Mala: But then why do people get so indignant about blatant lies?
Noa: You mean, indignant when others call out blatant lies? I see more of that, though they often accuse the person calling out the lie of being unduly harsh.
Mala: Sure, but you can’t deny—you’ve seen yourself—that people actually do get more indignant when they say that, than when they’re pointing out a subtle pattern of motivated reasoning. How do you explain that, if “blatant lie” isn’t a stronger accusation?
Noa: I think I see the problem. A stronger accusation can mean an accusation of greater wrongdoing, or it can mean a better-founded accusation. Blatant lying is … well … blatant! If someone pretends not to see that, that’s terrible news about their ability or willingness to help detect deception.
Mala: But then the indignation is misplaced. Suppose Jer is talking with Horaha, trying to persuade him that their mutual acquaintance Narmer is behaving deceptively. Jer indignantly points out a blatant lie Narmer told. The proper target of the extra indignation due to blatancy is Horaha, not Narmer.
Noa: Who said otherwise?
Mala: Come on, you know that people get extra-indignant at the liar about blatant lies, despite your so far unsubstantiated claim that they are the best kind.
Noa: Sure, people make that mistake. People also yell at their friends because a stranger was mean to them earlier in the day or because they stubbed their toe. I never claimed—OK, it’s helpful of you to point out that people make this mistake, but still, there is a good reason for indignation here, and understanding its proper target might help us avoid this kind of slippage.
Mala: So, why is blatant lying the best kind? Is it because it’s purer somehow?
Olga: Hold on, you two, you’ve skipped over something.
Noa: What’s that?
Olga: Sometimes Horaha and Narmer are the same person—sometimes the liar is the person we’re trying to point out the lie to. Let’s call the liar in the composite situation Menes.
Jer might be uncertain about Menes’s true intentions. Menes might have an unexamined tendency to lie about something, but might—if this is drawn to his attention—reflect on what’s going on, and what he’s trying to accomplish.
When Menes says something to Jer—for instance, that everybody knows we don’t have true freedom of speech—Jer might want to point Menes’s attention to the fact that he just said something that he already knows not to be true.
Mala: So, if it’s meant to be helpful, why the anger?
Olga: Part of how we ask for more attention is by expressing excitement—and excitement about wrongness can easily turn out like indignation. If Menes treats this as an important problem, halts, melts, and catches fire—then Jer can treat him as a basically friendly collaborator with intent to inform on a level he can reach, even if some surface-level behavior lied. But if Menes digs in and fights a rearguard action against the truth, then Jer has to process the new information: that Menes is behaving like an adversary even after his attention’s been drawn to that fact. At this point, Jer really should be more angry at Menes (and expressing this anger makes some sense if Jer still has some hope that Menes can be reached).
Mala: I think I get it. But it still seems like you’re saying that blatant lying reflects unusually bad intent, not unusually good intent, as far as deception goes.
Noa: Olga’s been assuming agreement on something I think you’re still missing.
Mala: And what’s that? It’s rude and condescending to keep talking around this instead of just telling me what you think I’m missing. Do you want to feel special because I’m clueless, or do you want to clue me in?
Noa: I was going to—never mind, I’ll just tell you now. You know about simulacrum levels?
Mala: Vaguely, though I keep losing track of the distinctions between the higher levels, and I wish there were better names for them.
Noa: Me too, but maybe this will help. Telling the truth as best you can is simulacrum level 1 - speech is nothing but sharing information. Telling an outright lie is simulacrum level 2 behavior—there’s a clean distinction within the mind of the liar between the process of understanding what’s going on, and the process of trying to control others’ beliefs about what’s going on. The more blatant the lie, the less it raises the intersubjective simulacrum level—the simulacrum level conversations happen at. If you can say, “oops, that was a lie,” and then step back and try to repair things from the root, then you’re at least not confusing other people about what good thinking looks like.
Mala: What do the higher simulacrum levels look like here?
Noa: Motivated reasoning is level 3. You’re trying to persuade yourself that the desired state is true, in the usually unconscious hope that this will make it true. Nietzsche said something about this, I think, comparing it to bowling.
Olga: Some people throw a bit of their personality after their bad arguments, as if that might straighten their paths and turn them into right and good arguments-just as a man in a bowling alley, after he has let go of the ball, still tries to direct it with gestures.
Noa: Yes, that’s the aphorism I was thinking of.
Mala: And what about lying, and then consciously offering the most persuasive arguments you can for it?
Noa: Then the inside of the liar’s mind is still an uncorrupted simulacrum level 2.
Mala: Funny calling that uncorrupted.
Noa: Well, simulacrum level 3 is worse! If they’re successful in defending the lie, they’re also confusing other people about what reasoning looks like. If people’s idea of argument is based on the kind of point-scoring that happens in a competitive debate or a courtroom, and they model their thinking and discourse after this, then they’re learning simulacrum level 3 thought patterns, trying to make a thing true by arguing for it, instead of using arguments to try to find out what’s true.
Olga: What about breaking on the floor?
Noa: Debate societies that really laud and encourage changing your mind are beautiful but rare exceptions.
Mala: And level four?
Noa: That’s when arguments are just acts, people don’t bother trying to make their arguments actually persuasive to an honest evaluator, they’re just performing the behavior “having arguments for your point of view” as the kind of thing that makes their side seem more respectable and impressive to someone who isn’t paying attention. Harry G. Frankfurt’s monograph On Bullshit is the classic treatment of this.
Mala: But isn’t blatant lying still especially bad because it makes people think lies are okay, while subtle lying might not discourage honest truth-tellers as much? At least the clueless ones.
Noa: There’s not actually a norm against lying. There’s a norm against allowing people to notice that someone is lying. Depending on the power dynamics of the situation, the blame can fall on the liar, or on the person calling them out.
Honest truth-telling is being protected in the short run by this kind of behavior—but only by exploiting honest truth-tellers for the benefit of people at higher simulacrum levels. It’s a conspiracy of silence. Hypocrisy may, as La Rochefoucauld said, be the tribute vice pays to virtue, but it’s paid in a currency that’s only valuable to vice—lip service and empty statements of affiliation.
We all agree that it’s upsetting when it seems as though someone’s lying, but sometimes for exactly opposite reasons. Some people object to the lie, but others are participating in blame games. Simulacrum level 3 players are unhappy that their fantasy that we’re cooperating is being disrupted. Simulacrum level 4 players are just piling on the current target of the mob, in order not to stick out—or directing the mob at one of their enemies.
Mala: I can see why this was hard for me to understand—it sounds hopeless and awful.
Noa: I don’t have any systematic solution, but the first step is always to discuss the problem.
Olga: Actually, this is immediately usable for self-defense. If you want to understand whether someone’s trying to deceive you, one thing to look for is how indignant they get when their honor is questioned. If they get angry instead of curious, that’s a bad sign. If they get angrier the more someone tries to explain—at least, if it’s an honest explanation—that’s a very bad sign.
On the other hand, if they try hard to be pinned down, to expose potential flaws in their position—if they actually change their behavior when called out, and try to reward their critics—that’s golden. Though of course there are fake versions of all of these.
Mala: How do I tell the difference?
Olga: There’s no special trick to it; any special trick could be faked. You just have to do it the old-fashioned way. Pay attention to what they’re actually saying and doing and see if you can make sense of it. See if their stated beliefs are the best explanation for their behavior. Pay attention to your anticipations—not whether you can defend their behavior, but whether it actually seems to make you less confused about what’s going on.
Noa: Or less confused about whether you’re confused.
Olga: No need to go all Socrates on us.