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Knowledge and the Norm of Assertion

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John Turri

2. Extensions and Connections

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1The basic argument for the knowledge account is self-contained and sufficient to compel assent in an unbiased, attentive mind. But there is yet more evidence for the knowledge account. In this chapter, I discuss six additional lines of evidence. Some are extremely well developed and constitute further compelling evidence for the knowledge account. Others are more tentative but they exhibit enough promise to be worth careful consideration.

Know How

2Humans teach each other many things. We provide each other with information. Our main vehicle for transmitting information is assertion. As we leave the forest, we tell our friend headed into the forest that there is a jaguar nearby. We also teach each other skills and crafts. We show our friend how to get a jaguar to reveal its location so that he can avoid becoming its next meal. Transmitting skills is typically more intensive than transmitting information. But we are often willing to devote time and resources to doing so. This is the basis of all advanced forms of human culture and civilization.

3Recall six of the observations that support the knowledge account of assertion. First, questions about what you know typically function as indirect requests to make assertions. Second, professed ignorance is a legitimate reason to avoid answering questions. Third, questions and remarks about knowledge are appropriate in light of an assertion. Fourth, such questions and remarks fall on a spectrum of aggressiveness. Fifth, citing your knowledge vindicates an assertion that is accused of illegitimacy. Sixth, certain assertions strike us as inconsistent, such as, “The match is today but I don’t know that it is.”

4As we have already seen, these observations are explained by the fact that knowledge is the norm of assertion. And by “knowledge” we of course mean propositional or declarative knowledge — knowledge of truths or facts. But propositional knowledge is not the only sort of knowledge. There is also procedural knowledge, or know-how. Intriguingly, an analogous set of observations motivate a parallel hypothesis about the other main form of human pedagogy, namely, skill transmission. The parallel hypothesis is that, just as knowing that is the norm of information transmission, knowing how is the norm of skill transmission. In brief, knowing, in one form or another, is the norm of both telling and showing.

5Six observations are relevant to the parallel hypothesis. First, asking whether someone knows how to do something can serve as an indirect request for instruction or a demonstration on how to do it. One way to prompt instruction is to ask, “How is this done?” but another way is to ask, “Do you know how this is done?” For example, suppose someone asks you, “Do you know how to make a campfire?” It would be perfectly natural to respond by saying, “Yes, I’ll show you how.” But why would that be? If knowing is the norm of showing, then the question “Do you know how this is done?” enables you to infer that this person wants you to show her and, thus, can function as an indirect request for a demonstration. This is similar to the way one’s question to a bureaucrat, “Are you authorized to make an exception in this case?” can serve as an indirect request for the bureaucrat to show mercy and make an exception. Notice, furthermore, that in the case of both the campfire and the bureaucrat, it is not incompetent to respond by saying “Yes I do know how, but I will not show you” or “Yes I am authorized, but I will not make an exception in your case.” Such responses might be rude but they would not exhibit misunderstanding of what such questions imply.

6Second, professed inability is a legitimate reason to avoid instructing. When you are asked to provide instruction on a task, even if what you know is irrelevant to the task, it is normally appropriate to respond by saying, “Sorry, I don’t know how that’s done/how to do that.” Suppose you are asked, “How is a shoelace tied?” and you respond, “Sorry, I don’t know how to tie a shoelace.” Normally your response would be judged perfectly acceptable. But you are irrelevant to the content of the question, so why is that response any more acceptable than, say, “Sorry, I get depressed when shoelaces are tied”? If knowing is the norm of showing, then by saying “I don’t know how,” you are informing the questioner that you lack the appropriate normative standing to show her, which is surely relevant in the context.

7Third, questions and remarks about knowledge are appropriate in light of offers to instruct or attempted demonstrations. If someone offers instruction or demonstration, it is appropriate to respond, “How do you know [or: Where did you learn] how to do that?” For example, suppose that there is a group of young children, the eldest of whom is a very responsible and likeable eight-year old. The eight-year old holds up a shoe and says to the others, “Today you’re going to learn how to tie a shoelace.” The other children could sensibly respond by saying, “You know how to tie shoelaces?” Similarly, an adult overhearing the eight-year old’s pronouncement could reasonably infer, “He knows how to tie shoelaces.” Why are such responses and inferences sensible? If knowing is the norm of showing, then by offering instruction on a certain task, the eight-year old represents himself as satisfying the norm, namely, as knowing how to tie shoelaces.

