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Hi Chris,

I wrote some reflections on this a while back when I was reading some passages in the Bible where people are praised for their clever deception.

My own view is that, from a Christian perspective, lying is analogous to violence (in the modern sense of deadly force, not in the medieval sense of unjust wrong). So, when trying to overcome an enemy, you want your enemy to believe something that is false, in order to beat him in the war. So you try to get him to think your army is somewhere else, or that your spies are really merchants, etc. You are compelling him to believe something he does not want to believe, just as force is used to compel him to do something he does not want to do.

So, from a Christian perspective, this cannot be justified, except in the case of love and justice. Lying to save your own skin when you've done something wrong is not justified. Lying to save someone's life by pulling the wool over the eyes of an evil man might be - in the same sense that pinning an evil man to the ground (or heck, shooting him) to save someone eles' life would be.

I recall reading an old booklet while waiting in a church one day which condemned acting, as the entire profession is based on lying -- granted, lying that is known as such, but lying nonetheless. It was, I believe, an Agent-focused argument; acting consistently *against* the virtue of honesty, even in an accepted case, was believed to be damaging to ones soul, and going to somewhere to be consistently lied to was much the same.

I think the analogy between lying and violence is quite appropriate, in the sense that the extension of one's will onto the world beyond oneself is a) not really divisible into compartments or 'classes' of action; and b) the essence of the 'output' part of one's relationship with the rest of the world.
So if lying, as a form of information delivery, itself a form of 'output', can be unbound from special specific rules of behaviour, I would look on it as a flavour of one's 'effect'. Then the general attitude one has to those that one effects applies to lying, i.e. the form may change, but the attitude (one's ethical bent) governs.
My point is that if one draws one's ethical attitude to one behavioural effect from one source, it would be hypocritical to change the source for another effect. For example, if a Buddhist never lies because his religion forbids it, but never beats his mule because of compassion (and not because his religion forbade it), I would see that as hypocritical.
I'm sure I could find a more striking example, but wanted to use a slightly 'grey' one. Also, I'm not prejudging hypocrisy. I haven't gone back to the earlier posts where this was talked about, but I do believe it has some uses. I just see the ethical position I've described as logically inconsistent, and thus slightly hypocritical.

For my part, I'm still quite utilitarian, with a reciprocal edge that I call my 'honour'. If I need to lie, cheat, fight, give charity or give my life for others, I'll do them all as necessary. But this is informed by my appreciation for the quality and 'deservingness' of others - I would never ever lie to my sensei, though it might save face or physical hardship, because his honour is so great. I would almost never hit a woman (she'd have to be massive, and hard as nails!), though it might the most utilitarian course if, for instance, she'd lost all self-control in an argument.

It strikes me that the study of ethics is a most impractical one, for it is rare that the logic discussed is ever carried by anyone in comfortable harness with their emotional predispositions, at least in the day to day (away from the desk). Mostly, we are slaves to the 'zombie in the brain'.

Thanks for the comments! I'm running out of time this morning, but I wanted to respond to a few things zenBen brings up...

"My point is that if one draws one's ethical attitude to one behavioural effect from one source, it would be hypocritical to change the source for another effect."

I don't understand this. Suppose you are a virtue ethicist. You have certain values that you respect. Why should your behaviour in one field not be mediated by one value, and your behaviour in another by a different value?

For instance, is this not the case for any scientist? They value 'truth' (or honesty) in their own field - science - but they do not necessarily draw their ethics in other areas of their life from this same value. Why should the scientist value truth in their research and compassion in their human interactions, for instance?

"For example, if a Buddhist never lies because his religion forbids it, but never beats his mule because of compassion (and not because his religion forbade it), I would see that as hypocritical."

It would be a mistake to presume that a Buddhist never lies because it is forbidden. It would be fairer to say, a Buddhist makes a commitment to "right speech" and this commitment discourages them from lying. All this comes from the same source; their commitment to following the Buddhist path.

But supposing we have a more deontological situation with some actions forbidden and some encouraged - such as a classical interpretation of Christianity. Why would this not be a perfectly legitimate system of ethics? Why in your view must ethics always come for an atomic source? That seems to says much more about your metaphysics than it does about ethics as a field. :)

"It strikes me that the study of ethics is a most impractical one, for it is rare that the logic discussed is ever carried by anyone in comfortable harness with their emotional predispositions..."

This is Hume's argument that 'reason is a slave to the passions', I suppose. But I don't think ethics is an impractical study simply because emotions have such influence on behaviour.

As for how rare it is that people live within their own ethical system... well I can't speak for you Utilitarians, but a large number of people who practice a religion (the majority, I would suggest) spend most of their time behaving well within the bounds of their own ethical system - at least as they understand it. That there are also a number of people who don't doesn't seem to be an argument against ethics, but rather a chastisement of those incapable of following their own ethics. :)

Furthermore, if we did not discuss ethics at all, how would we form an opinion on how to behave in these situations at all? In the absence of any kind of ethical discussion, where would we be left?

