Comments about Steele on lying

Many people think that lying means saying something that you know to be false or something along those lines. Elliot Temple has explained that this position is wrong: lying is about misrepresenting reality rather than just being about saying something you know to be false. David Ramsay Steele has disagreed with Elliot in a couple of comments on this blog and I’m going to point out some problems with his comments.

Steele writes:

The word “lie” has a definition in English. It means asserting what you believe to be false. The piece you refer me to strikes me as muddled. If you assert what you believe to be the case, you are not lying.

One dictionary definition of lie reads:



1 a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

2 something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture:

His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one.

3 an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood.

verb (used without object), lied, ly·ing.

1 to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.

2 to express what is false; convey a false impression.

verb (used with object), lied, ly·ing.

1 to bring about or affect by lying (often used reflexively):

2 to lie oneself out of a difficulty; accustomed to lying his way out of difficulties.

The second noun definition of lie isn’t equivalent to an assertion that you believe to be false. It includes a lie by omission involves omitting information in such a way that you know people will misunderstand what you’re saying rather than making a statement that one knows to be false. Nathan Phillips, the Indian involved in the Covington high school controversy claimed he was a Vietnam era veteran and many media outlets reported that he was a Vietnam veteran. In reality Phillips became a marine in the last year of the war and probably never went to Vietnam. Phillips left out information about his military in such a way as to give the impression that he was a Vietnam veteran. This is a good example of a lie by omission. Lying by omission is common and Steele pretends that it doesn’t exist.

Steele’s position often leads to problems with saying a person is lying. For example, Bill Clinton claimed he didn’t have “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky and claimed that the term “sexual relations” didn’t include getting a blow job. Was Clinton lying by Steele’s definition or not? If Clinton was thinking about his special definition of “sexual relations” when he was making the statement then he wasn’t knowingly making a false statement, so Steele would say he wasn’t lying. But if Clinton wasn’t thinking about that definition then he wasn’t lying. And there is no way to tell the difference so Steele can’t say Clinton was lying. And any person at any time could claim he was thinking about non-standard terminology so anyone can easily avoid a claim of lying by Steele’s standards.

Steele continues:

Of course, you can’t lie to yourself (not without bringing in multiple personality disorder, which I think is a myth).

Elliot explains what lying to yourself means in the essay:

Lying has to do with pretending, misrepresenting or faking. You can do those things with yourself or others. If you know something is false, and you say it, that’s lying. And if you choose not to consider whether it’s true or false, and then hide your ignorance (from yourself or others), then you’re pretending to have a more reality-based approach to life than you do, and lying about that when you falsely present yourself as knowing more than you do.

Steele ignored this explanation of Elliot’s position. Lying to yourself in this view doesn’t require multiple personalities. It requires that you deliberately or negligently misrepresent reality. Doing that with your own beliefs just requires that you decide not to pay attention to problems with your beliefs. This does require having inconsistent ideas but there is nothing particularly surprising about that because comparing ideas for inconsistency isn’t automatic: it requires some effort. Steele either didn’t read the essay closely or he did read it and decided not to engage with the argument. In either case he is trying to give a misleading impression about the lying article being stupid: he is lying.

In another comment, Steele writes:

Lying to oneself is not possible, because to lie is to deliberately mis-state what one believes to be the facts, in order to mislead. How can anyone say to themselves “The moon is made of green cheese. I know it is not, and so therefore you do too, but I am going to deceive you, that is myself, by saying it to you (myself).”

That isn’t how people lie to themselves as Elliot pointed this out in his lying essay:

People lie to themselves because they don’t like some aspect of reality and don’t want to face it. They see a problem, and don’t expect to solve it, and don’t want to live with an unsolved problem.

This sort of behaviour is common: let’s consider a realistic example of a person lying to himself. Jim has recently noticed that one of his testicles is larger than it used to be. Jim thinks he might be ill and there are multiple possible causes, including testicular cancer. He’s in the process of moving for a new job so he thinks he doesn’t have time to go to the doctor and possibly end up getting surgery or chemotherapy. Instead of facing up to this issue he decides to ignore the change in his testicle and hope it goes away. He’s lying to himself about the fact that he’s ill and that it might be a serious problem. Has Steele never come across examples like this?

In an earlier comment I wrote:

Psychiatrists’ position is that mental illness legitimises involuntary commitment. That claim is commonly accepted as the basis for involuntary commitment. Accepting that this is the way people commonly talk about this issue doesn’t require accepting that their framing of the issue is correct, but stating psychiatrists’ position accurately requires stating their position in that way. Szasz is stating his opponents’ position to refute it, not accepting their framing of the issue.

Szasz states their position is a lie as illustrated by the quotes I gave in the post. It would be odd for Szasz to say that psychiatrists’ position is a lie if he accepts part of it.

Steele replied:

Well, saying someone’s position is a “lie” involves the claim that they don’t believe it. I think it’s a stretch to say that all psychiatrists are insisting on claims they secretly believe to be false. I think some of them do believe what they say, in which case they are not lying.

Steele’s position depends on the tenability of his view of lying and it isn’t tenable. Szasz and many others have criticised psychiatry as coercive and pseudoscientific. It also doesn’t take much thought to see that if a person is behaving oddly that doesn’t imply that he’s ill. So the idea that psychiatrists don’t know their profession has a lot of flaws doesn’t hold water now and didn’t hold water even before Szasz came along. The only way Steele can claim psychiatrists aren’t liars is to adopt a restrictive definition of lying and ignore counterarguments. Trying to get away with a claim that can be refuted by looking up a dictionary definition using a search engine is at best negligently giving a false impression: it is a lie. By that standard Steele is lying.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

One Response to Comments about Steele on lying

  1. Clark says:

    lying to oneself can extend to organizations. i work for a well-known technology firm, and the amount of purposeful, selective exchange is astounding. the catholic faith has the notion of a sin of omission, and i am consistently astounded by how this kind of dishonesty is manifest in the premeditated en masse delusion that takes place in my company. whole teams of people participate to “manage” messages to such a point as to avoid confronting and solving problems, let alone doing the right things right. i do try to speak up, but doing so is not appreciated. I guess people would prefer the cancer …

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