Thursday, February 06, 2014

Is Obligatory to Say and Believe False Things About Someone Because They Want You To?

I'm trying to think of a case in which the questions are at all difficult to answer...

Perhaps: if a terrible crime was committed against Smith (e.g. he was tortured horribly)? 

Of course we're not talking about simple requests that you not raise the subject, not tell anyone else about it, never mention it...  Those are all reasonable requests, I think. Nor are we talking about the request that you act as if it never happened, treat Smith as you would anyone else, etc.  

Rather, the question is something like: can Smith demand that you say--and even believe--that he was, for example, in Paris on vacation at the time when the crime occurred in, say, Iraq? 

But that's a specific, not-very-good thought experiment to try to get at the general questions. Which, again, are:

(1) Are we ever obligated to say false things about people because they want us to?
And
(2) Are we ever obligated to believe false things about people because they want us to?

(And, of course, if the answer to (1) is in the affirmative, but the answer to (2) is in the negative--which seems like a real possibility--then other problems will obviously arise...)

But perhaps the questions are really:

(1') Are we ever obligated to say false things about people because it is very important to them that we do?
and
(2) Are we ever obligated to believe false things about people because it is very important to them that we do?

I mean, everybody this side of really strict, literalistic Kantians probably thinks that it's ok to lie sometimes in order to save people great pain...  So that might give us a start here...

So maybe at least (1)/(1') are harder than I initially thought...

19 Comments:

Blogger The Mystic said...

(2) strikes me as being out of the question immediately. Is there any even reasonably interesting argument that would demonstrate an obligation to believe false things? If so, let me know, 'cause I can't fathom how that would be argued.

(1) seems to me, prima facie, obviously out of the question, but upon consideration of your thought experiment, I can feel some inkling of a "maybe".

My guess is that it cannot be morally obligatory to follow another person's desire. That strikes me as an inexcusable abdication of autonomy. However, I'm not entirely convinced it's morally impermissible to say false things about people because it is very important to them that we do. I do, however, suspect that it is along the lines of enabling/encouraging a delusion, and we almost certainly should not do such a thing.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One critical thing that is not clear from the example: Does the person needing you to speak in ways that are literally false also expect you to mislead them, that is, believe falsely? If the former, the request amounts to little more than an involved euphemism. You are just using "the time you spent in Paris" to mean "the time you spent in Iraq" in a way that is more psychologically palatable. Even an inflexible Kantian would have no trouble complying with such a request.

In the latter case, you really have to come up with a bit of SF to explain why someone capable of forming the desire that you should help them to not believe they were tortured could also be caused to not believe it by your false statements, which is what you need for a real lie.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

SF?

Right... It's not supposed to be a complicated euphemism.

Rather, they are (in one case) asking, and (in another) demanding that I say (and/or believe) that they were in Paris...hmmm...here's where this way of putting things breaks down...though I suspect the cases I'm thinking of break down too...but here goes: because they believe it is true.

It's also not supposed to be a lie, because they already, in some sense, believe it... Yeah, this is not a good thought-experiment to get at the case I want...

Better maybe:

Jones was married and then divorced, but says he wasn't...let's say because he wants to be considered a never-married bachelor (or perhaps because he's engaged again and wants that to be/be considered) his first marriage... He says: it is very important to me. I was never married before because I was never in love (or somesuch). I never really wanted to be married, so it wasn't a real marriage.

Now, he's not asking you merely to not mention the first marriage... He's not just saying that it is rude... Rather, he's saying it is false that he was married, and wrong of you to regard him as having been married, and wrong of you to say that he was, even in contexts where the truth matters.

So, it's not a euphemism, and the goal is not to bolster his own believe, because he already believes that he has never been married...

Something like that... This is more the kind of set-up I want...but I don't feel the tug of this at all as I did in the torture case...

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SF, Science Fiction, I meant.

