I don’t know about you, but I’m a pen person. I love a good pen, one that glides over the page and lays down ink smoothly, that feels “right” in my hand. I don’t have a lot of quality pens, and they can be hard to find, so I try not to lose them.
Imagine this: I am at a coffeehouse, with a great pen, taking notes on my next Stumbling Forward ideas. I hang out for an hour or so, then go to pay the check. When I come back, my pen is not on the table!
So, now I’m pissed. I head home, and when I get there I complain to my partner, telling her how someone stole my pen! When I sense doubt from her, I add “It’s true, I left my pen on the table, and when I came back from paying the bill, it was gone!”
The thing is, people like to throw words around, big and small, without really thinking about them too much, none more so than the word “truth”. So it can be very important to know exactly what we mean when we use that word – and what the consequences are thereof.
When most people say something is true, they mean that it is real. That it isn’t an opinion, they are claiming to be stating fact. “There is a table over there” is a statement about the real world, and what you will find in it. But here’s the kicker: how do you know? Or to put it another way, your “truths” are only as dependable as the methods by which you gathered them. And since NO gathering method is absolutely free from flaw or error, no fact or conclusion that any of us can ever reach can be one hundred percent trusted. None.
We can all agree that the question of “is there a table over there” has a true answer – either there is or there isn’t. We all believe that – because to believe otherwise is to believe that reality doesn’t exist, which contradicts itself. And we can pursue whether the table really is there, in our hallway, as deeply as we like. We can even take steps to becoming ever surer, looking at it, smelling the varnish, asking others to confirm what we are sensing. We can become 98% sure, or 99% sure, or 99.9% sure, or even 99.99999% sure.
But we can never become 100% sure – not rationally, not when we know things like stage magicians, dreams, human error, and mental glitches exist. Not when we know that we as humans have an overwhelming tendency to draw conclusions first and think things through second, if at all.
Did someone really steal my pen at the coffeehouse? Maybe. Maybe not. Did it roll off the table onto the floor? Perhaps. Did one of the baristas take it, thinking that they left it? Maybe. Did I return to the wrong table? Could be. Will I actually find it in my knapsack in a day or two, because I stuck it back in my bag without realizing, before I got up? Quite possibly.
You can never know the truth about anything – not with absolute certainty – which most people strongly imply by “truth”, and others directly state. Truth is reality – and reality truth – at least the way most people use that word. But we are very fallible beings. Our senses are far from perfect, and can give us information we misinterpret – like a mirage in the desert where there is no water, or a seemingly empty box where the magician is hiding the bunny behind a mirror. And we are also imperfect in our ability to reason and draw conclusions – anyone who has ever forgotten in math to carry the “1” knows what I mean!
This is why I am convinced that most people use the word “truth” incorrectly – because if they are speaking about the way reality actually is, they can never rationally express complete and absolute confidence in any understanding of truth, so-defined.
I do not use that word that way. If I say something is “true”, I am only really saying that it is known true, but not that it actually is. If I say, “It’s true, my pen was swiped at the coffeehouse”, I am not saying that it actually happened that way, I am saying that I have concluded that it happened that way – although it may not have!
The only rational way to discuss the truth is to discuss what we can reasonably claim to know. Therefore, an argument over a disagreement about the truth of something is not an argument about whether it is actually true or not. No, the argument is really about whether the claim of calling it true is justified – or whether the reverse claim of calling it false is, or neither.
Rationally speaking, we can never know reality directly, we can only perceive it. So any conversation we have about our disagreements of what reality contains can never be about what it really contains, only about what (and how) we can justify the claim of knowing that. (Like “truth”, you can correctly claim to know something now, even if later that claim turns out to be incorrect. Like “truth”, knowing isn’t about reality, it is about our understanding of reality, which evolves and changes.)
Thus, anytime anyone claims “X” as true (or being “the truth”), the most that claim can rationally support is that we can at this time know “X” is true – because of various reasons. But in the same breath, now we have to admit we are only discussing whether “X” is justifiably known to be true, not if it’s actually true. Therefore we can always change our minds when new evidence or thinking (or both) challenge a “known truth” – because a known truth is a product of our efforts, and never absolute, like “the truth”.
And this applies to every domain of discussion and “truth” – science, politics, religion, philosophy, business – even what I had for dinner last night. (Or at least what I can remember!)
Truth – that is, known truth – is not absolute. It’s our current best guess given the information we have, our ability to correctly process that information, and the time and energy we have to allocate to those endeavors. We would all be in much better shape if we simply eliminate the idea we can ever have actual objective truth, and instead focus on what’s actually possible – a shifting, hopefully ever-improving collection of non-absolute known truths, which represent nothing more or less than our current set of working knowledge.
