The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Lie

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LIE, a statement, which is thought to be false by the person who utters it and is intended to be believed by another. Lying has been recognized as an evil by many different religions and civilizations and there is probably no race which does not consider a lie as evil, provided it is asserted under some sacred form of oath. The evil of lying is due to the fact that communication between different individuals is a necessity of life, and that unless the truth is communicated much more often than a falsehood, a communication will come to have no meaning to its recipient — that is, will come to be no communication at all. This was well brought out by Kant, who pointed out that a community would be impossible in which lying was the rule, for then a lie, by ceasing to convey the false opinion which it is meant to convey, would cease to be a lie at all. There is no need, however, of making the evil of lying depend, after the fashion of Kant, on a categorical imperative which permits no action that cannot be willed as an example of a universal maxim of conduct. While lying involves in general evil consequences, it does by no means follow that every lie is an evil deed, in the sense that it is worse than the telling of the corresponding truth, or even worse than silence. Though a word is a medium of communication, it is often much more. To tell a burglar the combination of the safe is as much the act of an accomplice as to put a key into his hands. To tell a sick man that he is incurable may be on the same moral plane as to blow out his brains. On the other hand, the deception of an enemy spy has consequences not very different from those of repelling a hostile attack. Thus it may be seen that besides its truth-value, a proposition very generally has a moral value only indirectly connected with its usefulness in communication and often directly counter to the latter. Which of the two shall then preponderate is a matter which must be decided on the merits of each particular case. A great many accusations are brought against the sincerity of modern society on the basis of little untruths popularly called white lies. These range from the “Dear sir” and “Respectfully yours” which begin and end a letter, to the conventional “not at home” of a person who does not wish to be disturbed, or the perfunctory applause which follows a boresome lecture. These are in no proper sense lies, for the essence of “lying resides in the wilful transmission of a false belief to another,” and not in any form of words used in an especial sense. It is, therefore, useless to speak of a conventional lie, for a conventional form of expression is an expression which by frequent repetition has come to have a single universal interpretation — perhaps the interpretation of a meaningless form. It must, therefore, be interpreted by its hearer or reader in the precise sense intended by its user unless its user has gone out of his way to employ it in an extraordinary and unconventional sense. A lie need not be conveyed by written or spoken language. A look or a gesture may well be intended by one person to give a definite impression to another. If this impression is thought to be false by the person who conveys it, the look or gesture is a lie. Silence itself is enough to constitute a lie if it has the purpose of deception.