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Hidden Brain

The truth is, lying might not be so bad.

Shankar Vedantam 2017 square

Shankar Vedantam

With repeated lies, the brain becomes less and less sensitive to dishonesty, supporting ever larger acts of dishonesty. But why do we lie and is it such a terrible thing if we do?

short persuasive speech about lying is always wrong

Dan Ariely has found that "what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity." Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images hide caption

Dan Ariely has found that "what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity."


If you ever tell a lie, it would be normal for your conscience to bother you. But here's a question. If you tell many lies, does that voice inside go quiet? Neuroscientists recently explored this idea. And our colleague Rachel Martin sat down to talk about it with NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam.


Hi, Shankar.


MARTIN: So we're talking about neuroscientists. They were studying the brain, as they are known to do.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Who are they, and what did they find?

VEDANTAM: So that's right. If you buy the idea that all behavior stems from the brain, Rachel, this prick of conscience that we often experience obviously has something to do with what's happening in the brain. Some months ago, Neil Garrett, Stephanie Lazzaro, Dan Ariely, and Tali Sharot conducted a very interesting study. I talked to Dan Ariely. He studies economics and psychology at Duke University. And he said that the premise of the study was actually a very old idea.

DAN ARIELY: The brain is really a mechanism for detecting surprising things, right? The brain is basically working on adaptation. You get to a certain level of flight. In the beginning it's surprising, and then you get used to that environment.

VEDANTAM: Ariely and his colleagues wanted to know if the same thing happens when you tell a lie. Just as your brain and your eyes adapt to being out in bright sunlight, does your conscience adapt to you being deceitful?

MARTIN: All right, so how did they go about testing this?

VEDANTAM: Well, they scanned the brains of volunteers using what's known as an fMRI machine. It picks up dynamic changes in the brain as you're thinking. And they had volunteers participate in a series of experiments where they were given the opportunity to tell lies in order to improve the rewards they received. The researchers found something that you won't find surprising. Once participants told the first lie, the second lie became easier to tell. And the magnitude of lies increased over time.

When the researchers scanned the brains of the volunteers, they found an explanation for this behavior.

ARIELY: It turns out that the brain also reacts very strongly to a first act of lying. But then as we keep on lying more and more, the brain kind of stops reacting to it. So we start by being aware of this maybe being a dishonest act, and we're at least aware of it. But over time, it just goes into the background and we don't pay attention to it.

VEDANTAM: So as volunteers lied repeatedly, Rachel, brain activation in a region of the brain known as the amygdala slowly decline. So in exactly the same way as your eyes react to being in bright sunlight, there was less brain reaction to each new act of deception.

MARTIN: And I'm going to assume that there were no consequences to these lies...

MARTIN: ...'Cause these people who were telling lies, there were no negative effects that would convince them that maybe they shouldn't keep telling them.

VEDANTAM: That's absolutely right. So if you tell lies at work or at home, eventually those lies are going to catch up with you and presumably, you will face negative consequences. Your brain's going to notice those negative consequences, and that'll change your behavior. This experiment is just talking about how the slippery slope works. The first step down the path of deception makes every subsequent step easier.

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a podcast exploring the science of deception and other topics related to human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.


INSKEEP: Everything Shankar said, definitely true. He's speaking with our own Rachel Martin.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

short persuasive speech about lying is always wrong

  • Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
  • Ethics Resources
  • Ethical Decision Making

First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally.

"I don't dig into people's private lives. I never have." Ross Perot's brief statement on ABC News in July 1992 was meant to end allegations that he secretly investigated his presidential campaign volunteers. The allegations ended, but not the way Perot intended. Within hours, irrefutable evidence appeared that proved Perot had hired others to probe his people's pasts. By the next day, there was no question on anyone's mind: Ross Perot lied.

So what? It wasn't the first time a politician lied and it won't be the last. Sometimes a lie, a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive, seems the perfect response: a brother lies about his sister's where-abouts to the drunken husband threatening to harm her, a doctor tells a depressed patient that he has a 50-50 chance of long-term recovery when she is confident he'll live only six months, a son gives his late mother's estate to the poor after promising to honor her demand that the money be placed in her coffin. When trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation, perfect honesty may seem second best next to values like compassion, respect, and justice. Yet many philosophical and religious traditions have long claimed that rarely, if ever, is a lie permissible. What, then, is the truth about lying?

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong. He argued that all persons are born with an "intrinsic worth" that he called human dignity. This dignity derives from the fact that humans are uniquely rational agents, capable of freely making their own decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason. To be human, said Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, he continued, is to respect that power in oneself and others.

Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy. Kant believed that to value ourselves and others as ends instead of means, we have perfect duties (i.e., no exceptions) to avoid damaging, interfering with, or misusing the ability to make free decisions; in other words - no lying.

A second perspective, virtue ethics, also maintains that lying is morally wrong, though less strictly than Kant. Rather than judge right or wrong behavior on the basis of reason and what people should or should not do, virtue ethicists focus on the development of character or what people should be. Virtues are desirable qualities of persons that predispose them to act in a certain manner. Fairness, for example, is a virtue we may choose to strive toward in pursuit of fulfilling our human potential. In virtue ethics, to be virtuous is to be ethical.

Though the nature of virtue ethics makes it difficult to assess the morality of individual acts, those who advocate this theory generally consider lying wrong because it opposes the virtue of honesty. There is some debate whether a lie told in pursuit of another virtue (e.g., compassion: the brother's lie to his sister's drunken husband is motivated by compassion for her physical safety) is right or wrong. This apparent conflict between virtues is managed by most ethicists through a concept called the unity of the virtues. This doctrine states that the virtuous person, the ideal person we continuously strive to be, cannot achieve one virtue without achieving them all. Therefore, when facing a seeming conflict between virtues, such as a compassionate lie, virtue ethics charges us to imagine what some ideal individual would do and act accordingly, thus making the ideal person's virtues one's own. In essence, virtue ethics finds lying immoral when it is a step away, not toward, the process of becoming the best persons we can be.

According to a third perspective, utilitarian ethics, Kant and virtue ethicists ignore the only test necessary for judging the morality of a lie - balancing the benefits and harms of its consequences. Utilitarians base their reasoning on the claim that actions, including lying, are morally acceptable when the resulting consequences maximize benefit or minimize harm. A lie, therefore, is not always immoral; in fact, when lying is necessary to maximize benefit or minimize harm, it may be immoral not to lie. The challenge in applying utilitarian ethics to everyday decision making, however, is significant: one must correctly estimate the overall consequences of one's actions before making a decision. The following example illustrates what utilitarian decision makers must consider when lying is an option.

Recall the son and his dying mother described earlier. On careful reflection, the son reasons that honoring his mother's request to settle the estate and deposit the money in her coffin cannot be the right thing to do. The money would be wasted or possibly stolen and the poor would be denied an opportunity to benefit. Knowing that his mother would ask someone else to settle her affairs if he declared his true intentions, the son lies by falsely promising to honor her request. Utilitarianism, in this example, supports the son's decision on the determination that the greater good is served (i.e., overall net benefit is achieved) by lying.

Altruistic or noble lies, which specifically intend to benefit someone else, can also be considered morally acceptable by utilitarians. Picture the doctor telling her depressed patient that there is a 50 percent probability that he will recover, when in truth all tests confirm the man has only six months to live. The doctor knows from years of experience that, if she told this type of patient the truth, he would probably fall deeper into depression or possibly commit suicide. With the hope of recovery, though, he will most likely cherish his remaining time. Again, utilitarianism would seem to support the doctor's decision because the greater good is served by her altruistic lie.

While the above reasoning is logical, critics of utilitarianism claim that its practical application in decision making is seriously flawed. People often poorly estimate the consequences of their actions or specifically undervalue or ignore the harmful consequences to society (e.g., mistrust) that their lies cause. Following the examples above, the son's abuse of his mother's faith in him and the doctor's lie undermine the value of trust among all those who learn of the deceits. As trust declines, cynicism spreads, and our overall quality of life drops. In addition, suggesting that people may lie in pursuit of the greater good can lead to a "slippery slope," where the line between cleverly calculated moral justifications and empty excuses for selfish behavior is exceedingly thin. Sliding down the slope eventually kindles morally bankrupt statements (e.g., "Stealing this man's money is okay because I will give some to charity.") Those who disagree with utilitarianism believe that there is potentially great cost in tolerating lies for vague or subjective reasons, including lies in honor of "the greater good."

Critics of utilitarian justifications for lying further note how difficult it is for anyone, even honorable persons, to know that a lie will bring more good than the truth; the consequences of actions are too often unpredictable. Lies frequently assume "lives of their own" and result in consequences that people do not intend or fail to predict. Moreover, it is very difficult for a person to be objective in estimating the good and the harm that his or her lies will produce. We have a vested interest in the lies we tell and an equally vested interest in believing that the world will be better if we lie from one instance to the next. For these reasons, critics claim, lying is morally wrong because we cannot accurately measure lies' benefits and harms.

Clearly, lying is an issue worth examining, as many people believe it is a bigger problem today than it has ever been. A recent Time magazine cover story concluded, "Lies flourish in social uncertainty, when people no longer understand, or agree on, the rules governing their behavior toward one another." Maybe social uncertainty abounds because we are a mixture of Kantians, virtuists, and utilitarians who share no common ground. More likely, the problem is that too few persons adequately consider any ethical perspective when facing a situation that tempts a lie. Either way, it seems that the solution to our dissatisfaction begins with acknowledging the value of ethical reasoning and ends with a commitment to follow through with what we determine is the right thing to do.

Further Reading

Bailey, F. G. The Prevalence of Deceit , Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life . New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Greenberg, Michael A. "The Consequences of Truth Telling." JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 266 (1991): 66.

Revell Jean-Francois. The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information. New York: Random House Books, 1992.

Thaler, Paul. "The Lies that Bind." The New York Times Magazine 140 (June 9, 1991), 16.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 6, N. 1 Fall 1993. 

Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D.

Wait, Lying Isn’t Inherently Bad?

The bright side of deceptive communication..

Posted June 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

  • Despite popular opinion, deception isn't always bad.
  • Lying can be functional when used in prosocial ways (e.g., a surprise party) or to help someone in need (e.g., staging an intervention).
  • Whether deception is ultimately good or bad depends on the deceivers' intentions and motives.


Relationships are built on foundations of trust. When trust is broken, relationships suffer tremendously, and some won’t survive.

Some cultures, like those in North America, have an ideology of openness and honesty in our close relationships. In fact, Dr. Steve McCornack’s research explains how people expect truthfulness as a fundamental feature of conversations. People don’t enter interactions expecting others to lie to them—that would be too much cognitive effort.

Dr. Timothy Levine has devoted his life to deception and detection. His research on deception has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)! Dr. Levine’s truth default theory explains how honesty is highly adaptive, and it enables efficient communication. However, the presumption of honesty makes us vulnerable to not noticing when people deceive us and inhibits our ability to detect deception.

Although we hope our friends and loved ones don’t just flat-out lie to us, research suggests that people engage in deception quite regularly in relationships. It’s not always just these obvious instances of intense fabrications of the truth that are considered deceptive.

Types of deception

Deception is any statement that someone makes to another person knowingly and intentionally distorting the truth. Dr. Levine’s work, alongside Dr. Judee Burgoon, emphasizes how deception is communicated through an assortment of façades, and lying is just one form of deception. From strategic ambiguity and insane fabrications to more subtle and mundane camouflages of truthful information, there are several forms of deceptive communication. The more ambiguous forms of deception, such as omission or avoidance, are actually the types of deception that occur most frequently in relationships. Yet, most people automatically attribute the word “lying” to a host of negative characteristics and assume that engaging in deception is a dark phenomenon that impedes and erodes our relationships.

Wutana Thongkuanluek/Shutterstock

The dark side perspective to deception

But let’s take a spin on this. Let’s consider how deceiving can actually be helpful. Welcome to the Dark Side! When I refer to the dark side perspective of deception, I’m referring to instances when deceiving could actually be beneficial . The founders of studying the dark side, Dr. Brian Spitzberg and Dr. William Cupach, developed this perspective to shed light on the paradoxical nature of some communication, like deception.

