to understand what the words and pictures really mean, so that neither he -- nor, really, even the viewer -- knows just how very far off track he has gotten as he pursues his attacker.  We know, and eventually he knows, that he has been manipulated in ways he cannot fully fathom, but what is deliberately left unclear by the movie is the extent to which this is the case or how long it has been going on.

What is of interest for present purposes, however, is that we find out by the end of the movie that among the people who have been deliberately leading Leonard down blind alleys is Leonard himself!  It turns out that, realizing at one point that he has been manipulated by others, Leonard decides to get revenge on one of those manipulators -- Teddy -- by leaving himself clues falsely implicating Teddy as the man who raped and murdered his wife.  Leonard knows that he will forget that he has himself laid these false clues, and that his future self will kill Teddy, supposing that he is avenging his wife’s death when in fact he is really punishing Teddy for having manipulated him.

Now what I want to focus on is a question raised by Leonard’s planting of false clues for his later self to misinterpret.  As background, keep in mind that for us Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosophers (unlike, say, for Lockeans), Leonard’s anterograde amnesia in fact raises no problems of personal identity.  Leonard remains the same person over time as long as he is the same form-matter composite over time, which he is as long as he is alive and whether or not he can remember anything of his past life.  Indeed, he would remain the same person even if his brain had been so damaged that he spent the rest of his life totally unconscious.  (Since this is not a post about personal identity per se, I’m not going to pursue this issue further but just take for granted in what follows the A-T view.  See David Oderberg’s essay “Hylemorphic Dualism” for exposition and defense of the A-T approach to personal identity.)

A second background assumption I’m going to make is the correctness of the standard Thomistic natural law view about lying.   Part of that standard view is that lying is intrinsically wrong.  But that doesn’t mean we always have to reveal the truth -- we can remain silent or, under some circumstances, even speak evasively using a broad mental reservation.  It doesn’t rule out certain customary forms of speech that are not literally true -- joking, for example, or saying “I’m fine, how are you?” when meeting someone even though you are feeling miserable -- because the standard view is that given the nuances of linguistic usage, these don’t count as lies.  Nor, on the standard view, does deception always involve lying, and neither is deception itself always and intrinsically wrong (though of course it often is wrong given the circumstances).  For you might know and intend that someone be deceived when you use evasive language that isn’t strictly untrue and thus not a lie.  But directly and unambiguously communicating some meaning that is contrary to what you really think would be a lie.  And while outright lying is not necessarily seriously wrong -- probably most lies are not -- it is still at least mildly wrong.  (Here too I’m not going to pursue this set of issues further at present, because the post is not about lying per se; and I have in any event discussed the ethics of lying many times and at considerable depth in previous posts, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Please do not waste time raising questions or objections concerning this issue in the combox unless you’ve read those posts, because I’ve probably answered your question or objection in one of them.) 

Now, coming back to Memento, let’s ask: Was Leonard lying when he arranged misleading clues for his later self?  Obviously he was deceiving himself and -- given that his aim was to bring about a murder -- doing so immorally.  But was he doing so by means of a lie in the strict sense?  Can you literally lie to yourself?  One Thomistic natural law theorist, Austin Fagothey, thinks not.  Discussing the conditions under which a sign of some sort (whether linguistic, a gesture, or whatever) counts as a lie, Fagothey writes that “the sign must be made to another person, for speech is communication between minds.  It is impossible to lie to oneself…” (Right and Reason, Second edition, pp. 309-10).

To understand Fagothey’s point here it is crucial to reemphasize that not all deception involves lying.  Again, if I speak evasively I may deceive you without lying.  For example, if I tell the proverbial murderer who comes to the door looking for you that “He is not inside this house” -- suppose you are actually hiding in my backyard -- and he goes away thinking that you are nowhere around, I have deceived him but I have not lied.  Similarly, if I don’t let myself dwell on certain unpleasant truths, knowing that I am likely to forget them if I keep my mind off of them long enough, there is a sense in which I have deceived myself.  Fagothey isn’t denying that that is possible.  His point is that that is different from lying.  What he has in mind by “lying” is the sort of thing I would be doing if I told the murderer flatly: “He is nowhere in the vicinity, neither in the house, nor in the backyard, nor the garage, nor anywhere else nearby as far as I know.  Nor, Mr. Murderer, am I in any way speaking evasively or using any sort of mental reservation.  You can take my word for it.”  If I said that while knowing full well that you were in the backyard, I would be lying.  (Never mind for now about the morality of it -- the point is that it would be a lie, whether justifiable or not.)  Fagothey is saying that it is impossible to lie to yourself in that strict sense. 

