Lying, misleading, and dishonesty

Barber, Alex (2019). Lying, misleading, and dishonesty. Journal of Ethics (Early Access).



An important moral category – dishonest speech – has been overlooked in theoretical ethics despite its importance in legal, political, and everyday social exchanges. Discussion in this area has instead been fixated on a binary debate over the contrast between lying and ‘merely misleading’ (that is, attempting to deceive someone without uttering a literal falsehood). Some see lying as a distinctive wrong; others see it as morally equivalent to deliberately omitting relevant truths, falsely insinuating, or any other species of attempted verbal deception. Parties to this debate have missed the relevance to their disagreement of the notion of communicative dishonesty. Communicative dishonesty need not take the form of a lie, yet its wrongness does not reduce to the wrongness of seeking to deceive. This paper therefore proposes a major shift of attention away from the lying/misleading debate and towards the topic of communicative dishonesty (or ‘dishonesty’ for short). Dishonesty is not a simple notion to define, however. It presupposes a difficult distinction between what is and is not expressed in a given utterance. This differs from the more familiar distinction between what is and is not said, the distinction at the heart of the lying/misleading debate. This paper uses an idea central to speech act theory to characterize dishonesty in terms of the utterer’s communicative intentions, and applies the resulting definition to a variety of contexts.

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