And let’s be honest—we’ve all lied. In fact, some research suggests that we lie about one to two times a day in relationships. With strangers, it's even worse. Some studies suggest that we lie 77 percent of the time to people we don't know! Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever….

Exaggerated a story to make it more exciting?

Told someone you’ve had a great week when, in fact, it was awful?

Made an excuse that wasn’t actually true?

Told your spouse your shirt was old, though you just bought it?

Told your significant other you were texting your friend when it was someone else they didn’t like?

Told a child that the Tooth Fairy was real?

Helped conceal a surprise party?

If you’ve said “yes” to any of these statements, you’ve lied. But like the last example, being part of throwing a surprise party and concealing it from the guest of honor… is that really a bad thing? Unless they hate surprise parties, like my second father (it’s a long story), most people would agree that lying in this situation, under this motivation , is completely and totally fine. Actually, you might be in trouble for telling someone about their surprise party because you’ve ruined it.

And that’s the spin: Deception isn’t always a bad thing. There can be benefits to deception as well. Let me fill you in on a little secret; sometimes, honesty isn’t the best policy.

Source: Lunatictm/Shutterstock

4 situations when deception is probably the best and right approach

  • To your parents. Sometimes Mom and Dad don’t need to know the details of everything you’ve done. Though this depends on your age, as you get older, keeping some information from your parents isn’t inherently a bad thing. Your parents don’t need to know about the most recent argument you got into with your spouse or the number of sex partners you’ve had. In fact, the latter would be a tad strange. Therefore, and don’t hate me, parents, but you don’t need to know everything.
  • To someone who needs help. Sometimes, in order to get someone to comply, deception might be useful. Take, for instance, a situation with someone who suffers from addiction . Potentially lying to them to get them to go to an intervention could save their life.
  • To an elderly person suffering from a cognitive disease. I remember when my grandfather was suffering from dementia . What good was it to tell him the spatula isn’t a griddle? Instances like these can actually make the dementia-suffering individual more aggressive, and with something so minuscule, why even bother?
  • To yourself. Lying to yourself can actually be very productive. Some personal disclosure here, I suffer from severe attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). A professor at Arizona State University told me to start telling myself my ADHD made me a better person, and it would not hinder my academic performance. This professor told me to put it on a notecard, lay it on my nightstand, and tell myself this every night when I went to bed and every morning when I woke up for 30 days (emphasis on the 30 days). Why 30 days? Well, research says it takes about 30 days to form a habit. After 30 days, and I’m not even exaggerating, it transformed my life. That’s because it boosted my self-esteem and created a self-fulfilling prophecy: When you feel more confident, you might just work that much harder because of it.

If you haven’t noticed by now, what makes lying ethical are the deceivers’ intentions and motives. Our intentions and motives shape and highlight how deceptive communication lingers on the tightrope between ethical or unethical communication.

Keep finding the light in the dark!

—Dr. Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D.

Burgoon, J. K., & Levine, T. R. (2010). Advances in deception detection. In S. W. Smith & S. R. Wilson (Eds.), New directions in interpersonal communication research (pp. 201-220). Sage.

McCornack, S. A. (1992). Information manipulation theory. Communication Monographs, 59 , 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759209376245

Spitzberg, B. H., & Cupach, W. R. (2007). The dark side of interpersonal communication (2nd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D.

Samantha J. Shebib, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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Triperspectival Theology for the Church

Why Lying Is Always Wrong: The Uniqueness of Verbal Deceit

Why Lying Is Always Wrong: The Uniqueness of Verbal Deceit

April 30, 2013 By Vern Poythress


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Persuasive Speech Outline, with Examples

March 17, 2021 - Gini Beqiri

A persuasive speech is a speech that is given with the intention of convincing the audience to believe or do something. This could be virtually anything – voting, organ donation, recycling, and so on.

A successful persuasive speech effectively convinces the audience to your point of view, providing you come across as trustworthy and knowledgeable about the topic you’re discussing.

So, how do you start convincing a group of strangers to share your opinion? And how do you connect with them enough to earn their trust?

Topics for your persuasive speech

We’ve made a list of persuasive speech topics you could use next time you’re asked to give one. The topics are thought-provoking and things which many people have an opinion on.

When using any of our persuasive speech ideas, make sure you have a solid knowledge about the topic you’re speaking about – and make sure you discuss counter arguments too.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • All school children should wear a uniform
  • Facebook is making people more socially anxious
  • It should be illegal to drive over the age of 80
  • Lying isn’t always wrong
  • The case for organ donation

Read our full list of  75 persuasive speech topics and ideas .

Ideas for a persuasive speech

Preparation: Consider your audience

As with any speech, preparation is crucial. Before you put pen to paper, think about what you want to achieve with your speech. This will help organise your thoughts as you realistically can only cover 2-4 main points before your  audience get bored .

It’s also useful to think about who your audience are at this point. If they are unlikely to know much about your topic then you’ll need to factor in context of your topic when planning the structure and length of your speech. You should also consider their:

  • Cultural or religious backgrounds
  • Shared concerns, attitudes and problems
  • Shared interests, beliefs and hopes
  • Baseline attitude – are they hostile, neutral, or open to change?

The factors above will all determine the approach you take to writing your speech. For example, if your topic is about childhood obesity, you could begin with a story about your own children or a shared concern every parent has. This would suit an audience who are more likely to be parents than young professionals who have only just left college.

Remember the 3 main approaches to persuade others

There are three main approaches used to persuade others:

The ethos approach appeals to the audience’s ethics and morals, such as what is the ‘right thing’ to do for humanity, saving the environment, etc.

Pathos persuasion is when you appeal to the audience’s emotions, such as when you  tell a story  that makes them the main character in a difficult situation.

The logos approach to giving a persuasive speech is when you appeal to the audience’s logic – ie. your speech is essentially more driven by facts and logic. The benefit of this technique is that your point of view becomes virtually indisputable because you make the audience feel that only your view is the logical one.

  • Ethos, Pathos, Logos: 3 Pillars of Public Speaking and Persuasion

Ideas for your persuasive speech outline

1. structure of your persuasive speech.

The opening and closing of speech are the most important. Consider these carefully when thinking about your persuasive speech outline. A  strong opening  ensures you have the audience’s attention from the start and gives them a positive first impression of you.

You’ll want to  start with a strong opening  such as an attention grabbing statement, statistic of fact. These are usually dramatic or shocking, such as:

Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat – Jamie Oliver

Another good way of starting a persuasive speech is to include your audience in the picture you’re trying to paint. By making them part of the story, you’re embedding an emotional connection between them and your speech.

You could do this in a more toned-down way by talking about something you know that your audience has in common with you. It’s also helpful at this point to include your credentials in a persuasive speech to gain your audience’s trust.

Speech structure and speech argument for a persuasive speech outline.

Obama would spend hours with his team working on the opening and closing statements of his speech.

2. Stating your argument

You should  pick between 2 and 4 themes  to discuss during your speech so that you have enough time to explain your viewpoint and convince your audience to the same way of thinking.

It’s important that each of your points transitions seamlessly into the next one so that your speech has a logical flow. Work on your  connecting sentences  between each of your themes so that your speech is easy to listen to.

Your argument should be backed up by objective research and not purely your subjective opinion. Use examples, analogies, and stories so that the audience can relate more easily to your topic, and therefore are more likely to be persuaded to your point of view.

3. Addressing counter-arguments

Any balanced theory or thought  addresses and disputes counter-arguments  made against it. By addressing these, you’ll strengthen your persuasive speech by refuting your audience’s objections and you’ll show that you are knowledgeable to other thoughts on the topic.

When describing an opposing point of view, don’t explain it in a bias way – explain it in the same way someone who holds that view would describe it. That way, you won’t irritate members of your audience who disagree with you and you’ll show that you’ve reached your point of view through reasoned judgement. Simply identify any counter-argument and pose explanations against them.

  • Complete Guide to Debating

4. Closing your speech

Your closing line of your speech is your last chance to convince your audience about what you’re saying. It’s also most likely to be the sentence they remember most about your entire speech so make sure it’s a good one!

The most effective persuasive speeches end  with a  call to action . For example, if you’ve been speaking about organ donation, your call to action might be asking the audience to register as donors.

Practice answering AI questions on your speech and get  feedback on your performance .

If audience members ask you questions, make sure you listen carefully and respectfully to the full question. Don’t interject in the middle of a question or become defensive.

You should show that you have carefully considered their viewpoint and refute it in an objective way (if you have opposing opinions). Ensure you remain patient, friendly and polite at all times.

Example 1: Persuasive speech outline

This example is from the Kentucky Community and Technical College.

Specific purpose

To persuade my audience to start walking in order to improve their health.

Central idea

Regular walking can improve both your mental and physical health.


Let’s be honest, we lead an easy life: automatic dishwashers, riding lawnmowers, T.V. remote controls, automatic garage door openers, power screwdrivers, bread machines, electric pencil sharpeners, etc., etc. etc. We live in a time-saving, energy-saving, convenient society. It’s a wonderful life. Or is it?

Continue reading

Example 2: Persuasive speech

Tips for delivering your persuasive speech

  • Practice, practice, and practice some more . Record yourself speaking and listen for any nervous habits you have such as a nervous laugh, excessive use of filler words, or speaking too quickly.
  • Show confident body language . Stand with your legs hip width apart with your shoulders centrally aligned. Ground your feet to the floor and place your hands beside your body so that hand gestures come freely. Your audience won’t be convinced about your argument if you don’t sound confident in it. Find out more about  confident body language here .
  • Don’t memorise your speech word-for-word  or read off a script. If you memorise your persuasive speech, you’ll sound less authentic and panic if you lose your place. Similarly, if you read off a script you won’t sound genuine and you won’t be able to connect with the audience by  making eye contact . In turn, you’ll come across as less trustworthy and knowledgeable. You could simply remember your key points instead, or learn your opening and closing sentences.
  • Remember to use facial expressions when storytelling  – they make you more relatable. By sharing a personal story you’ll more likely be speaking your truth which will help you build a connection with the audience too. Facial expressions help bring your story to life and transport the audience into your situation.
  • Keep your speech as concise as possible . When practicing the delivery, see if you can edit it to have the same meaning but in a more succinct way. This will keep the audience engaged.

The best persuasive speech ideas are those that spark a level of controversy. However, a public speech is not the time to express an opinion that is considered outside the norm. If in doubt, play it safe and stick to topics that divide opinions about 50-50.

Bear in mind who your audience are and plan your persuasive speech outline accordingly, with researched evidence to support your argument. It’s important to consider counter-arguments to show that you are knowledgeable about the topic as a whole and not bias towards your own line of thought.

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  • 100 persuasive speech ideas

Persuasive speech ideas

100 good persuasive speech topics for high school students

By:  Susan Dugdale  

Potentially interesting persuasive speech topics are everywhere - billions of them! But exactly how do you choose the right topic for yourself?

My goal is to help you do that easily! ☺ 

What you'll find on this page:

  • 100+ persuasive speech ideas  grouped by theme: animals/birds, arts/culture, automotive, business/economy, social/community, environment, education, ethics, global/world, sports... 

Notes covering:

  • what makes a speech topic 'good'
  • why some topics are potentially boring for an audience to listen to and best left alone
  • local and 'happening now' (current) persuasive speech ideas
  • the best way to use this list of topics

Reading the notes  before trying to decide what you'll talk about will make the process of choosing the perfect persuasive speech topic simpler.    

How to pick the right persuasive speech topic

The trick to picking the best topic from the bewildering mass of possibilities begins with understanding what makes a speech topic idea 'good'.

What makes a speech topic good?

While there are many factors that combine to make a 'good' speech topic, the three main ones are:

  • the subject matter is something you are genuinely interested in. If you're enthusiastic about your subject, you'll enjoy doing the research required and you'll do it thoroughly. What's more, your interest will show in the way you give your speech. A passionate person is a great deal more persuasive than someone who is ambivalent about what they're talking about.
  • something your audience will be interested in hearing about. Before you make a final choice consider carefully who you are talking to. As a group what particular topic, subjects or issues will make them want to sit up and listen? You'll want to avoid topics that have limited or little appeal to your audience. For example, you may be fascinated by your Great-Grandmother's hand crocheted doily collection, but will your audience really share your opinion that everyone would benefit from learning to crochet? Unless they're all like you, I don't think so! Find out more about the  benefits of audience analysis  in effective persuasive speech preparation.
  • something that has not been covered a 'squillion' times, already. You want a fresh topic!

