A Quick Note on the Kavanaugh Accusation

Liar Liar“Either he’s lying or she is.”

I’ve come across some version of this statement in several online articles this past week. It seems to be a common point of view among those who withhold judgment (for now) on whose story is correct. But it’s a false dichotomy as it stands.

If two people are making conflicting claims, it doesn’t follow that one of them is lying. It follows only that (at least) one of them is making a false claim. It’s entirely possible to make a false claim without lying. In fact, most of us do it unwittingly on a daily basis. For example, a person can be sincerely mistaken: they claim p because they believe p, even though it turns out that p is false. (There’s also the separate question of whether their mistake is a morally culpable one; a person can be sincerely mistaken yet still guilty of some kind of intellectual negligence.)

Unfortunately it has become commonplace today in public discourse to conflate lying and speaking falsely, especially in politics. Politician A makes a claim which turns out to be false; A is then immediately branded a ‘liar’ by Politician B and all his followers. Well, perhaps A did lie, but the fact that he spoke falsely doesn’t prove it. You have to show that A knowingly spoke falsely or intended to deceive.

I remember during the Iraq War the chant of the “Stop the War” protesters: “Blair lied, people died!” Catchy, but fallacious. It does appear now that the Blair government published and acted on the basis of intelligence claims that turned out to be erroneous, but of course it doesn’t follow for a moment that the Prime Minister lied. That’s a much harder charge to establish.

Either Kavanaugh or his accuser is making some false claims. That’s a logical truism. But it’s a leap to conclude that one of them has to be lying. That’s a far trickier claim to establish. There’s a burden of proof to discharge. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that whoever is making the false claims is more likely to be sincerely mistaken than lying — I don’t know nearly enough about the situation to draw that conclusion — but I do think a principle of charity needs to be applied, all else being equal. If you can explain the facts without having to impute evil intentions to someone, you should do so. That’s simply an application of the Golden Rule. (Of course, if you have positive evidence that someone is lying that’s another matter. I’d say that remains to be seen in this case.)

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