Recently I was watching a TV show centered around four female friends and their, um, “entanglements”. One of them, Savi, had just had an unplanned one-night stand with someone who was not her husband, and hadn’t yet shared that with her girlfriends. She is tormented by guilt. Another, April, has taken to idolizing her dead husband – until she finds out that not only did he have another woman in his life, but he had a son with her.
This sends April into continuing fits of rage. In one scene she complains angrily to Savi (not yet knowing Savi’s secret) that cheaters are the lowest of the low, asking what kind of person betrays someone that they claimed to love? April continues to excoriate and condemn her husband, not knowing how every vitriolic barb she lobs lands straight in Savi’s heart, until Savi interrupts her, quietly saying “I cheated on my husband last night.” April is stunned for a moment, then angrily shouts at her, “I didn’t want to know that – you should never have told me that!”
And that was when I knew that April was a vampire.
You see, in the above scene, April is basically saying that Savi as her friend has an obligation to be there for her, and that by admitting what she (Savi) had done, April lost that support structure. But what’s really kind of nasty is that April is only interested in herself in that moment, and zero percent interested in her supposed friend’s torment.
No, April would rather Savi keep it to herself, even though April’s words were cutting her to ribbons. April somehow thinks it Savi’s duty to ignore her own well-being for April’s. And that is the essence of the vampire: they expect you to put their needs ahead of your own – and feel entitled to it. Period.
Vampires are everywhere, people who have an agenda for you that is not to your benefit, but is definitely to theirs. Users. Pushers. Life-force consumers. Vampires.
Here are a few examples:
- A guy sees two gays kissing in the park. He tells them that they should be ashamed of being perverted in public – but look under the surface and it’s clear that he’d really like them to stop because seeing it disturbs him. And why shouldn’t the actions of those around him be limited by what he can handle?
- A woman, hearing you criticize the country, tells you if you don’t love it, you should leave it. Why? Because those are the only two options she wants you to choose from – conveniently ignoring the “work for change” third option – because the change you want she doesn’t! What a peach!
- A fellow who considers himself generally morally superior tries to convince you that lying is wrong, never right, and that you should always tell the truth, regardless of circumstances. Why? Because it’s a cornerstone of his belief system and apparently it’s more important for you to support his beliefs than act towards your own well-being, should there ever be a conflict. Nice guy.
- A religious leader tells his followers that women shouldn’t be bread-winners, that they ought to be subject to their husbands and stay at home to do their “natural” work there. He says that it isn’t natural for women to behave like men, compete with men, wear pants, and generally be all independent-like. Again, scratch the surface and one can see that what the “moral leader” really wants is male dominance over women – because that’s what he likes and is comfortable with – and his “theories” are just a smokescreen to try to get it.
- A used car salesman is telling you how the car he is trying to sell you is the perfect match for your wallet and your needs. Of course, he doesn’t tell you that the transmission is about shot, or that there’s a crack in the engine block, because he’s not really thinking about what’a good for you, but about what’s good for him – like getting you to part with your money!
All these people have one thing in common. They all want the people around them to modify their behavior without regard to what their targets might want or what might actually be good for them. And they push this agenda not honestly – because who would be persuaded by a campaign of “Stop gays from making out in public because it sickens me” – but by using tricks, coercion, and any other thing they can to prevent people from figuring out for themselves what’s in their own rational self-interest.
To be clear, this is not about a demagogue stirring up a mob to go after those they don’t like – which is horrible, but not vampiric. A vampire is someone who attempts (through coercion, misdirection, or deceit) to make someone ignore their own best interest to instead wind up doing what the vampire wanted.
- Want to secretly use you, not work with you,
- Want the outcome that favors their agenda, no real consideration of your purposes,
- Don’t want you to know that you are being used, as that would get in the way,
- And definitely doesn’t have your true best interests or actual well-being at heart.
Vampires are sneaky reprehensible predators, often wolves in sheep’s clothing. They feel so entitled to your obedience that they may not even be aware that they are trying to use you. These aren’t necessarily clever people – although some are – these are extremely self-centered life-suckers that don’t always get why your first instinct isn’t to accede to their wishes.
Some try to steamroll over your ability to choose your own self-interest with force of personality and coercion. Others seek to bamboozle and manipulate you into thinking that the choice they want you to make is in your best interests when it’s really not. Still others use deceit so that you don’t really understand what your options are in the first place. All of them though share a common perspective – your place in life is to serve them, and whatever they need to do to get you to do that, they will. After all, they deserve it, right?
Wrong. They’re just vampires, and like the mythical kind, a little metaphorical sunlight can send them scurrying back into the shadows. But watch out for them, because they are everywhere.
