Is Bluffing Lying?

It was a typical evening of poker. I am taking Shoemaker’s chips as reliably as Trump belittles accusers. I am reading his cards as if he had on mirrored sunglasses. Lesser players, such as Wall, are already turning their attention away from the game, which by now even they realize they are doomed to lose, to manufacturing excuses and rationalizations for their poor play.

I see that Shoemaker by luck has managed a decent hand on the turn, two pair, 6’s and 9’s. I’ve got nothing and no prospects. My only real hope is to persuade him I have a good hand and bluff him into folding. My betting post flop has intentionally represented that I am on a straight draw. Now on the river a card comes up completely compatible with my bluff. It is plausible that the river completes my straight and I bet as if it did in order to persuade him that I did. My body language is consciously managed to persuade him that I am not bluffing and that I hit my straight and am confident and want him to call. He buys it! I persuade him I have a better hand than him and he folds. I congratulate myself on my deception.

But then I get to wondering if I lied. Even if we reject Kant’s implausibly strong claim that it is never ok to lie, still lying for personal gain in a 0 sum game seems problematic and I did not think of myself as doing anything morally problematic. I comfort myself that I did not literally lie. Well, I did literally say he better fold because I hit my straight, but is that really a lie in this context? I saw that as part of the game. But suppose I didn’t say that. Still, I was fully and intentionally engaged in the project of trying to deceive him about my hand. I try telling myself this is not a real lie in this context. Maybe it is sort of like saying lines in a play that I know are not true. But, that doesn’t seem right. I literally wanted the real life person I was interacting with to believe a falsehood. At most the actor wants the fictional character they are interacting with to believe what they are saying, not the real life human actor. And presumably the actor is not deceiving with an eye to personal gain for the actor. But, I try telling myself, this is a context in which such intentional deception has been agreed to. Well, not explicitly, of course, but tacitly. Just as we tacitly agree that our opponent can castle in certain circumstances when we settle down to play them in chess. But Kant would presumably be unimpressed but this, I realize. If consequentialists lie to other consequentialists and say that it was tacitly agreed that it was ok to lie in such contexts, I assume Kant would not be ok with that. Aren’t we tacitly agreeing that it is ok to lie? Even if we say that we did so tacitly agree, we are still saying that I lied, right? So did I lie but it was not wrong? Intuitively I assume we think I did not lie. But I did seriously intend to deceive for personal gain? Isn’t that lying? Did I lie?

15 Replies to “Is Bluffing Lying?

  1. I do not know whether to call what one does in such a context a lie, but I am inclined to say it is not lying. Does it matter what we call it? If we say it’s a lie and it’s acceptable, then lying isn’t always wrong. If lying is always wrong and it’s acceptable, then it’s not a lie.

    Just a quick thought re: Kant: I do not think Kant has a problem with the kind of behavior you describe, e.g., lying in the contexts of games where such lying is in the service of the game (and, of course, in accord with the mutually agreed rules). (He does of course say some surprising things about lying but perhaps he would not say what one is doing here is lying. I’ll leave that to my Kant betters.) Some evidence: Whatever you think about Rawls’s four-step CI procedure, it clearly delivers that result. And pretty much every interpretation of Kant (including ones that focus on the formula of humanity, such as Thomas Hill’s) I’ve seen would also be compatible with that result.

  2. I think it is lying if you explicitly say you made the straight, but not otherwise. But this is as much an intuition report as anything; I don’t have a theory of lying that has this result. But if the bluff is discovered later, it seems right to say “You lied to me!” iff there was an explicit statement.

    Why wouldn’t Kant say that we can tacitly agree to be lied to? We play all sorts of physical games where we tacitly agree to certain kinds of assault that would be serious moral violations without the (oftentimes tacit) consent. The same story seems true for games involving bluffing and deception.

  3. My intuition is that in saying “I hit my straight” you lied. I think that the context of its being a poker game explains why it was not wrong for you to tell this lie, but it doesn’t make it a non-lie. Nor does it make it permissible for you tell any kind of lie during the game. If, while playing poker, you tell some lie that has nothing to do with bluffing your opponent, then the fact that your playing poker has nothing to do with whether this lie is wrong.

