Lying and Reasonable Expectation

Here’s a simple question: What is lying?

“Ah, well, that’s easy,” you might think. “Lying is telling an untruth.”

But this brief definition doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. For we might think it casts some things as lying which ought not to be so regarded, such as telling a fictional story, making a joke, or even playing certain kinds of games.[1] Further, it may exclude some things from qualifying which we want to say are lies. For example, if the teacher asks the class, “Did one of you draw that picture of me on the whiteboard?” and no one responds, no student told an untruth. However, supposing at least one of them is responsible and/or knows who did it, their silence would likely count as lying to the teacher about their involvement. So, it appears this definition is both too broad (including things we don’t want) and too narrow (excluding things we do).

So, suppose you reconsider and reply: “Lying is deceiving others.”

This at least accounts for lying by omission, as in the case of the teacher. But this runs into a problem we’ve seen before: it includes things we do not really want to say are actual lies. For example, consider your favorite football team. They often come to the line of scrimmage attempting to disguise their defense, or on offense make a fake move before unleashing their real play, and so on. Are these all lies, all moral violations, and hence evil? It would seem not.

So, suppose you think for another moment and suggest this: “Lying is an attempt to have another person x believe P, when not-P is true, and x should have a reasonable expectation (or a ‘right’) to receive the truth about P.”

Now this has some merit. In order to defeat a proposed definition, one will typically want to show it is either too broad or too narrow. Does this definition survive? Let’s test it against some of our examples: First, if we’re telling a fictional story, we get the right answer that we are not lying, since x does not have a reasonable expectation that he will receive the truth about P.[2] Making a joke is also excluded, as are games. There is, of course, the worry that jokes or stories are taken too far—but we tend to agree it’s not in virtue of these being jokes and stories that they are lies. This definition of lying also includes lying by omission.

The “reasonable expectation view” also provides what many of us take to be the “right” answer in some classic ethical quandaries. Consider the family hiding Jews in WWII Germany and the Nazis come by. They ask, “Are there any Jews here?” If you answer “no,” then you are lying and thereby violate a moral norm. If you answer “yes,” however, you are not protecting the innocent (at least not very effectively, anyway). There are some who vigorously defend the “yes” position, perhaps because of a Kantian influence. Kant is notorious for claiming that lying is always wrong, because it is always predicated on a maxim that cannot be universalized or consistently willed to become a universal law. This is also called the “categorical imperative.” A good example is lying to secure a loan. Knowing you cannot pay it back in a timely fashion, you lie to get the loan anyway. If everyone in such circumstances did so, the very institution of truth-telling, promise-keeping, and money-lending would disintegrate. Kant would say what makes lying wrong is not the bad consequences of what would happen, but rather the implication that one’s beliefs or desires are in contradiction. If we were to universalize the maxim in question—that it is permissible to lie about repaying a loan in a timely fashion—the result would be the destruction of the loaning institution, or the very thing that makes money-lending possible. So one both wants the institution to be there and, in virtue of following such an unworkable maxim, does not want the institution to be there.

The matter, however, is not that easy. For it is not clear at what level of generality the maxim should be cast. This matters because, depending on how the maxim is cast—ranging from “It’s okay to lie whenever one wants” to “It’s permissible to lie when doing so is the only way to avoid a grave injustice”—sometimes the maxim can be universalized and sometimes it cannot. Kant’s sweeping conclusion, then, that lying is always irrational and immoral seems unwarranted.

Contra Kant, most typically want to say protection of the Jews by saying “no” is morally justified. But it also seems bizarre to claim lying is ever morally right or permissible. In fact, it’s a violation of the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16)! But on this view, answering “no” is not lying. The Nazi does not have a reasonable expectation for the family to tell him the truth about the Jews, given that he intends to persecute, torture, experiment on, and ultimately kill them. So my solution to the conundrum is not to say that lying is sometimes justified, but rather that withholding the truth or even projecting a falsehood on occasion is not lying at all.

A worry arises here about rationality. Suppose the Nazi thinks, “They know, or should know, that telling me an untruth about the presence of Jews will result in their incarceration or death, and the risk that I will check their home anyway is decent. Thus, the rational thing for them to do is to tell me the truth.” Here, it seems the Nazi has a reasonable expectation after all (is it really unreasonable, given the thought process?). But this is why I added “the right” portion above. Given that persecution of the Jews is a moral atrocity, if such people are hiding Jews, it is because they have moral sensitivities (most likely); if that is the case, does the Nazi have the right to expect such people to move against these sensibilities and answer him, revealing the presence of the Jews? It seems not. The one committing a moral crime is not necessarily owed—or does not have the right to reasonably expect—the truth in a particular situation in which he is involved directly with moral evil.

And now we can apply this to a biblical narrative. In an ethics/moral philosophy course, we were once asked how many of us thought Rahab’s lie to cover for the pair of Jewish spies was justified, and how many thought it was not. The professor noticed my hand not going up for either, and I communicated I did not think it was a lie at all. We moved on for the sake of discussion, but I think it is the right answer. It was not truth-telling, but as the enemies of God they did not satisfy what I am calling the reasonable expectation condition, and so should not have expected to hear the truth. Again, it must be noted that this condition deals with the rights one has to the truth in a given situation involving direct moral issues. Perhaps some of the more difficult biblical passages in which non-truth-telling and/or deception seem to be endorsed may benefit from this account of lying in their interpretations, and show that the Bible is not ethically mistaken after all!


[1] Here I am thinking of the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” where the winner is the one who convinces the others of the truth of the story when it is in fact false.

[2] Note also that if one protests that we could tell x “What I am about to tell you is absolutely true,” that it would be a lie. But this comports perfectly well with the definition given: in those circumstances, all being equal, x does have a reasonable expectation to be given the truth.

Image: "fingers crossed" by DGLES. CC License.