[Note: this post is WAY too long, but this is what it took to cover the topic, and the subject matter is so much of a whole cloth that splitting it into separate posts seemed an injustice to the material. So please bear with me, and know that this article’s length will NOT be a trend.]
We have outlined why sometimes dishonesty is justified in this post and in this one. And we have defined what we mean by “honesty” in the last post. Now all that’s left is to make the case that when not an absolute necessity, being honest (i.e., non-deceptive) is still the rational choice 99% of the time.
Many people take it as an article of faith it is a black and white truth that honesty is good and dishonesty is bad, period, no exceptions. If you had to lie to protect yourself, they might say you had to do one small bad thing to stop a bigger bad thing – but they would still identify your lying, even to protect yourself, as a “bad” thing – just an unfortunately necessary “bad” thing.
Well, we have already demolished that line of thinking. If dishonesty is necessary to protect one’s wellbeing or to avoid an injustice, then it is justified and not at all immoral. But this is where people get scared. If some dishonesty isn’t bad, if the honesty rule isn’t black and white and absolute, than why wouldn’t everyone just lie their ass off all the time? How could we trust anyone ever, if dishonesty is ever not condemned?
It’s actually a good question, and deserves to be answered. Why is it so vital that everyone be honest almost all the time, if occasionally dishonesty is justified? I could take the easy way out and say “that’s just what I believe”, but that doesn’t mean a damn to anyone else who doesn’t happen to feel the same way. So that won’t be my approach. Instead, I will be asking this question: “Why is it to your benefit to be non-deceptive (i.e., honest) as much as humanly possible?” There are many clear and compelling reasons, some obvious, some subtle, that break down into three rough categories: the cost of success (at deception), the odds of failure, and the cost of failure.
I. Reasons to be honest: the costs of successful deception.
What do I mean by “the cost of success”? Well, even if you are dishonest and get away with it, there is still a cost, as everything we do has consequences. Here’s one: when you deceive someone you unavoidably damage your relationship with them, even if they never discover your dishonesty. Why? Well, for one, if your deception is about a part of you – like being an atheist, as in a previous example – you are limiting the ability for someone else to get to know the real you, and if the “you” they are getting to know is not the real you, how can you trust them when they say that they like you, or believe in you, and so on? They don’t know you, because you didn’t let them. And beyond even that, when you are able to successfully deceive someone, the power dynamic in the relationship shifts a little each time, even if they are not aware of it. A deceiver may begin to see his successfully deceived targets as less and less worthy of respect or equality. It often works that way.
Another cost of success is mental – many people who lie and deceive suffer silently under a heavy if hidden cloud of anxiety, anguish, and fear – which can haunt the deceiver longer and cause more distress (ironically) the longer the deception successfully continues, to the point that some who deceive actually register profound relief upon the deception finally coming to light!
Similarly but different, especially for those that value truth and accurate information, the cognitive dissonance produced by telling and living a lie can be profoundly unpleasant and annoying, like an itch you can never scratch. Over time this can even cause personality changes as the mind continually rejects the deceptions one is selling, requiring the deceiver to push even harder, an unpleasant feedback loop.
Finally, there is the opportunity cost of a successful deception. The urge to deceive often comes from a painful situation one is trying to avoid. Not all the time, but sometimes that painful situation is necessary to find a greater resolution and a release from the pain. An alcoholic, for example, by successfully deceiving others into thinking that they do not have a problem, will most likely continue to suffer their disease and its effects. However, simply and honestly confronting the problem head on can, in some cases, allow one to make a long term improvement by being forced to deal directly with the root issue. Of course, some root issues aren’t within our power to deal with – if the Nazi soldier asks you if you are hiding Anne Frank and you are, that is not the time to take on Fascism single handedly by saying “Yes, and you can’t have her!”
Reasons to be honest: the costs of successful deception.
- Damage: Dishonesty damages relationships.
- Side-Effects: Deception may cause the deceiver anxiety, anguish, fear, even cognitive dissonance and personality changes.
- No Improvement: Hiding the truth may prevent confronting it for change for the better.
II. Reasons to be honest: the chance of failure.
The above three reasons assume that one will succeed at deception – but is it that easy to succeed at it? Is it trivial to deceive someone? No – not at all – and this is why:
First, a single lie or deception has three ways in which it can fail. It can fail because the deceiver simply fails to deceive their target; or because the deceiver initially succeeds, but over time makes mistakes that add up; or perhaps the deceiver makes no mistakes, but the truth gets ultimately revealed by an external source.