Image: colorful crochet doily. Text: 100+ good persuasive speech topics - Everyone will benefit from learning to crochet. Mmm. Perhaps not.

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Beware! Some persuasive speech topics are tired

All the engaging 'wow, that's interesting' energy has been squeezed out of them because they have been covered over and over again.  Those topics are exhausted through overuse. They've become cliches.

Most people do not want to listen to another speech:

  • smoking/vaping should be banned,
  • the legal drinking age should be raised to 21,
  • wearing seat belts in vehicles should be compulsory, or
  • the voting age should be lowered.

Even if the issues they raise are unresolved choose something else rather than risk boring your audience.

Of course, there are exceptions!   If you have a genuinely fresh and interesting angle to bring, perhaps new information or research to share, then go ahead. However, make that clear from the outset, otherwise you'll risk losing your audience's interest before you've had a chance to get your speech underway.

Remember - local and topical is GOOD

Before settling on a  persuasive speech topic from my list  check what's going on right under your nose. 

Great persuasive speech topics can pop out of your local community newspaper, radio, TV, or even your Facebook page. These could genuinely interest your audience. 

After all it's where you all live and the issues in your community have an impact on everyone's wellbeing.

The 'Wellywood' sign saga

I've just flicked through a copy of the local community news I picked up at my supermarket.

There were articles about a huge sign Wellington airport is considering placing on a prominent hill alongside the runway. It will read "Wellywood".

Image -The hill above Miramar Wharf, Wellington, NZ with a sign saying Wellywood.

Airport authorities say it supports our thriving film industry, celebrating and building on the success of "The Lord of the Rings".

Those against it argue it's cheap copycatting of the famous Hollywood sign. They say the thousands of overseas visitors per day who see it will hoot and snort with derisive laughter.

There are two potential persuasive speech ideas right there: depending on your point of view, either for or against the sign.

Another piece was on the mixed success of a newly introduced recycling scheme.

Yet another was on depression alongside the story of a young man who suffered from it. What angles could be taken on either of those?

How to use this list of speech topic suggestions

Note down 3 possibilities as you go through the list of speech topics below.

As you read apply the three 'tests' for selecting a good persuasive speech topic I've already mentioned: your interest in the topic, its appeal to your audience and its freshness.

In addition to those there are a few other factors to bear in mind before committing yourself. 

Other important factors to consider

Any of these could also influence your choice.

  • the time you have to research the topic thoroughly If it's a complex topic and you have limited time to prepare you may want to reconsider.
  • your desired outcome A successful persuasive speech persuades!  It challenges and seeks to change the way people think, feel and behave. What do you want your audience to do as a result of hearing you speak? Sign a petition, make a donation, vote for you, volunteer ...? What you want to happen is often called a ' most wanted response ' or MWR. Being clear about that will help you choose your topic as well as shape your speech.
  • your credibility How qualified are you to speak on the topic you've chosen? Do you have personal experience on your side?  How long have you been interested in it?  Have you done your research? Have you found reliable resources from reputable sources covering all angles of your topic?

100+ good persuasive speech ideas

Image:- street art- two girls writing on wall - 'Please no more war. Love.' Text: 100 persuasive speech ideas - Graffiti is a justifiable form of social protest.

Animals/birds ...

  • Factory farming of animals (e.g. of cows, sheep, pigs or chickens) is inhumane.
  • Humane meat production is an oxymoron.
  • Exotic animals can make excellent pets.
  • Should rats, mice and birds be used in scientific experimentation?
  • Pit-bull dogs are dangerous.
  • There are significant advantages to animal testing.
  • Puppy mills should be illegal.
  • The domestic cat is a serious threat to endangered birds.
  • Pet therapy should receive more funding.
  • Birds should not be kept in cages.
  • Wild animals should be left in the wild.


  • Artists should be supported and funded by the state.
  • Cultural appropriation in any form is an insult.
  • No subject should be considered taboo in art.
  • Graffiti is art.
  • Indigenous artifacts should be returned to their rightful owners.
  • Famous artists are entitled to have their rights to privacy respected.
  • Music videos are an art form in their own right.
  • Art should be freely accessible to all.
  • Tattooing is a modern form of Fine Art.
  • Art appreciation and practice should be compulsory subjects.
  • Respecting cultural difference should be taught in all schools.
  • Everyone should know about the culture(s) they are born into.
  • Culture is essential, just like fresh air and food.
  • Hands-on defensive driving training should be compulsory.
  • Electric vehicles should be subsidized.
  • Internal combustion engine powered vehicles should be taxed to cover emissions.
  • Bicycles and cars should have separate roads.
  • Children under the age of 10 should not ride bicycles on public roads.
  • Everybody who holds a driving license should be regularly retested.
  • Driving while using a cell phone should be illegal.
  • Private vehicle ownership and use in cities should be restricted.
  • Public transport in cities should be readily available and affordable.


  • Money is not the root of all evil.
  • Power does not necessarily corrupt.
  • All workers should at least receive the minimum wage.
  • All workers should be paid equitably for the same job regardless of differences in race, gender or sexuality. 
  • The minimum wage should be increased.
  • Local businesses deserve more support.
  • Using cheaper foreign labor for manufacturing is ruining our economy.


  • Homelessness is the result of choice.
  • Becoming a parent should be an earned privilege.
  • Same-sex marriage should be accepted in the same way that heterosexual marriage is.
  • Juvenile crime is a cry for help not punishment.
  • Guns should not be allowed in public places.
  • Helping those who need it in the community should be everyone's responsibility.
  • Food should never be wasted.
  • Community service projects create healthier communities.
  • All education should be free.
  • Higher education is over-rated.
  • Boys and girls should be educated separately.
  • Students should wear uniforms.
  • GPAs (Grade Point Averages) are more harmful than helpful.
  • The state colleges versus private colleges debate is meaningless.
  • Sex education is essential.
  • Mental health should be a mandatory subject in schools.
  • Private (fee-paying) schools achieve better results.
  • Everybody who wants to go to school should be able to.
  • Ranking student ability using traditional examinations should be stopped.
  • Assessment of a student's progress should be measured against themselves not their peers.
  • Class sizes should be smaller.
  • What is right? Choosing a major on the basis of personal interest or because of a potential salary? 
  • On-line teaching is as effective as classroom-based teaching.


  • Being 'green' is a fashionable fad.
  • Many current farming practices damage the environment and should be banned.
  • All plastic packaging must be banned.
  • Disposable diapers need to be biodegradable.
  • Should fracking be illegal?
  • Renewable energy schemes should be supported.
  • Climate change is a fact.
  • Mining in environmentally vulnerable areas should be stopped.
  • 'Green' spaces are good for mental health. There should be more parks. 
  • Lying is always wrong.
  • Truth is never debatable, or alternative. 
  • There is never an excuse or reason good enough to declare war.
  • Free speech should not be confused with hate speech.
  • What is 'right' and 'wrong' changes from generation to generation, from culture to culture.
  • Is it right to allow white supremacists to hold rallies?
  • Should drones be allowed in military warfare?
  • Ethical considerations should underpin stem-cell research.
  • Disabilities of any sort (mental, emotional, or physical) are an opportunity for personal growth.
  • Healthcare is the responsibility of the individual, not the state.
  • What we eat, we become.
  • What we think, we are.
  • Drug addicts are chronically sick. They have a disease.
  • Access to effective, safe birth control should be a right.
  • Plastic surgery should be only for those who really need it.
  • Assisted dying (suicide) should be legal.
  • Vaccinations in schools for common infectious diseases should be compulsory. 
  • A tax on sugar would help lessen the spread of diet related health problems.
  • Fast foods should not be blamed for health concerns.
  • Good affordable housing would solve many chronic health problems.
  • Therapies, like art or music, should be government funded. 


  • Global warming is real.
  • The idea of peace on earth is naive.
  • Nationalism creates and sustains enemies.
  • Cultural difference should be celebrated.
  • First world countries should meaningfully and freely assist countries who need help.


  • Religion has no place in government.
  • State censorship or surveillance is never a right course of action.
  • That giant international companies should not be able to dodge paying tax.
  • Military service should be compulsory.
  • It should be illegal to own or have a semi-automatic or assault weapon.
  • Modern media is to blame for lowering moral standards/ reading levels/ escalating violence. (Select one!)
  • Online games can be good for you.
  • Internet chat rooms should be monitored.
  • Facebook (or any other form of social media) is replacing the need for face-to-face communication.
  • Cyberbullying controls should be more actively put in place.
  • Monitoring media of any sort should be banned.
  • Religious tolerance should be encouraged.
  • All religious institutions should be monitored by the state.
  • Animal sacrifices as part of religious practice need to be viewed in context.
  • Should students be allowed to follow their religious practices in public schools?


  • Food engineering is the way of the future.
  • Cell phone use in public places should be controlled.
  • Should the government put restrictions on the development and use of AI?
  • Designer children - is this good for future generations?
  • Cloning is justifiable.
  • Self-driving cars should be legal.
  • Should schools teach the use of AI tools?
  • The use of robots should be limited.
  • All professional athletes should be required to take regular drug tests.
  • Professional male and female athletes in the same sport should be paid equally.
  • Children should not be allowed to play collision sports.
  • Is cheerleading a sport?
  • Competitive sports teach us valuable life lessons.
  • Physical education should be a compulsory subject.
  • No-one should be barred from a sport because of their gender.

short persuasive speech about lying is always wrong

Getting from compelling topic to persuasive speech

For help turning your chosen persuasive speech idea into a fully-fledged speech check these pages.

Resources for preparation 

  • Persuasive Speech Outline Find out more about structuring an effective persuasive speech using Monroe's Motivated Sequence, the classic 5 step pattern used by all professional persuaders: politicians, the advertising industry, and PR experts. There's a step-by-step example outline and a printable blank persuasive speech outline template for you to use too.

Alan H Monroe

Image per courtesy Purdue University

  • And here's a  persuasive speech example  that uses Monroe's Motivated Sequence.  Before you go to look I'd like you know its content is potentially controversial: suicide and the impact it has on close family and friends.
  • Sample Speech Outline This is the familiar 3 part speech outline - good for any type of speech. Read the step by step instructions then download a free blank speech outline to complete. Fill it in and you're ready to go!
  • How to Write a Speech Step by step easily followed instructions for shaping your material into an effective speech.

More persuasive speech topics to choose from

Image:-piece of half eaten chocolate cake on a plate. Text: Fun persuasive speech topics - Having you cake and eating it too is fair.

And if you're still in need of persuasive speech ideas check these pages:

  • 50   good persuasive speech topics  
  • 105 fun persuasive speech topics  
  • 309 'easy' persuasive speech topics
  • 108  feminist persuasive speech topics    
  • 310 persuasive speech topics for college . 

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short persuasive speech about lying is always wrong

Lying, speech acts, and commitment

  • Open access
  • Published: 18 December 2020
  • Volume 199 , pages 3245–3269, ( 2021 )

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  • Neri Marsili   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-7853-7359 1  

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Not every speech act can be a lie. A good definition of lying should be able to draw the right distinctions between speech acts (like promises, assertions, and oaths) that can be lies and speech acts (like commands, suggestions, or assumptions) that under no circumstances are lies. This paper shows that no extant account of lying is able to draw the required distinctions. It argues that a definition of lying based on the notion of ‘assertoric commitment’ can succeed where other accounts have failed. Assertoric commitment is analysed in terms of two normative components: ‘accountability’ and ‘discursive responsibility’. The resulting definition of lying draws all the desired distinctions, providing an intensionally adequate analysis of the concept of lying.