8Fourth, more aggressive than “How do you know how to do that?’ are “Do you really know how to do that?” and, especially, “You don’t know how to do that!” When the eight-year old holds up the shoe and says, “Today you’re going to learn how to tie a shoelace,” the other children could also legitimately respond by asking, “Do you know how to tie shoelaces?” or, if they are feeling particularly aggressive, “But you don’t know how to tie shoelaces!” What explains this range of aggressiveness? If knowing is the norm of showing, we can explain it as follows. “How do you know how to do that?” implicitly challenges one’s authority to provide instruction by asking how one came by the relevant know-how; “Do you know how to do that?” explicitly challenges one’s authority to provide instruction by questioning whether one has it; and “You don’t know how to do that!” explicitly rejects one’s authority. Explicitly questioning someone’s authority is more aggressive than implicitly questioning it, and explicitly rejecting someone’s authority is more aggressive than explicitly questioning it.

9Fifth, citing your know-how vindicates a demonstration that is accused of illegitimacy. Suppose you offer a demonstration and someone accuses you, “You’re not in a position to show people how to do that.” Responding with, “Yes I am –– I know how to do this,” would, if true, fully vindicate the demonstration. Indeed, your response seems to flatly contradict the accusation. If knowing is the norm of showing, this is easily explained. How obtuse your accuser would seem if he answered that your response had missed the point. (Accusations made on ethical or legal grounds are different and would have to be handled differently. Such accusations are also irrelevant to my discussion here.)

10Sixth, certain offers strike us as inconsistent. For example, when explicitly attempting to instruct you in the acquisition of a certain skill, it would be very odd for someone to say, “I don’t know how to do this, but [watch me now:] this is how it’s done,” or, “I don’t know how this is done, but let me show you how to do it.” Why do such offers seem defective? If knowing is the norm of showing, then by making the offer you represent yourself as knowing how. But then you proceed to claim that you do not know how, which explicitly contradicts the way you just represented yourself, which explains the inconsistency. The oddity here is not unlike that associated with someone (apparently sincerely) saying, “I do not know how to throw a football,” while throwing a perfect spiral that hits a target thirty yards downfield. Notice also that one can qualify an offer to show by saying, “I don’t know how to throw a football, but I think it’s done something like this,” or, “but it might be done this way.” This seems analogous to the way that hedging an assertion eliminates absurdity: even though “I don’t know that the match is today, but the match is today” seems absurd, “I don’t know that the match is today, but I think it’s today” does not.

11If knowing is the norm of showing, then we can explain each of these observations in a simple, elegant, and unified way. This is strong initial evidence for the hypothesis that knowing is the norm of showing. The hypothesis is further supported by its relationship to the hypothesis that knowledge is the norm of assertion. Combining the hypotheses yields a unified theory of instructional norms: knowledge is the norm of instruction. Or, to use different terminology, knowledge is the prime pedagogical principle. The relevant form of knowledge, declarative versus procedural, depends on whether we are transmitting information or skills.

Guaranteed Knowledge

12I remember very fondly a certain family vacation from several years ago. After months of planning and anticipation, the day finally came. Excitedly, we piled the children into the car and were pulling out of the driveway when my wife, Vivian, asked “Is the door locked?” “Yes, it’s locked,” I answered. Vivian, looking a bit concerned, began thinking aloud about a couple recent burglaries in the neighborhood. “It would be bad if we left it unlocked,” she ended. I looked steadily at her and answered, “I know it’s locked, Viv.” Vivian was satisfied and we began our trip in earnest. (When we got back home, the door was indeed locked and the house and all our belongings were safe and sound. Lucky me.)