Successfully deceiving another person, especially when the stakes are high with someone who really knows you, is tough. People are human lie-detectors, some better than others. We can sense when something is “off” – though we don’t know it, we’re picking up on body language and the myriad of possible changes in the person who is trying to deceive us. Maybe their vocal cadence changes, maybe they start sweating or acting nervous, maybe the pitch of their voice rises, or their attitude doesn’t seem to fit their words. The brain is wired to try to sort truth from falsehood, so when one attempts a deception, unless one is a psychopath, it is very hard not to give any signs. Especially to people who know them and have a better baseline. On the other hand, some people are really good as quickly sizing up even people they have never met – you never know.
Even if the initial deception somehow gets by, then comes the “maintenance” phase. Because you don’t just have to support the deception in the moment, but from that point on, for the rest of your life, until or unless you come clean or it blows up. So when you tell a friend that you can’t hang out with him because you are going away for the weekend, and few weeks later he asks you about your weekend trip, your lie will not be fresh in your mind, leading to “Weekend trip? What do you mean? Oh, that weekend trip” awkwardness – and if your friend is paying attention at all, he just got enough of a hint to bug him until you get busted. Maintaining the deception long term is extremely hard.
And even if you do everything successfully – you sell the initial deception well enough and then you remember to support it well, there’s a very good chance you’ll still get busted. Reality has this way of catching up with those that tend to deny it – whether what ultimately busts you winds up being a receipt someone finds, or two people unexpectedly crossing paths and conversing, or something else, odds are that there is evidence and/or people who know the truth (or at least enough that could expose it), a time bomb waiting to go off.
To make matters even worse, the need to protect the deception frequently causes the deceiver to have to create another lie to support the first, and then another lie to support that one. Pretty soon the whole thing snowballs and collapses of its own weight.
Is it possible to get away with deception? Certainly. Is it likely, especially long-term? Very much not.
Reasons to be honest: the chance of failure.
- Ineptitude: Most people cannot deceive well and instead give themselves away.
- Ongoing Mistakes: Most people can’t maintain a deception long term, let alone several.
- External Factors: Reality tends to eventually and actively contradict a deception.
- Snowball Effect: Risks are multiplied by needing more and more deceptions to prevent discovery.
III. Reasons to be honest: the price of failure.
And now we get to the really big downside of dishonesty and deception – what happens when it all blows up – because it almost always does. There are actually a lot of different ways in which our deceptions can come home to bite us on the ass hard – and most of them are non-exclusive, meaning that there are several layers and depths to the many bad results when a deception goes wrong.
The most obvious one is the direct fallout. Yelling, crying, nastiness, and other immediate consequences like being fired, dumped, assaulted, arrested (depending), and so on. You might ask aren’t these the same consequences you would have faced by being honest to begin with? Actually, as bad as the consequences of being honest might be, the fallout is usually far worse when the truth is preceded by acts of deception. Where speaking honestly of a problem with another may lead to finding a solution, a revealed deception usually offers no such options. So if you want any chance at some forgiveness, understanding, or amelioration, you are much more likely to lose that when one’s deceptions implode. Direct fallout is the really big one, but there are also a bunch other terrible consequences one faces with a failed deception.
One of those awful things is knowing that through your deception, you have caused others, probably loved ones, to feel deeply hurt, wounded, and betrayed. You have visited upon them deep pain, much deeper than simply telling them the truth would have been. So unless you like giving pain to those you are close to, you may want to stick to the truth.
There’s also some more intellectual and tactical costs to a failed deception. Have you ever heard of Kant’s Moral Imperative (KMI)? Briefly stated, it says: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, we shouldn’t steal, because if everyone stole the world would not function.
Well, we generally want people to be honest with us, as much as humanly possible. According to KMI, that requires that we ourselves act that way in return. So if you want people choosing not to deceive you (unless it’s absolutely necessary to avoid harm or injustice), then you have to apply those same standards when you choose to be honest or dishonest.
The backhand part of KMI also works in reverse – if you employ the tools of deception too freely, you have no grounds to complain of feeling wronged when others do the same to you. So if you want the high ground, if you want your anger and feelings of being wronged to be rationally justified when someone is caught deceiving you, then you must avoid deceiving others whenever possible – that’s the other side of KMI.
In addition, there’s the cost to your reputation, both negative and positive. Obviously, the negative side is that as people begin to know you for being dishonest, you will be ostracized or worse by the society, culture, and social group you partake of. Even if the shunning isn’t to your face, you’ll know that few like you and no one trusts you – you will be an outsider and you will deserve it, so you won’t even have righteous indignation on your side.
Not to mention that once you become known as dishonest and as a deceiver, your next deceptions have very, very little chance of working now that no one is trusting you anyways. Even if no other reason above has convinced you, this one should make even crafty, soulless manipulators pause: There is no point in telling a lie if it’s not going to be believed. And the best, easiest way to get people to believe you is to have a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness. The only clear way to get that, is to be honest and trustworthy. So from a purely tactical point of view, the rarer your deceptions are, the more likely they are to be effective! Lying or deceiving when it’s not absolutely necessary risks wasting a good and limited resource – your reputation. So don’t.
