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Intellectual Honesty

September 13th, 2010 · 59 Comments

Yglesias wonders why “intellectual honesty” is any different from plain-old honesty. Noah Millman gets at the difference as I’d understood it:

“Intellectually honest” means you make arguments you think are true, as opposed to making the arguments you are “supposed” to make and/or avoiding making arguments that you think are true that you aren’t “supposed” to make.

Advocates, by contrast, make the best arguments they can think of for the position that they are obliged to take by their position. They are still supposed to be honest – they are not supposed to actually lie. But they are not expected to follow their own consciences with respect to the arguments they make or the positions they advance.

This sounds right. Back when I debated for NYU, I was always honest: I would not knowingly assert factual falsehoods. But I was often intellectually dishonest, because my job in those particular contests was not to engage in an impartial search for Platonic truth; it was to win the damn round. I would happily make arguments I thought were weak if I thought the judges would find them convincing and the weaknesses would be too subtle for the opposition to properly exploit. I would gloss over counterarguments I knew to be potentially devastating if I thought the other side had flubbed the presentation, leaving the audience unaware just how damaging the argument was, and spend more time than was necessary heaping mockery on the weaker arguments, hoping it would make my opponents seem silly and undermine their broader credibility. I certainly wouldn’t volunteer my own doubts about my arguments, or acknowledge responses I thought had hit home—unless strategically, as a prelude to a stronger counter.

So “intellectual honesty” is, in a sense, a higher standard than mere honesty.  And while dishonesty in argument is pretty much always a bad thing—you can imagine extreme “murderer at the door” counterexamples, of course—it’s not clear that “intellectual honesty” is necessary in every context. Sometimes—as in a debate round or an adversarial legal proceeding—you want everyone to make the strongest case they can for whatever position they’re assigned to defend, regardless of their own view, to get a clear contrast—or “good clash,” as we used to call it. Sometimes the point is working consensus rather than a search for some ideal.  If I make the case for school vouchers to a religious audience and point out how it would allow them greater freedom to have their kids educated in their own traditions, this might be “intellectually dishonest” in some sense: I think the religious indoctrination of children is a bad thing! And I’d be pretty queasy if the result of a voucher system were a dramatic increase in the number of schools treating “intelligent design” as a serious scientific theory.  I would be giving reasons why they should want to support a policy that I favor for mostly distinct reasons, not sincerely advancing what I think to be the best arguments—and that’s OK sometimes! It’s also a matter of degree rather than kind: I know many people who are at least as smart as I am disagree strongly with lots of my views, so I’m acutely aware that I could be wrong, and that it’s highly probable I’m mistaken about many things.  But instead of constantly hedging and qualifying—though I do plenty of that—I plunge ahead and trust that everything will work out in the Great Wiki.

All that said, what we often want from writers, above and beyond the minimal requirement that they not deliberately mislead or misinform us, is the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position. And since so much of politics is ultimately about winning the round, that kind of honesty is a good deal rarer than I think would be healthy.

Update Andrew Sullivan adds:

Sanchez wants writers to give “the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position.” But in my view, that often is the most vigorous defense. If you can include the obvious counter-points, acknowledge their strengths and still argue forcefully against them, you are much more persuasive.

Absolutely—at least much of the time—which is one of the things I had in mind when I alluded to making concessions “strategically, as a prelude to a stronger counter.” We used to say that if you want to be a really good debater, you have to be able to “opp yourself better than your opp.” There are few things more rhetorically effective than being able to restate your opponent’s best arguments more clearly and forcefully than they themselves did—and if you really want to show off, point out how the argument could be developed or improved—before proceeding to blow it out of the water.  If you really wanted to pull the rug from under them, you’d play the Bunny Rabbit gambit and briefly preview the best arguments before your opponents got up, leaving them sounding lamely like they had nothing original to say.

But there are caveats. You’d do this when you knew you could actually answer the argument, or when you were confident enough that the net weight of the arguments was so disproportionately on your side that you could afford a minor concession to seem gracious and reasonable. But it was pretty risky if the round was substantively a close call. It wouldn’t work to be too dismissive, to simply try to ignore a counterargument that clearly raised serious problems—obvious hackery is definitely unpersuasive. But the appearance of confidence and authority really are pretty powerful, and when the balance of arguments is even enough or the issues complex enough, the tiebreaker for judge or audience is often simply who seems most certain. I mean, there is a reason that when it comes to appealing to a broad audience, the standard bearers for political movements tend to deal in sound-bites delivered with an air of uncompromising, apodictic certainty. If intellectual dishonesty were really less persuasive—to the average voter, anyway—it would be a mystery why we see so much of it.  I’d assume it’s less persuasive when the audience recognizes it as such, but most of the audience, having lives and jobs and whatnot, aren’t paying that close attention.

Update 2 One last thing worth adding is that while normally “dishonesty” implies something intentional—the difference between a lie and an error is whether you know what you’re saying is false—I don’t think intellectual dishonesty is necessarily like this, at least as the term seems to be commonly used. You can, I think, be uncharitable to opponents, give their arguments the worst possible interpretation, utterly fail to examine your own biases or assumptions, and dismiss inconvenient facts as presumptively somehow tainted—all while consciously imagining you’re a warrior for unvarnished truth. In that sense, “intellectual honesty” seems a little more like “journalistic responsibility,” say, than plain vanilla honesty: It’s an active and reflective process, as opposed to a mere absence of conscious deception.

Tags: General Philosophy · Journalism & the Media



59 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Aaron // Sep 13, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Doing the best you can for the side you’re supposed to represent, like the law or a debate round, is itself an important value where first-order intellecual honesty may not be quite as important a value as giving your side your all so that it has the best representation possible. I mean, making lawyers adhere to stringent standards of intellectual honesty would basically collapse the common-law legal system, which is based on an adverserial methodology.
    There must be some higher, second-order value or system of values within which intellectual honesty is sometimes, but not always, desirable, like “intellectual responsibility.”