13Just as asserting something is more emphatic than guessing, so is guaranteeing more emphatic than asserting. Someone who guarantees and turns out to be wrong is, to borrow J.L. Austin’s memorable phrase, “liable to be rounded on by others” in a way that someone who merely asserts or guesses is not when they turn out wrong. One main motivation for making guarantees is to provide others with enough assurance that they are willing to proceed with a course of action in contexts where they are not satisfied with a mere assertion, as happened at the outset of my family vacation. It is a harmless oversimplification to think of guaranteeing as an especially emphatic assertion, by which you undertake heightened responsibility for the truth of the proposition guaranteed.

14Many theorists have sensed that there is a close connection between saying that you know that something is true and guaranteeing that it is true (Austin 1946; Chisholm 1966; Wittgenstein 1975: §§12, 433, 575; Sellars 1975; Turri 2010a; Turri 2013a). They have noted that saying, for example, “I know that the door is locked” can be a way of guaranteeing that the door is locked. But “I know” does not mean “I guarantee,” so how does saying “I know” end up being a way of guaranteeing? How does it acquire this potential?

15Let us distinguish three different ways that expressions acquire this potential and then see if they can help us answer our question about “I know” and guaranteeing. But first, a word of caution: I do not want to give the impression that the differences among these categories are always hard and fast, or that, for any given expression, it is a black‑and‑white matter which mechanism explains its potential. There is a lot of gray area and room for improving our theoretical understanding of these issues. Nevertheless, the distinctions I am about to draw seem important and useful enough to help shed light on our main question.

16First, sometimes expressions acquire their potential because of conventions that we agree on, either explicitly or implicitly. For convenience, let us call this the conventional mechanism. For example, there is explicit agreement that making an assertion under oath — or, for atheists, affirmation — counts as swearing that the assertion is true. The witness explicitly undertakes the oath and, as a result, swears by asserting. There is implicit agreement that if someone asks you to do something, then responding with “You can count on me” or “I can do that” counts as committing to do it. (If what you are asked to do is make a promise, then saying either of those things counts as promising.) The agreement is only implicit because no one says, “I commit to doing the things that I admit to being capable of doing.” Still, such a response is heard as a commitment.

17Second, expressions can also acquire this potential because of features specific to the conversation in which they are used, background assumptions about communicative intent, and assumptions about the speaker’s goals and preferences. Let us call this the general conversational mechanism. For example, suppose a woman says to a man, “Let’s go to the movies tonight,” and the man replies, “I have a lot to prepare for a major court case scheduled early tomorrow morning.” The woman made a direct proposal and the man’s response would normally count as a denial. That is not because “I have a lot to prepare for a major court case scheduled early tomorrow morning” is conventionally associated with denying proposals, but rather because it is the best way to make sense of his response. To accept the proposal, all he had to say was “sure.” Instead he chose to say that he had a time-consuming task to complete. Moreover, it is reasonable to suppose that declining her proposal will disappoint her, and that people prefer to disappoint others gently and politely. Conclusion: by responding the way he did, he was politely declining her proposal.

18Third, expressions can also acquire this potential because of features specific to the conversation in which they are used, background assumptions about communicative intent, and facts about normative statuses like authority, permission, or entitlement. Let us call this the normative conversational mechanism. For example, suppose a police officer says to a motorist she just pulled over, “I’m able to let you off with a warning this time.” In this way, the police officer grants mercy to the motorist. This is not because of a background assumption that police officers prefer to let speeding motorists off with a warning, as many of us have learned the hard way. There might be something conventional about the police officer’s words here, but that is not all there is. Whatever the complete explanation, an important part of it is that the police officer explicitly says that she is in a position to grant mercy, that she is authorized to do so. Unless she is just being cruel and perverse, she would not mention that authority except to exercise it.

