One late evening during my student days in a university, I put a cigarette in my pocket and went to have tea at the university canteen. While I was walking towards the canteen one of my friends asked me if I had a cigarette. As I had only one in my pocket and I was in no mood to give it to him, I just told him that I had no cigarettes with me at the moment.

In the canteen when I actually put my hand in my pocket to get the only cigarette I thought I had, my mild guilt of having lied to my friend turned into frustration. I had dropped my cigarette en route somewhere.

To this day I wonder whether it could be said that I lied to my friend, especially if we suppose that, without my knowing, I possibly dropped it before the encounter with my friend? Thanks for any clarification.

  • It’s probably a lie if you answer the opposite from what’s your best knowledge at the time is. So yes, you’ve lied.
    – jjack
    Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 10:35
  • Yes, you lied. You intended to deceive your friend. Matters not one iota that you were incorrect about the facts.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 16:11
  • You are answering your question: "my mild guilt of having lied to my friend". Whatever happened with the cigarette is another history, as Mr.Kennedy states.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 4:12

5 Answers 5


A lie is, to a first approximation, a statement believed to be false and intended to cause a false belief in another. In this sense you did lie even if you had already lost the cigarette when you denied having one on you. You believed you did have a cigarette and intended your friend to believe falsely that you did not.

If we tightened the conditions and defined a lie as a statement known to be false and intended to cause a false belief in another, then you did not lie if you made the statement when you had already lost the cigarette, because you did not in fact have one and therefore cannot have known that you did.

We enter a maze of possibilities but perhaps the distinction between these two analyses will throw some light.


This seems to be a variation on a Gettier problem where Gettier problems pose issues for justified true belief as a definition of knowledge.

Here the poles are reversed and you're asking whether something is a lie if you intended to provide what you believed was false information but end up providing true information due to state changes you were unaware of.

Whether what you did is a "lie" hinges on where the priority lies in defining a lie. To a first approximation, let's start with:

(L) A lie is an intentional untruth.

On this immediate definition, there's actually an ambiguity as to whether what you said qualifies as a lie hidden in the word "untruth."

The question is whether "untruth" means that you (a) know something is true and state the opposite or (b) state something that is not true or (c) whether the phrase only works as "intentional untruth." If "intentional" and "untruth" are separable than what you said is not a lie since it won't meet the condition of being an untruth.

To see whether they should be separable, we need a theory of why lying is wrong (assuming it is). If we look at Kant's theory, we would hold that lying is wrong because it does not give what is due to a rational being (the truth for their decision-making process). On Kant and similar theories, what you did still seems to qualify as a lie, because you intended to leave the recipient with misinformation (see MM's definition of lying).

Before stopping there, however, it's important to realize that it might still not be a lie in the moral sense on Kant's picture (or on Hegel's for that matter). To understand why we have to look at Kant's quodlibetal questions about lying. Here, we'll find that Kant doesn't think you are lying when you engage in social niceties like telling someone they look okay when it's socially the correct thing to do.

Here, we can distinguish between a friend or acquaintance bumming a cigarette from you and the cops asking if you have any cigarettes. Presumably, the purpose of the former question is "do you have any cigarettes that I can have?" and the latter is more a question of the true fact of the matter. Given this qualifier, it may not be lying even for Kant to say "no, I don't" when the real question being asked is whether or not they can have one.

The analyses for lying will work out differently for other common theories. Virtue ethics would seem disposed to say that you are "lying" insofar as your dispositionally harming your character by gaining a pattern of not being truthful.


It is not a lie if you understand that he was asking for a spare cigarette. You had only one for yourself. So you did not have a spare cigarette for him.

But it is a lie in a logical sense that you did have a cigarette, but you did not have the courage to explain to him that you only had one and you did not want to share it.

So it is up to you to say, are you are a liar or a smoker? I think you are more of a smoker in the way that you are questioning your own moral attitude here in the community.


From your perspective, you were lying, but you may have accidentally been telling the truth, depending on when your pocket was empty.


This is what you said to your friend:

no cigarettes with me at the moment

The actual state could have been either:

do have cigarettes || do not have cigarettes

Biologically, you were lying, because lying is a cognitive process where you exert effort to suppress the expression of your true beliefs. This a major topic in forensic psychology, specifically in the field of interrogation of suspects and the use of lying detectors. Even though a suspect passes a 100% accurate lie detector does not always mean the suspect has told the truth. A suspect can have false beliefs.

Telling lies and telling the truth are both behaviors and therefore are the truth: the electrochemical processes exist. So, even a lie contains information representing the truth. Semantically, however, the truth can never be known. It could even have been that you were both lying and telling the truth at the same time (see Schrödinger's cat). Perhaps you saying that you did not have a cigarette accelerated toward the state of you not having a cigarette.

The problem with beliefs is that they can stochastically be true or false. Consider Alice and Bob each throwing a die ten times of which the last round blindfolded. The first nine rounds Alice never threw a six while Bob always threw a six. Who would you believe: Alice saying she never threw a six or Bob saying he always threw a six? Who is lying harder? In that sense we are all blindfolded.

It could even be so that you unconsciously held knowledge that you had lost your cigarette, so your knowledge was unsure. Note that knowledge is located not in just one part of the brain (or mind), or just in the body. Even the environment holds knowledge. For example, ants use pheromones to store knowledge in the environment.

So while you were biologically lying you simply did not 'know' you were telling the truth. If you have said "I think I do not have cigarette." it would have been a lie, because you actually believed you had. Saying "I do not have a cigarette." is the safer lie. You did not include information about your mental state. That's why keeping silent and disclosing as little information as possible is the best strategy to not be caught telling a lie.

Also, semantically if you only had 1 cigarette to begin with and you said "I don't have cigarettes." (i.e. more than one cigarette) you could have told the truth. Semantics are your best friend for creating a false belief without telling a lie.

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