Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

Vern Poythress has written an article (available at his website) in which he argues that it’s always wrong to lie. For now I’m going to focus on one plank of his argument:

So what is different? When no words are involved, physical actions have to be interpreted. They are potentially multivalent in meaning.8 Does the action of a player charging in one direction mean that he will continue to go in that direction? Maybe, but maybe not. A skilled opponent knows that the player may change direction, perhaps multiple times. Does an army moving back from battle engagement indicate a genuine retreat? Or is it something else? Who knows? The “obvious” interpretation may lie in one direction. But the interpreter must make the decision, and it is his decision, not a decision “dictated” by some intrinsic, inalienable meaning in the physical action itself.

Words and utterances need interpretation too. But the interpretation is constrained by the regularities of language, the regularities in the meaning of words, and the regularities of personal communication. Statements can be true or false; by contrast, a football maneuver or a military maneuver is neither true nor false. The maneuver does not say anything, except to the extent that an interpreter reads in some significance and concludes that it “says” in a metaphorically extended sense that the participant has a particular purpose. Truth is not the issue in nonverbal actions.

We can perhaps further explain the difference by observing that verbal communication has what the linguists have called double articulation. Words have both meaning and sound (or, in written form, meaning and spelling). Except for a few onomatopoeic words like meow, the sound has no obvious relation to the meaning. The sounds do not have an ordinary use by themselves, independent of a second layer of articulate meaning. By contrast, physical actions of moving or dribbling a ball have a certain physical meaning even before they are incorporated into a battle or a game. This presence of an underlying, first-order meaning to physical motions results in a situation in which any second-order meaning, such as attacking, feigning, retreating, and so on, exists in the presence of other possible human purposes, for battles or for gaming. Verbal communication, by contrast, has a meaning largely fixed by the divinely ordained regularities of communication, to which words and their meanings belong intrinsically.  

For several reasons I don’t find his analysis compelling:

i) First of all, it’s not sufficient to merely distinguish between verbal and nonverbal communication. Obviously there’s some difference: one is verbal while the other is nonverbal.

Poythress needs to isolate and identify a morally relevant difference. Not just any difference will do.

ii) In addition, it’s easy to create situations in which speech and action are analogous with respect to interpretation. Although it’s possible to express ourselves clearly, it’s possible to conceal our meaning and/or send mixed signals. Indeed, Christians who think lying is always wrong often defend studied ambiguity or misdirection as a fallback position.

Just as actions can be open to multiple interpretations, a speaker can deliberately express himself in ways that are open to multiple interpretations.

iii) I don’t see how saying actions require interpretation advances the argument Poythress is trying to make. Someone who resorts to deceptive action is banking on the fact that actions require interpretation. That’s a presupposition of his tactic. His choice of action endeavors to manipulate the interpretation of the observer. He is predicting that a particular action will invite a particular interpretation: a misinterpretation. He is exploiting the observer’s expectations to steer in the interpretation in a particular direction.

Take a con man who’s dating a wealthy heiress. He may temporarily live above his means to impress her. Wear fancy clothes. Rent a fancy car. Rent a luxury apartment. Take her to fancy restaurants.

Everything he tells her may be literally true. And he may not have to say very much about himself, because she will fill in the background based on his apparent lifestyle.

In principle, he could marry her under false pretenses without ever lying to her about his real financial situation.

iv) Strictly speaking, sentences aren’t true or false. Meaning is not intrinsic to sentences. Language is just a type of coded symbolism. Audible, visible, or tactile tokens. The meaning of a sentence is assigned meaning. It begins with the socially assigned meaning of words (and grammatical rules). These are then arranged by the speaker to convey an idea. The listener is playing by the same rule book.

By the same token, actions can be coded symbols with assigned meaning.

v) Truth is certainly an issue in nonverbal communication if the intention is to create a misimpression in the mind of the observer. To mislead him into forming a false belief.

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