The last reason to avoid dishonesty is a bit more subtle – failed deceptions can sometimes reveal more than being honest would have. This may not be obvious, but consider: a failed deception not only reveals the truth you tried to hide, but also how important it was to you that it not come out – which may well be a deeper truth than the one you tried to protect. And just like lies can snowball, once truth starts coming out, that can snowball too, revealing far more than just the one truth you didn’t want known. After all, once you start pulling on that thread, who knows where it will end?
Reasons to be honest: the price of failure.
- Fallout: The immediate brutal consequences of an imploded deception.
- KMI: If you want honesty, you have to give honesty.
- Reverse KMI: If you are easily dishonest, you have no grounds to complain if you are deceived.
- Negative Reputation: People shun and freeze you out – or worse.
- Lost Trustworthiness: Your ability to deceive when necessary has been virtually lost.
- Extra Vulnerability: A failed deception may reveal much more than you had been trying to hide.
So there you have it, thirteen strong reasons to be honest whenever humanly possible. Will the above thirteen reasons be enough to never lie? Certainly not. As demonstrated throughout the past several posts, some deception is required to avoid harm or injustice, even with all the above risks and the many costs. But because it is so risky and costly, the only time it makes sense to deceive is when the true danger is that much greater.
Again, if I was an atheist in Georgia in 1956, you bet your sweet ass I would pretend to be a christian. The cost for not doing so would be too enormous, justifying the risks and costs. But I am damn sure that I wouldn’t take those risks for anything less important, anything trivial.
And I hope, after reading this, neither will you.
Even without some made-up faith-based reason to be honest, based purely on rational self-interest, it should now be obvious that honesty is (almost always) the best policy.
Alright, people who read my last two posts (here and here) superficially may have thought I was saying “lie, lie, lie, cheat, cheat, cheat” – but nothing could be further from the truth. My main points really were these:
- Sometimes, even if one wants to be honest, circumstances may dictate that choosing to mislead is a better choice for your well-being than choosing to be utterly honest.
- People who tell you to be honest even when that would be very bad for you are obviously less concerned with your well-being then some other agenda that they have.
- One should not be expected to be honest when the environment is utterly hostile to the truth you would say. Or to put another way, part of asking other people to be honest with us is making a safe environment for them to do so.
So, after talking about when dishonesty may be justified, when then should one be honest?
Almost all the time.
However, before I can explain why, this is the perfect time to really dig deep into what it means to be honest or dishonest.
Dishonesty is when one person acts on the intention of misleading someone else. It doesn’t matter what the method is – commission, omission, body language – if one interacts with another purposefully in such a way as to mislead them, then that is being dishonest.
Fundamentally, then, dishonesty is a result of deception. When one intends to deceive another, one is being dishonest – whether it is justified or not, appropriate or not. And when one is dishonest, one is trying to deceive.
What about honesty – is being honest then simply not being dishonest? Or does it go further than that? Can you not consider yourself honest if you do not share every detail that another would want to know, or is shunning deception enough to consider oneself as honest?
Take for example the following situation: On your lunch break from work, you ran into a client, had a brief conversation, then ran into a friend and had a much longer conversation, losing track of the time. When you saw how late it was, you jumped in your car to rush back to work, but then get stopped for speeding. Finally arriving back at work, your boss – who hates speeders – confronts you and asks why you were late.
Obviously, you could spill your guts, tell your boss everything, and hope it works out. Such an act would be considered honest by all. But what of the following choices?
- “I got back earlier, I was just working in the back where you didn’t see me.” An out and out lie, deceptive and completely dishonest.
- “I saw a client at lunch and we chatted.” While technically a true fact, your intent is to mislead your boss into thinking that it was your dutiful conversation with a client of the firm that was what made you late. Mislead = deception = dishonest.
- “I had car trouble.” Also technically true (you had trouble because your car was going too fast), but since the obvious intent is still to cause your boss to falsely believe you had broken down, dishonest.
- Or you could say, sarcastically, rolling your eyes, “Boss – I got in trouble with the LAW! I’m a lawbreaker, a rebel!” Again, technically you are telling the truth, but in such a way as to strongly imply that you are just kidding and that the words you say are not to be believed. The intent is to mislead, and therefor this is dishonest.
- “I ran into a friend, we got to talking, and I lost track of the time.” If spending so much time with your friend is what caused you to speed, then even though you haven’t shared all the gory details, neither are you attempting to deceive your boss about the true cause of your lateness. Not dishonest.