19Conventional and conversational mechanisms are importantly different. With conventions, certain expressions are simply heard as a speech act of the relevant sort. Moreover, it sounds ridiculous to employ the conversational mechanism while denying that you have performed the relevant speech act. For example, if you ask, “Will you drive me to the dentist tomorrow?” it would be absurd for me to respond, “You can count on me to do it, but I’m not committing to doing it.” Additionally, if I say, “You can count on me to do it,” you would appear obtuse if you requested clarification: “So, just to be clear, are you committing to doing this?” Conversational mechanisms differ on all these points. The expression, “I have a lot to prepare for a major court case scheduled early tomorrow morning,” is not simply heard as a denial. Something akin to an inference or calculation seems required to figure out what the speaker has done. Moreover, it is not ridiculous to deny that you have performed the relevant speech act. If the police officer said, “I’m able to let you off with a warning, but I’m not going to,” she would come across as cruel but not ridiculous. Additionally, it is not obtuse to request clarification: “So you’re not giving me a ticket?” (It might be unwise, though. Why push your luck?)

20Let us now return to our main question, how does saying “I know that the door is locked” end up being a way of guaranteeing that the door is locked? To borrow another of Austin’s memorable phrases, why does adding “I know” amount to “taking a new plunge”? Consider again the anecdote about my family vacation. Vivian asks me if the door is locked. My response: I assert that it is locked. But this does not satisfy her. She keeps the topic alive. If we are to get out of the driveway and start our vacation, I am going to have to do better. I could stop the car, get out, walk up the stairs, jiggle the handle, and then, with a blush of embarrassment, make my way back to the car. But I do not do that. Instead, I say, “I know it’s locked,” which satisfies Vivian and helps us on our way. But Vivian already made clear that merely asserting that it is locked would not satisfy her. So adding “I know” counts as more than just asserting — it is taking a new plunge. And the new depth reached is a guarantee. As Wittgenstein put it, “I know” “guarantees what is known, guarantees it as a fact” (1975: §12).

21The explanation for this builds on the knowledge account of assertion. By saying “I know,” you assert that you know. By asserting that you know, you represent yourself as knowing that you know. Furthermore, knowing that you know — second-order knowledge — is the norm of guaranteeing. Thus, by saying “I know,” you explicitly mention that you are in a position to make a guarantee, and this is why saying “I know” has the potential to count as a guarantee. It is an instance of the normative conversational mechanism.

22It makes sense that if first‑order knowledge is the norm of assertion, then second‑order knowledge is the norm of guaranteeing. After all, asserting and guaranteeing are “in the same line of work,” namely, representing to others that certain things are true in the world. But guaranteeing is more emphatic than merely asserting; it puts more of your credibility on the line and more strongly invites others to rely on you. So guaranteeing’s norm should be more demanding than assertion’s. Second-order knowledge is more demanding than first-order knowledge.

Knowledge Valued

23As far back as Plato’s Meno, philosophers have wondered why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief. If a true belief that this is the road to Larissa will get you to Larissa just as well as knowledge that this is the road to Larissa, Plato wondered, then why is knowledge better than mere true belief? This is one question about the value of knowledge.

24For similar reasons, some philosophers also wonder, why is knowledge more valuable than justified true belief (Kvanvig 2003)? (Before doing any philosophy, we value knowledge. Most contemporary philosophers assume that justified true belief is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge (Gettier 1963). But only trained philosophers ever talk about “justified true belief,” so it seems safe to assume that we value knowledge more than justified true belief.) A justified true belief that this is the road to Larissa will get you to Larissa just as well as knowledge will. Moreover, an analogous point holds for every status necessary but not sufficient for knowledge. Why is knowledge better than any such status? This is a second question about the value of knowledge. I do not find this question gripping, but others have.

25Some philosophers also think that knowledge is better than true belief and justified true belief not only in degree but also in kind (Pritchard 2010). Why is knowledge qualitatively better than these other statuses? This is a third question about the value of knowledge.

26Assertion is centrally important to our lives as practical, social beings. It is our primary means of communicating and receiving information needed to plan, coordinate efforts, and, more generally, live flourishing lives. So it is important for us to assert the things we should and not assert the things we should not. Whatever status that allows us to do that is valuable.

27If knowledge is the norm of assertion, then we can answer all three value questions at once. First, knowledge, not true belief, licenses assertion, which explains why knowledge is better than true belief. Second, and similarly, no status insufficient for knowledge licenses assertion, which explains why knowledge is superior to any such status. Third, the difference between asserting what you should and should not is a difference in kind, which explains why knowledge is superior in kind to any status insufficient for knowledge.

