That said, I did find it pretty interesting to read NPR's description of why they don't call Trump's lies 'lies'. The basic thought is this: in order for something to be a lie, it has to be said with an intent to deceive. So in calling something a lie, one is in part making a claim about the intentions behind it. As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly puts it: "without the ability to peer into Donald Trump's head, I can't tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn't, with facts."
This is an epistemological claim—a skeptical one. It's often tempting to say that you can never really know what someone is thinking, because all you really have to go on is how they behave. But skeptical temptations are funny things, and there's probably good reason to resist a lot of them a lot of the time. For example, notice that it's also tempting to say that you can never really know anything about the future, since it hasn't happened yet, or that you can never really know historical facts, since you weren't personally there. At an extreme, Descartes famously argued that you can never really know anything about the external world, since you might be the victim of an evil demon who is manipulating your senses in a way that doesn't correspond to reality.
These skeptical arguments do carry some intuitive force, but most of us—us epistemologists, and us people who do things in the world—are committed to their being wrong. You and I know lots of things about the external world. I know that my dog just left this room, for instance. We know many things we didn't see for ourselves, but instead rely on others to inform us about. For example, I know that Donald Trump fired Sally Yates today, even though I wasn't there. (I read about it via news websites.) We know many things about the future. For example, I know that I will give a lecture on rationalism in the morning. Do you know how you'll get to work tomorrow, or when you'll next see your best friend? I am confident that many readers do.
We also know many things about others' minds. I know that my dog noticed that squirrel—this is manifest from her behaviour. (If you ask me, "did she notice the squirrel?" I will say "yes"; I won't say "there's no way to tell without seeing into her soul".) I know, of some of my friends, that they are terrified by the Trump administration. I know about some people's romantic feelings towards other people. When I watch someone at a sports bar, I often know which team they want to win. When I watch someone struggling with their arms full of groceries fumbling around with their keys, I know what they're trying to do.
There are certainly interesting questions about how we're able to tell what people are thinking and feeling and trying to do, but there's nothing inherently mysterious or spooky about the idea. ("Mind-reading" is an active and lively area of study in psychology and philosophy of mind.) One of the traits of autism is a kind of difficulty in knowing others' minds—conversely, the ability to know others' minds is neurotypical. To use Kelly's term, we really do, in an important sense, have "the ability to peer into someone's head".
To be sure, I can't always tell what someone is thinking. Sometimes they're not giving the kind of outward signs it would require for me to tell. Sometimes I even go wrong, misattributing a mental state to someone. A con artist might deceive me about what they're trying to do, for instance. But this kind of possibility of ignorance or error does not mean we cannot often have knowledge of people's thoughts and feelings. (After all, it's possible to go wrong with our perception, too.)
So I don't think we should take our reluctance to ascribe knowledge to people's inner lives very seriously. If NPR doesn't want to say Trump is lying because it would be unhelpfully inflammatory, I have no problem with that decision. But the line that in general you can't know what's in someone's head is just bad epistemology.
It's also inconsistently applied. I took a look through a number of recent NPR stories, to find examples of reported claims that imply something about someone's inner life. It turns out, there are lots of examples where NPR seems willing to make claims that would require "peering into someone's head". Here are a few:
- Frauke Petry's "political allies are worried enough to have taken stances against migrants and the European Union that sound a lot like AfD's positions." Worry is a feeling. Is NPR able to peer into the heads of those allies?
- "In response to the order, in Chicago, all remaining detainees were freed after being detained by Customs and Border Protection agents at Chicago O'Hare International Airport Saturday." Here NPR is making assertions about why some people did some things. This depends on their thoughts. What makes NPR so sure that they didn't ignore the order and just coincidentally happen to free them at that moment?
- "Now many listeners want to know why Kelly didn't just call the president a liar." But to really make this claim one would have to be able to discern the listeners' true intentions. (Maybe they're just asking for NPR to answer that question, but don't want to know the answer!)
- "It'll soon be the Year of the Rooster, and Yuan Shuizhen is preparing chicken feet in her tiny kitchen for the big meal." The reporter can see her preparing the chicken, and they can see where she's doing it, but can they see what she's doing it for? This depends on her intentions.
- "Obama oversaw a nation at war every day of his eight-year presidency... However, he tried to deploy a small U.S. military footprint, and the limited air campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere emphasized restraint and patience." In saying that he tried to do something, NPR makes a claim about his inner thoughts; by the standards Kelly articulates, they should have said that Obama took military actions that some people interpreted as an attempt to deploy a small footprint.
- "Federer watched the replay on the tournament screen, and leaped for joy when it showed his last shot was in." NPR seems willing to peer into Federer's head to divine the emotion behind his leap. If they were being more careful, they might have said that he leapt in a way similar to the way that joyful people sometimes leap.
- Trump "joked that the senior staff standing near him for the signing had 'one last chance to get out' before they would have to stick to limits on lobbying laid out in the directive." Whether this was a joke depends on the President's intentions.
- "Trump knows that many parts of Obamacare are popular with the white, working-class voters that put him in office." Knowledge requires belief, and belief depends on one's internal attitudes. Indeed, this knowledge ascription like it might imply enough about Trump's inner life to render certain possible actions (e.g., asserting that no parts of Obamacare are popular with those voters, lies). So if it's possible to know things like this, it should be possible to know about some lies.
My point isn't that any of these are unreasonable ascriptions. They seem perfectly natural, and I think that's right and good. But they reflect a commitment to anti-skepticism about others' minds. Kelly's claim that as a rule, NPR doesn't report on people's thoughts, is false. NPR is employing a more complicated practice—often, they tell us what people are thinking or feeling or trying to do, but not when it comes to whether the President is trying to deceive. This is not a good justification for declining to call things lies. Maybe there's a different good justification, but this isn't it.