When I was a child, I had the tendency to prevaricate and make misleading statements, where what I had said was not false, but left out an important portion of the truth and deceived the listener into believing a falsehood. I used to pride myself on this as a rhetorical skill; it had proved especially useful in games, but I also used it for real life purposes.

However, I recently began to consider how this is any different from lying in practicality; in both cases, the objective is to establish a false belief in the target, or to otherwise keep them away from the truth. The Wikipedia Article on Lies says:

A misleading statement is one where there is no outright lie, but still retains the purpose of getting someone to believe in an untruth.

I hope this is not too open-ended, but what philosophers have considered prevarication and lying, and what were their conclusions? Do any/most systems of ethics consider the two morally equivalent?

In short, would I have been considered a liar in my childhood by any philosopher, although I never spoke falsehoods?


1 Answer 1


I think this may be easier to answer if we reverse the question: off the top of my head, I don't know of any ethicist who has drawn a substantive ethical distinction between outright lying and speaking with the intent to mislead. As far as I recall, everyone treats them as morally equivalent.

Naturally, I'd be happy to defer to counter-examples I may have overlooked.

  • Wow, when you put it that way, the answer seems incredibly obvious. I can't imagine why it's taken me this long to realize it...
    – commando
    Commented Feb 12, 2012 at 17:23
  • Except that most legal codes (and child logic) work by the letter of what is said, rather than reading between the lines. Philosophy may be right, but intention to mislead is very debatable (because you can't judge anything but what -is- literal.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 20:35
  • The counter-example I'm aware of is theologians and others who make a distinction between lying and mental reservation.
    – bdsl
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 15:21

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