Is it wrong to lie to HAL?

While it’s still 2010, let’s talk about 2010. I had occasion to watch it recently, and while it’s not as good as 2001, it’s still a pretty good movie (despite its naïve 80s-liberal “Can’t we all just get along?” take on the Cold War). There’s a great scene in it where Dr. Chandra, who has been told to lie to HAL (the computer that famously went rogue in 2001 but is rebooted in 2010), wrestles with his conscience before finally deciding to tell HAL the truth. Would it have been wrong for him to do otherwise?

From the point of view of classical natural law theory, lying is always intrinsically wrong. For as Aquinas argues, it is directly contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties, which is to convey what is really in our minds. These days, the view that lying is inherently wrong is often considered eccentric or even mad, but historically it is not uncommon. One finds it in Aristotle, for example, and in Kant. And while I would not go so far as to say that no rational person could doubt it, I would suggest that it is only in a culture as morally and intellectually rotted out as ours is by anti-essentialist and consequentialist thinking that it could seem (as it does to many people today) too bizarre to take seriously. Historically, most cultures have understood that what is good for us is in some way determined by the ends nature has set for our various capacities, and (accordingly) that some things are intrinsically wrong because they are contrary to those ends. And that is why the view that lying is inherently immoral is historically not uncommon. While there have always been those who doubted it, most people historically could at least understand why lying might seem to be inherently bad.

It is also important to be precise about what the view actually is. The claim is not that we must always tell others what is really on our minds. We can (and sometimes should) keep silent, or change the subject, or attempt to distract our listener, or in some other way avoid saying what we really think. We can joke, or act in a play or motion picture, because it is generally understood that the words we speak in such contexts do not even purport to express our actual thoughts. We can use expressions that might in a literal sense seem to be falsehoods but which have as a matter of convention come to be used in a non-literal euphemistic way. (For example, “He’s not in,” as spoken by a secretary, is generally understood to be a polite way of saying that whether the person in question is really there or not, he does not want to take any calls or visitors. “I like your new dress!” is generally understood to be the sort of thing one might say out of politeness even if one does not like the dress in question. And so forth.) Related to this, it is not necessarily wrong to speak with a mental reservation – for example, to use words generally understood to be ambiguous so that the listener could plausibly determine what is truly meant, though the speaker knows that the listener will probably take them another way. Finally, not every lie is gravely immoral; in Catholic terms, lying is not always a mortal sin, even when done with sufficient knowledge and deliberation. Context and subject matter are relevant to its gravity.

Still, an actual lie – deliberately speaking or otherwise communicating in a way that is unambiguously contrary to what one really thinks – is always at least mildly immoral. Classical natural law theory does not say we must never use a natural capacity other than for its natural end, or even, necessarily, that we must use it at all. But it does say that we cannot use it while at the same time frustrating its natural end. And that is what lying involves insofar as it entails using speech in its communicative capacity while deliberately frustrating the natural end of communication. (I won’t get into the general case for classical natural law theory here. See Aquinas, especially chapter 5, for the general theory; The Last Superstition, especially chapter 4, for application to the topic of sexual morality; and my article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” for application to issues related to private property. The first half of the latter article also contains a sketch of the general theory, though the metaphysical background is more fully presented in the books.)

To return to our original question, then, would Dr. Chandra have done something immoral in lying to HAL? Given what has just been said, the answer might seem obvious: If he deliberately told HAL something he knew to be false, he would have been frustrating the natural end of communicative speech and thus acting immorally. But things are not quite that simple. For communication is of its nature interpersonal. As natural law theorists who write on this subject like to put it, you can’t lie to your dog even if you intentionally say something false to him. So, while it is true that Dr. Chandra would have been doing something immoral had he lied to HAL, it is another question whether he really could have lied to HAL even if he had tried to. For that would be possible only if HAL is a person. Is he?

Naturally, someone who accepts the computationalist conception of the mind might say that HAL is a person. But I would say that he is not. This is in part for Aristotelian-Thomistic reasons. A person is an individual substance of a rational nature, and artifacts are not substances in the strict sense. Furthermore, rationality entails immateriality. Therefore, HAL, being (like any other machine) entirely material, could not be rational; and being an artifact and thus not a true substance, could not possibly be a person. (Obviously this is just a summary; see chapter 4 of Aquinas for the details.) There are also the arguments against the computer model of the mind advanced by Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle, which I regard as decisive. Particularly important is the argument of Searle’s paper “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?”, which is less well-known than his famous Chinese Room argument but more fundamental and devastating. (It can also be found in chapter 7 of his book The Rediscovery of the Mind.)

Obviously this is a large issue, and there’s no way I’m going to settle it here. But if HAL is indeed not a person at all, but only a device which mimics the speech behavior of a person, then even if Dr. Chandra had intentionally said something false to HAL he would not have been lying. His actions would have been analogous to those of someone who, just for fun, uses the voice command “Two plus two is five” to activate an alarm system. Hence, Chandra should have had no qualms about “lying” to HAL, because he would not have been truly lying at all.

It is interesting, though – and, I think, telling – that the makers of the film thought, quite rightly, that this plot point had dramatic interest. Arthur C. Clarke (the author of the 2001 and 2010 novels) certainly had no theological or natural law ax to grind, and surely neither did the filmmakers. And yet they clearly intended for their audience to take Dr. Chandra’s moral dilemma seriously. Whatever we might say, Chandra regards HAL as a person who “deserves” to hear the truth: “Whether we are based on carbon or silicon makes no fundamental difference, we should each be treated with appropriate respect!” We’re not supposed to think: “Oh come on, even so, it’s obvious what Chandra needs to do. The lives of the crew are at stake. And HAL is likely to be destroyed anyway, so it’s better for him too if he thinks otherwise, for his own peace of mind. Consider the consequences of telling him the truth! What is Chandra, some kind of reactionary natural law absolutist?” Rather, we’re supposed at least to understand why Dr. Chandra feels uneasy lying, and indeed to regard his ultimate decision to tell HAL the truth as noble.

It would seem, then, that at least some among the liberal and secular audiences to whom a movie like 2010 is meant to appeal, who would likely scoff at the natural law position on lying as extreme and bizarre, nevertheless find themselves in sympathy with something like it when it is presented in a fictional context. However we might try to cover it over with some consciously articulated revisionist moral theory, our unconscious, inchoate grasp of the natural law can seep through in unexpected ways.

(This cognitive dissonance vis-à-vis what liberal audiences like to see in their fictional heroes but criticize in real human beings is something I’ve addressed before, in a post on Watchmen. I previously discussed the metaphysical issues raised by science fiction movies in a post on The Fly.)
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