Obviously there is something to what he is saying.  Imagine me talking, not to the murderer, but to myself -- while looking in the mirror, say, trying to appear sincere -- saying “Your friend isn’t really in the backyard, Ed.  Honest!”  It’s ridiculous to think this would count even as an attempt at lying.  I would know, in the very act of “communicating” the meaning that is contrary to what I really think, that it is contrary to what I really think.  This seems a bit like trying to get yourself to think that you are not really thinking -- a self-defeating exercise.  At most my little monologue while looking in the mirror might count as a kind of joke.  (That’s an interesting question -- can you literally joke with yourself even if you can’t lie to yourself?  Maybe so, though perhaps this really just amounts to thinking about jokes or other funny things.) 

So, should we conclude that Leonard was not lying to himself -- even though he was of course deceiving himself -- when he laid those clues for his later self to misinterpret? 

A Lockean who takes continuity of consciousness to be definitive of personal identity might argue as follows.  Given Leonard’s condition, there is no significant psychological continuity between the “Leonard” who decides to deceive his future “self” and the later “Leonard” who is deceived.  So (the argument might go) they are really different persons.  And in that case “Leonard” really has lied to “himself”; or rather, the earlier “Leonard” has really told a lie to the later “Leonard” precisely because they are not the same person.  This would be a way of arguing that the scenario involves genuine lying, consistent with Fagothey’s view that it is impossible to lie to oneself.  For there are, on this view, really two selves in question, not one.  As I’ve indicated, though, from an A-T point of view the Lockean is just wrong and there is only one person here, in which case this would not be a way of showing that there is genuine lying (again, as opposed to self-deception) involved.

And yet there really does seem to be something like actual lying going on in the scenario in question.  Leonard writes down Teddy’s license plate number as if it were a clue, knowing that his future self will falsely suppose it to be that of his wife’s killer.  In his internal monologue, he even describes what he is doing as “lying” to himself.  He is, in effect, deliberately “communicating” what he knows to be the falsehood that Teddy is the killer to a mind, albeit to his own future mind.  We can even imagine him leaving a note for himself that says flatly “Note to self: Teddy is the killer!” (though he doesn’t actually go that far, wanting to leave at least a little in the way of further investigation for his future self to carry out).

I am inclined to think, then, that this may in fact be a case of lying, Fagothey’s remarks notwithstanding.  What Fagothey should say is that you can’t lie to yourself in ordinary circumstances precisely because in ordinary circumstances the “recipient” of the message (namely you) cannot even in principle take what you say for truth.  And the recipient’s being able at least in principle to take what you say for truth seems a necessary condition for lying.  (That’s why you cannot in principle lie to a stone, a plant, or an earthworm, since they cannot even entertain propositions at all, let alone regard them as true.)  In unusual cases, though, such as those involving anterograde amnesia like Leonard’s, lying to yourself seems possible insofar as the “recipient” of the message (your future self) can in principle take it to be true.

If lying in the strict sense is always at least mildly wrong (as the standard Thomistic view holds) then it would be wrong to lie to yourself the way Leonard does, even if you are lying for a good end (unlike Leonard, who lies to himself for a bad end).  But what about what Jennings does to his future self in “Paycheck”?  Here there is no lying involved, but Jennings does do something that would at least in ordinary circumstances be wrong if done to another.  If you had contracted for a large paycheck and someone rigged things so that instead of getting it you got a bag of trinkets, I think it would in most cases be wrong for him to do so even if the trinkets will benefit you (as they end up benefiting Jennings, in ways his post-memory-loss self doesn’t foresee, in the story). 

