Seinfeld, a TV series that first ran from 1989 to 1998 in the United States (and will likely run for decades more) was famous as a "show about nothing." More accurately, perhaps, it was a show about life. It has become the source of a genre of Web sites, books, and miscellaneous whatnot with the general theme "What Seinfeld Teaches Us about Life." One valuable idea that I — and many others — drew from Episode 102 appears in a line spoken by the famous ne'er-do-well character "George Costanza," who says, "…it's not a lie…if you believe it."
Whether he's correct or not, it's apparent that "George" does believe what he's saying, and therefore, if his claim is correct, he's not lying. But that's obvious. Less obvious: if the statement is incorrect, is he lying?
This is a nontrivial question. In the United States, substantiating a charge of fraud requires that five specific conditions be met, one of which is that the defendant must have knowingly made a false statement.
So I decided to examine the connection between statement validity and the speaker's belief. The result is what might be called "The Costanza Matrix." As a legal tool, it isn't worth much, but in the workplace it can help sort out ethical questions when someone makes a false statement.
The Costanza matrix is a two-by-two matrix whose axes might be described as Statement Truth and Speaker's Belief, which are, respectively, the degree of truth of the statement, and the degree to which the speaker believes it. Here are the four cells of this matrix.
- Statement is true; Speaker believes it's true
- The speaker is honestly conveying valid information when the statement is true and the speaker believes it's true. I call this Honest Information.
- Statement is false; Speaker believes it's true
- The speaker The Costanza matrix is a two-by-two
matrix whose axes might be
described as Statement Truth
and Speaker's Beliefis making an honest error when the statement is false, but the speaker believes it's true, whether out of ignorance, stupidity, or having been misinformed. I call this Misinformation. This is the situation "George" was talking about: it's not a lie if you believe it.
- Statement is false; Speaker believes it's false
- The speaker is dishonestly conveying disinformation, or is plainly lying, when the statement is false, and the speaker knows it's false. I call this Disinformation or Lying.
- Statement is true; Speaker believes it's false
- When the statement is true, but the speaker believes it's false, and intends to mislead, the speaker is lying, but incompetently so. I call this Incompetent Lying.
The possibly novel insight here is that when a speaker is making a true statement, it's nevertheless a lie if the speaker believes it to be false and intends to mislead — an incompetent lie, to be sure, but still a lie. One finer point: if the statement is true, but the speaker believes it's false and is mistaken about why he or she believes the statement is false, we might be underestimating the degree of incompetence, but the speaker is still lying incompetently. In any case, as "George" might say, if a statement is true, "it is a lie if you don't believe it." Top Next Issue
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- Workplace Politics vs. Integrity
- A reader wrote recently of wanting to learn "to effectively participate in office politics without
compromising my integrity." It sometimes seems that those who succeed in workplace politics must
know how to descend to the blackest depths, and still sleep at night. Must we abandon our integrity
to participate in workplace politics?
- Some Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my
- Virtual Termination with Real Respect
- When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid
travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people
in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
- Managing Personal Risk Management
- When we bias organizational decisions to manage our personal risks, we're sometimes acting ethically
— and sometimes not. What can we do to limit personal risk management?
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: II
- Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe
on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't
discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
- From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
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