“Paltering” – intentional deception that stops short of an outright lie

Frederick Schauer and Richard J Zeckhauser from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government have published a paper over at SSRN on “paltering”, another term for ‘not quite’ lying. From the abstract:

A lie involves three elements: deceptive intent, an inaccurate message, and a harmful effect. When only one or two of these elements is present we do not call the activity lying, even when the practice is no less morally questionable or socially detrimental. This essay explores this area of “less-than-lying,” in particular intentionally deceptive practices such as fudging, twisting, shading, bending, stretching, slanting, exaggerating, distorting, whitewashing, and selective reporting. Such deceptive practices are occasionally called “paltering,” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as acting insincerely or misleadingly.

The analysis assesses the motivations for, effective modes of, and possible remedies against paltering. It considers the strategic interaction between those who palter and those who interpret messages, with both sides adjusting their strategies to account for the general frequency of misleading messages. The moral standing of paltering is discussed. So too are reputational mechanisms – such as gossip – that might discourage its use.

Paltering frequently produces consequences as harmful to others as lying. But while lying has been studied throughout the ages, with penalties prescribed by authorities ranging from parents to philosophers, paltering – despite being widespread – has received little systematic study, and penalties for it even less. Given the subtleties of paltering, it is often difficult to detect or troubling to punish, implying that it is also hard to deter. This suggests that when harmful paltering is established, the sanctions against it should be at least as stiff as those against lying.

The full paper can be downloaded for free via the link below. Hat tip to Neuroethics & Law Blog.


  • Schauer, Frederick and Zeckhauser, Richard J. (2007). Paltering. KSG Working Paper No. RWP07-006 Available at SSRN.

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