Sunday, May 01, 2016

Liars and deceivers

There are individual Christians as well as theological traditions that consider lying to be intrinsically wrong. For instance, the church of Rome considers lying to be intrinsically wrong:

Mind you, Rome has fudge factors. You also have some Calvinists like John Murray, Vern Poythress, and Wayne Grudem who think lying is intrinsically wrong. 

However, even Christians who think lying is always illicit may think deception is sometimes licit. If, though, you think lying is inherently wrong, then it's arguable that you should think deception is even worse than lying. 

On the one hand, it's possible for a true statement to be deceptive. This is sometimes called a half truth, contextual lie, or lie by omission. What you say is true, but misleading, because you leave out crucial information, causing the listener to draw a false inference. Their interpretation of your statement depends as much on what you don't say as what you do say. So you can manipulate their interpretation by controlling the flow of information. By omitting a key piece of information. This goes to the question of whether lies and deceitful statements are interchangeable, which depends on how you define a lie. 

On the other hand, some lies are not deceptive insofar as some lies lack credibility. For instance, when I'm waiting in line at the checkout stand, I see the screaming headlines of the National Enquirer. These usually involve sensational claims about celebrities. 

Now, I know that many of these headlines are lies. The sensational headlines are bait. A come-on to lure buyers. The headlines are transparently hyperbolic. 

But in that respect, the lies aren't deceptive because the lies aren't plausible. To be deceptive, the headlines would have to be believable. 

In that regard, it isn't even clear if the lying headlines carry the intention to deceive, or if they are merely designed to pique the curiosity of shoppers who take an interest in tabloid fare. Presumably, regular readers (yes, apparently they exist) of the National Enquirer know by experience that the main story will be a letdown compared to the catchy headlines. But they still have an appetite for gossip about the trashy lives of the rich and infamous. 

Or take a reflexive liar like Hillary Clinton. In a sense, her lies are not deceptive because you never expect her to tell the truth. Same thing with the White House Press secretary–of either party. His job is to defend administration policy, no matter how stupid. Stick up for whatever the President said, no matter how stupid. Reporters don't expect him to give straight answers. 

Or public health officials. They think the real danger is mass panic or public hysteria. So they typically downplay a hazard. 

The list goes on. People who lie for a living. What they say isn't persuasive, because you know in advance that they don't mean it. 

Credibility (or the lack thereof) has both objective and subjective features. Some claims are patently absurd. Their falsity should be obvious. But what is obvious to reasonable people may not be obvious to gullible people. Some credulous people find some incredible statements credible–or even compelling. So it's person-variable. 

Likewise, a deception needn't be an outright falsehood. In addition, the meaning of deception is ambiguous: It can either denote the attempt to deceive someone, or the successful result. Compare two statements:

i) I was lied to

ii) I was deceived

In that regard, if you think lying is always wrong, then it's even worse to be a deceiver than a liar. A liar is merely someone who pedals lies whereas a deceiver is someone whose deceptions are convincing. He intends to deceive, and he succeeds. 

So people who think lying is always wrong while deception is sometimes permissible have it backwards. Given their view of lying, they ought to view deception as even worse. 


  1. What about lying to the murderer at the door about whether their intended victim is in the basement?

    1. My post didn't suggest that I personally think lying is always wrong. I was responding to professing Christians who believe that. Responding to them on their own grounds, and taking their position to a logical extreme.

  2. The Atheist Missionary

    "What about lying to the murderer at the door about whether their intended victim is in the basement?"

    What of it? It wasn't the immediate topic of this post.

    It depends whether it's wrong to lie or deceive in certain cases (e.g. lying to or deceiving Nazis as whether there are Jews hidden in one's basement).

    Given atheism, is there a case in which lying and deceiving wouldn't be justifiable?

  3. According to Scripture liars, among others are cast into hell. And Satan is portrayed as the arch-deceiver, and the father of lies.

    I've read enough of these types posts on T-blogue to generally understand your stance, so I don't expect to persuade you or those of like mind that lying is wrong, intrinsically, sinfully wrong. Certainly if the arguments of brilliant Christian thinkers such as those you listed aren't persuasive to you, nothing I could gin up would be.

    And yes everyone has deceived and lied, including believers who may still fall into transgression and lie from time to time, however those who are in Christ are redeemed and will not be cast into hell as they otherwise so richly deserve.

    Last but not least casting God as a deceiver is probably the most troubling tactic I think I've seen you deploy when exploring this topic, and frankly I think that's a disingenuous characterization, and probably spiritually reckless to boot.

    I don't quite understand why you choose to beat this drum now and again. What's the purpose? How is it supposed to benefit Christ's people? How does it glorify God? Maybe if I understood your angle of approach better I would be better equipped to think what's best instead of getting that gnawing feeling that you're casting about to justify sin. And yes, I understand that you don't grant lying is always a sin, and that's the topic under discussion, and therefore these types of comments are assertions in search of arguments.

    I just don't get it.

    1. Moral clarity benefits Christ's people. Having a clear understanding of personal and social ethics benefits Christ's people. Especially in the tough situations.

      I generally beat drums now and then when I have something new to add. Then the drum goes silent.

    2. And liberals have the gnawing feeling that Christians are really bigots who use fancy arguments to mask their homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, &c.

    3. "Last but not least casting God as a deceiver is probably the most troubling tactic I think I've seen you deploy when exploring this topic, and frankly I think that's a disingenuous characterization, and probably spiritually reckless to boot."

      That's not a "tactic". It's demonstrably the case that Scripture sometimes depicts God as a deceiver. You may be offended by that characterization, but the source of the offense is Scripture, not me.

    4. Yes, deceiving evil men to protect innocent lives can be God-glorifying conduct.

    5. "O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived" (Jeremiah 20:7).