Many years ago, arriving at a party at a friend’s house, I noticed a Jaguar parked out front. The guy who answered the door didn’t know me, but I happened to know through my friend who he was, and that he was the owner of the car. So I decided to have a little fun. “Who owns the Jag?” I said with mock distress; “It just got totaled!” The only thing more priceless than the look of horror on his face was the “Who the hell is this guy?” expression that replaced it when I told him I was kidding.
Was I lying? No, I was merely joking. So what’s the difference?
You’ll recall that I have argued on traditional natural law grounds that it is always wrong to tell a lie, even if the sin is often only venial. Circumstances are irrelevant to determining whether lying is wrong, because the act of lying is intrinsically bad, given that it involves intentionally acting contrary to the natural end of our communicative faculties. However, circumstances are relevant to determining whether or not a given lie is gravely wrong. They are also relevant to determining whether something counts as a lie, because language is conventional, and the conventions governing certain expressions determine that under certain circumstances they do not function to convey one’s true thoughts in the first place. Hence to say “Fine, thank you” in response to the everyday greeting “Hi, how are you?” does not count as a lie even if one is in fact feeling terrible, because as a matter of linguistic convention these words function as a mere pleasantry under such circumstances, rather than a literal description of one’s mental or physical state. Under other circumstances -- say when you are being given a medical examination for insurance purposes, and the questioner seriously wants to know how you are really feeling -- they would count as a lie. (Earlier posts spelling all this out in detail can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here. Please don’t bother commenting on the claims I’ve just made until you’ve read the posts in question, which deal with the stock objections at length. I’m not going to rehash it all here.)
Recall also that lying is not the same thing as deception, even though there is an obvious relationship between them. One can be guilty of lying even when one knows one’s word is not likely to be believed. And one can legitimately deceive someone without lying to him, as when one speaks evasively, but not falsely, to someone demanding information he has no right to. As John Henry Newman wrote:
An instance is supplied in the history of St. Athanasius: he was in a boat on the Nile, flying persecution; and he found himself pursued. On this he ordered his men to turn his boat round, and ran right to meet the satellites of Julian. They asked him, "Have you seen Athanasius?" and he told his followers to answer, "Yes, he is close to you." They went on their course as if they were sure to come up to him, while he ran back into Alexandria, and there lay hid till the end of the persecution.
Then there is what natural law theorists call a “broad mental reservation,” which is distinct from a lie insofar as, given the conventions governing language, one’s listener could reasonably determine from one’s words under the circumstances what one really thinks, even if he is likely not to. An example would be a secretary answering “He’s not in, can I take a message?” to someone looking for the boss. Given the conventions governing such expressions, it is well known that what is meant is “Whether or not he’s in, he isn’t seeing visitors right now.” Though if the questioner went on to say “No, seriously, is he really in or not? I need to know,” to respond “No, he really isn’t in!” when the boss is in would, it seems to me, clearly be a lie, even if only a minor one.
Now jokes of the sort I played on arriving at the party seem to me not to count as lies precisely for the sorts of reason that Athanasius’s words, pleasantries like “Fine, thanks,” and conventional expressions like “He’s not in” used under typical circumstances don’t count as lies, even if the listener is deceived. Jokes are such a common part of everyday life that whenever something startling is said, people automatically wonder whether it is meant seriously. The immediate response is, commonly, not belief, but rather to exclaim “You’re joking!” Hence it seems clear that the linguistic conventions governing startling statements are relevantly like those governing pleasantries and certain kinds of evasive or ambiguous speech. The listener could in principle determine from the context that what is said is not intended as if it conveyed the literal truth, just as he could in the case of “Fine, thanks” or “He’s not in.” And the fact that the speaker foresees and even hopes that the listener is nevertheless deceived (at least momentarily) no more makes such an utterance a lie than the hope that Julian’s agents would be deceived made Athanasius’s followers’ words “Yes, he is close to you” a lie. Moreover, the circumstances of an utterance that determine whether certain words count as a lie plausibly include more than linguistic conventions and what is going on physically in the vicinity of a conversation. They surely include also what immediately follows a joking utterance of the sort I made about the Jag -- a smile, wink, or laugh, or the words “Just kidding!” or the like. Just as the theatrical context makes “My kingdom for a horse!” a non-lie even when uttered by someone who has no kingdom to trade for a horse, so too does the overall conversational context typically surrounding jokes like the one I made about the Jaguar make them non-lies.