  • 2 ACM // Sep 13, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    “Sometimes—as in a debate round or an adversarial legal proceeding—you want everyone to make the strongest case they can for whatever position they’re assigned to defend, regardless of their own view…”
    Different from the deliberate employment of weak (but factual) arguments, as you described above. Dinesh D’Souza talking about Barack Obama’s views being dominated by anticolonialist ideology might be an example of a factual but weak argument. I’m not sure that sort of argument really contributes to readers’ understanding, and that sort of thing is what most people seem to mean by intellectual dishonesty.
    If someone is making strong arguments but doesn’t believe in them or has reservations, it is harder for the reader to tell- nor is it clear to me why we should care.

  • 3 hhoran // Sep 13, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    In public discourse, intellectual honesty has another critical, minimum requirement–full disclosure of economic ties to parties who would have reason to present a deliberately incomplete argument. In certain cases (lawyers presenting the case for a defendant, companies advertising their products) such disclosure of paid advocacy is fully transparent. Much of the downgrading of modern debate is due to false misrepresentation of such advocacy (PR shills creating the false appearance of independent product endorsements, ‘astroturfing’ of political advocacy) and the MSM’s dismal failure to enforce any disclosure rules.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Sep 13, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I don’t know if you need a concept tailor-made for intellectual-anything. Presumably this would fall out of a more general account of the priority of duties. To invoke the old “murderer at the door” hypothetical, there’s a general duty not to lie, which might be superseded by a duty not to abet someone you reasonably believe to be an assailant bent on harming someone innocent (making lying permissible), which might be yet again superseded by a role-based duty (prosecutor, policeman, sworn witness, maybe journalist) that precludes lying even when there’s a good chance it will prevent a greater harm. Whatever that general account looks like, I’d expect “intellectual honesty” to just be a special case with the details fleshed out by the demands of the specific roles rather than any intermediate-level theory of “intellectual responsibility.”

  • 5 johnrobert // Sep 13, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    What a clear and useful definition of what intellectual honesty can mean. You’ve put your finger directly on the struggle that we all face when discussing contemporary politics in public. The pressure to help your side win feels so overwhelming sometimes; it’s good to have a clear understanding of the kind of honesty you give up when you succumb to that pressure.

  • 6 Bloix // Sep 13, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Please. Having “Intellectual honesty” means that you say “courageous” things that are cruel and stupid and provide cover for the rich and powerful. E.g.,, it’s a shame the poor are poor but it’s their own fault. Or, the country just isn’t wealthy enough to provide decent retirement benefits, so we have to raise the retirement age. Again. Or, if America is going to retain its place of leadership in the world, we’re just going to have to make sacrifices (i.e. cut Social Security).

    That’s what intellectual honesty means.

  • 7 Tom Sydnor // Sep 14, 2010 at 2:09 am

    Julian, thank you for this thoughtful post. But let’s see if you walk as well as you talk.

    Some time ago, I wrote a paper critiquing the infantile “scholarship” of Professor Lawrence Lessig that said some things that you and others did not want to hear. Here is the link:


    Sadly, that paper led you and your thuggish blog buddies (Tim Lee and Mike Masnick) to launch yourselves into rabid-attack-poodle mode. After sustained attempts at logical reasoning failed to halt the resulting spate of ankle-nipping, the idiot Masnick eventually provoked a detailed defense of certain quotations in my paper. Here is the link:


    So tell me, Julian, in retrospect, do you think that the Lessig paper that you once denounced could have actually been “intellectually honest,” at least in the sense that a reasonable person like me could have genuinely believed the arguments that I made because I genuinely believed them?

    If not, then how odd that someone as “intellectually honest” as yourself would still be defending the transcendent brilliance of Code, The Future of Ideas, and Free Culture even after the author of these works conceded that they were an excessively optimistic “apology for regulation.” But if so, then perhaps you should, in the future, avoid conflating the sin of challenging your views with the sin of “intellectual dishonesty.” These may not always be synonymous concepts.

    Cheers. –Tom

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Sep 14, 2010 at 2:17 am

    ” a reasonable person like me”

    Any readers inclined to credit that self description are invited to bask in the glory of the spectacularly unhinged rant linked above. Polarized lenses are recommended.

  • 9 Robert Waldmann // Sep 14, 2010 at 7:45 am

    There is a key issue not addressed in this post. If one is making a case (honest but not intellectually honest) does one say that one is making a case ? In a formal debate or a civil case or for the defence in a criminal case, it is clear to everyone that a case is being made and noting facts which undermine that case is strongly forbidden.

    To me, making a case in those situations is totally honest in every way. If the best case which can be made without actually lying is p then saying “the best case which can be made without actually lying is p” is intellectually honest.

    It seems to me that intellectual dishonesty occurs when someone acts as an advocate but does not say so. When someone states the best case for a claim x without saying “to state the best case for the claim x.” It seems to me that this is plain dishonest. If someone claims to be balanced and is an advocate or claims to be just examining the evidence when he is making a case, then he is dishonest.

    Or to shrink back a bit and weasel and stuff, I suppose it is possible to make a case without either admitting that one is making a case or actually lying, but I don’t think that anyone actually manages to do so. It would require avoiding all phrases of the form “I think”, “the relevant facts”, “therefore it is reasonable to conclude” and hmm just about everything except for stating selected facts.

    I have a challenge. Can anyone find a case of someone who is honest but not intellectually honest ? If someone says “I am going to make the case that X”, then does this is totally honest. If someone doesn’t implicitly claim to be doing anything else and makes the case, then, according to our host he or she is honest but not intellectually honest. But has this ever happened ? Has anyone with an audience of normal adults ever managed to slide over the issue of whether they are acting as an advocate without plain ordinary dishonesty. I admit it is theoretically possible (quite possible if one is trying to convince a group of toddlers say) but I don’t think it has been done yet.

