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Edward Feser has a fascinating post up on the ethics of lying. Feser, perhaps not surprisingly to his regular readers, follows Augustine in taking up a position in some respects even more extreme than Kant’s: a lie is always wrong, and a lie by omission – like Aśvatthāma the elephant – is just as much a lie.

Not agreeing with Feser’s Augustinian presuppositions, I also don’t agree with his conclusions. I do think that some unambiguous lies can be right because of their consequences, at the very least in extreme cases like the murderer at the door who asks you whether you’re sheltering his next victim (to which Feser refers, as did Kant). But that’s not what’s interesting about Feser’s post, nor is it his point (at least, not directly). Rather, he’s asking what a lie actually is. For him this question is vital because it directly implies which behaviours with respect to the truth are ever permitted and which are not. But it’s still an essential question for those of us who believe that there is something merely bad about all lying, even if that badness can on occasion be outweighed by other factors. Which speech acts possess that intrinsic badness?

Feser says many profound and interesting things in response to this question, but I was particularly struck by one of the first, on pleasantries, and I’m going to spend today’s post riffing on that point. According to Feser, it is not a lie to say “I’m fine, thanks” in reply to “how are you?” when you are not feeling fine, for in such a context “I’m fine, thanks” does not actually mean that you are feeling fine or doing well.

Only in such a context can one make sense of what I have found perhaps the most annoying behaviour of Massachusetts natives: the habit of responding to the phrase “Hi, how are you doing?” with another “Hi, how are you doing?” Such a response would never be uttered by an Ontarian in response to another Ontarian, any more than they would say “Can you tell me how to get to the bank?” in response to “Can you tell me how to get to the bank?” (In my experience, this has also been true of most of the rest of the English-speaking world.) I have always believed that “How are you doing?” is an actual question, and therefore merits an actual response. So, in recent years when I have been convinced of the vital importance of truth-telling, if I am not feeling well I have tried to respond to this question with a shrug and a “meh” – or a similar response that implies that, while I am not feeling particularly well at the moment, it’s not a particularly big deal and the questioner should feel no obligation to distract herself with concern about it.

Feser’s approach, while intended to explain away a pleasantry that is in some sense false, also helps explain pleasantries like the Massachusetts greeting that are literally nonsensical. In Massachusetts, the phrase “how are you?” does not mean anything more than “hello,” and people are occasionally startled when the question receives an answer. The words themselves have no semantic meaning at all.

I’m reminded here of Frits Staal‘s study of Vedic sacrifices and recitation. It has long been noted that many Indians in history (including some still alive) have been able to recite all the words of the Vedas without knowing a single word of the Sanskrit language in which they were composed. Staal used his study of Vedic practitioners to argue against those who searched for an intellectual meaning to every ritual, especially to ritual words like mantras, magic spells. He would claim that many rituals are “rules without meaning” – comparing them and the words spoken in them, instructively, to birdsong. (Insert a joke about Twitter here if you wish.)

If we think of pleasantries as analogous to birdsong, I think we learn something important about them – and we do not necessarily diminish these activities for doing so. Since Aristotle it has been a commonplace that human beings are rational animals – and the “animal” is often just as important as the “rational.” We have a need for wordless reassurance, just like our pets.

One might even apply the term more generally to all the kinds of human behaviours that Confucians call “rites” (li 禮) – patterns of interpersonal behaviour sanctioned by tradition, from solemn ceremonies like weddings and funerals to polite gestures like pleasantries. If we think of pleasantries and other speech rites like birdsong in this way, we return to something like the performance theory of ritual that I had criticized in this post: analyzing spoken words in terms of what they do rather than what they mean. But as I later noted, my earlier criticism was too harsh: many rites should be thought of in terms of what they do rather than what they mean, but we should be clear to include our own rites among these. And here it’s worth noting that this applies to rites that consist solely of words, such as “How are you doing?”. Sometimes, we mean what we say. Sometimes, we just chirp it.

Speaking of rites, I don’t expect to post on Sunday, because I’ll likely be busy with festivities for American Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!