Now, in the movie version, the trinkets end up not only benefiting Jennings, but saving his own life and the lives of millions of other people.  It would not be wrong, given the nature of property rights, for one person to deprive another of his contracted paycheck and give him the trinkets instead if that was what was at stake.  But suppose that what was at stake was something far less dramatic.  Suppose that by replacing the paycheck with the trinkets without your consent, I could guarantee that you would be better off in some significant way that nevertheless fell far short of being a matter of life and death.  (Perhaps this would, in ways you are unable at present to see, enable you to get a better job, or make a friend you wouldn’t otherwise have met.)  Would it be morally permissible for me to do it?

It depends.  If you were one of my young children, it seems clear that there are cases where I could, for your own good, legitimately override some contract you had made.  (Suppose you had agreed to mow a neighbor’s lawn for five dollars and I arrange to have a bag of trinkets delivered to you instead, knowing that one of them is a valuable baseball card that will fetch you $50.)  But if you were a perfect stranger, it seems equally clear that I could not legitimately do this.  What we are describing here is a kind of paternalistic intervention, and that is appropriate only where someone has something like paternal authority over another. 

Now, obviously we are in something like a paternalistic relationship to our future selves.  We have not only the right but the duty to do what is in our future best interests.  Hence what Jennings does to his future self, though initially unpleasant -- Affleck’s stunned and angry reaction on opening the envelope of trinkets (when what he expected was $92 million) is one of the better scenes in an otherwise disappointing movie -- is perfectly morally legitimate.

32 comments:

Joe K. said...

Is it appropriate to say that Leonard was not lying to himself while he was writing the message but was lying to his future self at the same time? Is he simultaneously not lying and lying to himself?

I suppose it's not simultaneous. I guess that's the issue. When does a lie take place? When it is spoken/communicated or when it is received? If I write you a letter saying that I have a million dollars in the bank and just need you to hold it, am I lying to you when I write it or lying to you when I read it? (By the way, I am a prince and definitely do have a large amount of money and if you give me your bank account information, I'll definitely transfer the money over to you right when I get back into the country! I'll let you keep a lot of it if you help me out! You can trust me!)

It seems like if you say the lie takes place when spoken or written, then he definitely wasn't lying to himself. But if you say the lie takes place when it is received, when the communication is complete, then it does seem like something like a lie. I imagine the Thomist would say it's the latter, which I guess is the problem.

If that's the case, though, is an attempted lie immoral? It seems like to me it would be, but if the lie doesn't take place until the recipient receives it, it wouldn't count as immoral? At least not in the same way? This seems strange to me, as lying is about perverting the faculty, and it seems like by the act itself of saying something contrary to what I believe is true, I have perverted the faculty. Or at least started to.

Might I say that the recipient merely need to be capable of receiving the lie, in a metaphysical sense of capable? That is, being a thing that is metaphysically reasonable. I suppose this is what you mean by "in principle" in your post, Professor Feser?

(But seriously, just send over your bank account information, your full name, including middle initial, your social security number, and your date of birth, and I will send the money right over for you to hold and you can keep half of it! I promise!)

Greg said...

Hmm, the question of when he has lied is an interesting one. I am inclined to say that he has lied when he has written down the false message, and not when he receives the false message, for he is not performing any act, nor is he aware of having performed the act, at least qua untruthful, when he receives the message.

It seems like if you say the lie takes place when spoken or written, then he definitely wasn't lying to himself.

So I think the lie occurs when he writes it. But I don't think that for the act to be a lie, it must be "to" someone present. In the normal case, lying to oneself is impossible, but what makes the act a lie is, I think, that he intends that it be received by someone (himself) who will not know it to be false. Normally, that is impossible; I can't generally tell myself something that I know to be false and expect myself to receive it as though it were true. But Leonard can.

This does have the effect that untruthful messages that are never received are lies, but that seems like a natural corollary.

Greg said...

This does have the effect that untruthful messages that are never received are lies, but that seems like a natural corollary.

Another way to make this point: We would like to say (or at least, I would like to say) that Leonard has lied to himself even if for some reason his future self fails to understand the implication of his message.

PatrickH said...

Whether Leonard is lying to another self about Teddy reminds of this exchange on The Simpson's, after Marge has discovered Homer has been lying to her about still having a gun around the house:

Marge: Homie, you lied to me!

