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:
- Email Ethics
- Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new
technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil
the society. And so it is with email.
- When Others Curry Favor
- When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse.
Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
- On the Appearance of Impropriety
- Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean,
what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
- On Reporting Workplace Malpractice
- Reporting workplace malpractice can be the right thing to do. And it's often career-dangerous. Here
are some risks to ponder before reporting what you know.
- On Standing Aside
- Occasionally we're asked to participate in deliberations about issues relating to our work responsibilities.
Usually we respond in good faith. And sometimes we — or those around us — can't be certain
that we're responding in good faith. In those situations, we must stand aside.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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