Lying is an everyday moral phenomenon about which philosophers have written a lot. Not only the moral status of lying has been intensively discussed but also what it means to lie in the first place. Perhaps the most important criterion for an adequate definition of lying is that it fits with people’s understanding and use of this concept. In this light, it comes as a surprise that researchers only recently started to empirically investigate the folk concept of lying. In this paper, we describe three experimental studies which address the following questions: Does a statement need to be objectively false in order to constitute lying? Does lying necessarily include the intention to deceive? Can one lie by omitting relevant facts?
Imagine you and your friend Pierre agreed on meeting each other at a café, but he does not show up. What is the difference between a friend’s not showing up at your meeting and any other person not coming? In some sense, all people who did not come show the same kind of behaviour, but most people would be willing to say that the absence of a friend who you expected to see is different in kind. In this paper, I will spell out this difference by investigating laypeople’s conceptualisation of absences of actions in four experiments. In languages such as German, French, Italian, or Polish, people consider a friend’s not coming an omission. Any other person’s not coming, in contrast, is not considered an omission at all, but just a mere nothing. This use of the term omission differs from the usage in English, where ‘omission’ refers to all kinds of absences. In addition, ‘omission’ is not even an everyday term, but invented by philosophers for the sake of philosophical investigation. In other languages, ‘omission’ (and its synonyms) is part of an everyday vocabulary. Finally, I will discuss how this folk concept of omission could be made fruitful for philosophical questions.
The omission effect, first described by Spranca and colleagues (Spranca, Minsk, & Baron, 1991), has since been extensively studied and repeatedly confirmed (Cushman, Murray, Gordon-McKeon, Wharton, & Greene, 2012). All else being equal, most people judge it to be morally worse to actively bring about a negative event than to passively allow that event to happen. In this paper, we provide new experimental data that challenges previous studies of the omission effect both methodologically and philosophically. We argue that previous studies have failed to control for the equivalence of rules that are violated by actions and omissions. Once equivalent norms are introduced, our results show that the omission effect is eliminated, even if the negative outcome of the behavior is foreseen and intended by the agent. We show that the omission effect does not constitute a basic, moral disposition but occurs exclusively in complex moral situations. Building on these empirical results, we cast doubt onto two influential explanations of the omission effect, the Causal Relevance Hypothesis and the Overgeneralization Hypothesis, and provide a novel explanation of the phenomenon. Furthermore, we discuss various ramifications of the interplay between our understanding of omissions and legal systems.