  • 10 Tim // Sep 14, 2010 at 8:38 am

    “Back when I debated for NYU, I was always honest: I would not knowingly assert factual falsehoods.”

    Oh, come now. I am sure you did not pull the GNP of Bangladesh out of your rear. But haven’t all us debaters all said in rebuttals: “we should win this round” and “we have made stronger arguments” even when we think such statements to be factual falsehoods? Can’t pretending we deserve to win itself part of the dishonesty?

  • 11 Matthew Yglesias » Endgame // Sep 14, 2010 at 10:22 am

    […] want a problem? Well I guess we got one now: — Julian Sanchez and Noah Millman shed some light on “intellectual […]

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Sep 14, 2010 at 10:50 am

    We’re stretching “factual” a little there, but Ok, sure, call that plain dishonesty (though of the “contextually expected bullshitting” type) if you like; I don’t think it really affects the broader point.

  • 13 Mark // Sep 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Lie to Win.

    That’s the motto of Julian Sanchez.

    More’s the pity.

  • 14 Tom Sydnor // Sep 14, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    Julian, since you seem to be missing the point, let me focus your attention on a particular incident, and ask you to reveal whether you possess the “intellectual honesty” required to admit that I was right and you and Tim were dead wrong.

    Here is an excerpt from my never-challenged blog post Copyright Skeptic Hypocrisy: A Belated Reply:

    “Mr. Lee claimed that another blogger had shown that when [Tragedy and Farce: An Analysis of the Book Free Culture] claimed that page 161 of Code showed that Lessig had said that his “impulse is to sympathize” with leftists radically skeptical about property rights and markets, other text on that page showed that Lessig was describing ‘an anti-market view of which he declare[d] himself “not convinced.”’ As Mr. Lee put it, ‘If a scholar writes “I’m sympathetic to view X, but ultimately I find the arguments for it unconvincing, it’s extremely misleading for someone to quote the first half of the sentence without mentioning the second half.’”

    Well. Being a reasonable person, I would agree that I would have been guilty of intellectual dishonesty had I actually committed the sin that you and Lee described. But had either of you actually read page 161 of Code carefully, you would known that I had fairly characterized Lessig’s actual views. Here is what Lessig actually wrote to explain why individuals should have a property-like exclusive right in their personal privacy:

    “There are those, especially on the left, who are radically skeptical about a property regime to protect privacy. Property is said to commodify, to marketize, to monetize relations that are valuable on a very different scale. The last thing we need, these skeptics argue, is to have another sphere of our lives ruled by the market.”

    “My impulse is to sympathize with this argument. But I am not convinced that anything is ultimately gained by this insistence on theory. We are not debating whether to move into a world where data are collected, used, and sold. We already live in that world. Given that we are here, how can we insure that at least some control is granted to those whom these data are about? I advocate a property regime not because of the sanctity of property as an ideal, but because of its utility in serving a different but quite important ideal.”

    In short, Lessig said that his impulse was to sympathize with leftists radically skeptical of property rights and markets, but that he was “not convinced” that this impulse should make property-like exclusive rights inherently objectionable in non-commercial contexts. Lessig’s “impulse” thus was, as I said, “to sympathize” with what you, Julian, fairly described as an “anti-market view.”

    I simply wish to know whether you have now attained the intellectual honesty required to concede that you erred by unfairly accusing me of deliberately mischaracterizing Lessig’s actual views. Moreover, I do not believe that “polarized lenses” will be required to read the paragraphs quoted, cross-check the original source, and report on whether you can now admit that my reading is an honest one, even if your own might differ.

    Cheers again. –Tom

  • 15 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 3:11 am

    I am baffled as to what Tom thinks I am “dead wrong” about. I merely said I don’t think Julian makes facts up like the GNP of particular places while he debated. I mean, I observed a lot of debaters, including debaters from NYU like Julian. Who I am going to believe, Tom or my own lying eyes?

  • 16 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 3:29 am

    If I recall correctly, NYU cases in parliamentary debate used to tend to invoke libertarianism. One of the “beauties” of this that this same philosophy could really be used in many factual circumstances (‘get rid of laws against suicide’ because they are against libertarianism, etc.), thus cutting down on the need for case construction (maybe not for Julian, but for many NYU novices, perhaps.)

    Julian – for fun, could you confirm for me that during outrounds at Columbia in 2001-2002, it was you that ran an opp choice case of “absolute rights v. utility”? Perhaps because I was just beginning graduate school in political theory, I was irritated by that simplistic dichotomy. I really wanted the opp to say ‘you pick from those two choices, and we’ll argue for a third option.’

    For what it is worth (which is probably not much), I have enjoyed reading this blog for many years because your writing on it is more “intellectually honest” than the style in parliamentary debate.

  • 17 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 3:51 am

    Julian, I agree with the thrust of most of your second update.
    However, you say: “the difference between a lie and an error is whether you know what you’re saying is false.” Not quite. Here’s a proposed friendly amendment, extending this thought. I can assert a statement, not knowing it false, and dishonestly do so, if I assert that statement with a degree of certainty that I am not warranted in holding, at least when I am consciously aware I am not warranted in holding that view with the degree of certainty I claim.

    In debate, this was contextually expected, so no one was really fooled.

    But in politics is it? I am not sure whether this is a good example, but consider Bush’s claims about how we know Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

  • 18 sam // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:56 am

    The best, short account of intellectual dishonesty I’ve ever encountered was in the movie Bedazzled (the original, not the crappy remake). Stanley, the standin for Faust, (Dudley Moore) asks George, the Devil (Peter Cook) what’s the secret of seducing women. George says, Oh that’s easy. Keep ’em up and talking till 4 in the morning and you’re in.

  • 19 sam // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Oh, and Tim, under your amended account of lying, I can be telling the truth and still be lying. You OK with that?

