The book „Deception“ (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2009), edited by Brooke Harrington (MPIfG, economic sociology) offers a wide variety of perspectives on deception. The contributors have put together their views from various disciplines, e.g. „Dealing with deception in biology“ (C. T. Bergstrom), „Paltering“ (F. Schauer and R. Zeckhauser), „Thoughts, Feelings and Deception“ (M. T. Frank), „Why most people parse palters, fibs, lies, whoppers and other deceptions poorly“ (M. O’Sullivan), „Digital Doctoring: Can we trust photographs?“ (H. Farid), „Digital Deception: The Practice of Lying in the digital age“ (J. T. Hancock), „Cognitive Hacking: Detecting Deception on the Web“ (P. Thomson), „Leaps and Lapses of Faith“ (G. Möllering), „Crocodile Tears, or Method acting in Everyday life“ (T. Lutz), „Deception and Trust in Health Crises“ (F. Rowan), „Responding to deception: The case of fraud in financial markets“ (Brooke Harrington) and, finally, „The pleasures of lying“ (K. Fields). One the one hand, the book “Deception” broadens the theory of action since it offers fresh insight into one important aspects of human action, it shows complexity of action theory, though it is readable for a broad public, and the insights are applicable to many contexts of contemporary society. On the other hand, the book also deserves some critical commentary.
First, what is deception? For instance, recently I took my parrot to the veterinarian, because it looked very sick, and I hardly believed my eyes when I arrived at the appointment: Within a 30 minute drive, my bird’s appearance had changed to pure livelihood. When I asked the doctor about the reason for the tremendous change in the bird’s appearance, he explained that parrots ‚just do that‘ because they will make any effort to appear strong to predators. But can deception in animals be compared to deception in humans? What does it take to deceive? Can people be deceived by technology? Can they be deceived by institutions or even by the state? Can deception ‚just happen‘, that is, does it make sense to speak of deception without an act of deception? Can deception occur when there is no deceiver? I would prefer to confine a definition of deception to humans and to specific contexts. Wikipedia offers this definition of deception:
an act of convincing another to believe information that is not true, or not the whole truth as in certain types half-truths, involving concepts such as propaganda, distraction and/or concealment
And Wikipedia defines fraud as
an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual.
Editor Brooke Harrington refuses to give a definition of deception and prefers to introduce a distinction between deception and lying:
„Unlike lying, which involves intent to promulgate a falsehood, a deception can take place without either intent or awareness on the part of a deceiver.“ (p. 3).
Harrington suggests that deception ‚just happens‘ and does not require a deceiver, an intent to deceive or awareness on the part of the deceiver. I was surprised by this approach to deception. So, I will give a short summary of a few chosen contributions and then add a few critical comments.