Misleading Talk Is Lying on a Higher Level

Finnish version not currently available.

I’m sure you are all familiar with how it’s possible to speak misleadingly without technically saying anything that is untrue. Rely on exact wording, use statistics misleadingly, and so on. Like, say, advertising something as fat-free even though all products of that type are fat-free, giving the impression this product is somehow better when it’s not.

This is generally no better morally for not technically being a case of lying. However, there is also a sense in which it is a case of lying. In saying whatever you say, you are in effect saying more than one thing, on more than one level of abstraction — and the usefulness of using half-truths like this seems might often derive from the fact that people will remember things on a higher level of abstraction, ie. more vaguely and generally. You quote some numbers that seem to indicate that there is a trend, even though they’re misleadingly selective — and people will remember the proposition that the trend exists, not the numbers themselves. You say your wine gums are fat-free (I think they all are, right?), and though people might not forget that so easily as numbers, they will also take home the (more general, abstract) message that they are somehow better. So while you’re saying something technically true, on a higher level of abstraction you’re also effectively saying something that is a lie.

Of course, this is just one way of conceptualising it, potentially a helpful perspective in some cases. But remember what I said at the beginning — whether you’re looking at it that way or not, whether calling it a lie or not, doesn’t really affect its moral status, because it’s similarly misleading anyway. This is just one way of pointing to the misleadingness.

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