  • 20 Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » On intellectual honesty, and other links // Sep 15, 2010 at 11:47 am

    […] Matt Yglesias, I find explanations by Julian Sanchez and Noah Millman of the meaning of “intellectual honesty.” Actually, I always assumed […]

  • 21 Julian Sanchez // Sep 15, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Sydnor is referring to Tim Lee and a year-old argument, not you. You’re thinking of final round at Columbia vs Garin & Cusick, though the case was (something like) “Opp choice: The best moral theory is provided by (some form of) utilitarianism.” They chose “no.”

    Your reading is still neither right nor even remotely reasonable. Since anyone who cares can pull up the relevant passage from the free version of Code available online and see this for themselves, arguing the point further doesn’t seem like an efficient use of my time.

  • 22 Julian Sanchez // Sep 15, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Also, this is Tim… Willenken?

  • 23 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Julian, I’m a different Tim W.– I was much, much less successful in debate, perhaps because (I like to tell myself) I didn’t really like the bullshitting aspects of intellectual dishonesty involved.

  • 24 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 3:29 pm


    I do think you can assert a statement that happens to be true and still be dishonest. (Note that it is an account of honesty not lying.) Consider if you were to strongly assert “this dictator has weapons of mass destruction,” even while knowing you did not have the epistemological warrant for doing so (or for doing so so confidently, given the evidence). Now suppose you invade the country and it turns out that you find the weapons of mass destruction. Your initial statement could have been dishonest (or if prefer, held in a dishonest fashion) even though its propositional value turned out to be true.

    I’m not wedding to this, but does that explanation make it more plausible for you Scott? (One other reason I wasn’t a good debater was that I was not always very good at explaining things clearly.)

  • 25 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    That “Scott” should be “Sam” – sorry.

  • 26 sam // Sep 15, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Ah, sorry, I thought you were arguing that one can assert P, knowing that one does not have grounds for the truth of P, or more strongly, have reason to believe that P is in fact false, and that this can count as lying if done with the intention to deceive or mislead. If P is in fact true, then… (Julian was talking about lying, and the ‘not quite’ indicated to me that you’ve a problem with his, short, statement of the difference between lying and being in error.)

    With that clarification, then, with respect to your WMD hypothetical, yeah, there’s some kind of dishonesty afoot. It’s akin to what is called ‘sharp practice’, I think. Not quite lying, but not quite telling the truth, either. The rough ground, in other words. (There’s some kind of inverse Gettier thingy going on here, I believe, but I haven’t yet figured out what.)

  • 27 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Sam – It was probably poor drafting on my part. But I wonder if I might try out a further claim, going beyond mere dishonesty to lying: you can lie not only about the claim (or falsely state you believe the claim), but can also lie about the certainty with which you hold a claim.

    I am saying it can be a lie, not that all such cases are. For example, suppose a president says: “British intelligence have reported there is good evidence for P.” That can be a technically true but misleading statement, if you know British intelligence does not have sufficient warrant, but mention it because it will leave the impression in the minds of others that there is such good evidence. So Sam, you need not think this a lie, and yet allow the possibility for what I say below.

    Suppose I not only assert the claim P, but also state “I am certain of P” or “I have this level of certainty about P”. I do not have that level of certainty, and know I do not have that level of certainty, couldn’t we say that the person is lying, in least with reference to to the level of certainty they claim to have about P (not the claim P itself).

    So rather than the president saying “there are WMD”, suppose the president in my stylized example were to say: “We know there are WMD” (or two separate statements: “there are WMD” and “we are certain that is the case”). Suppose he doesn’t in fact know there are WMD, and moreover, he knows he doesn’t know that to be the case; here he is asserting not only that something is the case, but he has a specific degree of certainty about it. Even if the WMD are later found, it does not change the fact that he was “lying” about (what he consciously perceived to be) his level of certainty at the time of the claim. Do you think the world “lie” is inappropriate here?

    Of course, from the outsider’s perspective, how can we know whether (a) the president lied about his level of certainty about a statement like whether there were WMD, or (b) whether he did indeed believe that something to be certain (and did not know he in fact did not have sufficient warrant,) or (c) was dishonest in some other way (e.g. he says the evidence shows P, but pressured intelligence agents to look at the evidence in a certain way). Notice that even if (a) is a possibility or we suspect it to be the case, it may be a different thing to assert (a). So I can think to myself that it is possible that the president was lying, but not be warranted in asserted that the president was lying (or rather, that I am certain to a specific degree that the president was lying).

  • 28 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Sam – I also thought of Gettier. But I was also loosely inspired by Kant’s distinction between opining, believing, and holding-to-be-true.

  • 29 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    A further difficulty is that people don’t aways talk like philosophers. They may not explicitly assert ‘we are certain to this degree that P is true.’ Rather they may assert P, and simply imply a level of certainty with which they hold it when they know they are not so certain. We are perhaps usually back in the realm of misleading rather than lying per se.

  • 30 sam // Sep 15, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Sure, those are frank examples of lying: A statement of a known falsehood with the intention to mislead. (Note the ‘known’.)

    What I was trying to head off is this case, where someone asserts a lie has taken place. I say to you

    Desdemona is cheating on you.

    Now, I don’t know whether Desdemona is cheating on you, and, as a matter of fact, I have good reason to believe that she’s not. Nevertheless, I tell you she is because I want to mess with your head.

    I’ve heard it argued that in fact, I did lie to you, because I had reason to believe she wasn’t cheating on you. The problem arises if, alas, Desdemona ischeating on you. Then, by the logic of this argument, we’re committed to saying you can tell the truth, she is cheating on you, but still be lying. That’s counterintuitive.

    And I think that argument, that a lie has taken place, arises because these two cases are thought to be the same:

    I assert

    (1) P

    (2) I know that P

    There’s a difference here. At a minimum, the first is a claim about the world, the second is a claim about me. (2) implies (1), but (1) does not imply (2). If it is true that I know that P, then P is true, but if I merely assert P, this does not imply that I know that P, that P is true. Another way of saying this is that mere assertion carries less epistemological baggage than an assertion of knowledge. And, as I said, I think the argument that I disagree with conflates (1) and (2).