But suppose I had carried the pretense on for some time. Suppose the guy at the door said “Wait a minute, are you serious?” and I answered “Yeah, it’s totaled. Was that your car? Sorry, man, some drunk driver just plowed into it!” To make this plausible, suppose the guy’s car was parked a couple of blocks away so that he couldn’t know I was joking just by peering over my shoulder, and had to go check. Here I think we would clearly have a lie, just as we would in the case of the person who falsely says “Really, I mean it, he’s not here” to someone who asks “Seriously, is the boss in or not? I really need to know.” In particular, we’d have what is sometimes called a “jocose lie” -- a lie intended to amuse. Another example of a jocose lie would be making up some story and relating it as true so as to make one’s conversation more entertaining. Of themselves such jocose lies are considered by traditional natural law theorists to be merely venially sinful, though circumstances could make them mortally sinful -- for example, if the one telling a jocose lie intended gravely to inconvenience or humiliate his listener.
The view I’m putting forward here may be more lenient than that of Aquinas. We are told the following story about him:
One day a Friar in a jovial mood cries out: "Friar Thomas, come see the flying ox!" Friar Thomas goes over to the window. The other laughs. "It is better," the Saint says to him, "to believe that an ox can fly than to think that a religious can lie."
I don’t know the circumstances under which this is supposed to have happened, but if the first friar’s remark about the flying ox was relevantly like my Jaguar gag, I’m inclined to say that it was not really a lie at all. In any event, the distinctions that underlie the traditional natural law view that broad mental reservations, conventional pleasantries, and the like do not count as lies were hammered out in the centuries since Aquinas wrote. They are grounded in Aquinas’s overall approach to the subject even if they go beyond what he actually said himself.
“New natural law” theorist Germain Grisez also seems to take a more stringent view. In Living a Christian Life, volume 2 of his The Way of the Lord Jesus, Grisez writes:
Humorous lies manipulate others and often offend their dignity… [They] aim to deceive someone, although usually only temporarily, and generally in the context of playful mocking or teasing (“kidding”). For instance, someone first tells a credulous person something astonishing, embarrassing, or frightening but untrue, and by this deception provokes an emotional reaction; then the joker manifests the truth and at least implicitly ridicules the reaction. (p. 411)
I have already explained why I think such “playful mocking,” “teasing,” or “kidding” does not count as lying in the first place -- given the linguistic conventions governing surprising statements, the listener typically can figure out that the speaker is not serious, in just the way that he can figure out the truth when a speaker uses evasive language or a broad mental reservation.
But then, Grisez, like “new natural lawyers” in general, eschews the “perverted faculty” approach to the subject that (as I explained in a recent post) motivates the traditional natural law theorist’s view that lying is inherently bad. Grisez appeals instead to the value of “self-integration and authenticity” and a lie’s tendency to “attack[s] the real community that truthful communication would foster” (p. 405). Yet the suggestion that playful mocking, teasing, and kidding “attack real community” and “offend the dignity” of persons seems to me to be absurdly overwrought, certainly if intended as a general statement about such practices. (Grisez says that “humorous liars typically victimize people whom they regard as inferiors,” but this way of putting it only reinforces the impression -- which nothing in his discussion clearly contradicts -- that he regards even kidding between equals as a kind of “lying.”) Of course, mocking, teasing, and the like is sometimes intended maliciously, and can sometimes cause real harm even to people who are not oversensitive -- hazing, schoolyard bullying, and the like are obvious examples. But everyday pranks and the joshing that friends engage in are not at all like this. The “victims” of such jokes typically enjoy them -- “Ha ha, you got me! Good one!” -- and would rightly dismiss as ridiculously humorless any suggestion that in doing so they are somehow complicit in an assault on their “dignity.” Indeed, the sort of bonhomie that typically surrounds such joking surely fosters community rather than “attacks” it. (Here as elsewhere the “new natural law theory” tends towards an excessive rigorism born of an obsession with a quasi-Kantian understanding of “respect for the dignity of persons.” Of course, neither moral rigorists nor Kantians are famous for having a sense of humor.)