- “I got waylaid by a private, non-work related issue, and I take full responsibility for it – it won’t happen again.” Not especially forthcoming – but not dishonest either.
- Alternatively, you could offer a non-answer, “Man, where does the time go? Sorry – won’t happen again.” You didn’t answer his question about why you were late, but it’s not a mislead either. Not dishonest.
Ultimately, it’s about deception – if you are trying to deceive someone, then you are being dishonest. If you are not, then you cannot be called dishonest. So the first four are dishonest, and the last three are not. Are the last three honest, though?
Remember, honesty does not necessarily imply approval, just like dishonesty shouldn’t necessarily imply disapproval, so the question about whether the last three qualify as “honest” has nothing to do with whether we approve of them or not – it has nothing to do with good or bad, or right or wrong at all. The question is merely about what the word “honest” means. Is the only use of that word reserved for those who unflinchingly reveal everything that they think another would want to know? Can one not consider oneself honest simply because one won’t bare one’s soul?
A dictionary won’t help us here, since “honest” has many definitions and shades of meaning, so I am going to tell you what I mean when I say the word, and that is what it will mean on this blog.
Honest to me means “free from fraud or deception”. It doesn’t have to mean a full confession where you cop to everything someone else wants to find out. It just means not trying to deceive.
So if you ask me, choices 5 through 7, while not the whole truth, are in fact honest answers because they contain no deception.
So, now that we have fully outlined dishonesty and honesty, the next step is to illustrate just why it is a good idea to be honest almost always. Since this post is already quite substantial, let’s do that in the next one.
This was going to be the follow-up article to this one, in which I was going to explain that while it may not be rational to be absolutely honest all the time, it is rational to be generally honest most of the time. Then I realized that as much as I demonstrated the necessity of occasional dishonesty in that last post, there were two things I didn’t do that need doing, both of them spiritual. I did not illustrate that sometimes lying isn’t just defensible, but morally right. I also didn’t call out the “honesty pushers” for their vile and repugnant position.
It’s time to get emotional.
(Note this very well: “getting emotional” is not equivalent to getting irrational. Emotion is passion, fire, excitement. Unbound, it is quite irrational, but in its proper place, quite rational. While many fall victim to unbridled emotionality, my weakness is the reverse – I get so intellectual and in my head I get disconnected from the passion that is actually a core spiritual component. Human beings are not and can not be logic-based alone, we also need to embrace our passion – just so long as it doesn’t derail us and make us act contrary to reason. In the last post, I didn’t bring the fire, which I hope to rectify in this one.)
There are really two types of dishonesty, I think. There’s factual dishonesty and personal dishonesty. Factual dishonesty is when you misrepresent a situation to cause or permit someone else to have a false picture of the situation. Personal dishonesty is when you engender a false understanding in another about who you are as a person. So factual dishonesty is saying you’re sick when you are really not. Personal dishonesty is saying that you believe in god when you really don’t. What makes them different? Put simply, personal dishonesty is isolating and bit by bit removes chances for people to get to know you and to have a real relationship with you. Factual dishonesty is lying about (for example) what you do, but personal dishonesty is lying about who you are.
And yet both are, in the right circumstances, the moral thing to do. Because you are never morally required to suffer for someone else’s purpose.
Let’s say that you are doing research at a library in a town you happen to be in while traveling, and after leaving find that you have left your wallet there. When you drive back to get it, you see that they are locking up for the day. The librarian starts to tell you that it’s too late and you will have to come back tomorrow – and even though you tell them that it won’t be possible, the librarian does not budge. Suddenly they think they recognize you as an acquaintance they know from church. Their manner changes, and they are about to let you in to get your wallet. You have a plane flight in two hours – do you tell the librarian that you are not Fred from church, or do you smile, get in, and get your wallet in time to make your flight? Do you owe this person your honesty, even though being honest with them means that you will miss your flight without the ID in your missing wallet? Especially when they have already proven to you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that being honest with them has no chance to succeed in getting you your wallet in time?
Sometimes the moral thing to do is to not harm yourself when you do not deserve it. And if someone else cannot be trusted to make the moral choice, then they also cannot be trusted with absolute honesty.
Now there are some very good reasons in different circumstances to be honest even when it causes oneself unpleasant or even harmful consequences. If this was a library in your hometown and you wanted to use it a lot, damaging your relationship with the person running it might be long-term worse for you than simply missing a flight. And if this is your hometown, people know people, so if it gets out that you lied to the town librarian, there may be people who would judge you for it, and that has consequences too. Furthermore, if you lie to this person, you may be damaging your opportunity to have a real relationship or friendship with them. So, depending on the circumstance, you may find that even though being honest has unhappy consequences, being dishonest might have worse consequences. Often that is the case.
