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Lately I've been binge-watching the awesome show "The Good Place" (if you haven't, check it out), and as the whole show is talking about ethics, the episode in season 2 when (and I'll try to be as spoiler-free as I can) Chidi has to lie in order to act as someone else, he says he cannot do it, he cannot lie as it's always mortally wrong (according to Kant).

So that got me thinking, maybe the whole concept of acting is to be considered ethically as lying? Now I'm not talking about if this is a "good lie" or a "bad lie" (if that distinction even exists, obviously not for Kant), I'm talking about whether acting is to be considered lying or is it something else entirely, unrelated to the ability to lie. Maybe it's to be considered as playing a game (not the best distinction, as we can also play a game based on lying, but that's just off the top of my head).

I think this question could be expanded to more realms of ethics, but I can't gather my thoughts clearly on this yet so I'll edit when I do.

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  • Plato was against imitation; he would have said that painting was imitative, as well as sculpture; and one could add acting to this too. Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 23:01
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    The scope of "acting" is unclear to me. Not telling the truth is only lying if it is passed as telling the truth. Acting on TV typically makes no pretense to being what it is not. On the other hand, if one acts to mislead or defraud then we need not call it lying either, deception and fraud are as, if not more, serious transgressions.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 0:18
  • @Conifold but if we do go Kant's way that we always have to tell the truth, it would be called lying no? Plus, if we're being realistics, maybe acting on TV "makes no pretense to bring what is it not", but sometimes the consumers (typically the young age, for example) doesn't take it that way. It's a known phenomena that "meeting your hero" makes quite often for an unpleasant situation - you saw your hero on TV and was hoping he'd be like that in real life too, then you discover he's not. Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 9:25
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    I find it more likely that you and Kant have different ideas about what "telling the truth" means.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 23:04
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    When someone acts there is usually a clear understanding between the spectator and the actor that the actor is faking it. The actor is not trying to make the spectator believe a fact that is not true, we could even say the actor makes no factual statement during his acting, his words are purely esthetic. Therefore he is not lying in any sensible use of the word, it would be nonsense. The lined can be blurred if the actor is participating in some form of propaganda movie or something, but then the lie does not come from the acting itself but the overall project.
    – armand
    Commented Jun 18 at 12:52

4 Answers 4

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The essence of performance and film is to meet people's needs for visual supplementation when learning story cases, or to visualize the story, so it should not be seen as lying.

Before modern Homo sapiens, all life relied on direct interaction with nature to gain survival experience, which was preserved and passed down from generation to generation in the genetic information database of each species. And humans are a type of story animal that can virtually and understand stories. Compared to other forms of survival experience learning that life has relied on for billions of years, the story has a significant advantage in widespread dissemination, with better completeness, universality, and ease of learning. This epoch-making leap allows humans to rapidly accumulate various survival experiences (also known as knowledge) at a speed of hundreds or thousands of times compared to other life forms. This is the key reason why modern Homo sapiens, as a species with less than excellent physical abilities, was able to reach the top of the Earth's biosphere in just a few tens of thousands of years.

But people's virtual abilities are still very young, and compared to the intuitive information we have relied on for hundreds of millions of years, such as images, sound, temperature, smell, etc., virtual stories are just a logical indirect information. Due to the immaturity of people's understanding and application of logic, it is much more difficult for virtual stories to gain the trust of our brains compared to intuitive information and experience. Moreover, virtual stories themselves contain a large number of deceptive factors that are difficult to distinguish.

So, even if the plot is exactly the same, movies give a significantly better impression than novels. Even a five point movie can have a greater inner impact than a seven point novel. This is the unique advantage that movies have as a narrative medium in the form of sound and painting, because life has been relying on ancient forms of information such as images and sound for billions of years.

But ultimately, movies are just a form of storytelling, so if the logic of the movie story is too poor, even if the sound and painting are excellent, it can only be a pile of light and sound garbage. A five point movie may be better than a seven point novel, but it is difficult to be better than a nine point novel, and this type of low-quality movie is more detestable than a low-quality novel. The reason is also very simple. If a novel cannot be read, people can close it at any time. But a low-quality movie can make people waste a considerable amount of time in the cinema. Modern society is filled with various types of light and sound garbage, and there is no time to hide. Why spend money to feel it?

This can also explain why streaming movies nowadays can impact cinema movies so quickly and strongly, because streaming websites can allow people to choose stories to watch more quickly and freely. It should be noted that people watch movies first and foremost because of their storytelling. People watch more for the purpose of learning story cases and accumulating survival experience (although the vast majority of people are not aware of this), rather than just for entertainment.

