What Is A Lie?

The Importance of Lying

Lying is something which frequents our daily experiences. We are often called to lay judgement on whether those around us have lied or not; our politicians can lie, our colleagues can lie, and even our friends and family can lie. And we are likewise routinely interviewed about whether we had spoken a lie or not as well. Lying is fundamental to human life.

Now, for those who are brave enough to bring forth the discussion, namely, to call out those who lie, then have to deal with the issue of classifying what a lie is. Put otherwise, what was it that a person said which invoked your sense that their utterance was a lie? And what justifications can be provided for this claim?

If one cannot provide a satisfactory account of what a lie exactly is, then their claim can be dismissed on the grounds of their inability to convince listeners that something was indeed a lie. Therefore, it is of great importance to understand what a lie is, if we are to suppose others are indeed lying. Thus, let us ask the question:

What Is A Lie?

Much has been said about what a lie precisely is: (Don Falls, 2009; Meltzer, 2003; Mahon, 2016), and so there are no shortages of opinion on the matter. Distinctions have been drawn between deception, lies, and lying; distinctions have also been drawn on how one even goes about defining a lie as well. To little surprise, the definition which can be found within the dictionary is heavily critiqued (1).

To keep the topic brief, I shall ignore the arguments rooted strictly in definitions, as I believe definitions are incapable of determining something’s classification, for reasons discussed elsewhere: (2)(3)(4)

And so, I shall argue against a distinction which is made between lying and lies, and then put forward my own conception of what lying is.

The Requirements For a Lie

(Siegler, 1966) believes that the concept of lying can only be accurately applied if one understands the following six conditions:

the liar must: (1) say something, (2) intend to deceive, (3) say something which is false, (4) say something which he knows to be false, (5) believe that what he says is false, (6) communicate.  – Siegler, 1966

The first condition is loosely used, as the first condition is likewise applied to acts or actions rather than “saying” in the strict sense of “to speak”. As a result, we are then granted the following distinction via a thought experiment: someone can say something via action, but that action is itself not a lie. Put otherwise, we can deceive others, while not having said something false.

The example given by Siegler is as follows:

Suppose that, A and B in planning to murder Jones, arrange for A to give B the order to shoot when Jones is at the appointed target spot. Suppose that A, to deceive B and thereby to get Smith shot, gives the order “shoot” when he sees Smith at the target spot. A, in giving the order, has said something, but it does not seem correct to say that A has lied to B. He tried to deceive him by giving the order at the wrong time, but he has not lied. – Siegler, 1966

According to the condition (4), we clearly have a case of deception rather than lying because no one has uttered anything false. Now, there are other points which Siegler makes that are worthwhile to read, but I have no reason to go beyond this point of his essay.

Siegler has as of now conflated truth and falsity with lying and honesty, and I think these ought to be kept distinct. As Meltzer puts it:

[There are] fundamental differences between the moral domain of intended truthfulness and deception and the epistemological domain of truth and falsity. When people convey false information in the belief that it is true, they may be tired, mistaken, uninformed, inarticulate, intoxicated, or duped by others; but so long as they do not intend to mislead anyone, they are not acting in a manner that is in any way deceitful. – Meltzer, 2003.

For these reasons alone, I find Siegler’s position to be untenable, but as Mannison also persuasively argues against Siegler, there are some issues with some conditions Siegler listed:

“Although the typical case of lying involves a speaker acting with an intent to deceive another by asserting what he, the speaker, believed truly to be false, a speaker can also act with intent to deceive by asserting something which he believes to be true.” (Mannison, 1969).

The primary difference between Mannison and Siegler is the separation of a lie from lying. For Siegler, a lie is a concept in the sense of a noun, whereas lying is an action, of which has conditions of satisfaction. As a result, one cannot tell a lie while saying something truthful.

For example, if I were looking for my lost dog, and others had asked me, “have you seen your dog,” to which I respond with, “yes,” – because I technically have seen my dog before – then the question askers could reasonably believe that I have located my dog.

Now, because I knew the intended meaning behind that question was pragmatic, and actually meant, “have you found your dog yet?,” I have lied; only because I knew what they were really asking, and gave an answer which was indeed false with respect to the intended meaning of their utterances.

