Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Liar

I asked what lies are in two previous posts but the question of just what liars are is as interesting. I ask because I was reminded recently of an incident I had with a person who was proselytizing on the street. He asked me, out of the cold as I was walking by him, if I had ever lied. It was such a weird situation that it caught me off guard. Nonplussed, I said, "What do you mean?" He answered with a question: "What do you call someone who has lied?" Obviously, this was a rhetorical ploy to get people to say "Liar". This presumably would prompt him to then say that since lying is a sin, we are all sinners and need Jesus to save us, blah blah....(Looking back, I am proud I had the self-control to refrain from punching him in the mouth!)

Anyway, it was pretty clear to me that just because one has told a lie doesn't make one a liar. Do little white lies count? Never mind the problem with what is a lie as there clearly are vague cases. Even if we agree that someone has told a clear case lie, that wouldn't mean he is a liar. Say he lied when he was 4 years old and hasn't since. He has vowed not to and kept to his promise for 30 years after that. Clearly this is a reformed liar and it would be pretty crazy to call a reformed liar a 'liar' (kind of like calling someone that stopped abusing alcohol for 30 years an 'alcoholic'). Even if the person continues to lie, if only on occasion and in non serious circumstances (like almost all normal adults), we may have reasons not to call him a liar much like we may not want to call someone that has and may still do play football for fun with his buddies a 'football player' or someone that knows how to belt out a few tunes on his piano a 'pianist' or 'musician'.

But is there a definite point in degree and kind of the number, kinds, moral seriousness, of lies told by someone that would make him a liar? No, of course not.

It's also interesting that being called a 'liar' may be quite relational in the way my examples of 'football player' and 'pianist' is not. The person being lied to may have more recourse and even semantic justification to impute liar-hood onto the person that lied to him than someone else who has never met him. This underscores the moral aspect of liar-hood. It is a "thick concept" in the sense made famous by Bernard Williams.

We may consider Honest Bob a virtuous and honest man because he has never lied to us and we know him well. But let's say that 10 years ago, he was a very different person to which he has since mended his ways. He lied to his former friend, Louis, and screwed him over pretty bad (the details of which need not concern us). Louis hasn't seen Bob in a while because he refuses to meet him now and still feels hurt over being lied to like that. But Louis sees him by accident today again on the street. He calls Bob a "liar!" and walks away. It seems that Louis was justified in calling Bob that; not just justified in the sense he may be excused from saying something which may be hurtful, but in the sense he was saying something somewhat true. But we, those who know Bob qua "Honest Bob," would not be justified in the same ways to call him a 'liar'.