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short persuasive speech about lying is always wrong

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1 Introduction

Dishonest communication plays an important role in the spread of misinformation, often with dramatic consequences: recent, blatant examples are the false promises that supported the Brexit campaign (see e.g. Chappell 2016 ; Watson 2018 ), and the falsehoods (spread by Twitterbots and fake news websites) that plagued the US presidential elections in 2016 (Silverman 2016 ; Allcott and Gentzkow 2017 ) and 2020 (Ferrara et al. 2020 ). Given the social and moral significance of lying, it is not surprising that disciplines as diverse as sociology, linguistics, and psychology have displayed an increasing interest in its analysis. A fundamental philosophical question that cuts across these disciplines concerns how to define lying.

Several authors have attempted to offer an analysis of the concept of lying in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. A variety of different proposals have emerged in the literature, sparking a lively debate about which definition best captures our intuitions (for an overview, see Mahon 2015 ). This paper presents a puzzle for existing accounts of lying, showing that they are all unable to track our intuitions about whether a given utterance is a lie, and puts forward a definition of lying that is able to solve it.

With some approximation, extant definitions of lying can be grouped into three families: deceptionist definitions (according to which all lies are intended to deceive) assertion-based definitions (according to which all lies are assertions), and hybrid accounts (which incorporate both requirements). Let us briefly familiarise ourselves with each view.

According to deceptionist definitions (Isenberg 1964 ; Primoratz 1984 ; Mahon 2008 ; Lackey 2013 ), lying consists in saying (as opposed to implying) what you believe to be false, with the intention of deceiving your audience into believing what you said. More formally:

Deceptionist definitions :

S lies to A iff:

S utters a declarative sentence with content p Footnote 1

S believes that ¬ p

S intends to deceive A about   p

The distinctive feature of deceptionist definitions is the ‘intention to deceive’ requirement (c) (which can be phrased in slightly different ways, see Mahon 2008 ; Fallis 2018 ). Beyond the mere intuition that lying is a form of intentional deception, a key theoretical motivation for including this requirement is its ability to differentiate between genuine lies and other believed-false declarative utterances that are not lies, such as ironic, metaphorical, and fictional utterances, which are not meant to deceive the audience about their literal content.

In recent years an impressive case has been mounted against deceptionist accounts (Carson et al. 1982 , p. 17; Carson 2006 ; Sorensen 2007 , 2010 ; Arico and Fallis 2013 ; Fallis 2015 , 2018 ; Krstić 2018 , 2019 ; Marques 2020 ), prompting several authors to abandon condition (c). Scholars who reject (c) acknowledge that a definition featuring only (a) and (b) would be too broad, as it would include ironic, metaphorical, and fictional utterances. Typically, their solution is to replace (c) with a condition requiring that the speaker genuinely asserts that p . More formally:

Assertion-based definitions:

S utters a declarative sentence with content p

S believes that ¬p

In making the utterance, S is asserting that p

Scholars who endorse assertion-based definitions of lying Footnote 2 tend to agree that a speaker lies iff she asserts something insincerely , but disagree on what to count as an assertion for the purpose of defining lying. Footnote 3 In other words, assertion-based definitions of lying differ depending on how the ‘assertion-condition’ (d) is formulated. Hybrid accounts (the third family of definitions) incorporate both condition (c) and condition (d) in their definition of lying. Footnote 4

The next section (§ 2 ) introduces a new puzzle for definitions of lying: distinguishing between speech acts that can be lies and speech acts that cannot. It shows that deceptionist definitions are unable to make the right distinctions in this respect. The subsequent sections will review the most prominent assertion-based definitions (Stokke 2013a , b , 2018 ; Fallis 2012 , 2013 ; Carson 2006 ), showing that these proposals are either similarly unable to draw the required distinctions (§ 3.1 – 3 ) or vulnerable to further counterexamples (§ 3.4 ). Where these accounts have failed, I argue that a definition based on the notion of assertoric commitment can succeed. After introducing a novel account of assertoric commitment (§ 4 ), I show that the resulting definition of lying avoids the difficulties affecting other accounts, and provides an adequate analysis of the concept of lying (§ 5 ).

2 The puzzle of explicit performatives

One of the main contentions of this paper is that a good definition of lying should be able to draw a distinction between the speech acts that are ‘lie-apt’ and those that are not. I will argue that some explicit performative sentences can be used to lie (§ 2.1 ), while others can be used to deceive, but not to lie (§ 2.2 ). Footnote 5 The importance of this becomes apparent once we realise (§ 2.3 – 3 ) that most existing definitions are inaccurate, precisely because they are unable to draw this distinction.

2.1 Lying with explicit performatives

Explicit performative sentences (‘explicit performatives’ for brevity) are declarative sentences of the form “I (hereby) [performative verb] that Φ ”, in which the speaker performs a given illocution (promising, asserting, betting, etc.) by declaring that they are performing that illocution. Utterances (1) to (3) are examples of explicit performatives that can be lies. To simplify the discussion, I have marked the content of each speech act (what the speaker is promising, asserting, swearing, etc.) with an asterisk:

(1*) I received expressed consent from the patient

(2*) I will wear a blue dress at the wedding

(3*) I saw the defendant at the crime scene

Intuitively, (1), (2) Footnote 6 , and (3) can be lies under the right circumstances—whenever the speaker believes, respectively, that (1*), (2*) or (3*) is false (and aims to convince the interlocutor that these propositions are true). To put the same point differently: the fact that you are explicitly asserting, promising, or swearing that something is the case does not render you immune from the accusation of having lied.

It could be argued, however, that performative utterances can never be lies. Since assuming the opposite (i.e. that some performatives can be lies) is crucial to the main argument delivered in this paper, I will begin by reconstructing and dismissing the case against performative lies. The reader who already shares the intuition that (1–2–3) are genuine lies can jump to § 2.2 , where I proceed to expose the rest of my argument.

Let us call the view that performative utterances can never be lies the ‘ No - Performatives View’ . This view maintains that (1–2–3) cannot be lies, despite our pre-theoretical, naïve intuitions about them, and can be motivated by a ‘descriptivist’ semantic theory of the content of explicit performatives. A descriptivist semantics is one that identifies the propositional content of our explicit performatives with the full sentences (1, 2, 3), rather than the embedded that-clauses (1*, 2*, 3*). Footnote 7 On this view, if you utter (3), you assert that you are swearing that you saw the defendant at the crime scene. If we interpret performatives in this literal way, it becomes apparent that it is virtually impossible to lie by uttering them (cf. Searle 1989 , p. 539; Marsili 2016 , pp. 275–277).

To appreciate this point, recall that lying requires insincerity: you must believe that the content of your utterance is false (condition (b) in the definitions above). But whenever you proffer (3), you know that it is true that you are swearing that you saw the defendant at the crime scene (i.e. that (3) is true), because your saying so amounts to swearing it. Therefore, whenever you say (3) you know that (3) is true. If descriptivism is true, and the content of (3) is just (3), it follows that whenever you utter (3) you are sincere. The same diagnosis applies to any other explicit performative utterance, including (1) and (2). On a descriptivist reading, performative utterances can never be lies. Footnote 8

It is far from obvious that descriptivism is an adequate account of performative utterances; as a matter of fact, this view is subject to a number of compelling objections (see e.g. Harris 1978 ; Searle 1989 ; Reimer 1995 ; Jary 2007 ). If descriptivism is an inadequate account of performative utterances, then there is no strong reason to accept the No-Performatives View, nor its counterintuitive consequence that (1–3) cannot be lies. But even if we leave aside the shortcomings of descriptivism, there are compelling reasons to reject the No-Performatives View: its predictions are hard to square with our most basic intuitions about lying, with our moral judgements, and with our legal practices.

To illustrate, consider the following. Every existing definition of lying converges (and rightly so) on the prediction that, uttered alone, the starred statements (1*), (2*), and (3*) can be lies (as long as they are uttered insincerely). This is intuitive, but it exposes some counterintuitive implications of the No-Performatives View. A speaker who disbelieves (3*) lies if she plainly asserts that she saw the defendant at the crime scene with (3*); but if the same speaker chooses instead to swear that she saw the defendant (uttering (3) instead) she is sincere and is telling the truth according to the No-Performative View. While there may be a trivial, ‘technical’ sense in which these remarks are correct ( i.e. a descriptive, overly literal interpretation of what the speaker is saying), these assessments clearly do not reflect our real-world communicative practices. Clearly, choosing (3) over (3*) in court will not render you immune from a charge of perjury. By swearing, you are assuming more responsibility for what you say than by plainly making the same claim. Rather than freeing you from the accusation of having lied, choosing (3) over (3*) renders you liable to stronger criticisms if it turns out that (3*) is false. If lying is a concept designed to track a distinctively severe form of communicative dishonesty (Adler 1997 ; Williams 2002 , p. 197; Krauss 2017 ), then it is just not clear how we can plausibly maintain that the speaker of (3*) is lying and the speaker of (3), who undertakes even more responsibility for the same claim, is not.

Similar considerations apply to promises. Both by promising that you will wear a blue dress at the wedding (2) and by merely announcing that you will do it (2*), you create an expectation that you will show up at the wedding with a blue dress. The only difference is that when you promise you take on a stronger and more explicit responsibility to make it happen. Oddly, the No-Performatives View predicts that only when you assume less responsibility you are lying. Mutatis mutandis, the same point applies to the difference between simply stating that you have expressed consent from a patient (1*) and explicitly asserting it (1).

These counterintuitive predictions extend to many other performatives that are barely distinguishable from direct assertions: warning, admitting, insisting, agreeing, denying, guaranteeing, assuring, etc. For example, the No-Performative View predicts that under no circumstances (1a), (1b), and (1c) can be lies. And yet, these utterances are not significantly (practically, legally, morally, etc.) different from the plain assertion (1*):

Recapitulating, there are strong motivations to reject the No-Performatives View: it clashes with our pre-theoretical intuitions about performative utterances, and its predictions are difficult to reconcile with our moral judgments, our legal practices, and with our reactive attitudes to performative utterances in real-life situations. On the other hand, the positive case supporting the No-Performatives View is weak: the only theoretical motivation to accept it is that it is entailed by descriptivism, a view that is not exempt from objections. In what follows, I will therefore proceed on the assumption that the No-Performatives View is incorrect, and that a good definition of lying should accommodate the intuition that (1–2–3), (1a–1b–1c), and cognate utterances can be lies.

2.2 Explicit performatives that cannot be lies

Although some explicit performative utterances can be lies under the right conditions, not all performative utterances can be. Consider the following examples:

(4*) the blood on the blade is Reza’s

(5*) you try that quiche

(6*) you steal that chicken

In the previous section, we saw that (1, 2, 3) are lies whenever the speaker believes their respective content [(1*), (2*), (3*)] to be false. By contrast, it is not clear under which conditions (4), (5) or (6) could be lies. While they can surely be deceptive or misleading , it is not possible, strictly speaking, to lie by uttering them. For example, if I conjecture that the blood on the blade is Reza’s even though I know it is not (I disbelieve (4*)), it would be appropriate to criticise me for having been deceptive, but not for having lied, since I have merely conjectured that (4*) is true, and conjecturing something is not yet claiming that it is true. The advice (5) can be misleading in several ways: it may falsely imply that the quiche is delicious, or falsely suggest that the hearer can (and will) eat the quiche. Similarly, the command (6) may falsely imply that it is possible to steal the chicken (even though it is well guarded), or that the speaker has the authority to command its theft (even though she is merely impersonating someone with such authority). But even though (4), (5) and (6) can be deceptive in several different ways, it seems that under no circumstances could they be appropriately classified as lies. Footnote 9

It should now be clear that some speech acts can be lies, while some others cannot. This is important, because it has crucial implications for theorising about lying. It establishes two key desiderata for a definition of lying to which theorists have paid little attention so far: a good definition should be able to acknowledge (a) that some performative utterances (explicit assertions, promises, sworn statements, warnings, etc.) can be lies, but also (b) that some other performative utterances (like conjectures, advices, and orders) cannot be lies. To understand the importance of these considerations for our theorising about lying, let us consider their implications for what is perhaps the most influential philosophical view about lying: deceptionism.