Outstanding Questions

28Assertion’s conjugate is questioning. A question is a prompt to assertion, and a correct assertion answers the question. It would be satisfying if this reciprocity was reflected in the two speech act’s respective norms. One possibility is that knowing is the norm of assertion while not knowing (“ignorance”) is the norm of questioning (as suggested by Hawthorne 2004: 24). Beyond the satisfaction felt at this symmetry, there is some evidence that not knowing is the norm of questioning. For instance, if someone asks a question, the response “You already know the answer to that” challenges the question’s propriety. It straightforwardly implies that the question should not have been asked. The challenge here does not seem to be based on considerations of morality, prudence, legality, etiquette, or taste. Instead, it seems to pertain to the question as such — the question qua question. Similarly, the responses “Now, how am I supposed to know that?” or “You know very well that I don’t know the answer” suggest that it was pointless to ask the question.

Reaching Understanding

29Understanding is a form of knowledge, as philosophers and scientists have recognized since as far back as Aristotle (Lipton 2004; Grimm 2006). But not all knowledge is understanding. Beyond bare propositional knowledge of a fact or event, understanding requires knowing the answer to questions about it, such as “when?”, “where?”, and, more importantly, “how?”, “for what?”, and “why?” Allowing for the fact that understanding comes in degrees, your understanding is indexed to the number and, in some ways, detail of the relevant questions you know the answer to.

30It is widely accepted that understanding is closely related to explanation (e.g. Aristotle 350BCE; Kim 1999: 11). In one sense of “explanation,” one fact or event explains another by causing or otherwise producing it, but this is not the sense I am interested in here. Instead, I am interested in “explanation” as a linguistic performance, consisting of one or more assertions that answer questions about the thing being explained.

31While many philosophers have offered theories about the relationship between understanding and explanation, one attractive possibility has not been explicitly identified and developed. I propose that one deep and important aspect of the relationship is normative: understanding is the norm of explanation. An explanation should express understanding. Call this the understanding account of explanation. This account follows from three other very plausible ideas already introduced. First, knowledge is the norm of assertion. Second, an explanation consists of one or more assertions that answer questions about a fact or event’s occurrence, such as “why?” and “how?”. Third, understanding consists in knowing the answer to such questions. If these three premises are correct, then the understanding account of explanation is just a special instance of the knowledge account of assertion: explanation is a special form of assertion, and understanding is the corresponding special form of knowledge.

32Just like the knowledge account, the understanding account finds support in patterns surrounding the ordinary give-and-take of explanation. First, questions about understanding can function as indirect requests to provide explanations. That is, we can effectively prompt explanations by asking about understanding. For example, the question “Do you understand why/how this fire started?” is naturally understood as a request for explanation, and the response “Sure, let me explain…” is fully competent and attentive. But why would that be, if, as is true in most cases, explanation is irrelevant to the content of the question? If understanding is the norm of explanation, then the question “Do you understand why/how this happened?” enables us to infer that this person wants us to explain why/how it happened and, thus, can function as an indirect request for an explanation. This is similar to the way one’s question to a bureaucrat, “Are you authorized to make an exception in this case?” can serve as an indirect request for the bureaucrat to show mercy and make an exception. Notice, furthermore, that in the case of the fire and the bureaucrat, it is not incompetent to response by saying “Yes I do, but I will not explain it to you” or “Yes I am authorized, but I will not make an exception in your case.” Such responses might be rude but they would not exhibit misunderstanding of what such questions imply.

33Second, we can appropriately abstain from offering explanations by citing lack of understanding. Suppose the topic of conversation is the recent fire and you are asked, “How did this happen?” It is perfectly acceptable to respond, “Sorry, I don’t understand it myself.” But you and what you understand are irrelevant to the content of the question, so why is that response any more acceptable than, say, “Sorry, I get depressed when fires occur.” If understanding is the norm of explanation, then by saying “I don’t understand,” you inform the questioner that you lack the authority to offer an explanation, which is surely relevant in the context.

