Monday, April 08, 2013

On lying and misleading

Is lying worse than misleading? This question is discussed by Jennifer Saul in an article that I came across on the Internet. I found the question intriguing, maybe because I had never thought about it. That lying should be worse than misleading, as many people think, is puzzling, so Saul, for why would it be so if the result is often the same? Why should we then prefer misleading to lying? For misleading needs not be better than lying as we from the bank crisis know.
The idea behind the difference in preference may be that there are differences in responsibility in the case of lying and in the case of misleading. If you say: “My husband is not at home” to the visitor, in a normal situation he will believe you. If you say “I didn’t see him come home”, the visitor will also think that your husband is not at home, but it can be argued that he should have been smart enough to ask whether you may have heard your husband coming home (which you actually did). The idea is, that the visitor is responsible himself, at least for a part, for not drawing the right conclusion and for thinking that your husband still hadn’t arrived. But actually, in a standard situation there is no reason to think that you would be mislead, for why would you? This argument disproves also the idea that lying is a breach of faith and misleading is not, since normally you need not take what a speaker says literally and you can suppose that the answer to your question is complete and to the point and doesn’t contain hidden implications. The latter is not always the case however, for if you are a witness in court and you declare on oath that you did not see your husband coming home (although you had heard him), you cannot be prosecuted for perjury if the judged concluded that your husband wasn’t at home, for you didn’t say that.
For reasons like these it is not tenable that generally misleading is better than lying. How about the other way round? I think that if we would discuss this question we would come to an equal conclusion: lying is not preferable to misleading. On the average lying and misleading are as good or as bad. Their moral goodness or badness simply depends on the situation. So, if the visitor asking whether your husband is at home wants to murder him, throw away your moral objection that lying might be worse than misleading – which generally is not right, as we just have seen – and say simply that he isn’t there, even if it is not true.
Source: Jennifer Saul, “Just go ahead and lie”,

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