Can a Lie Be “Unintentional”?


The Independent.

I propose as a reflection on semantics that a lie, strictly speaking, cannot be “unintentional.” A lie must know itself to be such in the mind of the liar. Consider the following quotation:

“I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time. It’s not even a question at this point. It’s just a fact.”
— Kanye West

(Quoted in “Say What?” — G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury,”, 10-30-19)

Mr. West’s unquestionably droll assertion is a proper lie because if he is sane he knows it not to be true. In a play for attention he is posing as tip of the turdberg of mendacity that floats worldwide. Otherwise, he would melt into a cast of rivals seeking slots in the Olympiad of hubris by lathering copious blush on their snouts. I credit him with being more artful than that.


Mr. Muilenburg testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Credit Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times.

The case is different with Mark Forkner of Boeing.

The representatives [of the U.S. Congress] also questioned [Boeing chief executive Dennis A.] Muilenburg on messages by Mark Forkner, the plane’s chief technical pilot, who said in private messages during the plane’s development that he was having trouble with MCAS during simulator training and had unintentionally lied to regulators.

(David Gelles and Natalie Kitroeff, “Irate Lawmakers Confront Boeing C.E.O.,” NYTimes, 10-30-19)

By being under-informed about the “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System” that augmented two 737 Max airliners out of the sky, Mr. Forkner apparently passed on bad information. He did not lie, however, because it was not his intention to do so (if he is to be believed). He misspoke out of ignorance. By analogy with the sliding scale of culpable killing applied by pettifoggers, it might be said that he contributed to manslaughter in the deaths of 346 people, but he did not negligently do so. The jury may still be out on his bosses.

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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1 Response to Can a Lie Be “Unintentional”?

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    A greater danger is unintentionally repeating lies, which I gather people do incessantly (just consider anthropomorphic climate change denial, or the ever popular wholesale revision of history). In Kanye’s case is it more accurate to say he’s is lying or that he’s full of shit?

    When Jeff Koons says, with apparent conviction, that he’s working in the traditional of Michelangelo (in reference to his sculptures created by hired artisans), or that he improved upon old master paintings by affixing his trademark blue gazing ball on assistant-painted versions of old master paintings, is he lying?


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