But occasionally, from time to time, you may find that it is actually in your best interest to be dishonest. If you live in Boston, but find yourself stuck in Detroit having left your wallet in a library that is closing, and the only way you can get your wallet from the librarian in time to make your flight home is to let them think that you belong to their church, then do it. You won’t be any less of a morally upright person then you were before, because not all lies are wrong. Lying to unfairly take advantage of someone is wrong, sure, but lying to get someone to do the right thing, or to stop them from doing bad things, is utterly justified. It is right. And anyone who tells you otherwise does not have your best interests at heart – but we will come back to those nasty people in a bit.
Of course, the above scenario is about factual dishonesty, what about personal dishonesty? Is it OK to lie to the people you know about who you are?
It’s not only OK in the right circumstances, it’s morally required.
Scenario #2: You live in the United States, in the deep and religious South in 1963. You are twenty-three. You have a big family, brothers and sisters, a loving mother and father, aunts and uncle, the whole nine yards. Every Sunday the whole family goes to church together, even though you and your brother and sisters now live on your own, you are all living in the same town and all stay connected. And whenever the whole family gets together for dinner, which happens often, the meal doesn’t start until everyone joins hands and says Grace – and seems to mean it. Jesus and religion are a huge part of everyone’s life.
To make matters worse, a hippie type has just moved into town, a self-proclaimed atheist (and socialist) and the town is up in arms against him. The hippie is not backing down, going so far at to try to “preach” Enlightenment from the town square. Your family is shocked and outraged, making it clear that they consider this person to be less than human.
The problem is, you just discovered that you are an atheist. Now, do you “come out” to your family? Do you let them know how you really feel? Do you refuse to participate in Grace and Sunday church? Or do you embrace dishonesty and fake it?
It’s true that the decision to lie about who you are to the people closest to you is a much more serious decision than to lie to a stranger about something far more inconsequential. It’s true that if you deny your closest friends and family a chance to really know who you are that you are putting up invisible obstacles between you, making it that much harder to be connected to them.
But it may also be true that if you tell them a truth that they cannot be trusted to handle well, that you could be rejected and frozen out entirely – which would be quite possibly a much bigger loss than simply having an unknown untruth between you. And they could do much worse to you than ostracize you – though that’s pretty bad. They could turn on you completely, spreading word of your unnatural beliefs, making sure that no one will hire you or treat you decently – not hard in a place where what you feel is looked at as tantamount to evil, even though it’s not. They might even convince themselves that they are doing these horrible things to you because they love you, and that this is the only way you’ll get better.
You don’t think that there’s just a chance this will happen. You don’t think that it is only likely. You’ve been watching and you are pretty sure that the excrement will hit the fan big time.
So, honesty at all costs, or do you protect yourself from some really evil consequences by being dishonest? Even if it’s to the people closest to you about a core part of who you are as a person?
Let me repeat: you are never morally required to suffer for someone else’s purpose. If someone will unjustifiably cause you pain or grief when you are honest with them about something, then unless it suits your larger goals, don’t be honest with them about the matter.
Morality isn’t just about treating other people fairly – it’s also about treating yourself fairly too. And if people are going to punish you unjustly for your honesty, then they do not deserve your honesty.
Which brings us to the last piece of this: honesty pushers. What’s an honesty pusher?
Someone who says that dishonesty is never justified, that lying is always bad or immoral. Someone who says that you owe everyone honesty, even people who would punish you for it. Someone who says that no matter the personal cost to you, you must self-martyr in the name of honesty.
This person may mean well – but that is entirely irrelevant. Everyone means well – including the crusaders of Europe’s dark ages and those who burned witches in Salem. Even slave owners can claim to have meant well – and some of them were probably sincere. But utterly wrong.
Someone who wants you to be honest in all circumstances despite how much it may hurt you is someone who values your wellbeing less than their own personal crusade. And when push comes to shove, I’ll bet you anything that most of these folks engage in the occasional lie anyways – and if caught and called on it, will shout until they’re blue in the face how their dishonesty doesn’t count as dishonesty.
Cultures promote honesty for many reasons – one of which is that most of the time it is the best thing to embrace. But there are only two kinds of people who promote absolute honest always. Those on a personal crusade which takes precedence over your well-being. And those who secretly have no issue with dishonesty – as long as they are the ones doing it. Ones who wants everyone else to be honest with them – so that when they choose their moments of dishonesty, they have more power and influence. Ones seeking an unfair advantage, basically.
But whether the honesty-pusher is a crusader or just unscrupulous, it is they that are morally bereft. Pay them no mind. Be honest with everyone that earns it. Be honest with those who make it safe, not those who make it risky and dangerous. And if you choose to be dishonest with someone because it would unfairly cause you risk or harm, do not feel one whit of condemnation – save your condemnation for those that created the situation in which your honesty would harm you!