Homer: Marge, it takes two to lie. One person to tell the lie and the other one to believe it.

Scott said...

@Greg:

"I am inclined to say that he has lied when he has written down the false message, and not when he receives the false message, for he is not performing any act, nor is he aware of having performed the act, at least qua untruthful, when he receives the message."

I agree with the first part of this; he's lying when he writes down the false message. If lying is the misuse of one's faculties of communication to express something contrary to what one believes, then the lie takes place when the faculties are put to that perverted use—that is, when the initial act of communication is performed.

But I'm not so sure about the second part—that no lie is taking place when the message is received. Doesn't it seem that the latter is when being lied to happens?

I think something is happening at both times. I'm not sure whether it's better to distinguish between two senses of "lying" or to regard the entire process as a single act, but my inclination is toward the latter.

A possible analogy: The archer is shooting the arrow as of the moment he draws and releases his bow, but the arrow is still in the process of fulfilling his intent all the way up until the moment it strikes the target and his act isn't "completed" until then. If his target is a murder victim, then he's committing murder when he releases the bow—but in a sense he's still committing it when the arrow strikes.

makachini said...

Amnesia The Dark Descent, is the best survival horror that I had played

Scott said...

@Greg:

The archer analogy also seems to capture your belief (which I share) that a lie has taken place even if the message is never received. It's true that if the arrow doesn't hit the intended victim, the archer is legally guilty only of attempted murder rather than murder, but I'd say it's the same moral offense.

Greg said...

@Scott

But I'm not so sure about the second part—that no lie is taking place when the message is received. Doesn't it seem that the latter is when being lied to happens?

I think something is happening at both times.


I would say that when he receives the message, he has been lied to. But I wouldn't say that he is being lied to.

I would refer to the more normal case, where there are two people involved. Suppose someone writes a false message to another person and (say) sends it by mail. The act of writing and sending is a lie.

Before the letter arrives, though, the sender passes away. The receiver reads the letter, and takes the falsehood as truth. The receiver has been lied to, but I don't know if I could describe him as being lied to, for there is no liar. Likewise, when Leonard reads his message, he is no longer in the process of sending it.

I'll admit that this view is a bit odd and is somewhat incongruous. At what point has the receiver been lied to? A consequence of my view seems to be that the receiver is the patient of the lie without being present when the lie occurs (ie. if no lying occurs at the time of reception). Perhaps that result can be avoided by regarding the relation of being lied to as a Cambridge property; that there is a patient of a lie is inessential to the lie.

Another consideration which I think motivates my view is that a received message can be false without being a lie. Modify the above example so that the sender sent something which was false, but which he believed to be true, ie. he was not lying. When the sending and receiving are spatially and temporally separated, what is to characterize the received message as unintentionally false as opposed to a lie? In the face-to-face case, the (non-)liar's state of belief and intentions account for the moral character of the act. But as Feser points out, in the case of spatially and temporally separated messages, the indeterminacy of the medium should be insufficient for conveying the intention of a written statement.

I'll have to think about it some more...

Scott said...

@Greg:

I see your point and I'll have to think about it some more too.

Here's another analogy. Suppose Smith sets up a device that will kill Jones as he (Jones) walks into his home. Smith dies before Jones arrives home. Jones walks into his home and is killed. When did the (moral) act of murder take place?

I would be inclined to say either that (a) the act took place when Smith first set the trap, even though it didn't go off until later, or that (b) the entire process of setting up the trap and having it sit there until Jones came home and walked into it was the act of murder, and though it began when Smith set the trap, it continued (via derived intentionality) until Jones was actually murdered.

I'm still inclined toward the latter answer, but I'm not married to it or anything. I'm also not entirely sure the analogy of murder with lying is close enough for the analogy to be helpful.

Joe K. said...

"The archer analogy also seems to capture your belief (which I share) that a lie has taken place even if the message is never received. It's true that if the arrow doesn't hit the intended victim, the archer is legally guilty only of attempted murder rather than murder, but I'd say it's the same moral offense."