So, on the literal interpretation, I have not uttered anything false, and thus have not violated Siegler’s 4th condition, but on the pragmatic viewpoint I very well have performed a lie. And that analysis applies to Siegler’s example with the shooter. The shooter, having arranged to execute a specific person, presumed that “yes” really means “yes, this is the person we are supposed to shoot”.

Of course, what I have herein supposed is that we all have some mutually shared, reasonable expectation as to what a series of questions or particular discourse is about, and that we can deliberately mislead, so as to lie, by adopting interpretations which are not applicable to that mutual understanding. Put otherwise, because we know others believe the world to be one way or another, and have some expectation about that world, we can adopt ways to respond to people which provide them with evidence or conclusions which would not be the case, given their presumptions; and thus, we would be lying to them.

So, the requirement for a lie involves intentional deception, and that intentional deception can only take place when we understand the worldview’s of both ourselves and others. But intentional deception itself fails to communicate to us what the components of lie are, and so, we shall also consider those.

The Components of Lying

As is evident now, lying has an element of being intentional, we cannot accidentally lie. When we lie, we have a communicated something which we understand will either lead to someone else deriving false beliefs about the world: i.e., when we say something true, but know that from another person’s view, it would indeed be false. Or, we simply have said something, intentionally so, false about the world. In both cases, we have some form of intent to represent the world incorrectly, irrespective if it is by means of being, misleading, or exaggerating.

Lying likewise seems to involve a meta-belief of sorts. When we are lying, we seem to be aware of the presented intention and genuine intention; that is, when we tell someone that we have seen our dog, in the context of our previous thought experiment, we know the viewers will think our intention was to communicate that the dog has been found. Yet, on the other hand, we are also aware of our genuine intention to mislead them by adopting an interpretation to their question which does not correspond to mutual understanding of the situation. This seems to presuppose a belief which can understand the difference between these two intentions: a meta-belief.

To sum up, then, a lie is composed of a belief which has differentiated between our genuine and deceptive intentions, and has some element of intentionally misleading either ourselves or others about something.

Differences Between Omission, Denial, and Lying

Lying, omission, and denial can be conflated, depending on your model of lying, and so I want to clarify the differences, from the perspective of our model.

Recall, lying has, at some point or another, and in some way or another, a positive claim being made. Whenever we lie, we by definition make a positive claim. In our thought experiment with the dog, the positive claim would have been rooted within the pragmatic interpretation of the discourse, of which we knew the others involved would have naturally adopted. In addition to that, lies are also intentional.

So, if lying involves some kind of positive claim and has to be intentional, then omission and denial are themselves not necessarily lies. That is, some cases do exist wherein which people can put forward positive claims with omission and denial, and thus lie, but we can also have cases where that is not so.

For example, someone can knowingly omit the severity of a disease while at the same time communicating to that person that they indeed have a disease. Their intent would be to lessen the blow, while informing them of their disease. And so, no lie would have been told. At most, we might suppose the doctor has obfuscated the conditions by not being direct, but that itself is not a lie. Without the intent to deceive, or without the positive claim, there is no lie.

Likewise, someone can deny that they are addicted to coffee, in a genuine sense, while they are in fact addicted to coffee; instead, the person could simply be biased by unconscious factors such as cognitive dissonance, and have no intent to mislead us. They are simply mistaken about the state of affairs. Furthermore, someone could just easily be skeptical about their being addicted to coffee, and thus put forward no claim on the matter but instead be cautious about the claims of others. That would not amount to a lie, just a denial.

So, there are indeed cases where omission and denial can occur without them being lies, due to their lack of either intent or positive claims.

Conclusion: What Is A Lie?

All lies involve a positive claim and intent to deceive. Of course, the intent and the positive claim, as they are presented within someone’s mind, can be disjunct, which would then not itself be a lie; however, we are speaking of positive claims and intent as though they were in unison and related.

The intent to deceive without any kind of statement is itself not a lie, in the same way that a thought on its own cannot itself manifest into a crime. Likewise, a positive claim on its own is clearly insufficient for something to be a lie as well. Only the two, in unison, can bring about the necessary conditions for a lie.



Untitled Diagram (1).png

  1. When we have true statement, with an intent to deceive, we have a lie.
  2. When we have a true statement, with no intent to deceive, there is no lie.
  3. When we have a false statement, with an intent to deceive, we have a lie.
  4. When we have a false statement, with no intent to deceive, we have a mistake.




Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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