So maybe something like this: Pascal Jones had a terrible experience in Iraq, memory of which causes him great distress. He approaches you, Winston Smith, because he knows your skill philosophy. He asks you, Smith, to convince him, Jones, that the events that trouble him never happened. You know they did happen, but you catch on quickly and respond: "But Jones, I don't need to convince you of anything false. You were never in Iraq. You were slated to go, but got a last minute discharge. The two of us went on a vacation in Paris together to celebrate, and it was the most fun either of us ever had. The last night, you had some bad absinth, and had a vivid hallucination of everything you feared might happen to you if you hadn't been discharged. I didn't know you still thought the hallucination was real; let me prove to you that we were in Paris the whole time." You then marshal falsified evidence and cunning arguments to convince Jones that his bad experience was just a dream, dissolving his former conviction and giving him peace with new, false beliefs.

Something like that?

3:02 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Dammit.

This really wasn't clear in my head. Nor on the page...

No, I'm not trying to convince him--he already believes.

He's just demanding that I believe, too.

That's why the marriage case works better...I guess because the disagreement is largely about what constitutes being the type of thing that he's saying he isn't...

That doesn't seem to work well here, because it doesn't seem plausible that Smith would think that e.g. being waterboarded wasn't being tortured...

Hmmm... Maybe if he has a Cheneyesque conception of torture...

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right, OK. I think I understand the kind of case you're going for. Jones has a false belief about the applicability of a complex, thick concept to Jones. So maybe Jones underwent waterboarding and worse, but claims that he is not a torture victim. Or Jones engaged in all kinds of messing around before getting married, but insists that he was a virgin on his wedding day. Or Jones was justly convicted of willful commission of a crime, but believes that he is not a criminal. Or Jones strongly prefers romantic and sexual relationships with other men, but sincerely believes that he is not gay.

This sort of thing is actually really common I think. Many of these thick concepts are fuzzed up with emotionally loaded sense and color that will vary a great deal from person to person. If Jones is convinced by his upbringing or whatever that being gay analytically implies moral degeneracy, he's right to insists that the concept, on his understanding, does not apply to him no matter who he's sleeping with. It seems fruitless to try to force Jones to reinterpret his understanding of the concept if he feels very strongly about it, and there's not really a leg for you to stand on in insisting that one interpretation is correct and the other is not. In this kind of situation the "false" belief is just a different understanding of concepts, and there's very little to distinguish misusing a concept from using a different one.

As to the original question, whether you should assent to Jones' beliefs, verbally and in you head: I would say yes, you should assent if its important to him, since really you're just making an effort to understand how he uses concepts and how he conceives of himself. A person does have a privileged position in understanding and interpreting his own life, to which we have an obligation to assent. That obligation can be overridden by other factors: you can assent to Jones' belief that he is not a torture victim if he feels that the status of victim is inherently undignified, but not if it means assenting to beliefs that are false where the concepts are thin and really hit the road, ie: a clinical description of what happened. Nor should you assent in a situation where you know someone else involved would be mislead, since they interpret the concept in the usual way: Don't agree that Jones is not gay in front of the woman he wants to marry him.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Right!

I mean, I'm not convinced of the conclusion, but that's exactly the kind of case I was trying to construct.

So, say that Jones thinks that he can reconstitute his virginity via prayer. He insists roughly on the following:

"I am a virgin. It is false and dehumanizing for people to say that I am not a virgin, even in contexts in which the subject legitimately comes up, and it's important to say accurate things. And, furthermore, it is false and dehumanizing to say that I wasn't a virgin and then became one again--to say that I am a 'reconstituted virgin,' or that I regained my virginity via prayer, or any such thing. I simply *am* a virgin. I'm not an unusual kind of virgin, I am just a virgin, and it is a kind of bigotry (in fact, a kind of personal attack) to say otherwise. In fact, it is a kind of bigotry to *think* otherwise. I simply am a virgin, period, full stop."

Although I have some tendency to agree that people have some authority...or...some say...or something...over how they should be represented in unclear cases, this seems like a bit much to me... Though this is not the sort of subject I think particularly well about...

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I do think there is a great deal of latitude owed to people to conceive of themselves as they wish, but that latitude has limits, especially where their self-conception is tied up with those of others. If, for example, I'm the one who had sex with Jones, then Jones' demand that I conceive of him as a virgin-without-qualification requires that I conceive of myself very differently too. For Jones to say I must mentally affirm that I was never in a sexual relationship with him or be guilty of "dehumanizing" him is much more than he has a right to. In a situation like this, Jone's behaviour reads as little more than a complicated way of being hostile.

