Having argued that lying and attempted misleading differ in terms of commitment, we now want to show that this difference can be relevant for their overall moral assessment. But it can be relevant in different ways: the very same feature that makes it possible that lying is better in some cases is also responsible for its being worse in others, and is irrelevant in yet others. How can that be? In order to answer this question, let us go through the cases outlined above in detail and see how the difference in commitment accounts for the different assessment.
Choosing the safer option
In the case of Kant’s murderer (case 5) and in the case of the willingly deceived cook (case 6) it is easiest to detect the reason for a moral difference between lying and misleading. In both cases, the communicative agent has an obligation to leave the addressee in the dark about the truth, although for different reasons. In the case of the murderer, it is the good of the potential victims that calls for deceiving him; in the case of John, the willingly deceived cook, it is not the good of someone else, not even the good of John himself, that demands his deception; rather, it is his right to decide for himself about his epistemic states, his epistemic authority if you wish, that has to be respected. At any rate, it seems safe to say that deceiving is required in both cases. But if so, we should expect the more reliable means to the intended deception to be preferable.
This is where the difference in commitment comes in, which can lead to a difference in deceptive reliability between lying and misleading. In many cases, it will be the case that a straightforward lie is the more reliable means of deception (cf. Adler 1997: 439). Why so? Because by answering in a non-committal way we open up a gap between what we commit ourselves to and what we mean to communicate. This may then make the addressee wonder about our reasons for doing so: Why is the speaker avoiding commitment? Why doesn’t she take on a strong justificatory responsibility? And one answer to this is that she is unable to provide the required defence. A misleading response might therefore, precisely in virtue of its non-committal nature, give rise to suspicion that would be avoided by a plain lie. So, it is the non-committal nature of misleading (as opposed to lying) that makes it the less reliable means to deceive the other side under standard conditions. This is not to rule out the possibility that sometimes misleading is the safer option. For example, this may happen when you are in danger of revealing yourself because you are not used to lying (you tend to blush when lying, say). But in the absence of such contingent circumstances, which are not grounded in the natures of lying and misleading, misleading is usually the less reliable option.Footnote 17
It may be objected that reliability only gives us an instrumental reason to favour lying over misleading in certain cases, but not a moral reason to do so. On this reasoning, we may have decisive moral reason to deceive the addressee, but not to deceive her one way rather than the other. Against this view, we claim that lying is not only the more reliable action to achieve a given aim, but also the morally preferable action (in the cases at issue). This is shown by the fact that choosing the course of action that someone takes to be less reliable is subject to blame or moral criticism and not just to rational criticism. What we would say to someone who chooses the less reliable option is not just that he is foolish or irrational, but that what he did was careless and negligent. This indicates that there is in fact a moral obligation to choose the most reliable course of action given that it is morally obligatory to pursue a certain goal. It is therefore correct to say that in some cases, the nature of lying as the more committal speech act gives us a moral reason to favour lying over misleading.
Leaving a path to the truth
While the difference in reliability makes lying better than misleading in cases 5 and 6, there are also cases in which the difference in reliability between the two means of deception makes lying worse than misleading, as we now want to argue.
It is our assumption that, at least in certain contexts, we have a fundamental claim to truthfulness over matters that are of our immediate concern. For instance, the Argentinian Madres de Plaza de Mayo have a claim to truthful answers to their questions about what happened to their sons and daughters who disappeared under the Argentinian military dictatorship. But also in more mundane cases, we have a right to a truthful answer when asking, e.g., for the way to the lecture theatre. On the other hand, there is of course no right to know about the personal details of other people’s lives (unless they stand in a particular relationship with us). It is a complicated question where the claim to truthfulness ends. However, it appears right to say that in ordinary contexts, with no special conditions obtaining, we do have a right to be told the truth (as the other party sees it). This holds independently of any particular moral theory. On the contrary, every reasonable moral theory had better be able to make room for the claim to truthfulness.
