Deceptive Commands, Lying Commands

In the The Man in the High Castle, Inspector Kido orders his subordinate to hunt down an enemy operative. His last instruction is: “I can’t interrogate a corpse.” Of course, this is an instruction. A necromancer newly bereft of his powers might utter this statement as a revelation, but Kido does not intend to inform his subordinate of anything. He’s conveying a command, “Bring him back alive.”

A similar pragmatic use of language can happen in reverse: a command can convey a statement. Suppose Anna and Ben are at Anna’s home, and Anna tells Ben, “Come with me on a beer run,” and it is common knowledge that it is Ben’s birthday, they are at Anna’s home, and they plan to drink. Ben will come to believe, “Anna is low on beer; we need to get more for my birthday,” and Anna expects Ben’s to draw this conclusion. But suppose that Anna, in actuality, has plenty of beer. She just wants to get Ben out of the house so that Ben’s other friends can arrange a surprise party.

Anna’s command is deceptive. Anna does not need to “spell it out” for Ben by saying, “I’m low on beer. Come with me on a beer run,” in order to deceive.

Has she also lied? The “Traditional Definition of Lying,” described in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, requires that lies be statements. On this condition, I am of two minds. There are of course deceptive uses of language that are not lies. If Carl knows Denise is an especially suspicious person, Carl could utter a statement he knows to be true, knowing that she will disbelieve it. This “double bluff” is deception. I do not think it lying.

But neither do I think that the distinction between deception and lying should be merely technical. A deceptive speaker shouldn’t be able to avoid lying merely by tweaking his phrasing. Lying factors into our moral codes; it is a basis for punishing children and condemning our peers.

I don’t mean to say that meaning is determined by ethics, but that our intuitions about what “lying” means should agree with our uses of the term, especially when those uses have significant implications for our practice. If Ben told Anna, “You lied to me!” at his surprise party, Anna wouldn’t be exactly right if she said, “Not so! I only deceived you.” On some level, it is true that Anna lied to Ben.

I think along the lines of Keith Donnellan’s much discussed example, “The murderer of Smith is insane.” With no context, this statement is false if whomever murdered Smith is sane. But if we are in a court room and the defendant accused of Smith’s murder is crazy, acting as such, and then we cry out, “The murderer of Smith is insane!” the statement is true. It is true even if the defendant is innocent, even if the true murderer is quite sane, even if Smith wasn’t murdered at all.

We can use our words to refer and generate meaning, even when the bare semantics indicate otherwise. We can lie even when our words are not, strictly speaking, lies.