We're sort of beating around the bush a bit here though. The apposite examples tend to be cases of transexuality and other cases where we're dealing with how people "identify". These situations can are often very, very hard, because the people on whom you have the greatest claim on fitting their conception of you to your self-conception are also those whose self-conceptions likely integrate their relations with you. Say, Jones, who as far as everyone knew conceived of himself as a man and was thought of that way by everyone in his life, announces that she is a woman, has always been a woman, and should be thought of as a woman-without-qualification. To think of her otherwise, now or in recollection, is dehumanizing, &c. If Jones to you is just a public figure, or some person on the internet, then you can swap pronouns with ease and for reasons of civility. If Jones is your good friend, are you being asked to reassess your previous opinion of him as a swell guy? If you are Jone's father, are you being asked to judge your previous chip-off-the-ol-block pride as hurtful? Are you Jones' wife?

On the internet, these discussions are often little more than excuse to find a bloody shirt to wave. IRL, this very difficult balancing would be done in the spirit of friendship, with both parties doing their best to understand one another as they would like to be understood themselves.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, it's pretty hard--off the top of your head, anyway--to come up with a thought experiment that is sufficiently unrelated to the actual target case to get at the right judgments without tipping your hand... I'll bet it could be done with some thought, but I didn't really give it much...

I'm actually torn on the case. My natural view is that everybody has the right to live their lives without interference (with the usual caveats), but that they don't have the right to demand that other people say or believe false things. Roughly, you have the right to demand that I not interfere with your actions, but not to demand that I believe whatever you want me to believe.

I also tend to think that the lefty-left tends to violate very similar principles when it tries to thought-and-language police issues like this. And when you add to it that they often try to bully people to say and believe things that are outright false... Well, not only is it going to be hard to convince me to say and believe those things, I actually think that such bullying is immoral and irrational.

If you're going to thought-police and language-police someone, you'd better make sure you're right. And the lefty left doesn't.

OTOH, if something really is painful/important to people, and it's a relatively minor issue to others (as in the Iraq/Paris case), then I think there's a decent case to be made blah blah blah...

Some of my position is probably attributable to the fact that the very first time I encountered a large-scale web-discussion of these issues was the Penny Arcade case, in which someone was being vilified as a bigot for merely having said "women have vaginas"--not in an effort to insult anyone, incidentally. And, in my view, you have to be insane to think that's a bigoted thing to say.

But that's just a psychological/historical tidbit that may or may not be relevant.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

But also, incidentally, we're not really beating around the bush when we try to test propositions/principles against other cases.

The point--and I'm not saying anything that you don't know--is to see what conclusions we draw in analogous cases with superficially different content...

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't accusing you of anything untoward. I said we were beating around the bush because trying to generate the cases with a concept like virgin wasn't sufficiently analogous. Jones' use of concept in your example is highly idiosyncratic, which really undermines the strength of his demand. In the cases we're really interested in, transexuality and similar, there are two very different concepts abroad in the land. There are substantial numbers of people who understand male in a strongly conventionalist sense, where whomever we agree to address as, think of as, and treat as male is male, full stop. There are also substantial numbers of people who understand the concept in a biological essentialist fashion, such that instances require certain chromosomal or anatomical arrangements. (And no, I don't think essentialism some kind of thought crime.) These are simply different concepts, overlapping in the vast majority of cases, but not all of them. If Jones' want me to verbally affirm that he is male, full stop, he's just asking me to use words to mean the same thing he does. If it's important to him, and he can appeal to a usage that is pretty well established, I don't see any reason not to do so. I can always use "cis-male" or something to mean the bio-essentialist concept, and be more precise for it. There is no question here of affirming falsely. And as for belief, mental judgements are not verbal acts, so this purely verbal distinction doesn't really amount to anything. If Jones' is really vehemently demanding my belief in his being male, full stop, what I guess this amounts to treating him as male without apparent misgivings. Subject to some of the self-conception worries I mentioned earlier, that request does not seem unreasonable.

For the a lot of lefty-left types, all this seems to serve as little more than a pretext for forcing people to mouth pieties under duress. To hell with those people, right? It would be a shame to let an argument have its parameters set me people who think confrontation is supposed to be valuable in its own right.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

No, no, sorry--didn't think you were accusing me of anything untoward...just making it clear that I was looking for analogous but non-identical cases for the ordinary reasons...