How does the idea of a claim to truthfulness, in connection with the commitment-based distinction between lying and misleading, help to understand why misleading can be preferable to lying? In a situation where there is uncertainty over whether the claim to truthfulness has been released, as is the case in our example of Bill and Amy (case 2), it seems advisable to leave the door open for him who really wants to know the truth. And misleading, rather than lying, is just a way of doing this. If Amy were to lie to Bill, he would have no chance of finding out Amy’s true opinion (unless he had other reasons to doubt her sincerity); by committing to her liking the picture, Amy had in a way closed the door for further inquiry. If, however, Amy avoids commitment by choosing a misleading utterance, such as our sentence (4), she leaves open the possibility (for someone who ‘has ears to hear’) to find out the truth.Footnote 18 Of course, if Bill was more interested in flattering remarks than in Amy’s actual reaction to the pictures, he will be satisfied with her answer; but then, again, Amy will have made no mistake, because she only led into deception someone who was not interested in her honest opinion in the first place.
So, again, it is the difference between lying and misleading in terms of commitment that plays the pivotal role, but in this case that difference points in the opposite direction: in virtue of its non-committal nature, misleading is, ceteris paribus, the less reliable option and comes with a potential of being found out; in the current case, in which the agent is uncertain about whether the addressee’s claim to truthfulness is active, this provides a reason to mislead rather than lie, given that the potential to be found out is a morally worthwhile feature.
While the claim to truthfulness sets apart lying and misleading in some cases, there are other cases in which it plays no role at all. Among these are cases 5 and 6: it seems plausible to say that both the murderer and the willingly deceived cook have lost their claim to truthfulness (with respect to the matter at hand), albeit for different reasons. The murderer has lost his claim to truthfulness on account of his evil intentions; the willingly deceived cook has implicitly refrained from asserting that right by his own behaviour. There is thus no claim to truthfulness the respective communicative agents have to consider in choosing between lying and misleading, and the same goes for cases where that claim has explicitly been given up. (Still, the difference in commitment can be morally relevant for other reasons, as we have argued above).
How about cases 3 (The Peanut Attack) and 4 (Paul and Paula), in which there is no intuitive moral difference between lying and misleading? Here, the addressees (Frieda in case 3 and Paul in case 4) have not lost their claim to truthfulness, as the communicative agents are aware. But in case 3, both utterances (‘There are no peanuts in the meal’ and ‘I didn’t put any peanuts in’) are equally reliable as means of deception. After all, both utterances are direct answers to Frieda’s imprecise question (‘Did you put any peanuts into the meal?’). As a result, Frieda is not in a position to detect the lack of commitment in George’s misleading answer. Had Frieda asked more carefully (e.g. ‘Are there any peanuts in the meal?’), then the second answer might have aroused suspicion. This shows that even though lying and misleading always differ in terms of commitment (as we have argued), this difference in commitment does not always lead to a difference in reliability, in which case it cannot always set lying and misleading apart morally.
In case 4, however, we can assume that there is a difference in reliability: Paul suspects that Paula is having an affair, so he might well pay close attention to what exactly she commits herself to. Given that Paul has a claim to truthfulness, doesn’t this give Paula a reason to prefer misleading over lying? The answer is no, for if Paula took Paul’s claim to truthfulness as a genuine reason in her deliberative situation, she would have to conclude that what she should do is simply tell the truth. What the claim to truthfulness demands in this situation (where no conclusive reasons oppose truth-telling) is not misleading rather than lying, but speaking the truth.
