Eric Holder is Right About Lying

Attorney General Eric Holder is being criticized for some comments he made during the congressional investigation into the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking debacle:

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI): “Tell me what’s the difference between lying and misleading Congress, in this context?”

Holder: “Well, if you want to have this legal argument — conversation — it all has to with your state of mind and whether or not you had the requisite intent to come up with something that would be considered perjury or a lie.”

Holder and the Justice Department are being investigated by Congress (in part) whether they made false statements about the “Fast and Furious” operation. Now, several people have criticized Holder for his testimony, portraying him as a hair-splitting charlatan for saying that lying depends on a person’s “state of mind” rather than simply on whether they’ve said something false.

I’m not defending Holder on “Fast and Furious”, but on the conceptual matter of what constitutes lying, he’s right.

After all, isn’t it obvious that some false statements aren’t lies? Think about it, if you ask a student in math class, “What’s three times eight?” and he says, “Sixteen”, what he’s said is false. But is it a lie? No, of course not. The student is just mistaken about what the correct answer is. It’s not that he knows the answer is “twenty-four” but is trying to deceive people. Rather, he’s trying to be honest, he just doesn’t know the correct answer.

In other words, he’s not lying, because he doesn’t have the correct state of mind (i.e., accurate knowledge and the intent to deceive) in order to lie.

Honesty is a bit of a tricky subject. For instance, as noted above, not all falsehoods are acts of dishonesty.

More than that, though, it’s not the case that all truths are honest, either. Half-truths are an example. For instance, if you truthfully tell people that your spouse is cheating on you, but fail to mention that you are also cheated on them, you’re going to create a false belief. Or, you might truthfully use language that you know is going to leave people with a false impression: “My opponent even admits that he is a debilitated sexagenarian, and has used this status to claim government benefits!”

And, even if a statement is a lie, that doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong. Some lies — for instance, lying to the Nazis by telling them you haven’t seen any Jewish people around — are morally right.

Again, I’m not bringing this up to defend Holder or the Obama administration when it comes to “Fast and Furious”. From what I can see, they’ve got an awful lot of explaining to do, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out that some of them were out-and-out lying about what was going on.

But, on the conceptual matter that lying involves an intention to deceive, Holder is just plain right. And his critics are wrong to treat this comment as if it was some devious, unscrupulous defense or an attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

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