    I think that the reason playing poker makes it permissible to lie about your hand is that in a poker game there is no expectation that you can trust an opponent about what she says is, or represents as being, in his or her hand. In this respect, playing poker is importantly different from playing the game Survivor (the game on TV). In the game Survivor, people lie all the time and it seems to be just as much a part of the game as bluffing is a part of poker. Yet, I suspect that lying in the game of Survivor is often wrong. I think that this is because part of the game involves getting people to trust you and to trust your word. And, thus, there is often an expectation of trust among the players of Survivor. In poker, by contrast, you know your opponent is out to deceive you about their hand and so you never trust what they say (or represent) about their hand. If Shoemaker believed that you hit your straight, it was not because you said so. Rather, it was because there were other reasons to think that you hit your straight (e.g., the way that you were betting and what came up on the turn and the river). And I doubt that Shoemaker actually believed (whole-heartedly) that you made your straight. More likely, he believe that there was a significant probability that you made your straight and that it was significant enough to warrant his folding.

    So I think that bluffing is rarely wrong in the context of poker, because there is no expectation of trust. But I think that lying is often wrong in the context of Survivor, because there is an expectation of trust. If this is correct, perhaps lying isn’t a fundamental wrong but rather a derivative wrong, and thus prima facie wrong if and only if it involves the betrayal of a reasonable expectation of trust. This would also explain why white lies are not wrong. You can’t reasonably expect a stranger to tell you the truth about how well they’re doing when you causally ask them how they’re doing as you pass them in the hall. Thus, it’s not wrong to tell a little white lie and say that you’re fine even if you’re not.

  4. Doug, Sergio was trying out something similar. There is no expectation of accurately representing one’s own mind in such cases and so that changes the character of an assertion. Maybe this sort of helps Kant. He might say that if anything is wrong with intentionally aiming to deceive, as in bluffing, it is quite different from what goes wrong in lying. In lying you undermine the truth convention but you do not do that in bluffing or making claims in contexts where no one takes you to be speaking your true mind.

  5. Sorry, I should have added that Sergio thinks that it is not lying even when you explicitly make a claim given the context in which one cannot reasonably be taken to be sincerely speaking one’s mind. I wonder if one is being tortured is also such a context.

  6. So Portmore and Weatherson report that it intuitive to them that in the scenario where you explicitly say “I hit my straight” you are lying. I assume that they think there is nothing at all wrong with doing so in such cases and so then we would say that there need not be anything wrong with lying (even in cases where the lie is not a “white” lie such as saying you like your aunt’s hat). Another route to go would be to say that this is not a lie because, to use Sergio’s example, it is like a stand-up comedian setting up a joke by saying that such and such happened when it did not. That is not a lie, one might say, because the context is such that we do not expect or do not reasonably expect people to say what they think true. This latter move would have to be handled with some care because it is not wildly implausible to think that many or most would say that it is not reasonable to expect someone to say something true when it strongly conflicts with their own interests. But the person who lies on the witness stand in their own defense at a murder trial surely lies even if we might not be reasonable to expect them to do otherwise.

  7. Sean Foran wrote this:

    If bluffing were a form of lying, I’d think a pump fake in basketball would then just as much be a form of lying. Which seems wrong.

    At some points what you say suggests that the motive of personal gain is indicative that the action counts as a lie. I do not think that is right. I think that to call something a lie is to say that it is a kind of wrongdoing (and that it is a wrongdoing to the person lied to), and that kind of fits with the idea of getting the better of someone in a zero sum game. But I think there can be genuine lying without any motive of self-interest.

    I suspect…: a lie essentially involves an exploitation of “conversational norms” where truth-telling (or at least, presenting the truth as best one grasps it) is generally expected.

    Although, if you do say, “I hit my straight”, I think that counts as a lie. It just isn’t an unethical lie. (It is a strange case — I’m not sure whether to call it a weird, peripheral case of lying, or to say that isn’t really a lie, because there’s nothing wrong with it.)

    I do think the concept of a lie involves conveying information that is not only not literally correct, but also unhelpful, and is something that is essentially unethical (at least in “standard” cases?). What if you give someone directions to their destination, and for sake of simplicity, you tell the person something that is literally false that you know will actually get the person much more reliably to their destination than the literal truth would? You say “It’s the street right after the statue of Lincoln” (but the statue is really a statue of Eisenhower that looks exactly like Lincoln). Is that a lie? I wouldn’t call it a lie, because you are still aiming to be helpful in the overall communicative project — giving the other person an idea how to get to their destination. But what you say is literally false, you know it, and you are trying to get the other person to believe it. Still, I wouldn’t call it a lie.