  • 31 Julian Sanchez // Sep 15, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Insofar as we’re trying to formalize colloquial expressions that most users don’t analyze quite this closely, I expect you’d get a mix of intuitions about whether someone asserting X when they have reason to believe X is false (or no basis for thinking it’s true) is “lying” when X happens to be true. My own intuition is “probably,” though I’m substantially more confident about calling such an assertion “dishonest” than about classing it as a “lie”.

  • 32 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    In your cheating example: I can assert (2) falsely, yet (1) can be true. If you like, you can say I lied about (2), but not about (1). I didn’t claim that every assertion of (1) involves claiming (2). That’s another issue. Whether or not any particular utterance also involves asserting (2) is a tricky question. But my claim, while perhaps somewhat odd, isn’t the same as the argument I think you’re attacking, which is that in the cheating example I lied about (1). Rather, I lied about (2), at least insofar as I also stated (2) and not just (1), without being so certain that (2) is true. Indeed, my point in bringing this up was to distinguish between lying about a proposition and lying about the certainty with which you hold a proposition. (Of course, it’s a bit odd to refer to the warrant with which I hold a statement as also involving a proposition – we need a theory of language and to look at the particular assertions)

    Further, (2) only implies (1) because (2) says: “I know that P”. Suppose we have (3) “I hold with P with X degree of certainty.” Unless perhaps X is “complete” or “100%”, (3) does not imply (1).

    So suppose P= “Desdemona is cheating on you.”

    and I assert “I’m pretty sure that P”
    This is a type (3) statement. The latter can be a true statement (or part of it can be true?) without the former type (1) being true.

  • 33 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Oops. I’m not sure anyone is going to catch this, but the “without being so certain that (2) is true” should probably be “without being so certain that (1) is true” or, alternatively, “while being aware that (2) is not true”. As stated, being certain that (2) is true would mean: ‘I am certain that I know that P is true.’ That’s a whole other level of meta.

  • 34 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Sam – your example made me think of Schrödinger’s cat: we don’t know whether the person is a liar until we find out whether Desdemona really did cheat on you. If we find out Desdemona did not cheat, I guess you think he was a liar, but we find out that Desdemona did not cheat, I guess you think he was not a liar. However, if we never find out whether Desdemona cheated, does the truth value (or our knowledge of this truth value) simply remain indeterminate? Is he both a liar and not a liar at the same time?

  • 35 sam // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    That’s pretty much my take, Julian. I’m loathe, really, to say the our ordinary discourse is susceptible to any kind of rigorous formalizing. That raises far more problems than it solves, if it solves any at all. Like the man said, we inhabit a very ancient city, and the fastest way to get lost is to believe you’re in possession of the definitive street map.

  • 36 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    The basic point is that someone can intentionally assert something false intends to mislead — the falsehood is the degree of certainty with which he (feels he) holds a proposition (not necessarily the basic proposition itself).

    We usually call people intentionally asserting something false (in order to mislead*) liars. Of course, I am not sure how often people actually state the degree of certainty they hold a proposition. A lot of that is implied or contextually understood, which getting more tricky, since practical reasons rather than just theoretical ones may come in when consider whether they actually (explicitly or implicitly) made an assertion of the second type.

    *I am not pretending to have a complete definition of lying here. But I add this to perhaps take account of situations it is accepted and known that people will not make true statements always (e.g. debate, perhaps).

  • 37 Tim // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    In case this wasn’t clear, I am not CERTAIN that this view I was proposing was in the fact the best one. I just thought it plausible and worthy of consideration. Moreover, I wouldn’t shy away from it if that is what my view implied. Julian is basically correct. I hope I wasn’t ‘lying’ to all of you.

  • 38 Mark // Sep 16, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    “But I was often intellectually dishonest, because my job in those particular contests was not to engage in an impartial search for Platonic truth; it was to win the damn round.”

    And nothing has changed, Julian. You lied at NYU. You lie today. You’ll lie if you ever get to chat with St. Pete. Probably tell St. Pete on your J Day that you’re just there for a quick tour (of immortality) that your think tank and/or the Koch brothers set up.

    Anything for a buck. Anything for the W. That’s you, Julian, and that truth never has had nor will have anything to do with your DNA. Just ain’t in ya’, son. Truth in you would be like compassion in Dick Cheney, modesty in Dave Addington, ethics in Charlie Rangel, or fidelity in Tiger Woods.


  • 39 Pithlord // Sep 16, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Someone told me Augustine defined lying as follows (although he presumably didn’t use such 20C analytical phraseology): A lies iff Amakes an utterance to B intending that the utterance will cause B to adopt a belief A believes to be false.

    I don’t know if Augustine actually made this point, but I think it resolves a lot of difficulties. If I say “Desdemona is cheating on you” not knowing whether Desdemona is in fact cheating on you, but intending that you believe I know that Desdemona is cheating on you, I’m lying. Similarly, if I say “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” when I know that Saddam Husseein has not recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa but I want you to think he has, then it doesn’t matter whether you can parse my statement as true: I’m lying.

  • 40 Tim // Sep 16, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Pithlord – Suppose I say: “The British Government has learned* that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” knowing that the underlying basis for the British Government’s rationale has fallen apart, BUT I do not in fact KNOW that it is false that Saddam Hussein sought those quantities. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and all that. Whether or not we want to call it a lie, I want to note that under your (or Augustine’s) definition it seems you could not call it lie, and you would object to calling me a liar.

    *’learned’ might imply some sort of knowledge claim– suppose we change the wording to “told us”

  • 41 Tom Sydnor // Sep 17, 2010 at 12:22 am


    Such a sad display of dishonesty in an oh-so-sanctimonious post about intellectual honesty.

    I find it telling that you cannot muster even the integrity required to back down from an indefensible position that I would have spared you the misery of defending. Instead, you now just lecture others about the meaning of “intellectual honesty” while proving your own lack of it.

