It took philosophers a lot of cogitation to tie lying directly to intent, and many will disagree with the simplified articulation above. (Philosophers never really settle issues, they just refine them ad infinitum.) As a general rule, though, a lie is not “an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker or writer to be untrue with intent to deceive,” as offered by Merriam-Webster; it is, instead, better captured by philosopher Arnold Isenberg: “A lie is a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it.”
The key difference? Merriam-Webster’s “known … to be untrue.” That’s wrong. One can say something that is factually true and still be telling a lie.
An example: Say that your place of work is down the street from a bar called The Office. You duck out at 4 p.m. one day and get a call from your boss, who’s on vacation.
“Where are you,” she asks.
“At The Office,” you reply.
True statement. Also a clear effort to deceive your boss — a lie. Granted, in this case, your boss probably knows about that bar and can ask a follow-up question, but the point remains.
This is counterintuitive and depends to some extent on our willingness to accept that a true statement can also be a lie. Indisputably, though, one can make a true statement with the explicit intent to deceive.
Which brings us to the White House.
On Tuesday, incoming White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about a Washington Post article in which we reported that President Trump had personally crafted the initial response to revelations that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June. In case you don’t remember that statement, this is what it said:
It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up. I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.
After that statement was issued, we learned that Trump Jr. had received an email offering to set up a meeting with a lawyer linked to the Russian government who was offering negative information about Hillary Clinton, which was part of a Russian government effort to bolster Trump’s candidacy.
“Look,” Sanders said about the report, “the statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There’s no inaccuracy in the statement.”
“It was a short introductory meeting” is, according to those present, a true statement. So is that Trump Jr. asked Manafort and Kushner to attend. And according to those who attended, that the subject turned to Russian adoption after the promised Clinton dirt didn’t capture Trump Jr.’s attention. (That adoption issue, incidentally, was in reality a conversation about sanctions imposed on Russian citizens.) Trump Jr. was indeed not told the name of the person was meeting with and it was set up by an acquaintance, a music promoter.
But given what we know now, the statement was deeply deceptive. “We primarily discussed” is a statement not intended to describe the point of the meeting — dirt on Clinton — but instead, to give a false impression about that intent. The statement included only true sentences, but was intended to obscure the truth. It was true and it was a lie.
Sanders knows that, of course. It’s sophistry to argue that the statement was true — and unnecessary sophistry at that. She could simply have said, “The president weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had” — as she then did — and not have tried to compound the deception of the initial statement with a deception about that deception.
In her 1978 book “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” Sissela Bok addressed the function of lying in a democratic government. She notes that the role of lying in public administration is ancient, citing a story from Aristotle. For the most part, she points out, democratic leaders who are lying to the public do so because they think that it allows them to better achieve some public good — often by protecting their own efforts to be reelected. She notes the example of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, who was being advised to escalate the war in Vietnam but who, on the campaign trail, insisted he would push for peace.
Politicians tend to excuse little lies away as being necessary for the bigger picture. This practice “disguises the many motives for political lying which could not serve as moral excuses: the need to cover up past mistakes; the vindictiveness; the desire to stay in power,” Bok writes. “These self-serving ends provide the impetus for countless lies that are rationalized as ‘necessary’ for the public good.”
What’s more, politicians often “overestimate the likelihood that the benefit will occur and that the harm will be averted; they underestimate the chances that the deceit will be discovered and ignore the effects of such a discovery on trust.” That seems to have been demonstrably the case in the situation at hand. The deceit lasted barely 24 hours.
Bok concludes her section on lying by politicians:
Those in government and other positions of trust should be held to the highest standards. Their lies are not ennobled by their positions; quite the contrary. Some lies — notably minor white lies and emergency lies rapidly acknowledged — may be more excusable than others, but only those deceptive practices which can be openly debated and consented to in advance are justifiable in a democracy.
Bok was writing in the wake of Watergate. She knew what she was talking about.