2.3 The puzzle applied: deceptionism

Are deceptionist accounts able to draw all the desired distinctions? The answer can only be negative, since all deceptionist definitions classify (4, 5, 6) as lies. These sentences are all in the declarative mood, so that they all meet condition (a). Furthermore, we have just seen that it is possible to imagine scenarios in which the speaker believes that the content of any of these sentences is false, and intends to make the audience believe that it is true, so that conditions (b) and (c) can also be met. Against the desiderata, deceptionist definitions classify deceptive uses of (4, 5, 6) as lies. If this is correct, deceptionist definitions are not intensionally accurate.

Appealing to a descriptivist interpretation will not help the deceptionist, for reasons that were given above (§ 2.1 ). Admittedly, a descriptivist reading of deceptionist definitions would exclude (4, 5, 6), because (so interpreted) these sentences are true in virtue of the speaker’s saying so. But a descriptivist reading would also rule out every other performative lie . This is not a good trade-off for deceptionism, because it prevents it from counting explicit assertions, warnings, sworn statements, and other lie-apt speech acts as lies. Whichever semantics of performative utterances we favour, Footnote 10 deceptionist definitions will be able to accommodate one of the required sets of intuitions, but not both.

We will see that the challenge faced by deceptionist accounts applies to every other definition of lying. A good definition should be able to classify explicit performatives like (1, 2, 3) as lies, but also exclude performatives like (4, 5, 6), which under no circumstances can be correctly classified as lies. In the next sections, I will show that also assertion-based definitions are unable to meet these desiderata. While I will not discuss hybrid accounts, it should be noted that for any given assertion-based definition that is unable to rule out (4, 5, 6), so is the hybrid account built on that definition (because these accounts would only differ in their endorsement of the intention to deceive condition (c) which, we have seen, is unable to discard these cases). In other words: whenever an assertion-based account is proved to be too narrow, so is the hybrid account that it is built on it. Footnote 11

3 Testing extant definitions

Since assertion-based definitions differ primarily in how the ‘assertion condition’ (d) is fleshed out, in what follows I will only discuss how this condition is formulated by different proponents of assertion-based definitions, keeping the rest (condition (a) and (b)) fixed. Footnote 12 I will first discuss Fallis’ work.

3.1 Intentionally communicating something false

In a series of recent papers, ( 2009 , 2012 , 2013 ) Fallis delineates a number of ways to develop an assertion-based definition of lying. In Fallis ( 2012 ), Footnote 13 lying is defined as the intentional, explicit communication of something that the speaker believes to be false. The following assertion-condition (d) is adopted Footnote 14 :

(ACF1) S intends to communicate that p

Fallis acknowledges that the notion of ‘communication’ plays a key role in this proposal: “what counts as communication makes a difference for what counts as a lie [according to ACF1]”. Nonetheless, he controversially adds that no particular notion of communication is needed for his account to work: “for purposes of this paper, it will not be necessary to settle on one specific account of communication” ( 2012 , p. 572). It is hard to agree with this claim. Absent a clear criterion to determine whether an utterance is ‘intended to be communicated’, ACF1 is underdetermined: it does not provide a clear and univocal criterion to determine whether a given utterance is a lie—in other words, it fails to define what lying is (cf. Keiser 2016 , p. 476fn).

It could be argued, however, that failing to specify what is meant by ‘communication’ need not lead to this sort of indeterminacy. Fallis might not have specified what he means by ‘communication’ simply because he has in mind a rather ordinary notion. Footnote 15 Accordingly, we may assume that ACF1 is satisfied iff an ideal English speaker would agree that the speaker intended to communicate that p , in the ordinary sense of the term.

However, as the predictions of ACF1 become clearer, its structural problems become clearer too. Specifically, ACF1 is unable to rule out many performative utterances that are not lie-apt. This is because virtually any speech act (and not only the ones that are lie-apt) can be accompanied by the intention to communicate that their content is true. To illustrate, consider (4) once again:

Imagine a speaker (call her Luisa) who utters (4) with the intention to insinuate that the blood on the blade is indeed Reza’s. There is clearly a sense in which Luisa intends to communicate that the blood is Reza’s: if she believes that (4*) is false, Fallis’s definition would classify her conjecture as a lie. Footnote 16 But this verdict is incorrect. If Luisa were to be accused of lying, it would be perfectly appropriate for her to object that she has merely conjectured, but never affirmed, that the blood was Reza’s. Even in a court of law, (4) could not plausibly be regarded as a lie, precisely because it is flagged as a mere conjecture (cf. S. Green 2001 , pp. 176–82; Saul 2012 , pp. 95–97). This is not to deny that, by uttering (4) maliciously, Luisa can insinuate or imply that the blood was Reza’s: this is exactly what happens when Luisa intends to communicate that (4*) is true, satisfying ACF1. The point here is rather that insinuating or implying something falls short of lying—it falls on the ‘misleading’ side of the lying/misleading distinction. This objection to ACF1 is not limited to conjectures: similar considerations would apply if Luisa had suggested, hypothesised, bet or guessed that (4*) is the case.

It is also possible to imagine circumstances in which ACF1 would classify directive speech acts as lies. Imagine a conversation between two individuals, A and B; A has complete authority over B. A says “What shall I do next?”; B replies with (6):

(6*) you [will] steal that chicken

In this context, surely B’s communicative intention is to issue a command—to tell A what she must do. But given that A has asked what to do next, in uttering (6) B may conceivably intend not only to issue a command, but also to convey an answer to A’s question: to inform A of what she is doing next, namely (6*). If we postulate that B believes (6*) to be false (for instance, if B knows that the envisaged poultry theft is impossible), ACF1 would incorrectly classify this case as a lie.

Let me emphasise that the claim here is not that (4) or (6) conventionally or typically communicate contents like (4*) and (6*), but rather that there can be contexts in which it would not be blatantly irrational for the speaker to have the intention to communicate such propositions. Since both (4) and (6) can clearly meet this latter, weaker requirement, there are circumstances in which ACF1 incorrectly classifies them as lies, against our desiderata.

3.2 Representing yourself as believing

In a more recent paper, Fallis develops a different proposal; possibly, one that could be read as a refinement of ACF1. Drawing on some observations by Davidson ( 1985 , 2001 ), Fallis ( 2013 ) identifies the following assertion-condition for defining lying:

(ACF2) The speaker intends to represent herself (to her audience) as believing that p is true

To ‘represent yourself as believing something’ is to present yourself as having a particular property, namely the property of believing a proposition. Fallis correctly points out that we have an intuitive grasp of the notion of ‘representing yourself as having a certain property’, and this becomes evident when we think about familiar cases: when you sign a cheque, you represent yourself as having enough money in the bank to honour the cheque (Black 1952 , p. 31); by wearing a cross necklace, you represent yourself as being Christian, and so forth.

Even though ACF2 offers a more determinate criterion than ACF1, it is similarly unable to draw the right distinctions concerning which speech acts can be lies. This is evident when we consider conjectures. By uttering (4), Luisa can intend to represent herself as believing its literal content (4*) (that the blood is Reza’s): if she believes that the blood is someone else’s, ACF2 incorrectly predicts that her conjecture is a lie. To be sure: I am not claiming that whoever says (4) will ipso facto represent themselves as believing (4*), which is blatantly incorrect. I am merely claiming that there can be circumstances in which a speaker utters (4) with the intention Footnote 17 to represent themselves as believing that (4*), which is all that ACF2 requires.

Furthermore, as for ACF1, the problem is not limited to conjectures: there are several speech acts (like guessing, supposing, hypothesising) that one can use to represent oneself as believing something (Searle 1976 , p. 10), but not to lie. In sum, both ACF1 and ACF2 fail to draw the right distinctions between explicit performatives that can and cannot be lies. If lying is to be defined in terms of an insincere assertion, we need to identify an alternative account that avoids their difficulties.

3.3 Proposing to add to the official common ground

Stokke’s ( 2013a , b , 2018 ) assertion-based definition is based on the accounts of assertion and conversational common ground developed by Stalnaker ( 1978 , 2002 ). According to Stalnaker ( 2002 , p. 716), “it is common ground that p in a conversation if all members accept (for the purpose of the conversation) that p , and all believe that all accept that p, and all believe that all believe that all accept that p , etc.”. Assertion is understood by Stokke as a proposal to add a proposition (specifically, the content of the sentence one utters) to the ‘official’ common ground:

(ACS) S proposes that p become part of the official common ground

The notion of ‘official’ common ground is meant to exclude speech acts that are not assertions. Consider the following cases:

(7) Pushkin’s beard never grew

(8) Assume that             (8*) I can lift weights with my mind […]

(9) Let us suppose that  (9*) there is a demon that systematically deceives us

Although (8) and (9) are invitations to add a proposition ((8*) and (9*) respectively) to the common ground (what is accepted as true for the purpose of the conversation ), they are not assertions. The distinction between official and unofficial common grounds (Stokke 2013a , b , 2018 ) handles these cases effectively. Unofficial common grounds are ‘provisional’ common grounds that open up in order to store information that is used for some temporary conversational purpose; by contrast, official ones are, so to say, ‘permanent’ common grounds. ACS only captures proposals to add a proposition to the official, permanent common ground. This means that it correctly rules in assertions like (7) (since (7*) is meant to be stored in the official common ground) and correctly discards assumptions like (8) and suppositions like (9) (since (8*) and (9*) are stored in the unofficial , temporary common ground).

Although this distinction helps with assumptions and hypotheses, it seems unable to draw all the desired distinctions. Consider commands:

Here the distinction between official and unofficial common grounds is less helpful, because it is not clear how it applies to (6): without a systematic account of what qualifies as a contribution to the official common ground, the predictions of ACS in this sort of case are unclear. And if we attempt to extrapolate from ACS a criterion for dealing with these examples, it emerges that ACS struggles to make the required distinctions.

There are various ways to extrapolate a criterion from ACS. For the purpose of this paper, I will limit my discussion to a criterion that is explicitly defended by Stokke in his book ( 2018 ) (I pursue a more thorough analysis in Marsili 2020b ). Here he suggests that we can test whether a proposition has been added to the common ground (and therefore captured by ACS) by attending to whether it can be felicitously presupposed. Footnote 18 To verify whether uttering (6) adds (6*) to the common ground, for instance, one needs to verify whether (6*) can be felicitously presupposed after the speaker has uttered (6). To test this, imagine a conversation between three individuals: Adriano, Beppe, and Carmen. Adriano orders Beppe to steal a chicken by uttering (6), and then Carmen utters (10), which presupposes (6*):

(10) When you steal the chicken, you can use my cutters

For ACS to pass the test, there must be no circumstances in which (6*) can be felicitously presupposed as a result of Adriano’s command, because the possibility of felicitous presupposition would indicate that (6*) can enter the common ground as a result of Adriano’s utterance. Clearly, such circumstances are possible: whenever Beppe and Carmen take Adriano to have the authority to command (6), it is possible for Carmen to presuppose (6*) (that Beppe will steal the chicken) felicitously via (10). Footnote 19 This is a problem for ACS, because it means that Stokke’s assertion-based definition counts (6) as a lie whenever Adriano successfully commands (6) and believes (6*) to be false. Perhaps there is a way to revise ACS so that it avoids these predictions. Absent major revisions, however, Stokke’s current proposal is unable to acknowledge that commands cannot be lies. Footnote 20 For a definition that draws the right kinds of distinctions, it is better to look elsewhere.

3.4 Warranting as true

Carson ( 1988 , 2006 , 2010 , followed by Saul 2012 ) takes a different approach: he defines a lie as an insincere statement that you intend to warrant as true. In other words, he adopts the following assertion-condition:

(ACC) S intends to warrant the truth of p

Carson defines ‘warrant’ as follows: “if one warrants the truth of a statement, then one promises or guarantees, either explicitly or implicitly, that what one says is true” ( 2006 , p. 294). According to this view, every time a speaker asserts something, they also implicitly promise that what they say is true (cf. Hawley 2019 ).

