Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lies my whiskey told me: prologue

Philosophers and theologians have spent a lot of time down through the generations thinking about the different ways people bend and break the truth. In part because people have spent so much time down through the generations bending and breaking the truth, but also because -- despite what our mothers taught us -- there are times when not telling the truth seems like the better choice. The "murderer at the door" scenario has been a standard hard case for centuries.

There are all sorts of categories to describe the different ways what we say relates to what we think is true. For example, there's:
  • Plain truth: I say what I think is true ("I am typing these words with my own fingers").
  • Conventional speech: I say something that doesn't literally mean what I think is true, but that is conventionally understood to mean something I think is true ("I'm fine" as an answer to the question, "How are you?").
  • Equivocation: I say something that has multiple interpretations, usually with the intent that the hearer either settle on an interpretation that isn't consistent with what I think is true or at least be unsure as to which interpretation is consistent ("These are not my own words," which is true in the sense that these are English words, which are not my personal property).
  • Mental reservation: I say something that I don't think is true in itself, while thinking of words that, if added to what I say, would make a statement that I think is true ("I don't much care for whiskey," mentally reserving the words "in my morning coffee").
  • Bald lie: I say something that I in no way think is true ("I had dinner with the Peruvian ambassador last night").
Add to that the various rhetorical devices, the distinction between literal and literalistic, the different theories on how signs signify, cross it all with the various schools of thought on morality, justice, and virtue -- and it's no wonder people don't pay much attention to philosophers and theologians.

Instead, they have their own ideas about what ways of bending or breaking the truth are always okay, are sometimes okay, and are never okay (not to mention their own ideas of what "okay" means).

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