Blatant lies are the best kind!

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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.