    So let me quote every substantive clause in the airy nonsense that passed for your “reply.” Each one records a different proof of your own intellectual dishonesty.

    You said: “Your reading [of page 161 of Code] is still neither right nor even remotely reasonable.” Anyone who ever debated or attended law school should know that someone who “states a conclusion” has not “made an argument.” So why is my reading “neither right nor even remotely reasonable,” Julian? You do not say. I have quoted the relevant passage from Code, and explained not only why my reading of the text is reasonable, but also why I can make no sense of yours. You have replied by stating a conclusion. How would your dear old college debate coach have judged that outcome? Would a conclusory insult have won the “final round at Columbia vs Garin & Cusick”?

    You said: “[A]nyone who cares can pull up the relevant passage from the free version of Code available online and see this for themselves….” Is this trite fallacy of distraction meant to imply that I forced anyone to search the Internet to decide whether you or I, you, or both of us, had reasonably interpreted what Lessig said on page 161 of Code? I did no such thing: I quoted the entirety of the portion of page 161 of Code that I thought relevant to our disagreement.

    And, Julian, do try to get your facts straight: To the best of my knowledge, there is no non-pirated “free version of Code available online.” Neither Lessig’s own site nor Google Book Search seems to provide the entirety of page 161 of Code. And don’t bother trying to find in Code v.2.0 the same “my impulse-is to sympathize with these views” passage that you found so defensible in Code: For some odd reason, Lessig removed that beautiful passage from the second edition of his book.

    So why, prithee, do you conclude that I could not have reasonably concluded that the parts of page 161 of Code that I quoted failed to provide the context that others would need to fairly judge whether you and Master Lee were wrong or right when you accused me of the deadly sin of vicious abstracting this since-deleted passage?

    You said: “[A]rguing the point further doesn’t seem like an efficient use of my time.” No one claimed that persistently making claims so inane that that even a crack debater like you must stoop to cheap fallacies and conclusory denials in order to “defend” the validity of your reckless attack on someone else’s integrity would be an “efficient use of your time,” Julian. Defending the indefensible never is never an efficient use of anyone’s time. And wouldn’t your old debate coach just laugh at the irony inherent in your use of the term “further”—you have yet to make anything that your dear old coach would consider an “argument” in defense of your reckless attack on my integrity.

    “Sydnor is referring to Tim Lee and a year-old argument….” Ironically, Julian, it’s a two-year old argument. And two years ago, I repeatedly suggested to your buddies that we should all consider it closed because it was generating only heat—not light.

    But your pals—particularly the clown Masnick—just couldn’t agree to disagree agreeably. Consequently, after enough incidents in which Lee or Masnick tried to use “well-Julian-and-I-proved-that-you-lied-about-Lessig” as fallacy of distraction during unrelated debates, I decided that I needed to settle questions about my integrity—and theirs, and yours—once and for all. As a result, I wasted a great deal of my time writing Copyright Skeptic Hypocrisy: A Belated Reply.

    Here, again, is the link, and do note the first paragraph, in which I note Lee’s refusal to confront the same passage of Code that now makes you scamper to the relative safety of shrill conclusions and silly fallacies:


    Neither you nor Lee ever had the integrity to reply. Indeed, even Masnick may have done marginally better than than the two of you: Do note the conclusory first comment on this post from “Jonny,” who managed to sound very, very familiar while spouting conclusory gibberish remarkably similar to yours and misspelling his own name.

    I thus understand why you would now prefer to let these old bygones be bygone. I had the same preference—and I expressed it years before you did. But since “agreeing to disagree agreeably” proved to be a concept too difficult for your “crew,” I do hope that you can understand why I am no longer willing to let you blither about “Intellectual Honesty” while refusing to confront glaring evidence of your own lack of it.

    Indeed, is there any form of intellectual dishonesty worse than that displayed by someone who refuses to finish a debate about whether he unfairly accused someone else of intellectual dishonesty? Here is the last paragraph of Copyright-Skeptic Hypocrisy:

    “Granted, all humans are highly imperfect, and I surely am. Indeed, that is why I repeatedly tried to let this episode lapse without further comment. But those efforts have been thwarted–again. Consequently, I hope that this reply proves that Mr. Lee’s blog post Selective Quotations speaks most eloquently to the sloppy, hypocritical self-destructiveness of its author and other unwitting ‘libertarians’ who chose to look ridiculous and foolish by relentlessly defending the worst excesses in an ‘apology for regulation’ that was concededly far too ‘optimistic about the potential of government to do good.’”

    I would have let you and others back down gracefully, Julian. But that offer was rejected, so it has been retracted.

    Predictably, you thus spout nothing but shrill conclusions and silly fallacies to support your now-laughable claim that I had to engage in vicious abstraction in order to criticize a long-since-deleted passage of a book now conceded by its author to have been an “apology for regulation” that was concededly far too “optimistic about the potential of government to do good.”

    And how ironic, Julian, that a “libertarian” like you would end up defending such a statist book so far past the point of reason that you now refuse to explain—not why your favorable interpretation of long-excised passages of this overly optimistic “apology for regulation” might have been “intellectually honest”—but why my unfavorable interpretation of these apparently embarrassing passages of a now concededly unhinged work was obviously intellectually dishonest.

    I await any substantive reply that you may deign to offer.

    Cheers, thrice. –Tom

  • 42 sam // Sep 17, 2010 at 6:49 am

    The Desdemona example and the Brit uranium example are quite different: the latter is a flat out lie: If I know that nobody tried to buy uranium in Africa, then is not possible for the Brits to have learned that somebody bought uranium in Africa.

    As for the Augustine case, I remain unconvinced that we have something that rises to a case of lying. Let me ask you this. We can use what I’ll call the Augustine schema to fashion a example of some doing that in court. Could such a person be convicted of perjury? Keep in mind that what he asserts is true.

  • 43 Mark // Sep 17, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    “An efficient use of Dear Julian’s time”?

