TCS Daily

Logic Cop Asks, "Is Bush a Liar?"

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - October 30, 2003 12:00 AM

If it were in my power to do so (which of course it is not), I would issue a moratorium on accusations of lying. Not because nobody ever lies, and certainly not because lying is morally benign, but because there is widespread ignorance (it seems to me) about what lying is. It would also be nice if we could agree on the proper evidentiary standard for accusations of lying. It may be that we should require more evidence of lying for some people, roles, and offices than for others.


What Is a Lie?


A lie is a falsehood -- a misrepresentation of reality -- uttered with the intention to deceive. It has both an objective and a subjective component. The objective component is the misrepresentation. The subjective component has two parts: (1) belief that what one represents to be the case is not the case and (2) intention to deceive. All lies are misrepresentations, but not all misrepresentations are lies. If I believe that I am telling you the truth, when in fact I am not (because, say, I am ignorant or mistaken), I do not lie. If I believe that I am telling you a falsehood, but without thereby intending to deceive or mislead you (think of jocularity and fiction), I do not lie. Since lying is presumptively wrong (see below), one should be careful not to falsely accuse people of it. Indeed, falsely asserting that X is a liar, with the intention thereby to deceive people into thinking that X is a liar (and acting on it), is a lie: a metalie, a lie on stilts.


Every crime (except so-called strict-liability offenses) has a mental element (known as the mens rea, or guilty mind, to be contrasted with the actus reus, or act itself). This mental element, like every other element of the offense, must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecutor in order to secure a conviction. The Model Penal Code sets out four mental states: purposiveness, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence. Some crimes require proof of purpose, others of (mere) knowledge, others of recklessness, others of negligence. To act purposely is to act intentionally, as part of a plan. To act knowingly is to be aware of what one is doing (or some salient aspect of what one is doing). To act recklessly is to act in awareness of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to others. To act negligently is to act carelessly, without adequate attention to what one is doing, judged by what a reasonable person would do in the circumstances.


A person can utter a falsehood in any of these mental states. If my plan (intention) is to deceive someone (or several people at once), I act purposely. If I have no plan to deceive but know that my utterance is false, I act knowingly. If I suspect that my utterance may be false but utter it anyway, knowing that it may deceive or mislead, I act recklessly. If I utter a proposition, thinking it to be true, but harboring a suspicion that it may not be true and not taking time to investigate, I act negligently.


In only the first of these cases have I lied. This does not imply that the other acts, however described, are morally acceptable. They may not be. But they are not lies. Not all wrongs are lies!


Why Is Lying Wrong (If It Is)?


There are different theories of the wrongness of lying. Act-consequentialists (e.g., act-utilitarians) say that lying is only extrinsically wrong. If a particular lie is wrong, they say, it is wrong because of its bad consequences, not because of the kind of act it is. Lies, like everything else, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The most an act-consequentialist will say (can say) is that lies are presumptively wrong, the reason being that many or most of them, in fact, have bad consequences. It is a rule of thumb only, to be disregarded when it is clear that a particular lie has the best overall consequences. That an act is a lie, in other words, is only a sign or indicator that it may be wrong (on other grounds).


In contrast, deontologists (deontology, literally, is the study or science [logos] of duty [deon]) say that lying is intrinsically wrong. It is wrong not because of its consequences (however bad they may be) but because of the kind of act it is. There are two types of deontologist. Absolutist deontologists say that nothing can justify a lie. They have an infinitely high justificatory threshold. Moderate deontologists say that lies can be justified, but only to avert catastrophe (or something very bad). They have a finite (but usually high) justificatory threshold. Act-consequentialists have no justificatory threshold.


Philosophically speaking, lying is a fascinating concept. This is why some of the greatest philosophers in history, such as Augustine, Montaigne, Kant (an absolutist deontologist), and Bentham (an act-utilitarian), have written about it. That it looms large in our minds is suggested by the many English words we have for it (besides "lying"): "mendacity," "deceptiveness," "prevarication," "dishonesty," "duplicity," "dissembling," "dissimulation," "meretriciousness." There is probably a biological basis for all of the following: (1) our capacity to lie; (2) our ability to conceal our lies; (3) our opposition to lying; and (4) our ability to identify lies (and the people who tell them). Liars (more generally, deceivers) are able to gain unfair advantages over others. As the ability to conceal one's lies grows more sophisticated, so do the techniques with which to detect them. It is a perpetual arms race. As long as humans live in groups, with the standing possibility of either cooperation or free-riding, it will continue.


Is President Bush a Liar?


The fastest-spreading meme these days seems to be "President Bush is a liar." (For a discussion of memes by the person who coined the term, see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene [1976; new ed., 1989].) Sometimes the meme is broadened to include the Bush administration as a whole (or certain of its members, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), prominent Republicans, or conservatives generally. Everywhere I look, I see or hear the charge. calls President Bush "the misleader." Al Franken's latest book, currently ranked fourth in sales on, is Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (Dutton, 2003). Joe Conason's new tome, ranked 161st, is Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (Thomas Dunne, 2003). David Corn has recently joined the crowd with The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown, 2003), which is already ranked sixty-second. By way of comparison, my textbook on informal logic (sigh) ranks 402,043rd.


