Lies and Jokes …

Edward Feser has been talking about how lying is always morally wrong lately, but if you’re going to hold that position you’re going to run into some issues. Feser recently made a post addressing whether joking lies are actually lies and so are actually wrong. The example he gives is of telling someone who owned a Jaguar that a car had hit it. He doesn’t think this is lying, and nor are cases where a receptionist says that her boss is not in when he is in, but unavailable. Feser’s argument for this is a rather involved one that relies on assumptions of what the listener would or should actually believe, and it’s worth going to his post and reading it. I, however, am going to make the distinction in a much simpler way by appealing to intent.

Let’s start with the joke case. Imagine that I’m talking to someone and I slip in a falsehood as a joke. For example, a while ago I had a standard joke of “Did you know that they thought about filming ‘The Empire Strikes Back” in Manitoba, but when they came up to look at it in winter they changed their mind because they didn’t think anyone would believe that anyone could live in that weather?” To which I usually got “Really?” and then I’d reply “No.”. Now, this is a joke, and I did say something that was false, but I’ll argue that my intentions mean that I wasn’t lying. Why? Because my intention was not to get someone to actually believe a falsehood beyond the scope of the existing conversation. I was not, therefore, really trying to get them to believe something false. I was just joking. I was joking, then, in the same sense that all jokes are; no one really believes that a rabbi, a priest and an imam walked into a bar, for example. My intention, then, is to tell a humourous story or create a humourous situation but no one is supposed to come out of that context with a false belief about the world. They’re supposed to come out with a laugh and with a set of beliefs that were just as accurate as they were when they went into it.

So since my intention was not, in fact, to deceive someone, I was not lying, because lying is indeed stating something with the intent to deceive someone. This aligns neatly with Kant’s view on lying, where you cannot have a moral obligation to lie in any circumstances because if that became known everyone would know that you were lying there and so wouldn’t be deceived. This case, then, falls out of that because there is no intention to deceive, and since lying means deceiving you cannot be intended to lie if you do not intend to deceive.

An objection can be raised here that my view is too strongly intentionalist, and that a consequentialist view would say that it isn’t what you meant to have happen that’s the issue, but what actually happens. They were deceived — even if only for a moment — and so you lied to them. But this strong a consequentialist stance has worse problems than jokes, as it would mean that if I say something that is clear to me but not to someone else, and so they end up being unintentionally deceived by what I said, that strict a consequentialist view would say that I lied to them. Under that view, my expressing anything false — even if I don’t or could not know that it’s false — would be lying. But that’s utterly absurd. Surely lying is not making genuine mistakes or unintentionally deceiving. If you want to claim that all of these things are lying, I’d still say we need to distinguish between intentional and unintentional lies, and would have a good case for arguing that unintentional lies are not morally wrong at all. At which point, we’d have the same distinctions and same moral status as if we were intentionalists, as I’ve suggested. Otherwise, I’d ask strong consequentialists to justify why unintentional lying should be morally wrong under any of their consequentialist views.

So it seems to me that the intentionalist view captures a lot of our moral intuitions about lying. It explains why jokes aren’t considered lying and why the receptionist using the form response “He’s not in” is not lying (that being said, using “He’s not available” would be better since it isn’t lying and does all the work of “He’s not in”). It also allows us to see, for example, cases where you do make a lying joke but force the person to find out themselves that it’s not true are more morally dubious (I consider it wrong), but if the person was called away before you could correct them we wouldn’t consider it anywhere near as dubious. And the intentionalist view is a lot simpler than Feser’s view.


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