So, I would say that playful kidding of the sort I engaged in in the Jaguar case does not count as a lie, not even a jocose lie (and is thus not inherently wrong), whereas falsely insisting that what I had said was true even when asked whether I was joking would have been a jocose lie (and thus would have been inherently wrong, even if only mildly so). There are interesting middle ground cases, though, that are not as clear-cut. In Volume II of The Science of Ethics (a work for which I have great esteem), traditional natural law theorist Michael Cronin rightly says that:
It should be remembered… that it is possible for the jocular element in our statement to become itself a part of the statement instead of remaining outside the statement, as merely the end to which it is directed. And thus what is often incorrectly called a jocose lie is really not a lie, but a true statement, made up partly of words, partly of jocose acts, and partly, perhaps, of the circumstances, for even the circumstances sometimes “speak.” … Smiling, nodding, a jocular tone of voice may all be used to convey our meaning or part of our meaning, just as well as words; and, provided their significance is understood by people generally, they have a claim to be regarded as a substantive part of our speech, as adding to, or modifying the literal sense of the words used. (p. 72)
I would argue that these sorts of considerations support the claim that jokes of the “totaled Jaguar” sort do not count as lies under the circumstances described. But Cronin says the following about another example:
To say to a boy on All Fools’ day that his teacher wishes to see him, when it is known that this is not the case, is a lie -- a very minor lie, no doubt, but still a lie. The innocence of the end aimed at diminishes, indeed, the sin of lying, but it still leaves the lying statement what it is in itself, just as any other end would. (p. 71)
This, as I say, seems to me to be a middle ground case. On the one hand, unlike my “Jaguar” example, the content of the statement in question is of itself not necessarily surprising enough naturally to lead the listener to suspect that the speaker might be joking, and if the speaker does not soon go on to say “Just kidding!” or the like but lets the boy go to see his teacher, there is nothing else in the immediate context to indicate the speaker’s true thoughts. That much supports Cronin’s judgment that this case counts as a jocose lie. On the other hand, the overall context is April Fools’ Day, and most people are aware that jokes and pranks are unusually common on that day. Someone who remembers what day it is will likely be especially wary, suspecting anything remotely surprising or unpleasant that anyone says on that day of being a joke. Hence it seems to me that there are grounds for holding that the overall context makes it plausible that the average person could figure out the speaker’s true thoughts, so that the overall communicative act is no more a lie than the utterance of a mere pleasantry like “I’m fine, thanks” (even when one is feeling depressed) would be.
Someone might wonder: Couldn’t considerations of the sort raised here be used to justify practices like telling children untruths about Santa Claus, or deliberately telling a falsehood to the murderer at the door (practices which in earlier posts I have argued count as lies)? The answer is No. Take the Santa Claus case first. In most cases, there is nothing analogous to broad mental reservation, evasive speech, non-literal language and the like here; nor, even if there were, does a small child have the sophistication to know the difference. When you tell an adult that you’re fine even when you’re not, he knows well that you might not really be fine at all and that you didn’t really intend in the first place seriously to be claiming that you are. When you tell him that the sun rose at 6 am today, he knows well that you do not literally mean that the sun moved relative to the Earth but that this is just a loose way of speaking. But when you tell a four-year -old that a man in a red suit comes down the chimney on Christmas eve, leaves gifts around the tree, and eats the cookies the child has left for him, he understands you to mean that this is literally what happens -- that you are describing an event no less real and in principle observable than a visit by Grandma and Grandpa would be. He doesn’t think that it is a joke, or merely a delightful myth that you don’t mean seriously -- especially if you insist that it is true even when he says “But Bobby at school said there really is no Santa Claus!” It is sheer sophistry to pretend that this is anything but a lie, even if the motivation for it is innocent.
Regarding the murderer who comes to your door looking for his victim, I suppose that if the murderer presented himself as just an ordinary visitor paying a visit and you said “Sorry, he’s not here,” this (like the secretary’s words in the example given above) would count as a broad mental reservation rather than a lie, given the linguistic convention governing such forms of speech. But suppose the murderer says: “Look, I intend to kill this guy but I’m on a tight schedule here and I don’t have time to fool around. So, just give me a straight answer-- none of this broad mental reservation or evasive speech stuff. Is he here or not?” In that case, if you falsely say “No, he’s not,” then you’ve told a lie. Not mortally sinful, to be sure -- and consult this article by Fr. Lawrence Dewan for an account of just how minor a fault such an act would be -- but still a slight defect.
But rest assured that you can still joke with the murderer about his Jag being totaled…