Saint Athanasius was rowing on a river when the pursuers – who did not recognize him – asked, ‘Where is the traitor Athanasius?’ ‘Not far away,’ the Saint replied and rowed past them.
This case is unanimously explained as a case in which the saint managed to avoid lying. Rather than lying, that is, Athanasius seems to have ‘merely’ misled the pursuers that he is not the traitor Athanasius. The case and the lying/misleading distinction also have a very interesting application on ethical debates on lying.
According to the absolutist view on lying, lying is an offence against truth; hence, we may never lie. Kant, for example, famously writes that the demand not to violate the moral law is so strong that, even if a murderer knocks on my door looking to kill my friend who is in my house, it would be a crime to lie to him. Drawing a sharp and clear distinction between lying and other forms of deceitful speech (i.e., between lying and ‘merely’ misleading) appears to offer a way out of the requirement for absolute truth. Unlike lying, misleading and deceptive speech in general are not unqualifiedly wrong because they need not violate the fundamental principle that we must always be truthful: when I am being misleading, I tell you something true that causes you to infer something false from it.
But where lies the distinction between lying and misleading speech? On the predominant view, to lie one must assert what one says. However, it has been recently argued that one can lie by presupposing false implication, or by implicating it, or by making false promises (see, the ‘Lying’ leaf). Even some experimental evidence supports some of these views (e.g., regarding lying by implicating). And, if one counts as lying by asserting a true proposition while implicating false information, then what one needs to do to be merely misleading in speech? Also, is it really true that lying is worse than mere misleading?
These questions have received a notable attention recently and the debate is extremely interesting.