Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lying, part 2

In Lying, part 1, I assumed it was one party's goal to communicate the truth, and the other party's goal to receive it. Today I want to consider the scenario where the second party still wants the truth but the first party doesn't want to give it to them. In this case the first party might justifiably lie to protect its private information.

Many people will probably agree that we have a right to try to keep certain things private. If I were secretly a Justin Beiber fan, I might not want to admit that...and why should I have to? You aren't entitled to know.

Of course, you could ask me, "Are you a closet Justin Beiber fan?" The act of asking still doesn't entitle you to know, but what are my options now? I can say yes or no...or of course I can decline to answer. And while you might be tempted to think that I can protect my private information by simply refusing to answer questions -- a fine-sounding claim in a vacuum, perhaps -- the fact is, we don't live in a vacuum. If lying isn't allowed, I can either say yes or nothing...but unfortunately both of those really mean yes here, don't they? Because in this world, people don't decline to answer that question when the answer is no...they just say no. In our equilibrium, silence speaks as loud as any affirmation. It communicates information that I might not want to communicate, and if it's my right to not communicate it, shouldn't I be allowed to say no?

Here is how I think about it: We say some words, okay. But rather than immediately analyzing those words for literal truth-value and accepting or rejecting them based on that, why not follow along with what actually happens to them in the real world? In the real world, these words are passed to the recipient as signals, who then interprets their actual meaning based on what tends to be true whenever people send such signals. In a peer group where some fraction of people are secretly Justin Beiber fans but no one wants to admit it, the question is posed: "Are you a Justin Beiber fan?" In this world, the actual meaning of silence is not "yes or no," it's "yes." And while we're at it, the actual meaning of "no" is not "no," it's "yes or no"! That's what the words mean when that's what everyone uses them to mean. There is reality -- the actual meaning -- and then there is our map of it, complete with all the handy labels we've constructed for referring to it. In this context, banning literal lies is like restricting the real-world places we're allowed to visit simply because of how they happen to be labeled on the map. It feels like a totally artificial restriction to me. It feels like it misses the point.


If we accept that words exist for the express purpose of communicating (as I argued briefly in Lying part 1), then there's no reason I shouldn't be able to wield them as necessary to communicate whatever I am justified in communicating, including nothing at all, as the case may be. In particular, I feel justified in protecting my private information. I could leave it at that, but as a sort of endnote, I'll also go into the source of this supposed justification for those who do want a closer look.

I realize this argument is not all-encompassing enough to convince everyone, but hopefully it is a good starting point for a discussion. As always, you are invited to share any concerns you may have in the comments.

Endnote: Information versus physical goods

May I suggest that we think of pieces of information in the same category as physical goods? Information has many characteristics in common with the usual goods, while other aspects are relatively uncommon or perhaps even nonexistent among physical commodities; nevertheless it does not appear to be a qualitatively different animal, and it seems that the same sort of analysis should generally apply well to it. In some contexts it is non-rival and non-excludable; other times it is neither of those things. Positive and negative externalities to ownership may abound. Marginal cost is often low, but other times prohibitively steep. People would often value information quite highly if it weren't so costly to we describe the transmission process by transaction costs, or just roll them into the value of the information itself? We don't seem to have free disposal; you can usually throw away a physical good, but it's difficult to get information out of your head once it's in there (although it does depreciate, and evolve, and turn all sorts of funny colors over time). A lot of information is like an experience good, meaning you don't necessarily know how much you will value it until the very act of consuming it...

Rest assured that the list goes on, and on some more. We will surely pay information its proper due some other time; for now, you should just get a sense that information interfaces well with the ways we think about standard goods. A piece of information has value to people and can be bought, sold, traded, or given away; it is, in an economic sense, a real thing of real value, qualitatively no different from any other sort of good. So that's the way I'm inclined to treat it.

And for that reason, it makes a lot of sense to apply the same standards to the transfer of information and physical goods.

In particular, physical good can change hands by mutual consent, but there's also such a thing as theft. Similarly, information can change hands by mutual consent, but there are also ways of intentionally taking it from an unwilling party. I view that as theft and apply the same moral standard to it. (NB: if you have never thought about it this way before, this almost certainly sounds more extreme than it actually turns out to be. At the same time, it does have many significant implications. In any case, this deserves a lot more commentary, but I'll reserve it for another time). In the context of the example above, not lying is equivalent to acquiescing to being stolen from. When someone tries to grab something from you, do you have to give it to them passively, or are you allowed to hold on?

That question does not have a "correct" answer, taken alone. But it probably has a correct answer taking your most deeply held beliefs as given. If you happen to feel one way about physical goods and another way about information, why? On a deep level, I think the concept of ownership applies equally well to physical goods as it does to private information. And if you try to apply different standards to the two, I suspect I can lead you down a path that ends in something that contradicts your more deeply held beliefs.

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