Submitted by Steven Porters on January 8, 2012

Does a lie have to have intent to deceive?

Can a lie simply be not telling the truth or must you intend of deceiving someone? Is deception or motive necessary in it? All of OED’s make reference to deception as a requirement. My Webster’s New World Dictionary also makes repeated references to deceit with one possible exception: “a false statement or action, esp. one made with intent to deceive.” I’m not sure if the especially used there is meant to negate the necessity of motive in the definition or not, considering all of the other definitions requiring it.

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I would say intent is irrelevant for the definition of "lie". Think of so-called "white lie". Suppose your boss gives you a present for your birthday, and he asks, "Do you like it?" If you are polite, you would say "Yes" even if you didn't like it. The "intent" in this case is to be polite or to express your appreciation for the gift.

Many restaurants claim things like "World's best pizza". It's a lie because they have done nothing to prove that they do indeed serve the best pizza in the whole world. Is there an intent to deceive? No, because we all know that claiming something to be "world's best" is a common expression; it is not interpreted literally.

Say, you come home really tired and you are not in a mood to talk to your spouse, so when your spouse asks, "What did you do today?", you reply, "I went to the moon." It's a lie but you have no intent to deceive because it is obvious that you didn't actually go to the moon. The intent is to say, "I don't feel like talking right now," or "Don't ask me boring questions."

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A lie must have intent otherwise is it an error. In your examples, saying yes to the boss's gift is definitely a lie. It is a lie based on a motivation to be polite, but still a lie and intentional deception all the same.

"World's best Pizza" is definitely a lie, and yes, it is intended to deceive the reader into having a falsely grand idea of the quality of the product. Because this type of language is so over-used as to be ineffective, does not absolve it of the motivation to deceive.

"I went to the moon," is definitely a lie and clearly deception because you are avoiding telling the truth. Even a technically true statement, when used to deceive or distract, is still a lie. For example, you catch a child making a mess, you ask, "did you do it?" and they reply, "Mommmy I love you." The statement ouf of context may be true but in this situation it is clearly used as a lie to distract the listener from the mess.

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If there is no difference between a lie and a mistake, then we all lie dozens of times each day. If there is no room for an honest mistake, then the notion of "honesty" loses its practical importance.

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If you say something that's not true and you know it's not true, you've told a lie. If you say something that's not true and you don't know it, you've told a falsehood.

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I wholeheartedly agree with most of the points SM makes. However, in reference to the third paragraph of the comment, it seems to me that a statement used to distract or deceive may or may not be a lie. I think the most agreed-upon requisite of a lie is that its perpetrator believes his or her statement to be false. A person who makes a statement he believes to be true would probably not commonly be thought to be lying, even though he may be intentionally distracting someone from learning the facts of a matter. In that light, the child saying "Mommmy I love you." when asked about a mess he was caught making is employing duplicity and deceit, but I don't think he is lying. That is, unless he believes that he does not love his mother. A lie is only one of various forms of deceit.

I think it's helpful that our language helps us minutely differentiate various forms of deception. Widening the usage of "lie" to include any type of deception, whether or not it entails the statement of falsehood, hinders our ability to clearly describe deception in all its forms. (That's not to say that the development of language in any way "cares" what I think is helpful!)

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If one speaks a lie, full of intent, and there is nary a tree about to hear it, is his soul darkened to any notice?

If I speak a lie, again full of intent, and my wife does not hear the words as they are spoken, and smiles delightfully while thanking me for the complement, is the frustration of the failed attempt a sufficient penance?

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