Can you tell a lie nonlinguistically? That is, is it reasonable that certain actions or even physical objects should be regarded as embodying lies? A couple of clearly somewhat dishonest examples:
- In the Best Western El Rancho Inn on El Camino Real in Millbrae (Millbrae sounds Scottish but it is near the San Francisco International Airport; I am waiting for a flight to take me back to Edinburgh) the Colombian-made cotton towels and facecloths bear a label stating the brand name "Five Star". El Rancho is nice, but it is a standard-grade California motel, not five star. Could the towel company be trying to misinform me about the quality I am enjoying?
- In the Office Depot store across the street from the El Rancho there is a demo of wireless printing from an HP laptop to an HP All-In-One printer / scanner / fax / copier / toaster. The sign brags about the built-in wireless networking and says you should open WordPad on the laptop and type something and then click "File | Print", and what you typed will magically appear on the nearby printer. But I checked the laptop more closely. Discreetly plugged into the side of it is a USB cable. I traced the cable. It runs to the printer. There is no wireless connection at all. Could they be trying to mislead me about how well wireless printer networking works?
For a clarification I turned to a nice paper by Don Fallis called "What is lying?" in the Journal of Philosophy last January (volume CVI [J Phil is one of the last institutions struggling to keep Roman numerals alive], 29-56, reading version of the manuscript available here). Fallis's view (defended against a large range of alternatives) is that you lie to a person X when, and only when, you assert P to X in a situation where you believe P to be false and you believe you are in a situation where the usual norm of not stating falsehoods is in effect. (The latter part covers all sorts of odd situations like saying "My name is Bond; James Bond" when acting Bond in a movie: during filming, the norm barring falsehoods is not in effect. But if you said the same thing to someone you met in a bar, and were not saying it ironically, and your name is not James Bond, you would be lying. And so on.)
Manufacturers' brand names on towels do not assert (they are merely names). So that lets the towels off the hook (excuse the figure of speech; my towel actually is on the hook, but never mind). And nothing in the Office Depot sign actually asserts "Your document will then be printed wirelessly", or "No cable connects this laptop to the printer beside it". So there is no lying there. (Well, the laptop is lying there, but that's a different verb lexeme; see my post on lie/lied, lie/lay, and lay/laid.)
Fallis's account makes it definitional that a physical object or a hardware demo or a mask or a false license plate or a wolf in sheep's clothing cannot be lying. That, probably rightly, is the standard view: lying is linguistic.
I will leave comments open below, but try to tell the truth.