Tuesday, January 2, 2018

What is a “lie”?

It struck me at our last discussion, that the Society had never debated the subject of the true nature of Veracity, and that for want of some mutual understanding on the subject there was a good deal of confusion in our conceptions of the drift both of Dr. Mivart's meaning and of some of the commentaries on it. Especially in the distinctions drawn or not drawn between reticence, indirect support given to presumedly useful falsehoods, and direct support to the same, we appeared to need a better understanding of each other's positions. The present paper is offered as a mere basis for a discussion. And as such a basis, I offer this definition of a “lie,”—a use made of the confidence which you believe to be placed in you by any one, to make that person accept what you know or suspect to be untrue. This definition makes room for lies of all degrees, but does not depend, as it ought not to depend, on the mere falseness of the words used. You can tell as bad a lie by a gesture as by word of mouth. But an untruth uttered deliberately by word of mouth need not be a lie at all. For instance, a friend of mine once overheard a little boy, engaged to help the gardener of a private garden, gesticulating oratorically with his hand in the intervals of sweeping the walks, and saying, with eloquent accents, as he pointed at the little demesne, “All this belongs to me, belongs to me, belongs to me!” Of course, though what he said was false, and though he knew it to be false, he was telling nobody a lie, but was indulging in a delightful day-dream. However, I am not quite sure whether my definition is quite wide enough to cover the lies which we certainly tell ourselves, and by which we often impose on ourselves. I intend it to include such lies, but there is clearly sufficient difference in the conditions between such self-imposture and the deceptions practised on others, to make it a little difficult to include both kinds of falsehood in the same formula. I will even maintain that there are plenty of cases in which a man is so much a problem to himself, that it takes a careful induction and a good deal of self-watching in different moods, to know exactly what the truth about himself is. But that men do sometimes deliberately tell themselves lies, and to a certain extent deceive themselves by these lies, I have no doubt. And to apply my own definition, if it hold good of such cases, you do in such cases betray the confidence placed in yourself by yourself, to make yourself believe what you suspect to be untrue. That seems a very paradoxical form of words, but I can find no form of words which better expresses to my own mind the real phenomenon of self-deception. I take it there is no better illustration of this sort of self-deception than the elaborate devices many men will adopt to prevent telling a verbal lie, when they not only deceive, but intend to deceive others by a correct form of words. I suppose the excuse is, and it is not always wholly bad, that the same confidence would not be placed by an experienced man in a form of words which might be true without conveying the information which nevertheless it is intended to convey, which would be placed in a form of words which could mean nothing else. And no doubt, when your interlocutor knows that by the rules of the game, as it were, he is bound to be on his guard, as, for instance, when a statesman is answering a question of great moment in Parliament, during a crisis which may end in war, this excuse is good. Under such circumstances, words are to be construed as meaning anything which may be fairly understood by them, and every one knows that the person who uses them will use them in the sense which it is most convenient to him to attach to them. But when a man uses a form of words to which his experience tells him that it is quite certain that the person he addresses will attach a meaning which he does not intend to express by them, he undoubtedly not only tells a lie to the person so deceived,—i.e., uses that person's confidence in him to produce a belief which he believes to be untrue, but to himself too, i.e., betrays the confidence which he places in his own uprightness of character, by making himself believe that he has been upright, when he has more than a shrewd suspicion that he has been false.

My definition clearly admits of all degrees of mendacity, which certainly is a recommendation, since there can be no doubt that the amount of falsehood contain false words varies quite as much as the amount of truthfulness contained in true words. If a host says, “I am afraid you have had a very dull visit,” and I, having really felt it somewhat dull, reply, with a cordial smile, “Oh no, it has been such a pleasure to see you again!” that may be said, I think, to represent a lie of a low order of mendacity. In the first place, by changing the issue, it makes a sort of admission of partial truth in the remark, and if this admission is partly retracted again by the manner and the smile, yet no one who knows how much the friendliness of leave-taking naturally alters the manner, would be inclined to repose too much confidence in that. But if under the same circumstances I reply, “Oh no indeed, a most delightful visit; I have not enjoyed anything so much for a long time!’—then, I take it, the lie becomes one of a much higher order, for the very simple reason that I draw much more largely on my friend's confidence in my truthfulness, and also use it for the purpose of making him believe what is much further from the truth. Again, I can see no lie in giving the answer which some people adopt when they are questioned about a secret which they do really know,--‘If I did know the truth, I warn you that I should deny all knowledge of it, but I know nothing about it.” If there be a breach of confidence there at all, it is only in the little word “but,’ the negligence, and so to say, naïveté of which is hardly provided for by the formal notice given in the previous words. Still, any one who was deceived after so deliberate a warning that for such a purpose the speaker did not wish to inspire, and did not intend to justify confidence, could not complain that he had been betrayed. Again, the ordinary, casuistical difficulty about telling a lie to an intending murderer who asks which way his intended victim is gone, is more or less solved by this definition. It may be a lie of a low degree, because the murderer may place, we will say, the same sort of confidence in you as he places in mankind generally. But if he has no special reason for trusting you, or has even the general reason for distrusting your answer that he knows all people averse to bloody deeds would wish to foil his purpose, if they properly could, the confidence betrayed is exceedingly slight. And with regard to the soothing falsehoods told to a delirious person, it is obvious that as you address a state of mind which is not due to objective fact at all, but to the disordered condition of the nerves, the reply you give is the nearest to an impression of truth you can convey. What the delirious person frets about is some imaginary blunder or want; if you give him the assurance that it shall be rectified, though there is no such blunder or want to rectify, you go the nearest you can to conveying the impression to that sick state of brain that there is nothing the patient need fret about. In fact, you make the best use of the confidence placed in you of which the condition of the invalid's brain admits.

Thus, without confidence betrayed, I contend that there can be no lie, so that an habitual liar who avowed to every one his habit of lying, if such a man could be, would, I think, except where he met with those who did not know him, and who accorded him the general confidence yielded to men as men, become incapable of the moral evil of lying, because he would know that no faith was ever placed in him which he could betray. At least, if the power of lying did remain to such a person, it would only be because a habitual liar loses so completely the habit of estimating the effect his words produce, that he remains credulous as to his power to deceive, long after his power to deceive has vanished. But of course, if he expects to deceive, he is as guilty of a lie, even though that expectation is an utterly wild and absurd one, as he would be if that expectation were justified by the result. I submit, then, that there is no lie without (1) confidence reposed, and a betrayal of that confidence; nor withthout (2) a use of the faith so betrayed in the very act of betraying it, which distinguishes a lie from other breaches of faith, to make the person deceived believe something which the deceiver regards as probably false; and I hold that the moral enormity of the lie increases as these elements increase, and diminishes as they diminish.

A paper read before the Metaphysical Society at the Grovesnor Hotel, July 11, 1876.

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