Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Can One Lie to a Dog?

A friend of mine sent me this moral query:
My dog wouldn't come down the stairs today when I called, so my daughter shouted: "We're going!" which is usually sufficient to send my dog racing down the stairs. I reprimanded my daughter because she was lying (we were not going out, and it was wrong to get my dog down the stairs under false pretenses). Then I shook the keys because my dog usually comes down upon hearing the keys. Talk about casuistry! But I was wondering whether you thought it is possible to lie to a dog, and thus whether a moral issue might be involved (assume it was only my dog and I, no other humans about).
Here is my suggestion: to deceive is to cause someone or something to have a false belief, intending so to do. Lying is one way to deceive. In lying one (a) affirms a falsehood, (b) believing it to be a falsehood, and (c) intending that someone believe it. There are other ways of deceiving: shaking one's keys at an adult human in order to get the adult human to believe the falsehood that one is going out, for example. I think that lying and deceit are always wrong.

I don't think, however, that a dog can have beliefs, and so I don't think that a dog can have false beliefs. In addition, one isn't usually affirming the proposition that one is going out when one says to a dog 'We're going out'; one is usually merely giving the dog a certain aural stimulus that will cause it to come down. Shaking of keys is likewise the mere conveying of an aural stimulus: there is usually, when talking to dogs, no intention that this have a causal effect by way of beliefs.

Having said all that, it seems to me likely that my friend's daughter (like most children and some philosophers) thinks of the dog as having beliefs, and so she was attempting (succesfully?) to lie to the dog. Therefore, my friend was right to castigate her. His own action in shaking the keys would, however, give his daughter the false impression that it was morally permissible to deceive -- as long as one didn't lie. So, while my friend's action was in itself morally permissible (since (I'm sure) he doesn't think that dogs have beliefs), it was ill advised in the circumstances. He should have told his daughter off, sent her out of earshot, and then done exactly what she did (but with different intentions).

What do others think?


Daniel Hill said...

Here is my friend's response to my post:
Your response is well articulated, but I am not on board with a couple of your presuppositions.
(1) I don't believe it is wrong to lie all the time. Take the classic case of the SS officer looking for the Jews hiding in your crawl-space. Hence, if the upstairs was on fire, I would certainly shake the keys without any qualms.
[What would you say to the following true scenario? Last summer our dog died. My daughter pointed up to the sky and said "Semi is in heaven now" (apparently meaning "Semi is up there"). I gritted my teeth and agreed -- that was not the time for theology. Was that lying? What about Van Inwagen's claim that Jesus told the thief on the cross literally false "comfort words" by telling him that he would be that day in paradise when actually the thief would cease to exist for x number of years only to be recreated at the resurrection?]

(2) I agree that animals do not have belief in terms of holding to a proposition, but I am far from confident that (some) animals might not have a rudimentary belief between total non-belief and holding a proposition to be true.I find myself sympathetic to Sosa's distinction between animal knowledge and reflective knowledge. I am driven to this position for two reasons. (a) It seems implausibly anthropocentric to dismiss any possibility of a nonlinguistic knowledge in animals. For instance, chimpanzees who learn to use sticks to retrieve termites seem to me to have gained something approximating what we would call knowledge. (b) It seems further that we need a prelinguistic stepping stone in human development between the blank stare of the neonate and the babbling two year old.
Hence, I am not sure that there might not be belief in my dog sufficient to make me culpable. (Trying to articulate what this non-linguistic belief might be is like trying to say what it is like to be a bat.)
But then, maybe being a dog lover has clouded my vision...

Daniel Hill said...

Here's my response to my friend's response.

(1) I do believe it is always wrong to lie. I don't think it justifiable to lie to the SS officer looking for the Jews hiding in your crawl-space. It is, of course, justifiable to remain silent.

My friend says 'Hence, if the upstairs was on fire, I would certainly shake the keys without any qualms'. The shaking of keys, however, isn't imbued with meaning in the way that a sentence is, unless it has been deliberately so imbued. My friend's comment seems to me to suggest that it has not been so established, and that the shaking of keys is either a meaningless sound that causes the dog to descend, or it means 'Come down!'. In neither case is there any deceit. What is certain is that it's not as if there is a separate signal that you could have used to mean 'come down' or 'we're not going out, but I'd like you to come down', unlike in language.

Was it lying to agree that the dog was 'up there in Heaven'? It's certainly hard to think of a satisfactory thing to say here. Is it lying to tell one's children that Father Christmas is coming? (I know some that do think it is and refuse to do it because of this.) Reading fiction out loud to one's children isn't lying, but can we really compare these instances to extended story-telling? How about science teachers deliberately teaching schoolchildren simple falsehoods because they approximate the more complicated truth? I tend to the view that all these are impermissible.

If one holds van Inwagen's view (which I don't) the best thing to do is to say that Jesus's words meant 'there won't be any days elapsing in your experience between your death and your entrance into paradise'.

(2) I'm fine with non-linguistic belief. (Who says that 'propositions' have to be linguistic?) The question is: did you intend that the dog believe that you were going out? If not, what did you intend that the dog believe? I don't think that the dog could believe that you were going out, so I don't think it was possible for you to succeed in deceiving the dog.

Joseph Shaw said...

I really don't know what I think about animal beliefs. But it's a fascinating idea.

On the SS case, and all those difficult lying cases, using your definition of lying, it seems to me to turn on what you include as 'affirming a falsehood'.

Why it is not enough, for lying, to intend deception? That would be sufficient to exclude fiction and play-acting and jokes. The affirmation of falsehood clause is necessary to help us out with the hard cases: the SS man, we hope, concludes that there is no one hiding in one's house. And so in with the famous cases:

Athanasius, to his pursuers asking 'Is Athanasius this way?' said 'He's not far away!' and carried on past them. Catholic priests in penal times: 'Are you a priest?' 'I am a gentleman' etc..

But what does it take to affirm a falsehood? To save our cases, we can't include the implication of conversational conventions. The conventions hold that we make the strongest claim we can make, for example: I am Athanasius, not Athanasius is not far way, and so on.

For the original case, conversational conventions would allow a human - and a dog too, if he head the right beleifs - to conclude that you are going out, if you deliberately jingle your keys. But as you say, this is not the affirmation of a falsehood, so you can use it in order to deceive. Presumably the intention to deceive is only permissible for a good reason, however.