I'm not sure I can get behind this. At the very least, if the arrow doesn't hit, it would be silly to call the person a "murderer." (We can also imagine the person shooting an arrow at a person who is already dead but who the arrow shooter didn't think was already dead.) But would it be as silly to call the person a "liar" if his girlfriend doesn't hear the lie he's trying to tell? I don't know.

I think the murder analogy might not be helpful, as murder isn't immoral in the same way lying is immoral. That is, lying is about a perversion of the faculty, whereas murder brings in a lot more. At the same time, I'm having difficulty drawing a comparison to other perverted faculty issues---like sexual perversion.

This is so, I think, because lying is especially unique as a perversion, as it has the element of having another person. A person can pervert his sexual faculty by himself (and it is no doubt the most common sort of perversion). A third party just isn't necessary at all. This, no doubt, is why you went to murder, Scott, but I'm not sure if it's helpful in the way you want it to be.

It seems to me that there has to be some person actually receiving the message for it to be lying. And I think this might make sense, because it's not the speaking of the lie that is perverting the faculty. The faculty is communication to another. Not communication in general. (It might be more appropriate to say that communication requires another person.) I don't actually pervert anything until a hearer hears it, unlike I do when I use my sexual faculties by myself improperly. Similarly, there are sexual perversions that do take place outside of just one person. One cannot commit sodomy (in the modern sense) by himself. But again, it would be strange to call someone a sodomite who never actually engages in anal sex but simply gets ready to (by setting up a date for that night or something, or even by taking off his pants). He may be doing something else immoral, but I don't think I can say he's perverting his sexual faculty until the moment it actually occurs.

Would you say that a person is lying when he's speaking to a person in a brain-dead comma (assuming such a person cannot receive the message in any way)? Similarly, under your view (Scott and perhaps Greg), it seems like you could lie to no one at all (just talking in an open field) in that you are perverting the faculty in the moment of saying something contrary to what you believe. I don't think this can be right, but I'm definitely, like you, Scott, not married to the idea.

Joe K. said...

"Would you say that a person is lying when he's speaking to a person in a brain-dead comma (assuming such a person cannot receive the message in any way)? Similarly, under your view (Scott and perhaps Greg), it seems like you could lie to no one at all (just talking in an open field) in that you are perverting the faculty in the moment of saying something contrary to what you believe. I don't think this can be right, but I'm definitely, like you, Scott, not married to the idea."

This might not be a fair assessment of your positions at all, because you both spent a lot of time going into the intention of the speaker. A person speaking in an open field has no intention to convey the message to anyone. The coma situation (which I hilariously spelled as comma) is maybe in between the two, especially if the person IS trying to communicate to the brain-dead person.

Scott said...

@Joe K.:

"At the very least, if the arrow doesn't hit, it would be silly to call the person a 'murderer.'"

You point out some importantly relevant disanalogies between lying and murder, but I don't think this is one of them. You're right that legally the person would be guilty only of attempted murder (which I did mention), but I don't think that affects the moral nature of his act; his intent was to murder someone, he just failed.

I think you're right, though, that murder doesn't involve a perversion of the faculties in the way that lying does, and for that reason may not be helpful as an analogy.

"It seems to me that there has to be some person actually receiving the message for it to be lying."

Well, I think it's sufficient that someone be intended to receive the message; I think the person who sends the message is still lying even if the other person never receives it. That's the perversion-of-faculty bit, and it's where the intent comes in.

Sodomy (again in the modern sense of the word) is disanalogous for another reason: there's no displacement in time between the performance of the act and its effect on the recipient. But I'm having trouble thinking of other perversions-of-faculties that do involve such displacement.

At any rate, the one thing it seems all of us so far (Joe K., Greg, and I) agree on is that the lie occurs at least when the person speaks or otherwise emits the message that is contrary to his true beliefs. What's still not clear to me is whether the receiving of the message also counts as part of the lie—or whether "being lied to" counts as a separate event that we might still call a "lie" in some other sense even though at that point no one's faculties are being put to any perverse use.

Mr. Green said...

Scott: I don't think that affects the moral nature of his act; his intent was to murder someone, he just failed.

Yes... subjectively, he is a murderer — which is of course course what counts morally — although objectively he may or may not be. So someone who tries to tell a lie is certainly subjectively a liar, even if his communication never reaches its intended target.

