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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.

  • Plato was against imitation; he would have said that painting was imitative, as well as sculpture; and one could add acting to this too. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 7 '18 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 Feb 8 '18 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. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 8 '18 at 9:25
  • We do not always have to tell the truth because we do not always even know what it is, morality does not demand the impossible. And in fictional settings telling the truth is telling the truth according to fiction. Kant had no objections to theater and praised Moliere. – Conifold Feb 8 '18 at 22:21
  • @Conifold I'm not saying Kant was 100% Kantian. But given the statement "not telling the truth is morally bad on every occasion", maybe Kant praising thr theater is a hypocrite Kant. – Yechiam Weiss Feb 8 '18 at 22:28
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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.

  • 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.. – Yechiam Weiss Mar 10 '18 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). – Yechiam Weiss Mar 10 '18 at 12:50
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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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