As I will argue in the next section, drawing the right distinctions between speech acts that can and cannot be considered lies requires adopting a view along these lines—one that links the act of asserting to the acceptance of a distinctive kind of responsibility. Nonetheless, ACC is known to be vulnerable to counterexamples, such as proviso - lies (Fallis 2009 ; Arico and Fallis 2013 ): lies in which the speaker makes it explicit that they are not promising that what they say is true. Here is a (slightly revised) example from Arico and Fallis ( 2013 ):

Last night, after a particularly wild party, Chris found her swimming trophy broken. Today Chris is trying to figure out who broke her trophy. Chris says to Jamie, “So, somebody was in my room last night and broke my trophy. Did you see anything?”. Jamie clearly remembers that she was the one who broke Chris’s trophy. Since everyone knows that Mel is always breaking stuff, Jamie responds to Chris: (11): Yeah, um, Mel broke your trophy. (11’): But I was kinda drunk, and there were lots of people in there, so don’t take my word for it.

In this example, Jamie’s statement (11) is followed by a ‘proviso’, (11’). The proviso is meant to rectify the previous statement, and to clarify that Jamie does not intend to warrant that (11) is true. As a result, Jamie does not warrant that (11) is true, and Carson’s assertion-condition ACC is not met. Nevertheless, Jamie is clearly lying: this scenario is a counterexample to Carson’s definition.

Carson has since replied that, given that “warranting comes in degrees of strength, a moderately strong assurance of truth is all that is required for lying” ( 2010 , pp. 36–39): the proviso (11’) reduces the assurance of truth that comes with (11), but does not eliminate it. If this is right, (11–11’) does satisfy ACC. However, the problem with this reply is that it is inconsistent with Carson’s account of warrant (Fallis 2013 , pp. 347–348). Warrant is analysed as an implicit promise, and promises cannot be mitigated or downgraded. There is no sense in which they can give a “moderately strong” assurance of truth: either they guarantee that the speaker will do something, or they do not. To see this, consider the difference between adding a proviso to an assertion and adding a proviso to a promise:

I will wake up at 7AM tomorrow, but you know that I am really unreliable in the morning, so don’t take my word for it

# I promise that I will wake up at 7AM tomorrow, but you know that I am really unreliable in the morning, so don’t take my word for it

While (12a) is a mitigated assertion, (12b) is not a mitigated promise: it is not a promise at all. More generally, it seems that promising that p requires an outright (as opposed to “moderately strong”) assurance that p is true. Footnote 21 Pace to Carson, ACC fails to capture proviso - lies .

These difficulties could be resolved by amending the notion of warrant in a way that avoids the parallel with promises. But it should be clarified from the outset that avoiding the parallel with promises would represent more than an amendment of ACC, because Carson’s original contribution to the literature resides precisely in having constructed an analogy between the breach of trust involved in unfulfilled promises and the one involved in lying (elaborating on Ross 1930 ; Fried 1978 ). Without such an analogy, ACC would no longer draw the moral parallelism that motivates Carson’s overarching philosophical project. In the next section, I will present an alternative way to formulate the assertion condition, which also links assertion to a distinctive kind of responsibility, while avoiding the problematic analogy with promises. Footnote 22

4 Assertoric commitment

Before Carson, several authors have argued that asserting involves accepting some kind of responsibility for the truth of a proposition (Peirce CP 2.315, 5.29-31,543-547, MS 280.25-26, 517.42-44, 36.104-5; Searle 1969 , 1975 ; Brandom 1983 , 1994 ; Searle and Vanderveken 1985 ; Green 1999 , 2000 , 2007 , 2017 ; Alston 2000 ; MacFarlane 2003 , 2005 , 2011 , Rescorla 2009a , Krifka 2014 ; Tanesini 2016 , 2019 ). I have elsewhere developed (Marsili 2020b ) an account of assertion in terms of commitment that falls within this tradition. Simply put, my proposal is to define assertion in terms of the acquisition of this specific kind of commitment, and lying as an insincere assertion:

Definition of Assertion

A speaker S asserts that p iff:

S utters a sentence with content p

S thereby commits herself to p being the case

Definition of Lying

S lies iff S asserts that p insincerely

Some preliminary qualifications are needed. The first is that all conditions are taken to be satisfied intentionally by the speaker. This is common in speech act theoretic analyses (Searle 1969 ; Alston 2000 ; but cf. Alston 2000 , pp. 137–141), and it is especially uncontroversial for defining lying, as virtually every author agrees that there can be no such thing as unintentional lying. Footnote 23 The second is that the notion of ‘insincerity’ at play in the definition of lying is meant to be the one I advocated for in earlier work (Marsili 2014 ; 2018a , b , 2019 ): in standard cases, Footnote 24 I take a speaker to be insincere iff they take themselves to believe that what they are saying is more likely to be false than true. Footnote 25

Condition (b) does the lion’s share in the definition, and calls for some substantive elaboration. The notion of commitment is meant to capture the normative consequences of asserting something: it refers to a change in the speaker’s normative status that happens in virtue of the speaker’s act of asserting. While it has been pointed out in previous work that the notion of commitment could be helpfully put to work to define lying (Marsili 2014 , pp. 165–170, 2018a , b , pp. 178–179; Leland 2015 ; Viebahn 2019 ), I am not aware of any attempt to provide a systematic proposal in this sense. Building on previous work on assertion, I will try  to fill this gap by providing a fine-grained characterisation of what assertoric commitment is, and then proceed to show how this account of commitment can be put to work to draw the right distinctions about lying.

I take assertoric commitment to involve two distinct normative dimensions. The first dimension is what I call ‘accountability’. In making an assertion, the speaker becomes reproachable if the proposition turns out to be false (a point also highlighted in Carson’s analysis). An early formulation of this idea is found in Pierce: “an act of assertion […] renders [the speaker] liable to the penalties of the social law (or, at any rate, those of the moral law) in case [the asserted proposition] should not be true, unless he has a definite and sufficient excuse” (CP 2.315). Alston ( 2000 , p. 55) offers a more accurate definition of this distinctive kind of responsibility: a speaker accepts responsibility for p [being the case] iff the speaker “knowingly takes on the liability to (lay herself open to) blame (censure, reproach, being taken to task, being called to account), in case of not - p ”. Footnote 26 Arguably, accountability plays an important role in motivating communicators not to make false claims, ensuring that assertion maintains its role as a valuable tool for sharing and acquiring information (cf. Green 2007 , 2009 ).

In what follows, I will use the term ‘accountability’ to refer, more specifically, to the speaker’s prima facie Footnote 27 liability to be criticised if what they said turns out to be false. To verify if a given speaker is accountable for the propositional content of a given utterance, we need to ask ourselves: if that proposition turns out to be false, would the speaker be prima facie criticisable for the falsity of what they have said?

However, the deontic effects of assertions are not exhausted by the speaker’s liability to sanctions. By making an assertion, a speaker also becomes committed to act in certain ways, if the relevant conditions arise. More specifically, asserting something commits the speaker to make certain conversational steps, such as making statements that do not contradict their previous ones, or justifying their claims with adequate evidence, when they are challenged to do so (cf. Brandom 1983 , 1994 , pp. 172–175, MacFarlane 2003 , 2005b , pp. 227–229, 2011 ).

Let us call this second normative component discursive responsibility, since it has to do with the conversational moves that a speaker is expected to make in the context of a rational discourse. Discursive responsibility has been modelled in different ways and within different theoretical frameworks (Toulmin 1958 ; Hamblin 1970a , b , chap. 8; Brandom 1983 , 1994 , pp. 172–175; MacFarlane 2003 , 2005b , pp. 227–229, 2011 ). Within this literature, authors tend to agree that you are responsible to defend your claims (e.g. by providing evidence in their support) if appropriately challenged (or else take it back). To ‘challenge’ an assertion, in this sense, is to perform a speech act (typically a question Footnote 28 ) that disputes the veracity of the speaker’s claim, such as ‘How do you know that?’, or ‘Is that true?”. In turn, a challenge to p is ‘appropriate’ only if it is not already a settled issue in the conversation that p is true. Footnote 29 I will come back on these notions and distinctions in the next section, as I discuss some examples of conversational challenges.

Since making an assertion inevitably involves undertaking both accountability and discursive responsibility, assertoric commitment is best characterised as the conjunction of both normative effects. You are committed to a proposition if you are prima facie liable to be criticised in case the proposition is false, and prima facie expected to back up your claim in response to appropriate challenges (or else take it back). In sum:

Assertoric commitment

S is (assertorically) committed to p being the case iff

S is ‘accountable’ for p

S is ‘discursively responsible’ for p.

In light of this characterisation, the commitment-based definition of lying presented at the beginning of this chapter can now be expounded, to display more clearly which conditions need to be satisfied for a speech act to count as a lie:

Commitment-based Definition of Lying

In virtue of doing (a), S is accountable and discursively responsible for p

S’s utterance is insincere

5 Drawing the right distinctions

The commitment-based definition of lying meets the desiderata that have been identified so far. First, it differentiates between lies and other statements whose content is believed to be false but that are not lies, such as ironic and metaphoric utterances. This is because ‘accountability’ clearly does not obtain in these cases: it would be patently inappropriate, for instance, to criticise an ironic or metaphoric utterance on the grounds that its literal content is false.

Second, unlike Carson’s ACC, the proposed definition correctly identifies proviso-lies as genuine lies. While the notion of warrant cannot admit of degrees (because warranting is understood as an implicit promise), the notion of commitment can. The possibility of strengthening or diminishing the speaker’s degree of commitment to a proposition is widely acknowledged and discussed in the speech act theoretic literature (Searle 1976 , p. 5; Holmes 1984 ; Searle and Vanderveken 1985 , pp. 98–99; Coates 1987 , p. 112; Sbisà 2001 , pp. 1805–1806; Simons 2007 ; Thaler 2012 ; Marsili 2014 , pp. 165–170), Footnote 30 and plays an important role in explaining the relations of ‘illocutionary entailment’ between different speech acts (Searle and Vanderveken 1985 , pp. 130-131). For instance, most authors who employ the notion of commitment agree that by choosing to use the performative ‘swear’ in (13a) (instead of plainly asserting (13)) the speaker (call her Peppa) reinforces her commitment to the proposition (13*), whereas in choosing the performative ‘conjecture’ in (13b) she removes such commitment.

(13) Emma was drunk last night

(13a) I swear that           (13*) Emma was drunk last night

(13b) I conjecture that   (13*) Emma was drunk last night

Since swearing (as in 13a) involves a stronger commitment than asserting (as in 13), its utterance is said to ‘illocutionarily entail’ the performance of an assertion, meaning that it cannot be performed without also asserting that (13*) is true. By contrast, the speaker of (13b) is merely making a conjecture, which does not commit her to the truth of (13*): (13b) is not an assertion (Searle and Vanderveken 1985 , pp. 129–130; cf. Marsili 2015 , pp. 124–125, 2016 , pp. 277–278).

The test for discursive responsibility draws the right distinctions here. If we were to challenge (13b) with questions like “How do you know?” or “Is that true?”, Peppa would not be expected to provide evidence that (13*) is actually true. She could appropriately reply: “I don’t know, I just made a conjecture”. Footnote 31 Contrast this with Peppa’s sworn statement (13a): the same questions (“How do you know?”, etc.), when raised in response to (13a), would indeed generate an expectation that Peppa defend her claim (e.g. “I saw her stumbling around and slurring her words”). In this case, unlike with her conjecture, Peppa is discursively responsible for the truth of (13*).

This shows that commitment can be reinforced (as in the sworn statement (13a)) or removed (as in the conjecture (13b)), but not yet that it can be mitigated while still asserting, which is what we need to show in order to prove that the definition can capture proviso lies. Cases of this sort are not uncommon, and typically emerge from the use of some modifiers, such as evidentials or epistemic modals. For example, suppose Peppa says:

Apparently     (13*) Emma was drunk last night

With (13c), Peppa undertakes responsibility for the truth of what she has said—although less responsibility than she would have undertaken, had she uttered the unguarded assertion (13*) instead (see e.g. Caffi 1999 ; Sbisà 2001 , 2014 ). This is intuitive, but we can be more precise. In which sense is Peppa accepting ‘less responsibility’ in making the mitigated assertion (13c) in lieu of (13)? To answer this question, let us consider each component of commitment in turn.