I think it's sufficient that someone be intended to receive the message; I think the person who sends the message is still lying even if the other person never receives it. That's the perversion-of-faculty bit, and it's where the intent comes in.

And since the distinction between subjective and objective can't apply to a perverted faculty, then any subjective or intended lie would be a lie simpliciter. So the faculty in question isn't technically "communication" — which requires two parties, and thus isn't actually a faculty — but rather speech, or more precisely speech for the purpose of communication.

Actually, I would say that (in English, anyway), we wouldn't call something a "lie" if the statement is true — so you could be subjectively lying, if you mistakenly thought you were telling a falsehood, while objectively not.

On top of that, it's not just that the person you're lying to must be capable of being deceived: suppose God appears to you, but you don't know it. You could obviously lie to God even though He isn't not capable of being deceived even in principle. So you must believe that the person could be deceived.

Let's see, that gets us: to lie is to say something that you believe to be false for the purpose of deceitfully attempting to communicate an idea to some party whom you believe will wrongly take it to be true. Does that cover it?


But I'm having trouble thinking of other perversions-of-faculties that do involve such displacement.

I suppose ingesting a slow-acting poison is not only murder, but also an abuse of your digestive system by feeding yourself something that is harmful instead of nutritious. Surely the perversion occurs when you take the poison, not when it begins to have an effect... I think.

What's still not clear to me is whether the receiving of the message also counts as part of the lie—or whether "being lied to" counts as a separate event that we might still call a "lie" in some other sense even though at that point no one's faculties are being put to any perverse use.

Hm... I think it's a separate event, though we would often ignore the distinction because (a) typical lies happen all at once, or such that the time-lag is not relevant in any interesting way, and (b) the future event of being lied to is present in an anticipated way in the liar's intention.

Anonymous said...

An off topic question:

If one wanted to systematically come to grips with Aristotle's thought, from the basics upwards, what are the works they any here would recommend(other than the primary sources)?

Is Mortimer Adler's Aristotle for Everybody a good introduction to Aristotle's thought?

Matt M said...

I agree with Mr Green. To lie is not just to speak an untruth, but also to intend it to deceive.
You can't lie to a rock because it can not understand anything, so you know that it can not be deceived. You can't lie to God, because God knows everything, so you know God can not be deceived.
You can lie to a person who takes what you say is true, but it would also be lying if spoken to someone who knows it is a lie and you are not aware that they know it is a lie. You would be 'caught lying'.
So, you can lie to yourself, if you think it will deceive yourself.

Brandon said...

Anonymous,

I think Adler is a very good starting point for someone who wants to start at the very beginning.

If you can find it, Jacques Maritain's An Introduction to Philosophy is also very good as an early introduction -- a little bit more advanced than Adler's, but very nicely organized as an easy-to-follow map of roughly how Aristotle's thought differs from other philosophical positions on important points. Reading Adler then Maritain would be a good foundation for going further.

bitvast said...

Anon,

I haven't read Maritain's book but I would recommend "Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation" by Henry B. Veatch.

monk68 said...

Anon,

Download and listen to the Berquist lectures on Aristotelian logic and Aristotle's Physics over on the left sidebar at James Chastek's site "Just Thomism"

Pax

Scott said...

@Mr. Green:

"Let's see, that gets us: to lie is to say something that you believe to be false for the purpose of deceitfully attempting to communicate an idea to some party whom you believe will wrongly take it to be true. Does that cover it?"

Just about. The communication needn't be spoken, but writing is a representation of speech so that's just a nitpick.

(I suppose we might also tell lies using symbols other than letters, but I suspect we'd regard those symbols as equivalent to speech in some relevant sense as well. One could, after all, tell a lie by writing it in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and I don't see that that would differ relevantly from, say, posting a "No Smoking" symbol in a place where smoking was in fact permitted.)

I'd also add, just as a clarification, that there need be no specific party in mind. If I post a sign on my house (to dissuade burglars) warning that the house is protected by a high-tech security system when it isn't really, I'd be inclined to say I'm lying even though I have no recipient in mind—indeed even if no one in fact ever reads the sign.