    Available for sale to the highest Conservative bidder. Offshore deposits only, please.

    Tom Sydnor’s Response No. 41?


    Simply priceless.

  • 44 Julian Sanchez // Sep 17, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Since you’re neither cogent enough to merit a response for it’s own sake nor relevant enough to make it an unpleasant obligation, I’m thinking I’ll just happily ignore you from here out, whether you’ll “allow” it or not.

  • 45 Tim // Sep 17, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Sam: The difference is mainly with the word “learned”. As I noted in a footnote, what if “learned” had been “told us” in the Brit example?. The Brit example would seem to then be very similar to the Desdemona example.

  • 46 Pithlord // Sep 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm


    In your modified Brit uranium example, it is still a lie. The speaker wants the listener to believe the Brits have evidence of Saddam buying uranium, but the speaker doesn’t believe that. Same with the Desdemona example: the speaker implies he has reason to believe Desdemona is unfaithful, but doesn’t beleve he has reason to believe Desdemona is unfaithful.

    As for courts and perjury, there are always special rules for criminal liability, but I think someone could be prosecuted if they deliberately said something semantically true that would cause the ordinary listener to get a false impression. If you said, “the accused shot the victim” in a context implying you saw the accused shoot the victim, it would be no defence to perjury that you indeed thought the accused shot the victim.

  • 47 Tim // Sep 17, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    In this comment, I’ll revert to the specification of the British Intelligence example by Pithlord, rather than my own modifications: Pithlord says:

    “Similarly, if I say “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” when I know that Saddam Husseein has not recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa but I want you to think he has, then it doesn’t matter whether you can parse my statement as true: I’m lying.”

    I think Pithlord is probably right that this is a lie, but not for the reason Sam says: “If I know that nobody tried to buy uranium in Africa, then is not possible for the Brits to have learned that somebody bought uranium in Africa.”

    Sam, are you saying the following is generally true: “if A knows ~P, then it is not possible that (B have learned P)”?

    Suppose A says at time 1 that “Scientists have learned that Newtonian physics is correct.” Further, this is in fact the scientific consensus. At time 2, the scientific consensus is now that Einsteinian physics is correct. But suppose A says at time 2: “Scientists have learned that Newtonian physics is correct.” A is not just making it up that scientists learned this. Indeed, at time 1, Newtonian physics was the best view we could must up. If A is honestly just repeating what he “learned” in school, and A is not aware of the scientists’ change in views, is it fair to call A a liar? He does not intend to state a mistruth, and there are surely some cases where he is not even dishonest for not keeping up with the latest science.

    (However, it is a different matter if at time 2, A *is* (or should have been) aware about the latest science, yet says that scientists have learned that Newtonian physics is correct. That is certainly at least dishonest, if not a lie.)

  • 48 Tim // Sep 17, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    Pithlord – my latest was posted before I read your latest reply.

    But there are cases where a person can make intentionally misleading statements in court and not be guilty of perjury. (I will try to dig up some examples that were batted around during the Starr investigation.)

  • 49 Tim // Sep 17, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Pithlord –

    Suppose a prosecutor asks B: “Were you engaged in a sexual relationship with M?” and B answers: “I am not engaged in a sexual relationship with M.” Now, in fact, there was a sexual relationship, but there is not a sexual relationship now. B chose to use the present tense in a misleading manner to create a false impression. The prosecutor does not follow up. Has B lied or committed perjury? (Even if you’re right that technically true but misleading statements can sometimes be perjury, this does not mean all such statement are; I think your inclination is to separate perjury from lying and that this is wise.)

  • 50 Tim // Sep 17, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    I’ve decided I’d rather not use the above example. Here is one cited in a Supreme court case:


    MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

    We granted the writ in this case to consider a narrow but important question in the application of the federal perjury statute, 18 U.S.C. 1621: 1 whether a witness [409 U.S. 352, 353] may be convicted of perjury for an answer, under oath, that is literally true but not responsive to the question asked and arguably misleading by negative implication…. Petitioner’s perjury [409 U.S. 352, 354] conviction was founded on the answers given by him as a witness at that bankruptcy hearing, and in particular on the following colloquy with a lawyer for a creditor of Bronston Productions:

    “Q. Do you have any bank accounts in Swiss banks, Mr. Bronston?
    “A. No, sir.
    “Q. Have you ever?
    “A. The company had an account there for about six months, in Zurich.
    “Q. Have you any nominees who have bank accounts in Swiss banks?
    “A. No, sir.
    “Q. Have you ever?
    “A. No, sir.”
    It is undisputed that for a period of nearly five years, between October 1959 and June 1964, petitioner had a personal bank account at the International Credit Bank in Geneva, Switzerland, into which he made deposits and upon which he drew checks totaling more than $180,000. It is likewise undisputed that petitioner’s answers were literally truthful. (a) Petitioner did not at the time of questioning have a Swiss bank account. (b) Bronston Productions, Inc., did have the account in Zurich described by petitioner. (c) Neither at the time [409 U.S. 352, 355] of questioning nor before did petitioner have nominees who had Swiss accounts. The Government’s prosecution for perjury went forward on the theory that in order to mislead his questioner, petitioner answered the second question with literal truthfulness but unresponsively addressed his answer to the company’s assets and not to his own – thereby implying that he had no personal Swiss bank account at the relevant time….

    It is the responsibility of the lawyer to probe; testimonial interrogation, and cross-examination in particular, is a probing, prying, pressing form of inquiry. If a witness evades, it is the lawyer’s responsibility to recognize the evasion and to bring the witness back to [409 U.S. 352, 359] the mark, to flush out the whole truth with the tools of adversary examination.

