On (Possibly) Being Unable To Avoid Speaking Falsely

I was thinking yesterday about Thomas Aquinas’ rather strict view on the duty to never lie, even, as he says, when we lie for the sake of a joke. He admits, of course, that lying in the cause of a joke (a jocose lie) is not a mortal sin, but he does insist that it is at least venially sinful.

Ergo mendacium iocosum et officiosum non sunt peccata mortalia.[1]

I thought to myself that Aquinas probably means jokes which only work if the audience accepts a falsehood asserted before the punchline. I am reminded here of a (probably apocryphal) anecdote about Dominican friars teasing Aquinas by saying “look, out the window – flying pigs!” in response to which he looked out the window, to their great amusement. He retorted to their laughter by saying that he would sooner believe that pigs could fly than that his Dominican brethren could lie. Clearly, in such a case, Aquinas would say that what these friars did was sinful (at least venially). However, I don’t think Aquinas would offer the same analysis of sarcastic jokes, where what one says is actually the opposite of what one affirms by saying it. In sarcasm, one expresses a truth P by expressing a token-sentence K which, under normal circumstances, affirms not-P, but which, when used sarcastically, is understood by everyone to affirm P. To utter K sarcastically is to affirm P, and everyone knows this. This got me thinking about a strange situation.

Suppose one is in a court of law and must answer any question with a simple affirmative or negative. Suppose, then, that for some question, the token statement which is an affirmative is true in one language game, and false in another language game, and the token statement which is the negation is true in one language game and false in another. Call these tokens Y and N, and let us suppose that half the audience is playing the first language game, and the other half is playing the other. If one answers Y, then half the audience will believe something true, while the other half of the audience will believe something false, because they are unconsciously playing two different language games. If one answers N, the same situation results. Suppose you are fully aware that Y will communicate a falsehood to some, and that N will communicate a falsehood to others. Suppose, further, it isn’t possible to elaborate on Y or N (you can tell any story you like here – maybe you speak a totally different language, and you have a designated translator in court who is committed to translating whatever you say into simply Y or N – or any other scenario you like, so long as you aren’t able to avoid affirming Y or N).

In such a strange case, would you have to lie? It seems like you would have to communicate something false (imagine, for simplicity, that your silence would be taken as an affirmation of Y, or N, or would be a sort of speech-act by omission which, in any case, would communicate a falsehood), which you knew to be false.

If such a situation arose, it wouldn’t be possible to avoid telling a lie (at least where the sufficient conditions of lying are speaking falsely with a knowledge that what you’re saying is false). Therefore, it wouldn’t be possible to do the right thing (except in terms of telling the lesser lie, whatever that is). Does this pose much of a problem for Aquinas’ view? I’m actually not sure. If we really can construct a situation in which there is no way to avoid sinning, that would plausibly provide us with a reductio ad absurdum and should cause us to carefully review what we think qualifies as a sin. However, it is still open to the especially devout Thomist to bite the bullet here, or to find some way of arguing that the situation I propose arises in no logically possible worlds. It might help our case if we could provide some kind of hypothetical example. Here’s one: consider the question “is God infinite?” Clearly, those speaking the language of Duns Scotus are going to take a rejection of this as a false statement, and they (playing their language game) would be right to do so. On the other hand, those speaking the language of modern mathematicians would recognize the affirmative to be a straightforward falsehood (for God is not infinite in any quantitative sense). There is no unqualified answer (in the form of an affirmation or denial) which does not communicate a falsehood which one knows to be false (presuming one is sufficiently well theologically informed).

[1] ST, II-II, Q. 110, Art. 3, ad. 3. http://www.logicmuseum.com/authors/aquinas/summa/Summa-IIb-101-113.htm#q110a1arg1

3 thoughts on “On (Possibly) Being Unable To Avoid Speaking Falsely

  1. These arguments rely on a false equivocation of “lie” and “falsehood.” It removes consideration of intent, offense, and culpability. Perhaps this is a theological difference I’m not grasping, but it appears to be plainly invalid. Let me illustrate this:

    “If such a situation arose, it wouldn’t be possible to avoid telling a lie. Therefore, it wouldn’t be possible to do the right thing (except in terms of telling the lesser lie, whatever that is).”

    Let’s consider a modified hypothetical very similar to the “is God infinite?” argument. Say you speak objectively true statement T and the listener simply misunderstands and interprets it as T’, a falsehood. Given the inherent ambiguities of language, it is very difficult to claim that even a qualified answer could always be receptively true. It is always possible that you will communicate a falsehood. The exact reasons (e.g. language differences) are irrelevant.

    Is T a falsehood? If it is, then there cannot be such a thing as an objectively true statement. If it is not a falsehood, then not all falsehoods are lies (and thus not all sins). If your objection is that T is not equal to T’, then you must consider that the language of the listener is irrelevant to determining if a statement is a lie and thus a sin.

    The absurdity in your approach is defining a lie/falsehood dependent on the listener while simultaneously removing intent, offense, and culpability from consideration. It’s a logical contradiction. But if we consider intent, offense, and culpability in the definition of a lie, then not all false statements are sins (mortal or venial).

    • Yes, you may be right. I was thinking that if one knew that token K signified Y to some, and N to others, then it would qualify as a lie to utter K because one could not utter K (knowing that it signified Y and N) without intending to signify Y and N. Take the example of the Nazi at the door asking whether there are Jews in the house, and you cleverly think to yourself ‘I wonder what a ‘Jew’ is – I should make sure I have the correct definition in mind before I answer’, so you ask “do you mean those untrustworthy dogs tearing our country apart?” The Nazi enthusiastically answers yes, and so you think to yourself ‘oh good, I definitely don’t have any of those inside, even though there are what I would call Jews hiding inside’, so you answer “No, there are certainly no Jews in my house!” Is this a lie? Maybe not, but it seems like there is a sense in which it is, given that the token “No, there are certainly no Jews in my house!” is true on one language game, false on another, and the Nazi officer at the door probably wants to play both games at the same time. Can you intend the one sense without intending the other knowing that your statement will mean both? [This example comes from Pruss].

      Maybe this is where I was being clumsy. Maybe you really can intend to signify Y by K, and you merely tolerate the fact that an unintended consequence of uttering K is that some will understand N. Because it’s unintended, you speak what you know to be false without lying.

  2. “Because it’s unintended, you speak what you know to be false without lying.”

    I’d take it a step farther and say that in the set of all possible lies there exist falsehoods, truths, and omissions (requiring no words at all).

    Let’s modify Pruss’ example to illustrate a case where all the statements are objectively factually true to both speaker and listener, and yet it is still a lie. “Are there Jews in this house?” “Do you mean untrustworthy dogs destroying the country?” “Yes, indeed”. “There are no untrustworthy dogs here and I would never willingly shelter such.” It uses clever wording to lie implicitly rather than explicitly. Intent to deceive matters.

    However, maybe some well-intentioned statements taken as misunderstandings are also lies if they bring offense to another. The culpability, or sin-debt, may fall on you. Consider Jesus’ teaching not to let the little children astray. Might you be guilty of unintentional deception if you were in a position of care/authority and “should have known better” because you were careless with your words, that is, the moral equivalent of reckless endangerment?

    Is it a lie if you intend to deceive but the person would not find it offensive if they knew? Doesn’t a sin require an offense? Many people expect to be lied to by their loved ones to cover up surprise birthday parties, for example. Is it a lie to tell an ugly tree that it looks beautiful?

    What counts as a lie/sin is surprisingly difficult to nail down completely.

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