Imagine that you and a couple of friends started a group blog — called it Heaven’s Banner — in which you all pretended to be fictional people having really bizarre conversations (OK, so perhaps this wouldn’t take too much pretending). You and your friends work to create a semblance of warped verisimilitude, and then watch the show. Here is an interesting question: Are you liars?
It is a rather neat little philosophical problem. If one defines lying as making a false statement to someone with the intent that they believe the statement to be true, then arguably our fictional bloggers are lying. On the other hand, they might respond that none of the statements that they made were in fact false. For example, if Heaven’s Banner blogger (HBB) writes as Sextius, “Today I decided to become a cannibal” one might argue that the statement is in fact true, since Sextius is a creation of HBB’s imagination and hence any statements that he makes about (the imaginary) Sextius are by definition true. A counter to this argument is that the statements about Sextius are made in a social context that carries an implicit affirmation about Sextius, namely that Sextius actually exists. (If he is suitably bizarre does this social understanding still hold?) To this argument, HBB might respond that it was nevertheless not his intention that people form beliefs about Sextius’s existence and activities. The response to HBB’s defense, it seems to me, is to say that the meaning of our language is not determined by our subjective intentions but rather by the social meaning that is conventionally assigned to those acts.
Which brings us, as you knew it would, to the law.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether statutes should be interpreted according to the intent of their drafters — or perhaps according to the intent of some idealized, fictional drafter — or according to the plain meaning of their text. For a good sense of some of the arguments, check out Justice Scalia’s response to (Mormon) law professor Steven Smith’s book. Basically, if you are a textualist the HBB is a liar, but if you are an intentionalist he probably is not. For what it is worth, I tend to think that Scalia has the better of the argument with Smith. It seems to me that language is a system of conventional social meaning rather than some emanation of subjective intent. We cannot make our language mean something other than what it conventionally means except according to the conventions set up for altering its meaning. Hence, if I say, “My wife has ugly clavicles” I am lying, even if I don’t intend for this sentence to mean that my wife’s clavicles are ugly.