Accountability has to do with the social sanctions faced by the speaker if the proposition turns out to be false. Clearly, these sanctions can be more or less severe; the claim here is that mitigated assertions warrant less severe sanctions. This much is uncontroversial: any competent speaker knows that, ceteris paribus, an unguarded statement like (13) warrants more severe criticisms than a guarded statement like (13c), if (13*) turns out to be false. In fact, it is often to diminish their liability to criticisms that speakers prefer using a mitigated assertion over an unguarded one (cf. Holmes 1984 ; Fraser 2010 ).

A similar point applies to discursive responsibility. Speakers can be required to substantiate their claims with adequate evidence, but mitigation devices can affect which kind (and amount) of evidence counts as adequate . Evidentials such as ‘apparently’ can set the epistemic bar of adequacy to a lower standard of evidence (Sbisà 2014 ). In fact, it is natural to use a guarded assertion like (13c) instead more direct ones like (13) when one has some evidence in support of what they say, but not quite enough to license a direct assertion.

This should clarify in which sense accountability and discursive responsibility are mitigated in (13c): (13c) licenses less severe sanctions than (13), and binds the speaker to a less demanding standard of evidence. The same is not true of the conjecture (13b), where neither condition is satisfied: it would be unfair to criticise Peppa for saying (13b) in case (13*) turns out to be false, or to demand her to provide evidence in support of the truth of her conjecture.

Back to proviso-lies, the reason why they do not pose a threat to the commitment-based definition is that they behave like mitigated assertions (and unlike conjectures). In (11b) both accountability and discursive responsibility are met, although to a lesser extent:

Mel broke your trophy. But I was kinda drunk, and there were lots of people in there, so don’t take my word for it

By uttering (11b), Jamie signals that he is not willing to accept full responsibility for the proposition being true. Like the mitigated assertion (13c), and unlike the conjecture (13b), it is appropriate to inquire about the epistemic grounds for Jamie’s assertion (What evidence does he have to support the claim that Mel broke the trophy? Does he remember seeing him?). However, given the qualification added by Jaime, we will be satisfied with non-conclusive evidence in favour of the claim (e.g. he remembers seeing him , but cannot be sure). That said, the expectation that Jaime defend his claim is nonetheless clearly present: it would be inappropriate for Jaime to simply reply: “I don’t see why you’re asking these questions, I never claimed that Mel broke the trophy”. A reply of this kind would be appropriate, by contrast, if Jaime had simply made a conjecture, as in (13b). Similarly, it would be appropriate to reproach Jamie if the assertion turns out to be false (we may say: ‘You shouldn’t have accused Mel!’), although we would not be entitled to the same sort of reactive attitudes than an unguarded assertion would have warranted (after all, he invited us not to take his word for it). Like for (13c), both ‘accountability’ and ‘discursive responsibility’ are mitigated, but satisfied. This shows that, unlike Carson’s ACC, the proposed definition counts proviso-lies as mitigated assertions (and therefore as lies). Footnote 32

Lastly, the commitment-based definition seems able to draw the right distinctions about explicit performatives. Since betting and swearing were discussed above (13a, 13b), we only need to consider the following cases:

(8*) I can lift weights with my mind […]

(9*) there is a demon that systematically deceives us

The predictions of the commitment-based definition are rather straightforward here. By asserting or promising that p in (1–2), the speaker becomes accountable and discursively responsibile for their content, namely (1*–2*), so that these utterances are counted as lies when they are uttered insincerely. On the other hand, by uttering (5), (6), (8) and (9) the speaker does not become committed to the corresponding propositions (5*), (6*), (8*) and (9*), so that these utterances cannot be classified as lies by the definition. For instance, in response to (8) it would be inappropriate to reproach the speaker if it turns out that she has not telekinetic powers, or to challenge the speaker by asking “How do you know that you have these powers?”. It is apparent that the same tests are passed by all the other explicit performatives that cannot be lies (namely (4), (6), and (9)).

It could be objected that it is not clear that in promising (2) the speaker becomes assertorically committed to (2*), as I have claimed above. Promissory commitment and assertoric commitment differ in important respects: promising involves being responsible for making something true, while asserting involves being responsible for something being true (Watson 2004 ). Perhaps (2) commits the speaker to (2*) ‘promissorily’, but not ‘assertorically’. The test for discursive responsibility seems to corroborate this hypothesis: asking “How do you know?” or “What makes you think that?” in response to (2) is simply inappropriate, and it does not seem that one would be expected to support their claim with evidence in response to this sort of challenges.

Although I agree that there is more to promissory commitment than just assertoric commitment, this does not mean that the former is incompatible with the latter. Within the speech-act theoretic framework that I am adopting (Searle and Vanderveken 1985 , p. 184), the relation between promissory and assertoric responsibility can be explained in terms of the notion of ‘illocutionary entailment’ introduced earlier. The underlying idea is that, if I promise that (2*) (“I will wear a blue dress at the wedding”), I am also thereby claiming that it will be true, at time of the wedding, that I will wear a blue dress: whenever promissory responsibilities arise, assertoric ones have to arise too. Footnote 33 At closer inspection, this objection is rather based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes discursive responsibility in (2).

Recall (§ 4 ) that discursive responsibility only requires the speaker to answer appropriate challenges (cf. MacFarlane 2005b ). Challenges are not appropriate (in the relevant sense) if they are infelicitous for reasons that have obviously nothing to do with the force of the original utterance. A typical example is when a challenge is infelicitous because the answer is already common knowledge in the conversation. If I claim “My tooth hurts”, it would be inappropriate to challenge my claim by asking me “How do you know?”, because it is already obvious how I know that my tooth hurts—but this clearly should not be taken as evidence that my utterance is not an assertion. Similarly, since whether I wear a blue dress at the wedding will depend primarily on my decisions, asking “How do you know?” in response to (2) would not be an appropriate challenge. In both cases, the challenge is inappropriate , because it is obvious that the challenger already knows the answer to the question, so that considering its availability is irrelevant to determining whether the speaker is committed to the proposition. Footnote 34

How should we test for discursive responsibility in these cases? Since in these contexts the speaker’s reasons for believing (2*) are already common ground, we should consider challenges that put into question the veracity of the utterance more directly: for example, “Is that true?”, “Does it really [hurt]?”, or “Will you really [bring a blue dress]?”. Just like ‘How do you know’ challenges, these questions are appropriate only when the speaker is assertorically committed to the relevant proposition, so that they still constitute a reliable test for discursive responsibility. And these questions are clearly available in response to (2), showing that also in this case the speaker is bound by the relevant discursive obligations. In addition to this, in (2) ‘accountability’ clearly obtains: if I eventually wear a red dress to the wedding, I can be criticised for (2*) being false, and appropriately so. The right verdict is thus given also in the case of insincere promises.

It seems that the proposed account avoids all the counterexamples that affect other views. Unlike the other definitions considered so far, it deals correctly with a wide range of performative utterances, distinguishing speech acts that can be used to lie from speech acts that cannot. It captures not only standard assertions, but also assertions uttered by means of explicit performatives (e.g. ‘I hereby assert that p ’) and explicit performatives that illocutionary entail an assertion, such as acts of promising or swearing. It is able to rule out illocutionary acts that are not assertions, including speech acts belonging to the class of assertives (like bets, conjectures, and suppositions), and directives (like commands, advice, and suppositions). The proposed definition brings together two philosophical traditions that analyse (respectively) assertion in terms of accountability and discursive responsibility, to deliver a fine-grained account of the distinctive responsibilities that emerge in virtue of asserting a given proposition, improving on previous attempts to characterise the distinctive responsibilities that all liars undertake. Due to its intensional accuracy, it provides a potentially insightful analysis of two concepts (assertion and lying) that are central to many contemporary philosophical inquiries in ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of language.

Condition (a) can be formulated in slightly different ways: some authors phrase it as “S says that p” (e.g. Saul 2012 ; Stokke 2013a ), others as “S states that p” (e.g. Chisholm and Feehan 1977 ; Mahon 2015 ). I adopted this formulation because it is neutral about the semantics of performative utterances, a topic discussed at length in the next section (§2.1). Different formulations aside, condition (a) tracks the requirement that a locutionary act with content p must be performed, as opposed to the requirement (set by condition (d), cf. p. 3) that a specific illocutionary act (i.e. assertion) is performed. My phrasing of (a) is not meant to rule out subsentences (“For you!” indicating a letter) and elliptical signs (nodding in response to a question); I am leaving aside these complications merely for ease of exposition, as it is customary in the literature.

This label was first introduced by Stokke ( 2013a ). Proponents of this view include Carson ( 2006 , 2010 ); Sorensen ( 2007 , 2010 ); Fallis ( 2009 , 2012 , 2013 ); Stokke ( 2013a , 2018 ).

Carson ( 2006 , 2010 ) and Saul ( 2012 ) suggest that a further condition might be required, namely that the asserted proposition be actually false—but neither commits to this further requirement (for compelling empirical reasons not to include this condition, see Wiegmann et al. 2016 ). Also, different authors take (d) to have different significance. Some (e.g. Chisholm and Feehan 1977 , p. 142; Fallis 2009 , p. 33; Meibauer 2014 ) take their proposed phrasing of (d) to be a definition of assertion. Others do not wish to “[commit themselves] to a view of the final analysis of the phenomenon of assertion” (Stokke 2013a , b , p. 46, cf. Carson 2006 , p. 300).

The label ‘hybrid’ is mine. Defenders of this view include Simpson ( 1992 ); Mannison ( 1969 ); Chisholm and Feehan ( 1977 ); Kupfer ( 1982 ); Newey ( 1997 ); Williams ( 2002 ); Meibauer ( 2005 , 2014 ); Faulkner ( 2007 , 2013 ). Many of these authors are motivated to endorse both (c) and (d) by Gricean considerations about the nature of communicative acts and testimony (cf. fn 10).

In what follows, my discussion will inevitably be limited to a few examples, since it is practically impossible to discuss every performative verb of the English language. The chosen linguistic sample, however, is significant: my token utterances are representative of classes of speech acts (assertives, commissives, directives) on which we have straightforward intuitions. I will not consider other classes, such as declarations and expressives , because I do not take our intuitions about them to be straightforward enough to establish whether a given definition should count them as lies or not.

For experimental evidence that ordinary speakers overwhelmingly classify insincere promises like (2) as lies, and a more general defence of the view that you can lie by promising, see Marsili ( 2016 ). Relatedly, authors like Ross ( 1930 ), Fried ( 1978 ) and Carson ( 2006 , 2010 ) take all lying to involve the breach of an implicit promise to tell the truth; on this view, “every lie is a broken promise” (Fried 1978 , p. 67).

Descriptivism is advocated by Hedenius ( 1963 ); Lewis ( 1970 ); Bach ( 1975 ); Ginet ( 1979 ); Bach and Harnish ( 1979 ).

According to descriptivism, performative utterances can at most be ‘misleading’. Descriptivists will concede that with (3) the speaker can perform an indirect speech act with content (3*) (Bach and Harnish 1979 , p. 208). On this view, (3) can be used to imply that the speaker saw the defendant at the crime scene, but not to directly claim it – so that (3) is at most deceptive or misleading. I discuss at length the implications of descriptivism for the lying/misleading distinction in Marsili ( 2016 , pp. 275–278). For more on the distinction and its importance, see e.g. Adler ( 1997 ), Saul ( 2012 ), Stokke ( 2013b ), Berstler ( 2019 ).

In a recent paper, Viebahn ( 2019 ) has argued that one can lie by presuppositions. If this is right, insofar as any speech act can trigger a presupposition, any speech act can be used for lying: e.g. (5) could be a lie if the speaker knows that there is no quiche that the hearer can try. Viebahn’s view can be disputed, but I do not wish to enter the debate on presuppositional lying here. If one is moved by Viebahn’s arguments, my claim should be read as follows: that (4), (5), (6) cannot be used to lie about their content (4*), (5*) and (6*), and that a good definition of lying should predict so. For the sake of simplicity, I will assume this conditional qualification to be implicit throughout the paper.