"I suppose ingesting a slow-acting poison is not only murder, but also an abuse of your digestive system by feeding yourself something that is harmful instead of nutritious. Surely the perversion occurs when you take the poison, not when it begins to have an effect... I think."

Well, I certainly agree that the perversion takes place at that time, and the act of suicide at least begins then. The question at issue, I think (which you go on to address), is when the act ends. Does it end once I've taken the poison or does it continue until I actually die? That's the analogue of Joe K.'s original question ("When does a lie take place?") if we're agreed that the lie starts at the time that it's told.

"Hm... I think it's a separate event, though we would often ignore the distinction because (a) typical lies happen all at once, or such that the time-lag is not relevant in any interesting way, and (b) the future event of being lied to is present in an anticipated way in the liar's intention."

I'm starting to incline that way myself. I still don't see clearly, though, why this case differs relevantly from that of an archer shooting an arrow at a target. The archer's "shot" continues (so it seems) until the arrow reaches (or conclusively misses) the bullseye; why doesn't the liar's "lie" continue until someone hears/reads it?

Scott said...

@Matt M:

"To lie is not just to speak an untruth, but also to intend it to deceive."

It needn't be to speak an untruth as all, at least in the objective sense. It's sufficient that one express something contrary to one's own beliefs, even if what one expresses turns out to be true after all. If I tell you I'm not carrying any cash even though I think I have a wallet in my back pocket containing fifty dollars, I've lied even if my pocket has just been picked without my knowledge.

zmikecuber said...

Random question for you guys.

Where does Aquinas defend the old thesis of "immaterial substance = intelligence"?

Thanks :)

Matt M said...

Yes, I agree it does not depend on speaking.

"It's sufficient that one express something contrary to one's own beliefs..."

Given the above, can you lie to yourself ?
It would seem impossible because you know what your beliefs are.

In the case of someone with short term memory loss who is putting out erroneous clues for himself knowing that because of his inability to remember he will be deceived by them; is he lying to himself or only deceiving himself ? In laying out the clues he is not expressing anything contrary to his own beliefs.He knows they are false clues. He does have the intention of misleading.(Is there a difference between lying and deliberately misleading ?)

Is a lie a thing, e.g. an expression contrary to one's beliefs, or is it more relational, necessarily includes my perception of how the expression will be understood ? It depends on my understanding of you ( or in this case myself in the future) as being able to be deceived and also not having the knowledge that would prevent you (or myself in the future) from being deceived.

Mr. Green said...

Scott: One could, after all, tell a lie by writing it in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and I don't see that that would differ relevantly from, say, posting a "No Smoking" symbol in a place where smoking was in fact permitted.

Right, the method of communication should be irrelevant. I do wonder about things like camouflage... in previous posts, Ed has distinguished such kinds of deceit from deceitful communication. But if you use camouflage or fake footprints, etc. not according to their proper use, but in order to trick someone into forming a certain notion, doesn't that make it a form of communication? In a Gricean sense, there doesn't seem to be any hard dividing line between the words "no smoking", a picture, a gesture, even grabbing someone's cigarette and putting it out, etc. Or in terms of a perverted faculty, isn't it our faculty of "speech" that we are using when we make one thing (e.g. a false trail) stand for something else?

I'd also add, just as a clarification, that there need be no specific party in mind.

Agreed. (I'd say that likewise, you're morally a murderer if you plant a bomb where it can kill someone but you don't know who.)

The archer's "shot" continues (so it seems) until the arrow reaches (or conclusively misses) the bullseye; why doesn't the liar's "lie" continue until someone hears/reads it?

Does anything change if the arrow is shot into space and carries on for years (long after the archer is dead) before hitting something? Or maybe it's just a matter of definition. "To lie" is something immediate that the liar does; whereas "a lie" is the statement thus uttered, which carries on (or lies dormant) until someone interprets it in the right way (if ever).


Matt M: Is a lie a thing, e.g. an expression contrary to one's beliefs, or is it more relational, necessarily includes my perception of how the expression will be understood ?

I'd say it's relational in the way that any speech (writing, etc.) has to take into account how the sounds or symbols will be interpreted by the other party... otherwise I don't think it could be strictly called 'language'.

Scott said...