I don't see that essentialism really has anything to do with any of this, actually... Right, essentialism is treated as throughcrime on the far intellectual left, but God knows what they mean by it...

Also, it's only the real wackos who think that *male* is anything but a biological concept... Most of the ones I run across will admit that... Though the attempt to fictionalize/social-constructionalize everything *has* begun to consume even biology/maleness/femaleness in some quarters...

I think the use of 'male' to mean anything other than, y'know, *male*--i.e. as a strictly biological concept/term--is also extraordinarily idiosyncratic/weird and radically at odds with anything like normal usage.

It's weird enough to try to deny that 'man' and 'woman' are mostly biological terms. 'Man' means *adult male human,* 'woman' means *adult female human.* But at least with respect to those terms, there are prominent peripheral uses and shades of meaning that include "gender" (i.e. masculinity and femininity). A "real man" is something like a very masculine man, i.e. a very masculine adult male human. Like the feminists of old, I think this is a reprehensible concept...but it *is* an undeniable part of certain known uses of the terms.

You write:
"For the a lot of lefty-left types, all this seems to serve as little more than a pretext for forcing people to mouth pieties under duress. To hell with those people, right?"

I absolutely couldn't agree more, and I think that liberals tend to underappreciate what an outrage that is. And, in fact, that's part of my motive for not just saying "oh, well, I know you're asking me to say a bunch of false things, but it's no skin off my nose, so ok."

2:28 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, and: I actually think that *virgin* is a really analogous case...

5:50 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

But, incidentally, we wandered away from the question: must we say and/or think false things about people because they want us to and/or because it is important to them? And we wandered toward the other question: are we being asked to say/think false things in the case of transsexuals?

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right, question one: No, no one has the right to compel you to accept falsehoods, even if its really important to them. But, question two, that doesn't bear in the transexuality case, since really all that's being demanded of you is to understand the concept by which the person understands himself and to use some words that are important to him to mean that concept. No falsity involved. As I said, I don't think the virginity case is properly analogous, since the proposed magic virginity concept is both idiosyncratic and not well motivated. What's needed is an example where the conventionalist concept has more pull. How's this:

Jones is the product of in vitro fertilization using a sperm donor. Though aware of this fact about his origins, he considers Jones, Sr. to be his father, full stop. He conceives of the anonymous wanking medical student as a sperm donor, but not his father. He believes that the relationship of fatherhood is a social one, that the man who was married to his mother when he was born and with whom his has ties of filial and paternal love is his father, without qualification. Smith believes that fatherhood is a straightforwardly biological relationship requiring shared genetic material, &c. Smith refers to the anonymous wanking medical student as "Jones' father" and Jones, Sr. as "Jones' legal-father", or the like. This makes Jones very upset, as it seems to him that Smith is denigrating his relationship with Jones, Sr. Jones demands that Smith stop using terms the way he does, as least in relation to him. He argues that, for the many centuries in which the only way to share genetic material was with sex, the social conception and biological conception of fatherhood tracked pretty well extensionally and one could reliably use one word for both concepts, but that changing technology has pried apart extensionally concepts that were always separable in principle. Jones thinks that when senses diverge in this way, it's only appropriate to let the primary one be that preferred by the people it's being applied to. Smith replies that the biological sense of fatherhood is clearly the only right one, and that no one ever has an obligation to affirm falsely.

The key step for Smith is his claim about there only being one valid sense of fatherhood. Given that the social sense of the term is understandable, there is a substantial history and community of such use, and it's important to Jones, what can make the social sense invalid? What motive can Smith have to choose this terminological hill to die on?

12:12 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Good points, A, and a great case.

Maybe you're right right about this...

3:42 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

("Great thought-experiment case," I mean, not "great argument"--though also a very nice argument, as indicated.)

3:43 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

No, wait...correction...I'm not sure that in vitrio/father case works now... Largely because we don't have an analogously ambiguous notion of sex, nor of "gender"... No time now, more later...

6:35 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

ok, at your request, continued in the Joss Whedon comment thread above.

5:27 PM  

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