A couple days ago the New York Times published an opinion piece grandly titled “Trump’s Lies.” The article purports to chronicle “nearly every outright lie he has told publicly since taking the oath of office.” The reader is then treated to a chronicle of dizzying length and breadth chronicling all the public instances where the POTUS uttered false statements. There can be no doubt that the list provides a sweeping indictment of the man and his character. (Sadly there can also be no doubt that most Trump supporters won’t care. Instead, in emulation of their hero they’ll simply ignore the list with a bleat about the “crooked media”.)
The biggest problem with the list is that falsehoods are not the same thing as lies. While Trump is undoubtedly a habitual purveyor of falsehoods, not every falsehood is a lie and it is worthwhile distinguishing different types of falsehoods, not least so we may gain a more accurate understanding of Trump’s pathological inability to track the truth.
We should begin by distinguishing between four different types of falsehoods (the definitions are mine):
false witnessing: “a false statement which one believes to be true and which one communicates to others as true.”
lie: “which is known or believed to be false and which is communicated to other people as true with the intent that they form the false belief that it is true
delusion: “a false belief that is retained despite the lack of evidence for it and/or one’s awareness of counterevidence to it.”
bullshit: “a statement which one does not know to be true or false but which one expresses as true in order to elicit a particular effect in the hearer.” (This definition is based on Harry Frankfurt’s conceptual analysis of the concept.)
For every one of the falsehoods in this very long list to be a lie, Trump would need to know each one was false or misleading at the time he uttered them, and he would need to have uttered them with the intent that others come to believe them as true.
It is manifestly clear, however, that in the vast majority of cases, the evidence clearly underdetermines the conclusion of lying. For example, consider the second entry on the list. (Note that in this and all other examples, the authors begin by quoting Trump and then providing counterevidence to his claim.):
JAN. 21 “A reporter for Time magazine — and I have been on their cover 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine.” (Trump was on the cover 11 times and Nixon appeared 55 times.)
The authors establish clearly that Trump uttered a falsehood (he was only on the cover 11 times, not 14 or 15 times) and thus he is minimally culpable here of false witnessing. But it is also clear that the authors have provided no evidence that Trump lied in this instance. To do that, they would need to provide evidence that he knew he had not been on the cover of Time “14 or 15 times”, and that others had (or likely had) appeared on Time more than he had.
Consequently, instances like this do not obviously illustrate anything more than Trump’s false witnessing.
Let’s be clear, however: false witness does not exonerate a person’s character. If one consistently bares false witness, as Trump does, then at the bear minimum they demonstrate a troubling and morally culpable lack of concern for epistemic virtue.
Think, by analogy, of an electrician who repeatedly fails to install and maintain wiring that meets code. The man may not be deliberate in his ineptitude, but he is morally culpable nonetheless. By the same token, even if Trump isn’t lying, delusional, or bullshitting, he is at the very least a habitual false witness; he’s reckless, incautious, and unreliable with the truth. And that alone is a sufficient indictment of his character.
Having said that, working through the NY Times list I find that in many cases the most plausible interpretation of the falsehood in question is indeed that Trump is lying, or delusional, or bullshitting. So while he is a habitual purveyor of falsehoods, in many cases I believe he is not simply a habitual purveyor of falsehoods.
What is important, however, is that as we offer critical engagement with Trump’s falsehoods, with his habitual inability to track with truth and exhibit epistemic virtue, we not fall into the same trap. And that’s what happens when we incautiously opt to describe all his falsehoods as lies.
Instead, we model a concern for genuine epistemic virtue, precision and truth, when we limit our charges to the evidence: that means charging Trump with false witness when the evidence only warrants that lesser charge, and restricting the charges of lies, delusion, and/or bullshit only in the cases where the evidence warrants the charge.