  8. To Sean:

    The basketball example is interesting and a great example. Sergio had suggested the example of a stand up comic setting up a joke by saying something that is literally false: e.g. I was walking down the street this morning when… That seems not a lie because the context is one in which, in some sense, the truth norm is not presupposed. That is vague. But we do not expect people to say what they really think in this context. That is too broad as we do not expect people to say what they really think when talking to the high school principle yet you can lie to her.

    I like your example of the statue and the “helpful lie” which seems, I agree, to be no lie at all. Certainly telling a kid that space is Euclidian when you know better seems no lie at all. Maybe here one is helpful approximating truth? Or giving the person helpful rather than true info (so it maybe is a white lie case)?

    I didn’t mean to say that the self-interest motive made it a lie but that it made it a wrong lie. Maybe lying to your aunt in saying you like her hat is a lie but not wrong, a white lie. Lying out of self interest, I was thinking, keeps it from being white in that sense. But what I wrote likely suggested your reading.

  9. If I may launch a meta-critique of the question itself along the lines that Nathaniel suggests: while I understand that D.Sobel’s intention was not at all to get unreasonably hung up on questions of mere classification, some people have worried that our moral culture (especially our moral-philosophical culture) is far too rule-oriented, and that the questions we ask tend to distort our conception of the moral domain. Case in point: worrying about whether something REALLY is a lie, presumably because lying might be pro tanto wrong, and because we want to either affirm or deny this. But why should we do this? Why shouldn’t we simply appraise the situation in its context, examining the motives, beliefs and social pragmatics, and decide whether it seems blameworthy to bluff? Why does there need to be this extra classificatory question? (I take it that one need not be a full-blown particularist to have these thoughts).

    Again, I don’t for a second think that Sobel himself is some kind of rule-driven moral philosopher, and I know that this was just a conversation he wished to initiate. But perhaps we should interrogate our instinctive interest in the question.

  10. Yes, I agree with David that putting the point in terms of expectations, understood as reasonable beliefs (rather than “normative expectations”, whatever that means), won’t work. You need, roughly, something like the idea that some practices “repurpose” speech to do something other than speaking your mind. A very rough test would be to ask if before engaging the relevant activity, we could warn a participant that much or all that you’re about to say is false without undermining in some way what we’re about to do. You can imagine an anxious stand-up comedian saying to her Dad who is coming to watch her perform: “Remember Dad this is comedy; I make up stuff. These things didn’t really happen.” Or something explaining bluffing to their gullible friend who’s learning about poker: “If someone says ‘I have five aces’, it doesn’t mean that they really have five aces. They might be trying to psych you out; it’s all part of the game”. But it wouldn’t work for the witness about to take the stand: “Remember your honour, I have much to lose by testifying truthfully. So don’t believe a word of what I am about to say”. The rough test also explains why Kantians should not worry about bluffing; a maxim of engaging in one of these practices is clearly universalizable. Most of you probably know this, but I can’t resist pointing out that one of the exceptions to the prohibition on lying that Kant contemplates is being asked by an acquaintance: “Did you like my book?”. Of course, he’s not considering as an exception because of the horrible consequences of truth-telling. Rather, there is a question here whether this is a context in which I engaged in a practice that has nothing to do with speaking my mind, much like when I use various forms of greeting (Kant compares it to signing off with the expression “your humble servant”).

  11. That seems sensible. Let me mull more. An advantage of your test is that it rightly suggests that bluffing in some contexts might well be lying. If I tell you I will do no committee work unless you give me the teaching schedule I like, as a bluff, that seems like it may be a lie whereas it seems that what the stand-up comic, pump-faker, and poker player do is not.

  12. Bluffing (saying something you know false) can count as a lie. That happens when the corresponding speech act is an assertion . If the utterance is not an assertion (as is typical in contexts of games and jokes) then bluffing in that context does not rise to the level of lie.

  13. I don’t believe there are “Ethics” in poker. A big part of the game is bluffing, and it’s to be expected.

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