The Bush-is-a-liar meme is rampant. Why this is so is an interesting question, one best left to social scientists. But I suspect it has something to do with the fact that our erstwhile president, Bill Clinton, lied to the American people (finger wagging in their faces) about whether he had sex with Monica Lewinsky. The accusation of lying, the subsequent investigation by the independent counsel, and the ensuing impeachment angered a great many people to the point where they wanted retribution. And now they have it. Calling President Bush a liar appears to be comeuppance for those who called President Clinton a liar. I hope nobody reading this column denies that President Clinton lied. Whether his lie was justified (i.e., not wrong, given the circumstances) or excused (i.e., wrong but nonculpable), and if so on what grounds, is another matter, about which reasonable people can differ. But let's not deny that he told a falsehood with intent to deceive! Only someone in denial, such as former President Clinton himself, would deny that.


Is there anything to the charge that President Bush is a liar? It depends, of course, on what a lie is. (Don't you hate philosophers?) What I fear, in my philosophical bones, is that the concept of a lie is being inflated beyond recognition. If that happens, an adjustment will have to be made in our other beliefs, specifically about lying's moral acceptability. After all, if every misrepresentation, however innocently purveyed, constitutes a lie, how bad can it be? If everyone is lying, is anyone lying?


Compare rape, about which, for better or for worse, I have written a great deal. Some people want to define "rape" as unwanted sex. But if rape is unwanted sex, then there is significantly more rape than we thought. We shall have to view many husbands, fiancés, and boyfriends as rapists. We face a trilemma. Either (1) we reserve the term "rape" for forcible, nonconsensual, or coerced sexual intercourse (I have argued for the latter conception in my 1999 essay, "A Theory of Rape") or (2) we commit ourselves to viewing many husbands, fiancés, and boyfriends as rapists or (3) we change our view about how wrong rape is (and presumably how seriously it ought to be punished).


We face the same tripartite choice with respect to lying. Either (1) we reserve the term "lie" for falsehoods told with intent to deceive or (2) we commit ourselves to saying that lying is pervasive or (3) we change our view about how wrong lying is (and presumably how much censure liars deserve). I myself prefer choice 1. If we inflate the meaning of "lie" so that it encompasses all misrepresentations, or all but negligent misrepresentations, as appears to be happening, we shall have to coin a new word - eventually -- for that subset of misrepresentations in which the utterer intends to deceive one or more others. But that will take us back to where we were. Why not stay where we are rather than follow this circuitous path? Let us deflate the inflated concept. Let us reserve "lie" for a falsehood told with intent to deceive.


Being Fair to Those We Accuse


What is the proper evidentiary standard for an accusation of lying? How much evidence does one need? I hope it will be agreed that calling someone a liar -- a deceiver -- is a serious charge. Calling the president of the United States a liar is, I should think, grave business, and should therefore be reserved for clear cases. But this means that both the belief that the utterance is false and the intention thereby to deceive must be clear, not merely suspected, hypothesized, or hoped for. How does one know that the utterer of a falsehood believes that it is false and intends thereby to deceive? Let us not be skeptical about the existence of other minds or about the possibility of ascertaining mental states. These are philosophers' puzzles -- appropriate in the classroom but absurdly out of place in the courtroom and on the street. As I said, prosecutors prove mental states such as purposiveness and knowledge every day, in every criminal court in the land. If they could not, nobody would ever be convicted, much less punished.


Those who say that President Bush lied should be specific not only about the nature of the falsehood but about the evidence for his deceitfulness. Both the objective and the subjective components of lying must be established. It is not enough that the falsehood work to the president's advantage. That may be relevant to whether he lied (it may supply a motive), but it is far from sufficient. Not everything good that happens to a person is the product of a plan, after all. I am not suggesting that the evidentiary standard should be "beyond a reasonable doubt," for that reflects the high value our society places on individual liberty. Better that ten guilty people be acquitted, we say, than that one innocent person be convicted. Nobody (to my knowledge) is trying to put the president in prison. But it seems equally clear to me that the civil standard of "proof by a preponderance of the evidence" ­is inadequate. Shouldn't the president of the United States be given the benefit of the doubt? Isn't the president entitled to a thumb, if not a whole hand, on the evidentiary scale?


If you scoff at this -- if you have a hard time giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt -- ask yourself whether you would want your own favored president (Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean) to have it. Shouldn't there be a presumption that the duly elected president of the United States -- someone, presumably, who wishes to be reelected and who cares about his or her legacy -- is not lying? Isn't there a powerful incentive for a president to refrain from lying, given the high cost of being caught? Shouldn't the person who alleges lying, therefore, be made to adduce clear and convincing evidence of deceitfulness, including, at a minimum, an outline of the alleged liar's plan? That hardly seems an unreasonable requirement.




I hereby call for (because I cannot myself issue) a moratorium on accusations of lying. Let's all take a deep breath and count to ten. A moratorium would give us a chance to reflect on, and perhaps even to discuss, what we are saying and doing. Reflection is always a good thing, both intrinsically (because of what it is) and extrinsically (because of what it leads to). One of the good things reflection leads to is civility, of which there is currently a depressing dearth.


Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington.


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