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    I'm not sure that most people need the survival stories that they watch, they are not in such violent situations. Maybe that's because human storytelling has saved us from doing so many damaging things? Yet still people will believe dangerous folks who have actual power. "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 19 at 0:25
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    The history of life exceeds 3.8 billion years, and the complexity of our body is no less than that of the entire universe. So, many aspects of life's nature cannot be understood by human rational thinking with only a few thousand years of history. From the current research results combining information technology and biology, the history of life evolution is actually a process of continuous accumulation of cases.
    – Mike Song
    Commented Jun 19 at 7:09
  • The study of story cases is actually deeply ingrained in our genes, rather than the so-called curiosity. For billions of years, the method of learning life cases has been based on the ancient approach of "death ->accumulating cases ->avoiding death". It is great stories and movies that have freed us from the cost of death and accelerated our learning progress.
    – Mike Song
    Commented Jun 19 at 7:11
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    Evolution cannot allow genes to predict the future, especially when humans form large-scale social systems, and we encounter new troubles every day. These issues still require new stories and movies, even death, to accumulate new survival experiences.
    – Mike Song
    Commented Jun 19 at 11:11
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    @Scott Rowe Okay, I admit we haven't gotten rid of the ancient method of "death ->backlog ->avoiding death", we just replaced it with stories and movies. Accumulating survival cases through death is still the most effective method. The evolution you proposed does not tell us what is scary, but there is indeed such a phenomenon because the accumulated cases of evolution are always based on past experiences, such as living in cold environments that lead to our obsession with sugar.
    – Mike Song
    Commented Jun 19 at 12:02
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Acting is something entirely different.

Acting as a method of entertainment is not lying as it is a mutual deception of sorts. There is usually no malevolent intent.

Fraudulent behavior as in scams or masking truth for personal gain, protection of one's image, or to intentionally put harm to another's wellbeing is malevolent and is considered morally wrong.

In regards to espionage and acting as part of an adversaries forces while malevolent, it can generally be morally acceptable in times of war.

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This is a thought-provoking question. The essence of lying is an intention to deceive, though not all intentions to deceive involves lying : if I deceive you by impersonating someone, I have not lied to you. For the sake of a little more rigour one might define lying like this :

A person S tells a lie iff: 1. S makes a false statement x, 2. S believes that x is false or probably false (or, alternatively, S doesn't believe that x is true), and 3. S intends to deceive another person by means of stating x (by stating x, S intends to cause another person to have false beliefs). ( Thomas L. Carson, 'The Definition of Lying', Noûs, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), p.287.)

'Iff' = 'if and only if'. We can work with this definition and if we do, we see that lying is not lying. The definition is a bit tangled but is about right.

In no sense of lying that we've looked at so far is acting, or does it involve, lying. But your question is not to be so quickly terminated. After all, lying does involve simulation. It is not a game but it is a form of pretending. The situation and the characters represented on stage or on film or in street theatre are, as Plato might say, a step or degree removed from reality. The actors are real but their stage or film characters are only representations of reality - the actors in the 1997 movie, 'Titanic', simulate reality.

The degree of removal from reality is greater when the situations or characters represented are fantasy figures - as in a film or stage production of 'Gulliver's Travels'.

There's another point, too. 'Titanic' - and this is true of any number of other movies - is not only not reality but a simulation of representation of it, there are degrees of accuracy of representation. 'Titanic' is not close history; it contains factual errors. See : https://www.moviemistakes.com/film1299/factual/pageall

So I'd say that though acting is not lying it resembles lying in involving an element of pretending and simulation and, in some cases, misrepresentation.

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  • First of all I'd like to say that what you're giving here is a subtle - yet very important - clarification of "laying", and I like this answer very much for that. I will argue though, that acting can in fact be considered in the narrow realm of this definition - a good actor is judged by his ability to "sell" his acting, so he's definitely trying, at least for a short duration of time, to actually deceive the viewer, while the actor absolutely knows that what he's "selling" is false.. Commented Mar 10, 2018 at 12:50
  • ..(and here we can see the rare occasion in which the actor actually starts believing in the statement he's selling, causing him to deceive himself, which can go to many bad psychological conditions). And as the example I've given in the comments to the question shows, the viewers sometimes actually "buys" the act, then when they meet the actor in real life they're surprised about the change in personality (the "how X actually is IRL" videos in YouTube are plenty of evidence to this statement). Commented Mar 10, 2018 at 12:50
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Intent, purpose and context matters

Is lying inherently bad?

Well, let me ask a question by analogy: is a firearm dangerous?

If you say "Yes", I will show you a picture of a firearm in a safe, in its storage configuration, locked up and unable to be fired at the moment.

If you say "No", I will show you a picture of a firearm being discharged for effect against a living target.

What do we learn from this?

That the thing in itself is neither safe, nor dangerous, unless we can put it in context and judge how it is being wielded, how it is used, and for what intent.

Same with both acting and lying: context matters. Intent and purpose are needed to judge the action.

So are acting and lying morally the same?

Yes, they are, in that they are both amoral, that is to say neither moral nor immoral.

There is no moral judgement to be said about them until you put them in context.

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