Parameters of the Experiment

What are the real-life situations I've been involved in, where the reality of falsehood impacts violently with the potential for honesty? So far I've seen two issues, which have appeared repeatedly and in varying forms. One of them got me started on this line of thought, as it was very obvious and occurred quite recently: someone remaining silent or speaking vaguely, in order to give a particular but non-truthful impression. The second issue is also one I've seen occur repeatedly: someone believes something which is untrue, and passes that information on to you.

Examining the Data

Issue I

Silence or vagueness to promote untruth is the easiest to deal with, from a philosophical and pragmatic viewpoint. The issue can be clearly defined through examples.

Regarding silence, if you were trying to sell your car and you knew it had a particular engine problem, honesty would dictate telling the prospective buyer about it. Remaining silent about the engine problem would not ordinarily qualify as speaking a lie — but under our working real-life definition of lying, this would indeed emphatically qualify as a lie. You have actively promoted a falsehood, by deceiving the prospective buyer as to the car's quality.

For our second example — that of deliberately vague speech — let us postulate an acquaintance with whom you are accustomed to chatting about somewhat personal subjects. Let us say also you've asked this acquaintance if they will keep your confidence. If their answer is a vague, "Mmmm…?" you might wish to hear that as a yes, especially if you actually like the person.

However, what have they truly told you? Most folks wish to believe those they consider friends truly think well of them, and are trustworthy. It would be unfortunate if that trust were misplaced… which is entirely possible when someone uses vague speech to you, in order to avoid making any commitment, or to gain personal, possibly embarrassing information about another.

Update (12.03.04):

Eric also notes this could feasibly cover 'technical honesty,' where a deliberately deceptive person agrees to not speak of your confidences, but then later writes them down instead, and uses that medium to share your confidences with others.

He also notes: "Having said all this, it is important to distinguish the notion of lying from the notion of breaching a trust. In the case of technical honesty, there really is no lie per se, but there is a breach of trust which is tantamount to a lie, perhaps even worse. Your definition doesn't target a lie so much as it defines the breach of trust."

I'm obviously going to have to give more thought to the differences between lying and breaches of trust, as this is an aspect I'd not previously considered.

When we examine our definition of lying, both of these examples definitely qualify. If lying is the promotion of falsehood, then allowing someone to believe something you know is false is indeed lying. The car seller is letting the potential buyer believe the falsehood that the car is a good purchase. The (possibly malicious) conversationalist is letting the trusting friend believe the falsehood that friendship exists between them, and confidentiality will be maintained.

Therefore, in the arena of real-life honesty, silence or vagueness to promote falsehood is not truth — it is an unequivocal lie. A desire to avoid any kind of confrontation is not sufficient cause to do this sort of thing. If my personal goal is an honest life, this sort of hypocrisy is emphatically not acceptable. Of course, these examples are but two instances of using silence or vagueness to deceive; they are not exhaustive. The point of the exercise now is to actually use this experimental framing of the issue.

If we next apply personal experience to the framework, we may determine for ourselves whether or not our actions promote falsehood — and hopefully, we can also use the framework to remove this sort of lying (whether done by us or by others) from our life.

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