    It is no answer to say that here the jury found that petitioner intended to mislead his examiner. A jury should not be permitted to engage in conjecture whether an unresponsive answer, true and complete on its face, was intended to mislead or divert the examiner; the state of mind of the witness is relevant only to the extent that it bears on whether “he does not believe [his answer] to be true.” To hold otherwise would be to inject a new and confusing element into the adversary testimonial system we know. Witnesses would be unsure of the extent of their responsibility for the misunderstandings and inadequacies of examiners, and might well fear having that responsibility tested by a jury under the vague rubric of “intent to mislead” or “perjury by implication.”

  • 51 Tom Sydnor // Sep 19, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Julian, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this adequately summarizes where we are.

    For the second or third time, you have assured your readers that were a deadly debate-club alumnus like yourself to debate, substantively, what meanings readers possessing “intellectual honesty” could derive from the two paragraphs of Code that I have already generously quoted for you, your readers could be assured that you would just, like, totally clean my clock and utterly repudiate my interpretation—a claim that I have repeatedly urged you to prove, without result.

    But, alas, you claim that you must deny yourself the pleasure of proving that no reasonable person could think that these two paragraphs actually mean what they actually seem to say because you—famed expositor of the meaning of “intellectual honesty”—are just so self-important that you cannot be bothered to debate whether your attack on someone else’s intellectual honesty actually conforms to your own notions of “intellectual honesty” unless you can still deem your victim to be sufficiently “relevant” to make the effort of dismembering their arguments worth your while.

    In other words, you are trying to claim that if you fully and sincerely engaged your brain, it would just trounce mine, but you won’t, because you can’t be bothered to fully and sincerely engage your brain, though you can be bothered to spout vacuous nonsense like this:

    “What we often want from writers, above and beyond the minimal requirement that they not deliberately mislead or misinform us, is the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position. And since so much of politics is ultimately about winning the round, that kind of honesty is a good deal rarer than I think would be healthy.”

    Am I missing something? Or do we both understand why your substantive defenses of your attack on the “intellectual honesty” of my interpretation of the two quoted paragraphs have so far been not only “a good deal rarer than I think would be healthy” but also entirely lacking?

    And just so we are clear, I don’t really think that you, Julian, are any less possessed of “intellectual honesty” than any of the billions of other humans on this planet who would, just like you, fail far short of your juvenile standard for “intellectual honesty.” Our old debate makes this quite clear. That is why I have resurrected it. And that is why you keep running away from it while concocting increasingly ugly and implausible excuses for doing so.

    Quadruple cheers. –Tom

  • 52 Tom Sydnor // Sep 23, 2010 at 10:54 pm


    To conclude, do let me know if you think that you might someday develop the “intellectual honesty” required to reply (in a non-conclusory fashion) to my arguments.

    If not, this becomes another fine example of just how hypocritical the “Deep Thought” of iPundits like you can become.

    You began by lecturing the unwashed about the meaning of “intellectual honesty.” How odd that you just can’t abide by the standards by which you judge others. And, I know, Julian, you would just kick my butt, were not you just too important to be bothered by something so irrelevant as “intellectual honesty.”

    But have you noticed, Julian, that for some strange reason, I seem to have no fear whatsoever of a head-on confrontation with your vast intellect–even after you have so often and so generously claimed that you are really sparing me the misery of confronting it?

    What would your dear old debate coach think about all of this?

    Quintuple cheers –Tom

  • 53 Julian Sanchez // Sep 24, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Get a hobby, Tom.

  • 54 JasonL // Sep 29, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Minor additional thought – normal dishonesty is the act of misrepresenting something with a known truth value. In the way that “intellectually dishonest” gets used, the accuser is often making a value judgement concerning excluded arguments. A common version of this, libertarian A makes a series of arguments about how a capitalist system has helped the poor. A dissenter argues that the libertarian is being intellectually dishonest because he fails to note rising material inequality. To the libertarian, the accusation makes no sense because material inequality is a complete non issue. To the accuser, it’s the most important measure of social benefit. That’s just to say that in discussions of intellectual honesty you have to view not only truth values but value hierarchies.

  • 55 Tom Sydnor // Sep 30, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Well, Julian no doubt your latest fallacy of distraction must have been really withering back on the playground….

    But I already have hobbies, Julian. They include hiking, canoeing, and raising children. No doubt you do too. And may I remind you, I was long willing to let this bygone be bygone until your thuggish pals demanded its resolution. So be it.

    Consequently, hobbies aside, I find it funny that your alleged commitment to “intellectual honesty” just cannot compel you to read the following two paragraphs from Code and articulate a non-conclusory answer to the question following them:

    “There are those, especially on the left, who are radically skeptical about a property regime to protect privacy. Property is said to commodify, to marketize, to monetize relations that are valuable on a very different scale. The last thing we need, these skeptics argue, is to have another sphere of our lives ruled by the market.”

    “My impulse is to sympathize with this argument. But I am not convinced that anything is ultimately gained by this insistence on theory. We are not debating whether to move into a world where data are collected, used, and sold. We already live in that world. Given that we are here, how can we insure that at least some control is granted to those whom these data are about? I advocate a property regime not because of the sanctity of property as an ideal, but because of its utility in serving a different but quite important ideal.”

    So why, Julian, did you conclude that a reasonable and intellectually honest person cannot read those two paragraphs and conclude that their author actually meant what he actually said: His “impulse is to sympathize” with leftists who despise private property rights (even in non-market contexts) because their effect is inevitably “to commodify, to marketize, to monetize relations that are valuable on a very different scale. The last thing we need, these skeptics argue, is to have another sphere of our lives ruled by the market.”

    I thus merely observe that if an intellectually honest, reasonable person could so interpret the two quoted paragraphs, then you owe me an apology. And I thus find it quite telling that while you seem to have plenty of time to hurl conclusions or insults, you must simultaneously decree yourself to be just far too self-important to read two paragraphs and provide an non-conclusory answer to a simple question directly relevant to matters of “intellectual honesty.”

    You may consider this debate over–unless you belatedly discover the “intellectual honesty” required to stop hurling conclusions and insults and belatedly end a debate on its merits.

    TTFN –Tom

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