@Mr. Green:

"'To lie' is something immediate that the liar does; whereas 'a lie' is the statement thus uttered, which carries on (or lies dormant) until someone interprets it in the right way (if ever)."

That's a succinct way of putting it and it seems right to me. The one who tells the lie is lying (just as the archer is shooting) at the time the lie is uttered or otherwise expressed, but the lie (like the shot) continues in some manner either until the communication is completed (for the last time, if there's more than one recipient) or until it's no longer possible for it to be completed.

If that's right, then the answer to Joe K.'s original question ("When does a lie take place?") is that the lie exists during that entire period, but the act of lying takes place when the lie is first told.

Also, being lied to takes place on each occasion when the lie is received. That initially seemed odd, but it seems less so now that we understand a lie as outliving the act of lying that brought it into being.

Scott said...

It's probably also worth calling explicit attention to the derived intentionality involved here. Say I express a lie as a "message in a bottle" and set it adrift. According to what we've said so far, that message is a lie for as long as there are human beings in the world who could in principle read it even if they never do, just as each written word in the message is a word for the same time and for the same reason. It ceases to be a lie if it either (a) outlives the human race or (b) decays or otherwise becomes illegible, just as its words cease to be words under the same conditions.

Scott said...

Heh, and another consideration: if someone reads my message, believes it, and passes it on, the lie continues to exist in yet another sense even if I've been dead for a hundred years and my act of lying is long over.

Mr. Green said...

Scott: Also, being lied to takes place on each occasion when the lie is received. That initially seemed odd, but it seems less so now that we understand a lie as outliving the act of lying that brought it into being.

That makes sense to me. Good point about the message in a bottle, too.

Scott said...

@Mr. Green:

Thanks. I suppose most other spoken/written expression works similarly; Aquinas's arguing for an Unmoved Mover occurred only when Aquinas was composing or presenting his First Way, but Aquinas's argument for an Unmoved Mover is still around even now, and will be until there's no one to read his works.

Of course there's also a sense in which the arguments, lies, and so forth do continue to carry the intents of their authors, so that the authors can be said in a derivative sense to be arguing, lying, and so forth through them. (When we talk about the First Way, for example, we say things like "Aquinas argues that ... " in the present tense.) But we don't mean by that that the authors are themselves still in the act of arguing, lying, and so forth.

Scott said...

@the Anon asking about introductions to Aristotle:

I just ran across this shortly ago. I haven't read it, but from what I can see of it, it looks pretty solid.

Scott said...

Maritain's An Introduction to Philosophy is available online here. Amazon also sells it.

Scott said...

@zmikecuber:

"Where does Aquinas defend the old thesis of 'immaterial substance = intelligence'?"

Here and here, among other places.

tz said...

Paycheck v.s. Trinkets?

By calling them "trinkets" you do a semantic violation. If they are "trinkets" they are of far less value than the original paycheck, which could pay for the "trinkets" and have much cash left over. Consider the paycheck could pay for an annuity or some form of life insurance.

It would also depend on the theory of value (the late spanish Scholastics created the foundation of the marginal utility theory of value).

In general, your point is that one or more of the "trinkets" is ultimately of greater value than the paycheck makes it a rational and voluntary transaction. But again, the word "trinkets" is a misnomer. "objects of salvation" might be closer. Can I purchase such with my next paycheck? If so, the rent can wait.

The other problem - lying - is a deus ex machina. Or at least hollywood or other writers. Although I'm a great and strong believer in Divine Providence (and Mercy, next sunday...), I don't have a writer who can get me out of situations. The lies are only in retrospect not violations of the commandment against bearing false witness. Just because something good, or nothing bad came out of breaking a commandment is no excuse.

To make it personal, the only reason I'm here is because my father, a Catholic, divorced and remarried. He avoided the sacraments for a generation until he ultimately got an annulment and died shortly thereafter. Should I take that to mean divorce is no problem - or fornication, adultery, sodomy, contraception, go through the entire 6th commandment section of the catechism - because it MIGHT end well? (of course if I'm a gadfly you probably disagree and feel free to lament the violation). If not, why is the 7th exempt and the 6th not? The catechism is simpler and clear on the 7th. And the 6th.