I will argue that lying is never permissible. The argument is a curious argument, maybe Kantian in flavor, which attempts to establish the conclusion without actually adverting to any explanation of what is bad about lying.
GPS satellites constantly broadcast messages that precisely specify the time at which the message is sent together with precise data as to the satellite orbit. Comparing receipt times of message from multiple GPS satellites with the positions of the satellites, a GPS receiver can calculate its position.
A part of the current design specifications of US GPS satellites is apparently that they can regionally degrade the signal in wartime in order to prevent enemies from making use of the signal (US military receivers can presumably circumvent the degradation).
Now, let’s oversimplify the situation and make up some details (the actual GPS signal specifications are here and the points I am making don’t match the actual specifications), since my point is philosophy of language, not GPS engineering. So I’m really talking about GPS satellites in another possible world.
Suppose that normally the satellite is broadcasting the time n in picoseconds up to a precision of plus or minus ten picoseconds, and suppose that currently we receive a message of n in the time field from a satellite. What does that message mean?
First of all, the message does not mean that the current time is n picoseconds. For the design specifications, I have stipulated, are that there is a precision of plus or minus ten picoseconds. Thus, what it means is something more like:
- The current time is n ± 10 ps, i.e., is within 10 ps of n ps.
But now suppose that it is a part of the design and operation specifications that in wartime the locally relevant satellites add a pseudorandom error of plus or minus up to a million picoseconds (remember that I’m making this up). Then what the message field means is something like:
- Either (a) this is a satellite that is relevant to a war region, the current time is n ± 106 ps and [extra information available to the military], or (b) the current time is n ± 10 ps.
In particular, when wartime signal degradation happens, the time field of the GPS message is (assuming the satellite is working properly) still conveying correct information—the satellite isn’t lying. For the semantic content of the time field supervenes on the norms in the design and operation specifications, and if these norms specify that wartime degradation occurs, then that possibility becomes a part of the content of the message.
Suppose lying is sometimes morally obligatory. Thus, there will be a sentence “s” and circumstances Cs in which it is both true that s and morally required to say that not s. Suppose Alice is uttering “Not s” in an assertoric way. Morality is part of Alice’s (and any other human being’s) “design and operation specifications”. Thus on the model of my analysis (2) of the semantic content of the (fictionalized) time field of the GPS message, what is being stated or asserted by Alice is not simply:
- Not s
- Either (a) Cs obtains, or (b) not s.
But if that’s the content of Alice’s statement, then Alice is not actually lying when she says “Not s” in Cs. And the same point goes through even if Alice isn’t obligated but is merely permitted to say “Not s” in Cs. The norms in her design and operation specifications make (4) be the content of her statement rather than (3).
In other words:
- If lying that s is obligatory or permissible in Cs, then lying is actually impossible in Cs.
But the consequent of (5) is clearly false. Thus, the antecedent is false. And hence:
- Lying is never obligatory or permissible.
Note that a crucial ingredient in my GPS story is that the norms governing the degradation of GPS messages are in some way public. If these norms were secret, then the military would be making the GPS satellites do something akin to lying when they degraded their messages. But moral norms are essentially public.
Objection 1: The norms relevant to the determination of the content of a statement are not moral but linguistic norms. The moral norms require that Alice utter “Not s” in an assertoric way only when (4) obtains. But the linguistic norms require that Alice utter “Not s” in an assertoric way only when (3) obtains. And hence (3) is the content of “Not s”, not (4).
Response: This is a powerful objection. But compare the GPS case. We could try to distinguish narrowly technical norms of satellite operation from the larger norms on which GPS satellites are controlled by the US military in support of military aims. That would lead to the thought that the time field of the satellite (on my fictionalized version of the story) would mean (1). But I think it is pretty compelling that the time field of the satellite would mean (2). The meaning of the message needs to be determined according to the overall norms of design and operation, not some narrow technical subset of the specifications. Similarly, the meaning of a linguistic performance needs to be determined according to the overall norms of design and operation of the human being engaging in the performance. And it is precisely the moral norms that are such overall norms.
Second, linguistic norms are norms of voluntary behavior, since linguistic performance is a form of voluntary behavior. But a norm of voluntary behavior that conflicts with morality is null and void insofar as it conflicts, much as an illegal order is no order and an unconstitutional law is no law.
Third, on a view on which linguistic norms have the kind of independence from moral norms that the objection requires, it is difficult to specify what makes them linguistic. For we cannot simply say that they are the overall norms governing linguistic behavior. Moral norms do that, as well. A distinction like the one in the objection would make sense in the case of something where the rules are formalized. Thus, there are circumstances when the rules of chess require one to do something immoral. (For instance, suppose that a tyrant tells you she will kill an innocent unless you move a pawn forward by three squares. The rules of chess require you to refrain from doing that, but it is immoral for you to refrain from it.) But the rules of chess are simply a well-defined set of statements about what constitutes a game of chess, and it is relatively easy to tell if something is a rule of chess or not. But linguistic norms are just some among the many norms governing human behavior, and it is hard to specify which ones they are, if one can't do it by the subject matter of the norms. (I am also inclined to think that the rules of chess might not actually be norms; they are, rather, classificatory rules that specify what counts as a victory, loss, draw or forfeit; the norms governing play are moral.)
Objection 2: Content is not normatively determined.
Response: If that’s right, then my line of argument does fail. But I think a normative picture of content is the right one. In part it’s my Pittsburgh pedigree that makes me want to say that. :-)
Objection 3: Bite the bullet and say that when Alice utters “Not s”, she is in fact asserting (4) and not lying even if Cs obtains. While on this view, technically, lying is never permissible, in practice the view permits the same behaviors as a view on which lying is sometimes permissible.
Response: This just seems implausible. But I wish I had a better response.