34Third, questions and remarks about understanding are appropriate in light of an offer to explain events. For example, suppose someone offers to explain why the fire occurred, “Let me tell you why this happened.” It is appropriate to respond, “You understand why it happened?” or, “Oh, good, I’m glad someone here understands why it happened.” Why are such questions and inferences sensible? If understanding is the norm of explanation, then by offering to explain, you represent yourself as satisfying the norm, namely, as understanding. And by representing yourself this way, you make such questions and inferences sensible.

35Fourth, more aggressive than “You understand why it happened?” is “But you don’t understand why it happened.” What explains this ordering of aggressiveness? If understanding is the norm of explanation, we can explain it as follows. “You understand why it happened?” challenges your authority to provide an explanation by questioning whether you have it, whereas “But you don’t understand why it happened” explicitly rejects your authority to provide an explanation. Explicitly rejecting someone’s authority is more aggressive than merely questioning whether someone has authority.

36Fifth, citing your understanding vindicates an explanation that is accused of illegitimacy. Suppose the question arises, “Why did the fire occur?” and you offer an explanation. Someone levels the accusation, “You’re not in a position to explain this event.” Responding with, “Yes I am — I understand why it happened,” would, if true, fully vindicate the explanation. Indeed, your response seems to flatly contradict the accusation. If understanding is the norm of explanation, this is easily explained. How obtuse your accuser would seem if he answered that your response had missed the point. (Accusations made on ethical or legal grounds are different and would have to be handled differently. Such accusations are also irrelevant to my discussion here.)

37Sixth, certain offers strike us as inconsistent. For example, it sounds absurd to say, “I don’t understand why it happened, but I can explain why it happened,” or, “I don’t understand how it happened, but here is how it happened…”. Why do such offers seem inconsistent? If understanding is the norm of explanation, then by making the offer you represent yourself as understanding. But in the same breath you claim that you do not understand. Thus, the inconsistency results from explicitly saying that you lack the authority which you represent yourself as having.

38If understanding is the norm of explanation, then we can explain all six observations in a simple, elegant, and unified way. This is good initial evidence for the hypothesis that understanding is the norm of explanation.

39I suspect that the understanding account is often just below the surface in many discussions of understanding and explanation, even if no one has explicitly stated and defended it. One esteemed philosopher of science defines “explanation” as “uttering something with the intention of rendering [a fact or event] understandable,” and then adds, “Such understanding I take to be a form of knowledge” (Achinstein 1983: 23). In a textbook treatment of Carl Hempel’s enormously influential theory of explanation, another philosopher writes in passing, “Explanation has to do with understanding. So an adequate explanation of [an event] should offer an adequate understanding” of the event (Psillos 2002: 218). Passages like these suggest that philosophers of science have recognized, at least implicitly, the attractiveness of the understanding account.

Liar’s Knowledge

40What is it to lie? It is widely held that “there is something peculiarly odious or insulting about a lie as contrasted with other forms of deceit” (Williams 2002: 118; see also Adler 1997). Lies are assertions and cheating is insulting, so one viable hypothesis is that lying is cheating at assertion. To cheat is to knowingly break a rule. One possibility is that lying is asserting what you know to be false. (It might also be required that you intend to deceive your audience; I will suppress this clause in what follows.) On the current proposal, then, you follow the rule when you say what you know is true, and you cheat when you say what you know is false. Call this the known-false account of lying. It neatly complements the knowledge account of assertion.

41Despite its elegant simplicity and pleasing symmetry, the known-false account will immediately provoke stiff resistance. In order for you to know that your statement is false, it must be false. But a standard view is that lying does not require your assertion to actually be false. Instead, you lie if you say something that you think is false. This has long been a standard view in philosophy, all the way back to at least Augustine, who wrote, “He may say a true thing and yet lie, if he thinks it to be false and utters it for true, although in reality it be so as he utters it” (Augustine 395; see also Aquinas 1273, II.II, Question 110, Article 1; Grotius 1625/2001: 258; Frege 1948: 219 n. 8; Chisholm & Feehan 1977; Bok 1978; Searle 2001: 184; Williams 2002). Social scientists adopt the same basic definition. A widely cited textbook on lie-detection says that lying is “defined solely from the perspective of the deceiver and not from the factuality of the statement. A statement is a lie if the deceiver believes what he or she says is untrue, regardless of whether the statement is in fact true or false” (Vrij 2008: 14).

