Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lying by Omission?

Ellen Page is a lesbian. Far more interesting than the actress' sexuality is her characterization of her previous nondisclosure as, "lying by omission." That particular kind of untruth is perhaps best known through the juridical phrase, "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," a principle by which one is expected to give accurate, complete, and unobscured answers to questions. Answers to questions. It does not require one to go around giving people unsolicited information.

It is, for example, a lie of omission if I ask you which drugs you have done and you, having done many, reply deliberately that you've only smoked marijuana. Such a statement is true, but consciously incomplete. In contrast, it is no lie of omission if you and I sit down to lunch and having decided I much despise you, I treat you kindly and after eating, depart without voicing my loathing for you.

Perhaps Ms. Page feels guilty for giving false impressions, which is only a lie if she was deliberately acting to conceal something. Otherwise people were simply drawing incorrect impressions, which happens all the time. Do we correct all, or any, of these untruths? Everyone makes assumptions about others, most notably that everyone else is like he is, but also more sensibly what is statistically probable. These conclusions are often wrong, but is it necessary to correct everyone's impressions of you? Qui tacet consentire videtur, admittedly another legal not moral principal, but there isn't always a moral imperative to voice your opinion, and therefore silence isn't always a lie, in this case not unless you want everyone to know something about you.

Perhaps Ms. Page thinks that since her conduct does not betoken that she's a lesbian, she's lying. This is an unnecessary conclusion for two reasons. First, not all truths manifest themselves in obvious ways. For example, it's improbable that you know where I keep my slippers or the brand of my cell phone. It's unreasonable to suspect normal social intercourse to reveal certain things and it's not mandatory to overcome this lack of familiarity. Second, it's possible she's confused a falsehood with the act of prevarication. Any act might invite interpretation which is inaccurate without its agent acting in deceit. For example, if you see me eat sauerkraut you might think I like it since you don't know I was doing it to win a bet.

Besides these logical points, it doesn't take much thought to realize the solution of mandatory preemptive disclosure makes a poor maxim. First, we consider people who talk about themselves to be presumptuous, especially when the information is unsolicited. Second, the principle is unnecessarily self-serving: why does it by nature exclude what you don't want known? Should we elevate yet another legal principle, the 5th Amendment, to a moral prescription? This reasoning is hardly systematic, to say the least.

Nitty gritty reasoning aside, it's not unreasonable or unexpected that someone wants to feel liked and normal, to feel accepted. One can more sympathize with that than self-righteous self-expression. I'm not denying it may be virtuous to make an unpopular statement, but it's muddled ad hoc moralizing to call such a silence as Ms. Page's a lie of omission.

No comments:

Post a Comment