Friday, October 19, 2007

When is Lying Lying?

A great post over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars, in which Ed Brayton tells the following wonderful story:

About 10 or 12 years ago I was playing poker at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. At the table with me was an older gentleman from South Carolina and we got involved in a hand against one another. I check raised him on the river and he thought for several minutes before folding his cards. As I was stacking his chips he asked, "Did you have it?" I smiled and said, "Sorry, no. That was a bluff." He leaned back in his chair and in his deep southern drawl announced loudly, "Deceit has no place in the game of poker." The whole table cracked up.
(The rest of the post is worth a read, it's about religion and poker. Thou shalt knowest when to hold unto them and knoweth when to fold unto them.)

The question I want to pull out of this is one about lying. Lying is the act of trying to get someone else to believe something you believe to be false. In the game of poker, it is frequently the case that you want your opponent to be mistaken about the strength of your hand (or lack thereof) for your personal benefit.

But in the game of poker, misrepresenting your hand is part of playing the game. If you sit down with people looking to play and fail to do what you can to play well, you have violated the social contract and they will be right to be irritated that you are spoiling the game (although, in this case, if it means losing large sums of money to them, they may not mind quite so much). Because everyone is willingly and happily engaged in a game in which lying is accepted and expected, there is no moral problem. It is part of the game. That's why the old man's comment at the table was so funny. Of course, deceit has a place in the game of poker, indeed, it occupies the most central place.

But how far out does that go? When is deceit acceptable? There are, of course, many, many cases, but I want to see what examples fall in the poker category. When does the expectation of lying mitigate the moral problems with lying?

Consider the NPR game show "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me," which has a regular feature in which the three panelists tell outlandish stories, only one of which is true and the contestant has to guess which it is. Clearly, this falls in the poker category because by phoning in, the contestant agrees to the play the game and can't hold the two deceivers to have been doing anything wrong.

Is explicit consent the important thing? Suppose you haven't explicitly asked to be part of the game. Many of us have friends who are bullshitters. Like the panelists, they will construct false stories that sit right on the edge of credulity, bizarre, but just coherent enough that they might be true and are the sort of fun, interesting anecdotes one would tell at social occasions. the game is to see how far you will go before you call them on their bs. You never said, let's play "That's not true." "But I had you going." So we don't have the element of explicit agreement. Is this still in the poker category? It is still a game. By hanging out with your friend, whom you know does this sort of thing, is it an implicit agreement to play?

Now, suppose we go to a market in a part of the world where haggling is standard operating procedure. You know that the salesperson is going to be "playing the game," and anyone who doesn't haggle is a rube. The salesperson will claim that he couldn't possibly go lower on the price, that he has twelve children and a sick mother, he'll tell you he's giving you a steal that you couldn't get anywhere else. This is all part of the process. But it isn't a game. Is the expectation of deceit enough to mitigate the moral concerns? Does this fall in the poker category?

Suppose instead of a marketplace in a different country, it's a used car lot in the US. Still the same answer? Because our marketplace operates by different assumptions in which we do not accept deception as an acceptable part of the process, is there a cultural imperative that salespeople be honest even if we should know better than to trust a used car salesperson? You may be a rube to trust the used car salesman, but can we still hold the salesman morally culpable for what he tried to pull over on us? Is this case different because unlike the oranges you were buying in the above example, this is a lot of money and therefore a matter of degree that becomes a matter of kind? The marketplace, the friend, and the game show are all cases where nothing significant hangs on the deception. Do the consequences matter? Poker, on the other hand, can involve lots of money, so does that mean consequences are irrelevant? Or do consequences matter only when there is not an explicit acceptance of whatever consequences result?

How about in a court of law where a person who is guilty and knows he is guilty pleads innocent? Is that a lie? There is a difference between guilty as in "I did it" and guilty, the legal status. Due process has rules like a game and everyone, regardless of what you did or did not do, is entitled to a fair hearing. So, by pleading innocent to something you did, are you doing something morally wrong or is this another example in the poker category?

What is the operative factor that rules acts in or out of this category in which lying is ok?