TRUTHS, LIES AND UNTRUTHFULNESS

Michael Sean Quinn, Ph.D., J.D.*
         In
a deposition not long ago, I was asked whether I thought a liability insurance company
defending an insured had a duty to be truthful with the insured.  I answered that I was sure that the insurer
must not lie to its insured and should not make statements to the insured
which, if it were thinking reasonably,  would at least believe were probably false. 
“All well and good,” said the depositioner, “but I asked you whether the insurer
had a duty to be truthful. Isn’t it that case? The insurer must not be
untruthful with its insured?”

Without thinking, I simply blurted
out, “Well, that depends on the meaning of the word ‘untruthful.’”  “OK, tell me about that, please,” said the
lawyer taking the deposition.  By then it
had already dawned on me that there was a kind of trap built her questions and
my answers.  I came to realize that in a
subtle way, ordinary language with respect to telling the truth, being truthful, lying, untruthfulness, and being untruthful is not a perfectly
symmetrical set but a bit of a semantic pile.

To be sure, to tell lies is to be
untruthful, and to assert a true proposition to another is to be truthful,
or—at least—it sounds like it. But maybe not. What if I assert to someone a
true proposition, which I know he will misunderstand; am I being truthful? I
am inclined to think not.  (Of course, if I deliberately assert a true proposition I know that he will not understand at all and thereby leave him in the dark, I’m not inclined to say I have been untruthful, though I have been unhelpful. On the other hand, if I assert a false proposition which I know he ill not understand, I have not been untruthful. In neither of these cases have I out-and-out lied. 

If I am right,
then being truthful is different than simply asserting truths. On the other
hand, if I am in the presence of a person, and I have a true proposition in
mind but don’t assert it, am I being untruthful?  Obviously not. Thus, untruthfulness is a situation related idea which to some extent varies from context to context.

But suppose the proposition pertains
to a service I am rendering this person, so it is one he needs to hear about.
Am I being untruthful by being silent? Surely not, if I simply forget to mention it, or I
mistakenly believe that this is not something he needs to know and it will just
upset him. On the other hand, if I systematically and intentionally refrain
from telling him truths relevant to serving him, then it sounds like I am
being untruthful.  It surely would be
being untruthful if the person for whom I am a steward asked me questions but I
intentionally manage to avoid giving him answers, though never lying.  This point, in at least extreme cases, is
nicely illustrated by idea of half
truths.

In any case, these points illustrate
the odd fact that one can be truthful in a literal sense (“He never speaks
anything but the whole truth.”), but also be untruthful in a less literal but
also important sense (“He doesn’t always tell the whole story, even to
her.”)  Of course, not telling the whole
story can be an accident, a blunder, a pattern resulting from habit, or
something specifically intentional. These various grades are significant
because an isolated, accidental happenstance would not count as a person being
untruthful, whereas cases resulting from deliberate intent would.

In dawned on me in that deposition
that my interlocutor was trying by semantic distinctions to set up a rhetorical
disaster zones for his target and that I was being enlisted as foot-in-mouth
soldier.  I learn new things about legal
dialogue, arguments of law and fact, and about the subtleties of the use of
language in and near courts all the time.  I guess I have always known that the subtleties in language are hard to explain to others without being thought of as sophistical (at best) and therefore unconvincing. 




*Michael Sean Quinn, Ph.D, J.D., Etc.
Law Office of Michael Sean Quinn
1300 West Lynn #208
Austin, Texas 78703
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Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc

Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc. (530)

One of Texas's leading insurance scholars, Michael Sean Quinn is a past chair of the Insurance Section of the State Bar of Texas and has a broad legal practice.

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