Out of time, alas! Best wishes!

zenBen, Chris: I do seem to understand that you guys tend to focus on ethical questions facing the *individual* - but given your exchange above let me just interject once more with the remark that not only the practice but also the theory of ethics in and by itself do have a social (or more precisely an inter-subjective) dimension (which dominates in my view) - but this view must not simply be reduced to consequentialism, because I do think that human consciousness in itself is *not* easily isolated from the context it lives (and was raised) in.

Every ethical aspect we discussed so far becomes a lot more tangible when discussed either in a concrete human/social context or maybe more importantly when the concept of *institution* is introduced into the debate - an institution being informally defined as an organization creted by a number of humans specifically for the purpose of making ethical or political concepts (among others) persistent and "trans-personal".

Do I lie? Yes, if I think that on balance it will further my own goals.

Is it "permissible" for me to lie? Chris, you've not yet grounded "permissible". I don't feel I need society's permission for any action I take*, so my answer is probably "yes".

Can you lie to me? Yes.

Do you lie to me? I have to assume that you might, or I get into some very dangerous areas, such as trusting everything I'm told.

* Although I may wish to review the likely consequences!

translucy: I was going to add a comment to this effect this morning. :) I'm talking about personal ethics, because that's the root of ethics, but I talk about ethics in order to later talk about politics, and in between is the transition from personal ethics to social ethics. Ethical systems become reinforced when they are practiced in groups - it is a lot easier to be ethical when you live around other people who share similar systems of ethics. This is one of the reasons why religion still serves a valuable role - Einstein was only too aware of this, but recently the message has been somewhat brushed under the carpet. In Japan, the people are so socialised that they have the opposite problem to the West - not overemphasis on the individual but overemphasis on duty to society i.e. an overemphasis on ethics. It's a wonderfully varied world we live in!

Peter: You're correct that I haven't yet grounded "permissible"; neither am I likely to do so. Each person has their own system of ethics; this is the yardstick against which I meant for 'permissible' to be applied.

Are you an egoist? Or some form of Consequentialist? Or somewhere in between? I'm not yet certain, but it's looking like many forms of Consequentialism are equivalent to egoism anyway... Looking forward to exploring this issue in the near future.

Either way, if your system is to permit lying (which arguably is the "natural" state of affairs), what ensures that there is sufficient trust for people to be able to make agreements with one another? Do you distinguish promising from lying, if not, what can your promise possibly mean? Do you distinguish perjury from lying, or is it acceptable to lie under oath to further your own ends? Is it acceptable for a scientist to lie? To falsify data? Where does your permission to lie end? What, if anything, acts as a counterweight against your permission to lie?

Hope all is well with you!

"what ensures that there is sufficient trust for people to be able to make agreements with one another?"

The threat of reprisal from the other person (or some larger social organisation, which you seem to lump under "politics"), or humanity's apparent habit of thinking well of each other by default.

"Do you distinguish promising from lying, if not, what can your promise possibly mean?"

Internally, I distinguish my promises - but that's for me to do. Can you distinguish me promising something to you from me lying to you? Can I distinguish you promising something to me from you lying to me? Those depend on the communication, surely?

"What, if anything, acts as a counterweight against your permission to lie?"

Social exclusion, death or injury. Habitual liars have to keep moving or their name gets around.

I guess I can summarise as "My permission to lie ends wherever some other person or people elect to stop it, by whatever means they end up using." Similarly, your permission to lie to me ends wherever I elect to stop it. As we all espouse (subtly or radically) different systems of ethics, anything else runs counter to the facts, no?

Chris: currently, I am not convinced that either you or anyone else can differentiate between "personal" and "social" in the strict way you seem to suggest, again my point is that any "self" you or I are able to find out about, talk to, etc. is *situated* in "context", "environment", "physical processes", call it whatever you want ;-)

Likewise, I wonder how you, Peter, find out whether you are in the process of lying or in the process of promising something to someone. Also the process of finding out if someones has lied or not (retrospective only?!) warrants a closer look - surely the basis of any subsequent decision to "stop it".

Peter: "Can you distinguish me promising something to you from me lying to you?"

Since I consider promising to be a different kind of act from speaking, I can indeed tell these things apart. What I cannot distinguish is you making a genuine promise and you making a false promise. The latter may be related to lying, but it is quite a different kind of speech act from a lie to me. My question really becomes: do you make false promises? I may lie for various reasons, but I do not make false promises. In fact, in order to avoid making false promises I avoid making promises at all, and only make them when I feel certain of my ability to hold true to them.

On the subject of your permission to lie, it seems you require that people take action to clear the playing field of lying. This seems to be equivalent to saying you have naturally low degrees of trust. I approach people from the converse angle, and predicate trust - with the sure knowledge I will sometimes be in error, of course.