Another ‘semantic’ strategy would be to argue that (4, 5, 6) cannot meet condition (b) because they do not possess truth-evaluable content. However, parallel problems apply. While some linguists have in fact challenged (in one way or another) the idea that every speech act possesses truth-evaluable content, what is needed here is a theory that both excludes (4, 5, 6) and includes (1, 2, 3). Proving that such a theory of content cannot be developed goes beyond the ambitions of this paper, but there are at least two reasons to suspect that this solution is not viable. First, despite the vast literature on explicit performatives, no theory that draws these distinctions has been defended before (see Recanati 2013 for an overview). Second, a plausible theory should employ either syntactic features or direction of fit to set apart performative sentences that have truth-evaluable content from those who don’t, but neither of these features can be used to set apart the two groups of sentences under consideration (1, 2, 3 and 4, 5, 6) (see fn 20 for an example).

Matters are slightly more complex for ‘Gricean’ hybrid views, according to which a speaker S asserts that p iff S intends her audience A to accept that p at least partly on the basis of the fact that A recognises S’s intention to make A accept that p (endorsed, slightly amended, by Meibauer 2005 , 2014; Faulkner 2007 , 2013 ). Here the deception condition (c) and the assertion condition (d) impose virtually the same constraint. I will not discuss these views here because they have already been criticised at length elsewhere (e.g. Fallis 2010 , 2018 ), but it is worth noting that (beyond known counterexamples) they will have trouble accommodating the examples discussed in § 3.2 (bets, conjectures and suppositions) and in § 3.4 (proviso-lies).

The recurring acronym “AC” will be meant to remind the reader that, for each view, I am reporting the'assertion condition' (d) rather than the whole definition, which includes also (a) and (b).

I will not discuss Fallis’ ( 2009 ) proposal: it has been shown to be incorrect, because it counts most ironical utterances as lies (Stokke 2013a , b ), and was rejected by Fallis himself ( 2012 ).

Fallis ( 2012 ) never presents conditions (a)–(b)–(d) separately, but rather packs them together in a single sentence. Nonetheless, he is committed to ACF1 being a necessary condition for lying in addition to (a) and (b). For ease of exposition, I will ignore this complication.

Although it would be a natural move, note that we cannot interpret ACF1 as appealing to Gricean communicative intentions. Gricean communication requires (broadly) that the speaker intends to make the audience believe what they say; pairing this requirement with the insincerity condition (b) amounts to reintroducing an intention to deceive condition (c). Since Fallis’ project is to provide an alternative to deceptionism, this interpretation is not available. Furthermore, since Gricean definitions have been defended elsewhere (see fn 12), interpreted in this way ACF1 would no longer represent an original proposal. To be sure: another, more modestly ‘Gricean’ reading (according to which ‘communicating’ means ‘expressing a belief’) could work for ACF1; I discuss it in § 2.3 .

Remember that what is at stake here is whether the speaker would be lying about (4*), not about (4). As we saw in (§ 2.1 ), accepting the opposite view, according to which the proposition to be evaluated is rather (4) (descriptivism), would force us to conclude that no performative utterance can be a lie. This is incorrect: a good definition must acknowledge that (among others) explicit assertions, sworn statements and promises can be lies.

Note, further, that whether this intention is successful is irrelevant to whether ACF2 is satisfied.

A felicitous presupposition is one that does not elicit “the kinds of repair strategy that are typically prompted by unfamiliar presuppositions”. Stokke ( 2018 , p. 66), a identifies two repair strategies: accommodation (as defined by Lewis 1979 ), and ‘questions and rejections’—that is, (appropriate) replies of the form: “What are you talking about?”; “What makes you think p ?” or “I never said p ”.

To be sure, further conditions have to obtain for (6*) to be felicitously presupposed; for instance, it should be common knowledge that stealing the chicken is physically possible. Listing them would lead us astray and is unnecessary. As long as it is possible for these further conditions to obtain, the point stands: there are situations in which (6*) can be felicitously presupposed.

A referee points out that, since the embedded that-clause (6*) could be rewritten as an infinitive to-clause (I command you to steal that chicken ), it could be argued that (6) has no truth-evaluable content: “to steal that chicken” is not truth-apt, and therefore cannot be believed to be false. If this is right, (6) is ruled out by every definition. I offer a response to this sort of worries in Marsili ( 2020a ). Simply put, as anticipated in footnote 9, this manoeuvre would prove too much: also “I promise/swear/guarantee THAT ƒ” can be translated into “I promise/swear/guarantee TO ƒ”, but we want to be able to count these utterances as lies. Appealing to accounts à la Portner ( 2004 ), which differentiate between the speech acts that update the common ground and those that update to-do-lists (cf. Roberts 2012 ), will not help for similar reasons: both promises and commands, on this view, update to-do-lists rather than the common ground.

Here’s a more precise way to put the same point: the force of promises cannot be mitigated. Content-mitigation (‘bushes’, in Caffi's 1999 terminology), by contrast, is possible in promises: the content of “I promise that [ I will p ]” can be mitigated into “I promise that [ if q, I will p ] and (for some but not all p s) [I promise that I will p a little ]; cf. Holton ( 2008 ). But the possibility of content-mitigation is irrelevant to our discussion: proviso-lies are puzzling precisely because they involve the mitigation of the force of the utterance, not its content .

To be sure: accounts in terms of commitment like the one that I am about propose are in a very important sense in agreement with Carson’s view. Crucially, they share the idea that lying requires the assumption of a distinctive kind of responsibility. But it is equally important that they take a different stance on which kind of responsibility is involved. Note, further, that it would be incorrect to regard commitment-based proposals as mere refinements of Carson’s view: commitment-based analyses of assertion represent a rich, independent tradition, whose roots go back Peirce’s writings, penned at the beginning of the XXth century, long before Carson proposed his alternative view in terms of warrant and promises.

This requirement has the advantage of ruling out cases of misspeaking (Sorensen 2011 ) and may help to deal with some other puzzling cases (cf. Pepp 2018 ). Note that if philosophers are wrong, and there can be as unintentional lying, it does not follow that my definition is wrong: it just follows that some lies and assertions fall out of my envisaged explanandum. For theoretical and empirical support for the claim that unintentional lies are not lies, cf. discussion of the confused politician example in Carson ( 2006 , p. 296) and Arico and Fallis ( 2013 ).

By ‘non-standard’ cases I mean promises like (2), and more generally assertoric speech acts about one’s future actions. In Marsili ( 2016 ) I argued (on both theoretical and empirical grounds) that a promisor can be insincere (and lie) if she intends not to fulfil her promise, even if she believes that she will end up fulfilling it against her will (for instance: S promises not to ƒ, intends to ƒ at all costs, but believes that she will almost surely fail to ƒ). We need not dwell on these complications here, but the interested reader can find a definition of insincerity that makes justice to both standard and non-standard cases in Marsili ( 2016 , 2017 , pp. 148–151).

A final and perhaps less urgent qualification is that in this paper I will leave aside the issue of whether (a) needs to be expanded. While the formulation that I adopt is quite standard, it rules out presuppositional lies (Viebahn 2019 ) and non-literal lies (Viebahn 2017 ), and it may rule out non-declarative lies (Viebahn et al. 2018 ), depending on how the notion of ‘content’ is construed. If one is moved by some (or all) the examples presented by Viebahn, condition (a) can be expanded as required. For some further qualifications about (a), see my footnote 1.

Alston reviews different accounts of taking responsibility for the truth of a proposition (in his terminology, “R’ing”), eventually landing on a different view that, unlike the one quoted in the main text, entails that it is only permissible to assert p if p is true (cf. Alston 2000 , pp. 54–64). This requirement, also endorsed by “truth-norms” of assertion (Weiner 2005 ; Whiting 2012 ) and, indirectly, by “knowledge-norms” of assertion (Williamson 1996 ), is one that my notion of ‘accountability’ carefully avoids (for reasons discussed in Marsili 2018a ). Accountability, as I define it here, only has to do with downstream normativity (the normative effects of asserting p ), which is to be distinguished from (the related, but distinct notion of) upstream normativity (whether you are entitled to assert that p—i.e. the kind of normativity invoked by ‘norms of assertion’ ). For more on the irreducibility of these notions to one another, cf. Rescorla ( 2009a ) and MacFarlane ( 2011 ).

The “prima facie” qualification is meant to specify that falsity only determines a defeasible right to criticise the speaker. As noted by Peirce (see above), a speaker can be excusable for asserting something false: for instance, if their false claim was uttered under coercion, or if they had excellent reasons to think that what they said was true. Of course, if I excuse someone for not ƒ-ing, I am still presupposing that that person was responsible for ƒ-ing in the first place. This complicates matters: when excuses apply, responsibility for ƒ-ing and criticisability for not ƒ-ing can come apart, so that we cannot determine if the speaker is responsible for ƒ-ing just by considering whether she is criticisable for not ƒ-ing. The notion of prima facie accountability allows us to overcome this difficulty by pushing excuses out of the picture: this helpful notion captures both the cases in which the speaker is actually criticisable for saying something false, and the cases in which such criticism would be warranted, if it hadn’t been defeated by extenuating circumstances. Thanks to this qualification, we can define assertoric accountability in terms of one's (actual or counterfactual) criticisability for the falsity of a proposition.

Authors like Brandom adopt a narrower view: challenges can only be assertions that are incompatible with what the speaker said ( 1994 , p. 178, 238, Wanderer 2010 ). I take Brandom’s view to be unduly restrictive (cf. Toulmin 1958 ; Rescher 1977 , pp. 9–11; Rescorla 2009a ), as it seems to me that questions are a paradigmatic example of challenges to the veracity of someone else’s assertion.

Or, at least, if the speaker hasn’t already done all that she could to prove that p is true. In argumentation theory there is considerable disagreement as to what makes a challenge legitimate, and it would be overambitious for this paper to attempt to settle the issue once and for all; for further refinements, I defer to the relevant literature (see e.g. Rescorla 2009b ).

To be sure, there are many accounts of commitment on the market, and some authors (like Geurts 2019 ) adopt a different, binary conception that does not admit of degrees. Clearly, this alternative conception will not do for our purposes.

At most, we may expect Peppa to explain why she made the conjecture, but this clearly falls short of expecting her to provide evidence that (13) is true, which is what discursive responsibility requires. After all, questions like “ Why did you [performative verb] that p?” can be appropriately asked in response to virtually any speech act. Their availability is irrelevant to determining whether the speaker is committed (assertorically) to p : only the availability of challenges to the veracity of p reliably indicates that the speaker is discursively responsible for p. For more on the appropriateness of challenges to assertions, conjectures, and other assertive speech acts, see Green ( 2017 , §2).

A referee points out that proviso-lies like (11) do not invite belief in their unmitigated content (Mel broke your trophy), and asks whether this is compatible with generating a commitment towards that content. My answer is positive. Simply put, the proviso at most prevents the realisation of a perlocutionary effect (making the hearer believe that p), which is logically (and pragmatically) compatible with bringing about an illocutionary one (committing yourself to p). Assertors typically intend to achieve the perlocutionary goal of convincing the hearer (usually, we aim to convince our interlocutors), but they can make assertions even if they do not have this intention (Davis 1999 ; Alston 2000 ; Green 2007 ; Sorensen 2007 ; MacFarlane 2011 ). If this is right, explicitly denying that you have a perlocutionary intention (“you don’t have to believe me”, “don’t take my word for it") does not prevent you from bringing about your assertion’s illocutionary effect (committing yourself to p ). For a discussion of some other species of provisos that threaten my view more directly, in particular in response to Rudy Hiller's examples ( 2016 , pp. 38–51), see Marsili ( 2020b ).

I defend this claim in more detail in Marsili ( 2016 , pp. 277–278).

Although this explanation will do for our present purposes, a further clarification may be of interest. In Marsili ( 2018b ) I consider these issues in more depth, and distinguish between a challenge being inappropriate (which depends on whether the answer to the challenge is already in the common ground) and illegitimate (which depends on whether the speaker was committed to p in the first place). Only when a challenge is ‘illegitimate’ we have evidence that the speaker is not discursively responsible for p. Of course, challenges to promises like (2) are only ‘inappropriate’ in this sense, whereas challenges to non-assertoric acts like (6) or (8) are genuinely ‘illegitimate’.

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Marsili, N. Lying, speech acts, and commitment. Synthese 199 , 3245–3269 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02933-4

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