Degrees of Deception

A picture was supposed to appear--you've been deceived!

Deception at its finest

Recently, my very learned Phenomenology and Existentialism professor appeared uncertain about whether intent was a necessary condition for lying. The answer seemed quite apparent to me–but I was a bit stunned that she thought otherwise.

Therefore I craft the following in an effort to clarify my understanding of this issue. In essence, without intent, it is impossible to lie. Put another way, no one lies without purposely intending to deceive someone.

A lie is a type of deception. There are many shades of deception, and I attempt to outline them below. [I have not consulted a dictionary for these definitions–and each are the noun forms]

Deception: A product of behavior with express intent to effect an untrue awareness in the deceived

Example: Wile E. Coyote paints a black hole on a mountain wall with the intent that Road Runner believes it is a tunnel through which he may speedily pass

  • Lie: A communication whose product is of someone who actively and knowingly distorts what they understand or believe to be true

A lie can be spoken (a minor claiming, “Yes, I am twenty one.”), written (these words are not typed), or nonverbal (after someone asks the direction towards the nearest restroom you knowingly point them in the wrong direction).

If someone willingly distorts information that is actually itself untrue, the person is still guilty of lying. For example, if I believe that the Earth is flat but tell you it is round, I have lied. I have still knowingly distorted what I believe to be true.

  • White lie: A lie of small consequence.

Examples: A daughter being told by her mother that her prescription pill is is really candy; a woman lying about her age to a suitor; a man adding three inches to his height on an online dating profile

  • Lie of omission: The leaving out of information pertinent to or requested by the deceived

This is technically not a lie. All lies are active, therefore no omission of truth is a lie. For example, if someone “pleads the Fifth,” it may be argued that the person was deceitful by withholding what they knew regarding a particular issue — but did they actually lie? Did they actively distort the what they thought to be true?

  • Twisting the facts: Stretching the truth, embellishment 

This is very close to the white lie, but here the main intent is not to mislead the deceived, but to embellish the truth.

Example: All tall tales based on actual events (a fish I caught was ten pounds when it was actually five, “I was jumped by like five dudes” — when it was two); common in statistics, the presenting of actual facts in such a way that it portrays a preferable conclusion

In closing, you must be actively trying to deceive someone in order to be considered lying. Merely stating something that is untrue does not alone constitute a lie — neither does remaining silent.

As an aside, not all lies have bad outcomes, and therefore it is not the case that all lies are wrong. If you lie in order to prevent harm or to get a daughter to take her medicine, you have committed no wrong. This is an end-justifies-the-means approach, and admittedly not everyone would agree–but most would. I think.