Since, as you say, we all have different systems of ethics, it is true that we must feel out the boundaries of each other's ethical systems - but I do not believe this necessarily requires the establishment of "lying boundaries" in the manner advocated by you, since many people I meet have ethical systems which I can count upon to have already eliminated or restricted lying.

Your system seems workable, but makes the acquisition of trust a lot more work than I feel is strictly necessary. Social interactions are draining enough on me without all this extra boundary work. :)

Best wishes!

translucy: "I am not convinced that either you or anyone else can differentiate between 'personal' and 'social' in the strict way you seem to suggest"

On the contrary, I can make this differentiation with the greatest of ease, and yet still acknowledge that my notion of the personal only exists relative to the social environment that sustains that notion of self. It's all about where you place definitions, as ever. I can take someone out of their social context and interview them and uncover their ethical system - I will call this their personal ethical system, by simply ignorning the contribution of the social ethical systems which undoubtedly are deeply entangled within it. Still, since I may communicate with an individual, I find it easy to call the ethical system they espouse their personal ethical system. If I interview many people from the same social background, I begin to see the social ethical system. That these systems are interelated in no way invalidates the meaningfulness of a personal ethical system to me - even though its demarcation is essentially arbitrary.

As long as I can distinguish an individual from a group, and as long as a I can communicate with an individual, I can separate personal from social. I simply ignore the social in order to focus on the information from a single source.

So much observation comes down to what we choose to set aside.

Take care!

translucy - I agree entirely that finding out whether someone has lied is retrospective and warrants a closer look. It may be subjective.

Chris - I have naturally *no* degrees of trust. It's one of the things that tends to leave you when you're bullied and have to watch your back every day at school, and I've never really regained it. Programming for a living merely reinforces the belief that the world is complex and full of messy corner cases, and that the simple warm fluffy world in which most people choose to live is a delusion - as plenty of people find when some aspect of the complex world bites them.

Peter: all the worlds are somewhat delusional, from the fluffy world to the world of doom and Cthulhu. :) It's a shame that your experiences at school have stripped you of your trust. I too was bullied at school, yet somehow I have pulled through. To presume distrust is to make relationships an uphill battle, surely? I prefer my "Tit for Tat" system which presumes trust and therefore includes a willingness to be bitten by mistakes as a cost of action. I have found this an enormous asset in dealing with the world.

The idea that professional programming conditions one for a kind of social dystopia by revealing complexity and "messy corner cases" strikes me as odd. Are you sure you didn't naturally have this perspective, and that it therefore made programming a complementary skill? I did not need to learn to program to come to terms with the complexity of the world, and the natural imperfections in our interpretations of that world reflect the influence of chaotic factors beyond our ability to anticipate. For me, this is liberating. For you, it sounds more imprisoning.

I find all this hard to square with someone who founded and kept alive the most vibrant community centre in my University years - namely UglyMUG. That it was virtual is incidental. Did you project your idealism into this virtual space because you found no room for it in the 'real' world?

Sincere best wishes!

"Are you sure you didn't naturally have this perspective, and that it therefore made programming a complementary skill?"

I'm reasonably sure I *did* naturally have this perspective, and programming keeps reinforcing it.

"Did you project your idealism into this virtual space because you found no room for it in the 'real' world?"

Good question. Did I project "idealism" or something else into it, though? And are my recollections of university and the early years of UglyMUG coloured by the later years of repeated episodes of depression? Probably, so I may have inaccurate recollections of what/why I did things!

Virtual worlds are interesting beasts - they have very different social and power structures allow people to experiment with who they are and how they interact with one another in a relatively risk-free way. Some people become more extreme (the early teen PvPers we have in my WoW guild spring to mind). Others flip to different ways of working.

In the real world, I'm just another person. A subject, to be robbed or shot at on Manchester's streets, arrested by Her Majesty's Police and incarcerated without charge for a period... I'm at the bottom of the heap. Other people can and do prey on me daily - and I can prey on them if I choose.

In a virtual world, death is nonexistent (UglyMUG) or inconvenient (WoW); the social structures are much looser; preying on other players can often be avoided (non-PvP servers in WoW, for example). There's no police force other than the GMs, and I can generally control when I'm going to get robbed, shot at or imprisoned. In that environment, it's possible to be more open and trusting; the consequences are rarely painful, let alone fatal. Why shouldn't I behave differently in an environment with different rules? That the world is virtual is not in any way incidental; it is at the core of the difference.

And yet, in the real world, you trusted me enough to allow me access to your file systems, which enabled me to run Discordia Incorporated for several years. So even if the virtual reality gave you a new world in which to explore being trusting, I still claim you brought some of that back into the real world. ;)

Best wishes!

I'd agree with that, yes.

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