Moral Deceptionists hold that in addition to making an untruthful statement with an intention to deceive, lying requires the violation of a moral right of another, or the moral wronging of another.
According to Chisholm and Feehan, every lie is a violation of the right of a hearer, since “It is assumed that, if a person x asserts a proposition p to another person y, then y has the right to expect that x himself believes p. And it is assumed that x knows, or at least that he ought to know, that, if he asserts p to y, while believing himself that p is not true, then he violates this right of y’s” (Chisholm and Feehan 1977, 153, [variables have been changed for uniformity]). Nevertheless, it is not part of their definition of lying that lying involves the violation of the right of another person. According to most philosophers, the claim that lying is (either defeasibly or non-defeasibly) morally wrong is “a synthetic judgment and not an analytic one” (Kemp and Sullivan 1993, 153). However, ‘lie’ is considered by some philosophers to be a thick ethical term that it both describes a type of action and morally evaluates that type of action negatively (Williams 1985, 140). For some philosophers, “the wrongfulness of lying is… built into the definition of the term” (Kemp and Sullivan 1993, 153). For these philosophers, the claim that lying is (either defeasibly or non-defeasibly) morally wrong is a tautology (Margolis 1962).
According to Hugo Grotius, it is part of the meaning of ‘lie’ when it is “strictly taken” that it involves “the Violation of a Real right” of the person lied to, namely, “the Freedom of him… to judge” (Grotius 2005, 1212). One can only lie to someone who possesses this right to exercise liberty of judgment. Grotius’s definition of lying is therefore as follows (modified accordingly):
- (L10)To lie =df to make a believed-false statement to another person, with the intention that that other person believe that statement to be true (or believe that the statement is believed to be true, or both), violating that person’s right to exercise liberty of judgment. (Grotius 2005)
According to L10, one cannot lie to “Children or Madmen,” for example, since they lack the right of liberty of judgment (Grotius 2005, 1212). One cannot lie to someone who has given “express Consent” to be told untruths, since he has given up the right to exercise his liberty of judgment about these matters (Grotius 2005, 1214). One cannot lie to someone who by “tacit Consent” or presumed consent “founded upon just Reason” has given up the right to exercise his liberty of judgment about some matter, “on account of the Advantage, that he shall get by it,” such as when “a Person… comforts his sick Friend, by making him believe what is false,” since “no Wrong is done to him that is willing” (Grotius 2005, 1215–1217). Furthermore, “he who has an absolute Right over all the Rights of another,” is not lying when he “makes use of that Right, in telling something false, either for his particular Advantage, or for the publick Good” (Grotius 2005, 1216–1218). The right to exercise one’s liberty of judgment can also be taken away in cases “When the life of an innocent Person, or something equal to it,” is at stake, or when “the Execution of a dishonest Act be otherwise prevented” (Grotius 2005, 1221). In such a case, the person has forfeited his right, and “speaking falsely to those—like thieves—to whom truthfulness is not owed cannot be called lying” (Bok 1978, 14).
Alan Donagan also incorporates moral conditions into his definition of lying (modified to include cases in which speakers only intend to deceive about their beliefs):
- (L11)To lie =df to freely make a believed-false statement to another fully responsible and rational person, with the intention that that other person believe that statement to be true [or the intention that that other person believe that that statement is believed to be true, or both]. (Donagan 1977)
According to L11, it is not possible to lie to “children, madmen, or those whose minds have been impaired by age or illness” (Donagan 1977, 89), since they are not fully responsible and rational persons. It is also not possible to lie to “a would-be murderer who threatens your life if you will not tell him where his quarry has gone” (Donagan 1977, 89), and in general when you are acting under duress in any way (such as a witness in fear of his life on the witness stand, or a victim being robbed by a thief), since statements made in such circumstances are not freely made.
It has been objected that these moral deceptionist definitions are unduly narrow and restrictive (Bok 1978). Surely, for example, it is possible to lie to a would-be murderer, whether it is impermissible, as some absolutist deontologists maintain (Augustine 1952; Aquinas 1972 (cf. MacIntyre 1995b); Kant 1996 (cf. Mahon 2006); Newman 1880; Geach 1977; Betz 1985; Pruss 1999; Tollefsen 2014), or permissible (i.e., either optional or obligatory), as consequentialists and moderate deontologists maintain (Constant 1964; Mill 1863; Sidgwick 1981; Bok 1978; MacIntyre 1995a; cf. Kagan 1998).
It has also been objected that these moral deceptionist definitions are morally lax (Kemp and Sullivan 1993, 158–9). By rendering certain deceptive untruthful statements to others as non-lies, they make it permissible to act in a way that would otherwise be open to moral censure. In general, even those philosophers who hold that all lies have an inherent negative weight, albeit such that it can be overridden, and hence, who hold that lying is defeasibly morally wrong, do not incorporate moral necessary conditions into their definitions of lying (Bok 1978; Kupfer 1982; cf. Wiles 1988).