Lying, Speech and Impersonal Harm

Law and Philosophy (2019) 38: 517–535

19 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2020 Last revised: 10 Jan 2020

Date Written: September 30, 2018


Should the law punish the mere utterance of lies even if the listener has not been deceived? Seana Shiffrin has recently answered this question in the affirmative, arguing that pure lying as such harms the moral fabric of sincerity and distorts the testimonial warrants which underpin communication. The article begins with a discussion of Shiffrin’s account of lying as a moral wrong and the idea of impersonal harm to moral goods. Then I raise two objections to her theory. First, it does not explain persuasively why the fabric of sincerity is so vulnerable to pure lying. Second, it underestimates the need for a causal link between the alleged harm and the speech the government suppresses. I explore the function of the causal inquiry in constitutional law and suggest that if Shiffrin’s theory were to become the standard for adjudication in freedom of expression cases, protection for speech would deteriorate.

Keywords: speech, lying, sincerity, harm, freedom of expression, Seana Shiffrin

Suggested Citation

Hatzis, Nicholas, Lying, Speech and Impersonal Harm (September 30, 2018). Law and Philosophy (2019) 38: 517–535, Available at SSRN:

Nicholas Hatzis (Contact Author)

University of Nottingham ( email )

University Park
Nottingham, NG8 1BB
United Kingdom

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