Legal Opining: Lying versus Truthful Misleading

Though both are reprehensible, in my opinion, there are pragmatic instances in which lying is worse than truthful misleading. These are hinted in vernacular distinctions made between “lies” and “white lies.” In the dictionary definition, “white lies” are given to be “harmless.” 

In that “lies” as the broader set is inclusive of “harmful” AND “harmless” lies, the subset of harmless lies would be, categorically, less detrimental. Apart from the logic, this is reflected in the colloquial understanding that a “lie” worse than a “white lie.” 

Naively, ‘lying is saying something with the intention of deceiving (i.e., getting someone else to believe it is true).’ Saul offers the refinement that, ‘lying is saying something you believe is false in a context where the truth is the norm (a warranting context).’ 

‘Truthful misleading’ is characterized as (a) making a statement that is true but exclusive of qualifying information. ‘Truthful misleading’ is thus in the camp of ‘white lies.’ 

Robichaud points out the naive understanding that (b) ‘if you must deceive, it is better to mislead someone with the truth than to deceive them with a lie.’ 

The case can be made that (a) is acceptable while (b) is not.

Here is the argument, contextualized with a paraphrase of Robichaud’s Superman example, to wit,

Clark Kent is late to an assignment with Lois Lane because he was busy subduing a criminal across town as his alter-ego. When asked why he is late, he answers that ‘he was across town’—which is plausible to her in the context of her understanding of traffic delays and Kent’s bumbling. He does not want to divulge his identity, so he tells her only part of the truth to avoid entailing the whole truth. 

Note that Kent might also have lied completely by saying ‘I forgot.’

Pragmatics allow for considerations of options that categorical imperatives would exclude. Truthful misleading presents a balance of Kent’s and Lane’s concerns. It satisfies her question and protects his interests. It also obviates the case of his telling an outright lie.

Thus, we have an instance where truthful misleading is the better alternative to an outright lie and Robichaud affirms this as a given in the “preponderance” of superhero plotlines. This is ‘the stalwart for truth’ narrative. 

Regarding (b), Bok argues that keeping secrets is morally permissible to superheroes maintaining their identity as autonomous agents. There is also the case where Harry tells Aunt May on her deathbed that Peter (Spiderman) was fine yesterday—when he has actually perished that day—so that she may pass in peace. This is where argument (b) remains thorny, and levels the playing field between lying and truthful misleading.

Pragmatics, however, avail us of considerations in the truthful misleading edge cases where deontology fails. These are the cases where lying is worse. 

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