One of those “fun” but important online political arguments made me think about lies. What is OK, and what isn’t? Here’s my taxonomy of lies. The main things to consider are:
- Intentional/unintentional: Should the liar have known the truth?
- Good/bad motive: What did the liar try to accomplish? Were they trying to spare somebody’s feelings, or are they trying to get away with murder?
- Good/bad outcome: In the end, what was the result of the lie?
Unintentional Lies About Facts: Mistakes
Sometimes people lie unintentionally. Mostly this comes down to simple mistakes, and we’re generally pretty accepting of those. When politics is added to the mix, however, all of a sudden everybody is only too eager to jump on any false statement, regardless of the circumstances. Quotes from interviews are a notorious example of this. Answering interview questions is hard, and almost everybody ends up misstating something in any given interview. Sometimes they’ll correct themselves later, but more often it’s just assumed that we all accept the repeated beliefs of a politician and ignore the occasional contradiction.
- “Your total is $123.45.” “That can’t be right.” “Oh, I made a mistake, it’s really $23.45.”
- Biden: “it’s one thing to have the vaccine, which we didn’t have when we came into office”1 (Earlier in the same interview, he had said “we came into office, there was only 50 million doses that were available.“)
- Trump: “I have not seen the ad.”2 (Earlier that same day he had said “Well, you know, I have seen [the ad].“)
Unintentional Lies About the Future: Broken Promises
Everybody sometimes breaks promises. This is where intent matters a lot. Canceling dinner because you’re sick is fine. Canceling dinner because suddenly you would rather do something else is generally not OK.
Politicians have a really hard time with this, because they have to make promises to get elected, and largely get elected based on those promises. If they only promise what they can definitely do then they don’t get elected, so they end up forced to promise things that they might not be able deliver.
- Trump promised to build a 1,000-mile wall on the border with Mexico3, and have Mexico pay for it. In reality “455 miles of border wall were constructed,”4 and Mexico did not pay for any of it.
- Biden promised not to tax anybody who makes less than $400k. Now he’s walked that back to families making $400k or less, while the limit for individuals is $200k.
In this context these lies are not so bad. Everybody knows politicians don’t keep all their promises, and likely nobody was elected to do exactly what they promised, but more to do the kinds of things that they promised to do.
Of course it’s hard to really know intent. A promise could be made without ever intending to keep it.
Intentional Lies, Good Motive: White Lies
Everybody tells white lies. Usually they are told to spare somebody’s feelings, or to avoid a long conversation.
- “How are you doing?” “I’m fine.” (Really, I’m not fine but I don’t want to talk about it right now.)
- “Where do babies come from?” “Uh… when a mommy and a daddy are really in love, the stork brings a baby.”
The outcome of most of these lies is good. Sometimes they backfire, but it’s not something many people worry about.
Intentional Lies, Bad Motive: Real Lies
Now we’re getting into real lies. People saying something that they know isn’t true to convince people to do something they wouldn’t if they knew the truth, often for personal gain.
Intentional Lies, No Motive: Strange Lies
Everybody agrees that lying is bad, so it’s very confusing when people lie even though it doesn’t seem to matter. Those lies are much more rare, because who would lie when there’s no need? Nevertheless, it happens.
- Trump: “My father is German. Right? Was German. And born in a very wonderful place in Germany”7
- Please point me to another example.
How to Tell Intent
Clearly intent matters a lot when it comes to judging a lie. It’s hard to know intent, but we can make a good guess. Generally, the more time somebody has to think about a statement before making it, the more intentional they are. So in rough order from least likely to be intentional to most likely to be intentional, we have:
- Off-the-cuff remarks, or responses to interviews.
- Planned speeches.
- Social media posts.
- Published articles, press releases, etc.
In addition, the more often a statement is repeated the more intentional it is.
There are many different statements that we all call “lies.” They range all the way from benign to terrible. When we point out lies, people tend to hear the terrible form, though. So let’s not accuse people of lying unless they’re telling Real Lies. If you’re not sure about intent, give them the benefit of the doubt. Real liars will lie so often that it will soon be clear what they are. (If you do notice somebody close to you telling Real Lies regularly, that’s a huge warning sign and you should probably cut contact with that person unless you’re sure that they are not taking advantage of you.)
- https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/us/politics/trump-border-wall-immigration.html, Oct 28, Dec 2, Aug 2 quotes.↩