The foregoing considerations make clear that the claim to truthfulness cannot be used to ground a general moral preference for misleading over lying, as has been attempted e.g. by Adler (1997, 2018). Even if there is a general claim to truthfulness in ordinary contexts, there are cases in which addressees forfeit this claim. And there are yet other cases in which, although the claim is not forfeited, it cannot play a role in the deliberative processes of choosing a means of deception. In all of these cases, the claim to truthfulness does not give misleading a moral advantage over lying.Footnote 19
Acknowledging the claim to truthfulness
We have argued that the difference in commitment accounts for the fact that lying is better than misleading in some cases (Kant’s murderer and the willingly deceived cook, cases 5 and 6) and worse in others (Bill and Amy, case 2). In each of these cases, choosing a misleading utterance puts the addressee in a position to detect a lack of commitment and thus to uncover the attempted deception. But it seems that there could be a moral difference between lying and misleading even if the latter option does not put the addressee in a position to detect a lack of commitment and the two options are equally reliable. This happens e.g. in the case of the dying woman (case 1): the doctor should attempt to mislead (by uttering ‘I saw him yesterday and he was fine’), even if she thinks that the dying woman will not press her for a more committal answer, i.e. even if she takes lying and misleading to be equally reliable. Why? Because in doing so, she expresses that she acknowledges the dying woman’s claim to truthfulness (even while choosing not to fulfil it in order to spare her unnecessary pain).
That lying and misleading differ in an expressive way has been highlighted by Baumann (2015). According to Baumann, the choice to mislead (rather than to lie) can express two things: firstly, respect for the addressee (this is also noted by Adler 2018: 307), and secondly, the willingness to continue a trusting relationship with the addressee. We think it is right that, in some situations, communicative agents can express these things by choosing to mislead. However, we want to spell out the expressive differences between lying and misleading in a slightly different way, as we will now illustrate with the help of the case of the dying woman.
To begin with, note that in the case of the dying woman, the doctor’s choice of misleading cannot plausibly express a willingness to continue a trusting relationship—after all, the woman is about to die. That leaves Baumann’s first proposal, according to which the doctor’s misleading utterance expresses respect for the dying woman. Such an expression of respect seems more plausible in the current case. As Baumann notes, expressing respect for a person does not require that person to register the expression of respect; the doctor might thus express to others who are present (and possibly to herself) that she has respect for the dying woman. But why does the choice to mislead express respect for the dying woman? According to Baumann (2015: 20), choosing to mislead signals that the communicative agent treats the addressee as an ‘epistemic agent’ and signals an intention to respect the addressee’s autonomy.
We favour a different answer to this question. In our view, the choice to mislead expresses that the doctor acknowledges the dying woman’s claim to truthfulness, as the doctor avoids committing herself (vis-à-vis the dying woman) to something she believes to be false. But how does so avoiding commitment express acknowledgement of a fundamental claim to truthfulness even though misleading is no more likely to be detected than lying? Here is a tentative answer. Above, we argued that misleading differs from lying in terms of the force of the speech-act. In other cases, too, we find that we can express respect by choosing of two speech-acts with the same content the one that has lesser force. Take, e.g., requesting and commanding: when we request someone to get us a glass this will in general be much more respectful than if we command them to do so. Or take different ways of criticising someone: by cautiously indicating that we are not satisfied with someone’s work, we can express a kind of respect that an assertive, outright dismissal of the work surely cannot express. In a very similar manner, it seems, misleading as the less forceful act can be more respectful than lying. Of course, there is much more to be said on the connection between force and respect. For instance, it is an interesting question how the choice of a less forceful speech-act expresses respect. For reasons of space, we will have to set this question aside here. But given that there quite clearly is a connection between force and respect in many speech-acts, this provides at least an initial reason to hold that something of the kind applies to the lying-misleading distinction.
Here are two further reasons to think that the commitment-based explanation of the expressive difference between lying and misleading is attractive. Firstly, it grounds the expressive difference (which is morally relevant) in the theoretical difference in commitment. Such an undergirding is not immediately obvious in Baumann’s account. Secondly, it can offer a unified explanation of both of the expressive dimensions Baumann posits. Plausibly, one can express respect for someone by acknowledging their claim to truthfulness. And such an acknowledgement can also express willingness to continue a trusting relationship (if such a relationship exists and can be sustained).