42Philosophers and social scientists alike motivate the standard view by appealing to “intuitions” about thought experiments (e.g., Fallis 2009). For instance, “Suppose that a suspect, who believes that his friend is hiding in his apartment, tells the police that his friend is abroad.” Did the suspect lie, or did he not? “This statement is a lie [even] when, unknown to the suspect, his friend has actually fled the country” (Vrij 2008: 14).

43Sometimes intuitions result from affective or pragmatic considerations, rather than manifesting competence in literally applying the term or concept in question (Sperber & Noveck 2004; Noveck & Reboul 2008; see also Chomsky 1977). On the one hand, if we disapprove of someone, we describe them in ways that reflect our disapproval (Alicke 1992). Saying that someone “lied” sounds disapproving, whereas saying that they “didn’t lie” does not. On the other hand, the options available to us can influence what seems like the right answer (Guglielmo & Malle 2010). If “lied” and “didn’t lie” are the only two options, then “lied” might seem right because it is closer to the truth we want to convey. If the intuitions supporting the standard view were influenced in either of these ways, then that would eliminate one main objection to the known-false account of lying.

44It turns out that intuitions supporting the standard view of lying appear to be influenced in at least one of those ways. Inspired by an ingenious idea by my thirteen year old son, Angelo, he and I conducted a pair of studies in which people considered cases often thought to support of the standard view (Turri & Turri 2015). The stories all featured Jacob, whose friend Mary is being sought by the authorities. Federal agents visit Jacob and ask where Mary is. Mary is at the grocery store but Jacob thinks that Mary is at her brother’s house. Jacob tells the agent that Mary is at the grocery store, so what he says is true despite his intention. In the first study, participants were asked a yes/no question: did Jacob lie about Mary’s location? A very strong majority said that he lied. In the second study, participants were offered four options and asked to select the one that best described Jacob: he tried to tell the truth and succeeded; he tried to tell the truth but failed; he tried to tell a lie and succeeded; he tried to tell a lie but failed. This time, nearly nobody said that Jacob lied and nearly everybody said that Jacob tried to lie but failed to do so.

45It might be argued that these results do not yet undermine the standard view of lying, depending on what people mean when they say that Jacob tried to lie but failed. More specifically, it might be argued that a failed lie is still a lie, just as a failed attempt is still an attempt. To address this concern, we conducted a third study that featured different response options. Instead of asking people to distinguish between successful and failed lies, we asked them to distinguish between cases where someone actually did lie and only thinks he lied. This pair of options gives people flexibility to acknowledge the speaker’s perspective while allowing them to indicate whether things actually are the way they appear to the speaker. Accordingly, we divided people into two groups. Each group read a story where Jacob intended to deceive the agent. In one version of the story, what Jacob says is false (he says that Mary is at her brother’s house, but she is at the grocery story). In the other version, what Jacob says is true despite his intentions (he says that Mary is at the grocery store, and she is at the grocery store). When Jacob said something false, nearly everyone judged that he actually did lie. But when Jacob said something true, nearly everyone judged that he only thinks he lied.

46These results strongly suggest that intuitions motivating the standard view are caused by having an impoverished set of possible answers in view. We should not trust those intuitions. By contrast, a good explanation of the results is that falsity is essential to lying, even though, for various reasons, people will often say that a true assertion was a lie. This conclusion is further supported by results from a subsequent study that used regression analysis and causal modeling to investigate the role of judgments about truth-value in judgments about lying (Turri & Turri under review). In this study, people’s judgments about a statement’s truth-value explained most of the variance in their judgments about whether the speaker lied, even when controlling for other factors, including judgments about deceptive intent.

47These findings eliminate the main objection to the known-false account of lying. Of course, it does not follow that the known-false account is true. But it has two strong points in its favor: it simply and elegantly explains why lying is somehow worse than other forms of deception, and it coheres beautifully with the independently demonstrated knowledge account of assertion. In light of these facts, it deserves further careful consideration.

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