Sunday, November 25, 2007

Project Prevarication, Part One: Portents of a Perniciously Potent Problem

I do love alliteration. Last night, a friend of mine and I were drinking and talking, and the subject of relationships came up. Perhaps understandably, the conversation turned from there to talk of lying. My friend told me two stories in which he...let's say "miscommunicated"...information either to someone with whom he was in a relationship or about someone with whom he was in a relationship (we'll get to the stories in a second). My philosopher sense started tickling with both the stories, and we discussed them in relation to the definition of a lie for a while. For much of last night and virtually all of today, I've been preoccupied with the issues we raised last night, and it seems that the more I think about them the stickier the problems become.

In this first post, I just want to lay out the problem as I see it--I want to show that it is sufficiently complex to warrant further investigation. Once that's done, I'll start exploring some of the potential solutions in more depth, and see if I can find a solution that seems satisfactory. For now, though, an introduction to the problem.

Those verbally inclined readers who saw the title will no doubt have deduced that the problem at hand has to do with the lying. Specifically, I'm concerned with doing a conceptual analysis of the notion of a "lie" to see what exactly we mean by that term; I want to investigate what counts as a lie (and what doesn't), and see what those things that count as lies have in common--if we succeed at this task, we'll be in a position to give a tight definition of the concept of a "lie."

Let me start by laying out the two cases my friend told me about. I'm going to call them Case 1 and Case 2.

1. My friend was involved in a long term relationship, but had recently cheated on his partner. His partner became suspicious, and asked him if there was something going on between him and the mistress. My friend responded with a sarcastic tone of voice, saying "Oh yeah, I'm totally sleeping with X." His partner, assuming that the sarcasm indicated that he hadn't really slept with X, was mollified.

2. In another instance, this same friend (this time single) was involved in a relationship that, for various reasons, he wanted to keep under wraps, preferring to give the public impression of a platonic relationship. The girl was coming to stay with him for a weekend, and a third party asked where she planned on sleeping. My friend replied "Well, my couch folds out into a bed, and I have a spare set of sheets." The third party, assuming that his question had been answered, dropped the inquiry.

My question, then, is a relatively simple one: did my friend lie in either case (or in both)? (1) in particular is problematic I think--his literal words were truthful, but their intended purpose was (by his own admission) to give a false impression to his interlocutor. What are we to make of cases like this? Is a lie tied to the actual symbolized semantic content (i.e. words), or to the intention of the speaker? Can one lie with body language? What about (arguably) non-symbolic things like voice inflection or tone?

A few answers to these questions spring to mind, but the more I think about them, the less satisfactory they appear to be. I'm still thinking about this, and will be posting more in the near future. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts, dear reader.

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