Just as the previous differences, the expressive difference does not always set lying and misleading apart. If addressees have forfeited or released their claim to truthfulness, as in cases 5 and 6, acknowledging such a claim clearly cannot count in favour of misleading. And even if the addressee’s claim to truthfulness is active, communicative agents may not be able to express that they are acknowledging such a claim. In cases 3 and 4, for instance, the agents have decided without good cause to pursue a morally impermissible action that involves not honouring the addressee’s claim to truthfulness. No one who is aware that the choice to deceive is impermissible will take the choice to deceive through misleading to be an expression of an acknowledgement of the addressee’s claim to truthfulness. In line with this, it seems that the expressive difference only comes in when the deception is seen as morally permissible.
Tying the strands together
We have seen that the difference between lying, which requires a commitment to something the speaker believes to be false, and misleading, which involves no such commitment, can be relevant to their moral evaluation in (at least) three different ways. First, instrumentally, if one of them (standardly, lying) is the more reliable means to achieve the goal of deceiving the addressee; second, epistemically, if we do not know whether the other person prefers being deceived to an inconvenient truth; third, symbolically, insofar as misleading can serve to express an acknowledgement of the addressee’s claim to truthfulness in cases where deception is nevertheless the morally preferable option. In all these respects, it is the difference in commitment that makes a moral difference between lying and misleading possible (as can be seen in Fig. 1).
In saying this, we are not claiming that commitment is itself a (pro tanto) morally significant feature with a variable valence in the way affirmed by particularism, as if sometimes commitment speaks for a given action, sometimes against it. Rather, commitment is the distinguishing feature in the natures of lying and misleading that explains how the aforementioned features can affect their moral assessment in ways that result in different pro tanto choiceworthiness. Sometimes, the difference in commitment will affect the potential of being found out and thereby allow for a difference in the likelihood of harm or, in situations of epistemic uncertainty, leave a path to the truth; and sometimes it will make it possible to use the choice of misleading as the symbolic recognition of a claim to truthfulness.
Note that none of these features will always be morally significant. Obviously, sometimes neither misleading nor lying will be the more reliable option, and neither can be conceived as the expressive acknowledgement of a claim to truthfulness; in these cases, lying and misleading are morally on a par. For instance, in the case of the peanut attack (case 3) it seems that lying and misleading are equally reliable ways of leading Frieda into deception (practically, there is no difference with respect to Frieda’s chances of finding out about the peanuts), and that George cannot pretend to be acknowledging Frieda’s claim to truthfulness by misleading rather than lying. Accordingly, there is no moral difference between lying and misleading in this case: if George was to think about what the morally right thing to do is in this situation at all, he would have to conclude that he simply should neither lie to Frieda nor mislead her.
That does not mean that where those features are present and do bear moral weight, they are necessarily overriding. They can tip the balance when everything else is held fixed, as the examples 1–2 and 5–6 show; but when weightier considerations are present, they can be overridden. In other words, these features give us overridable pro tanto reasons only. For instance, we may have a reason to prefer lying over misleading (as it is the more reliable option), but misleading may be preferable to lying for other, more accidental reasons, as when someone promised the other never to tell a lie, where that promise itself may be thought to exert a certain normative force (cf. Saul 2012a: 98–99).
As a related point, the fact that the three features under consideration are independent of each other means, on the one hand, that they can add up; one might think that this is the case in the example of Bill and Amy where the uncertainty over Bill’s preferences gives Amy one reason to mislead (rather than to lie), while another reason could be thought to be generated by the wish to symbolically acknowledge his fundamental claim to truthfulness. On the other hand, the normatively relevant features can also point in different directions. For instance, we can slightly adapt the case of the dying woman. In this variation, lying is the somewhat more reliable way of deceiving the woman, but misleading is still the more suitable way of expressing respect for her claim to truthfulness. It is difficult to give a principled answer as to the question which option is preferable all things considered, which just proves the point in question: that both aspects, the instrumental and the symbolic one, bear independent pro tanto moral weight.