Now, with any luck, the next post will be about why, even though you do not owe everyone your absolute honesty all the time, it’s still a good idea to be pretty honest most of the time. See you there!
OK, back on track, before I go further, I think I need to address the invisible elephant in the room. My first principle of the four base ones I came up with here was: The truth is sacred. That must mean that your should always tell the truth, and never lie, right? Wrong.
Of course, a lie can be justified in terms of doing good for others. The example I used before was a Nazi soldier asking you if you are hiding Anne Frank, and you are. Of course you would lie to him (if you thought he would believe it.) But that’s OK because you’re lying to a bad person who wants to do bad things.
But let me paint another picture. Suppose you’re a working single mother. You normally send your kids to school and go to your job – but this time not only is the young one sick and in need of care, but your normal go-to emergency babysitter you call for situations like these can’t be reached. Worse yet, your boss just gave a big speech yesterday about how no one was going to get “special treatment” for “family reasons” when it comes to attendance – you actually know that your boss wouldn’t hesitate to fire you if you call in without what he would call an excusable absence. So you do what every other person does in this circumstance, you lie and call in sick.
Or another example, let’s say that you don’t believe at all in astrology, but during the job interview your interviewer asks you what your sign is, and generally begins to try to engage you in conversations about how you, an Aries, would be perfect for this position. You really need this job though, so you lie and agree with him.
Quite a few people would be shocked and outraged by at least a few of these choices. “You should never lie,” they say. “Honesty is the best policy. Lying by omission is still lying, and even more so if you speak falsehood.” You can probably guess that I don’t feel that way – but if one of my most important principles is truth, isn’t that a contradiction?
No – and this is why. You should always be honest with yourself. That is my principle. Never lie to yourself, never seek to delude yourself, never hide from uncomfortable truths within your mind.
But you are never required to put yourself at disadvantage or risk of harm in order to tell the truth to others. There are some very good reasons for being truthful most of the time, which I will enumerate in a bit, but first, let’s pop the balloon right now why everyone preaches honesty – but then goes ahead and lies when it suits them anyways.
It really boils down to one simple fact: information is power. If you can convince someone to tell you the truth, even when it is not in their best interest to do so, then you have the option of exerting power and influence over them. Take the sick child example above: if you tell your unsympathetic boss that you’re sick and must stay home, there’s not much he can probably do about that, so long as he doesn’t catch you in the lie, like at the movies later. However, if you mistakenly feel you have to be honest all the time, and you tell him that you know it’s not allowed, but that you have to stay home with your kid today – you have just handed him the power to decide what happens next. Sure, you may get a warm fuzzy patting yourself on the back for being honest, but when he fires you and you can’t get another job and you are frantic to find a way to keep feeding your kid, you may not value that warm fuzzy quite so much.
In the next post (since this one is so long) I will tell you why, even with all the above being true, you should still probably only lie very sparingly. There are some very good reasons to almost never lie. But “almost never” is not the same thing as “never”.
When push comes to shove, and the time comes where being honest would put you at disadvantage or risk, and you think you can get away with a lie of some kind, if you want to make the rational choice, consider telling the lie.
Except to me of course, tell me the honest truth always. You can trust me to never have a different opinion from you about what to do with the sensitive information you just shared with me – can’t you?
OK, I’m obviously not promising not to have future alteration phases of this site, but I think I got most of the kinks out that I was looking to solve this time, so this site/blog should settle down a bit and I can go back to generating content – in other words, my current journey!
As always, if anyone sees anything amiss on this site – even just spelling or grammars errors (which I *know* still exist, unhappily) then please let me know via comments or via the Contact page.
Edit: one quick PS, I do plan on reordering the pages somewhat by re-dating them, so be aware that that their URLs may change and any direct linking or bookmarking you do may stop functioning. http://benngrant.com will always work, however.
I am making some more or less minor structural changes to the blog here, so if you see links that don’t work, or a few reposts, or other signs of work, know that it is likely just me prodding and poking at this blog site and that things should settle down soon. Please bear with me and I’ll see you on the other side shortly.
OK, here’s the brain dump I promised – the first one anyways. I am going to try to hold back and not analyze or over examine these – this is just the first collection attempt. I will however try to take a little time to better explain them, so everyone (including myself) knows exactly what I mean.
The truth is sacred. This doesn’t mean that one should never lie – sometimes a power inequity forces one to decide whether to tell the truth and thereby give someone ammunition to use against you or someone you care about, or to lie and protect someone (possibly yourself) from unjust consequences. The classic example which I alluded to recently is the Anne Frank one: if in WWII you were hiding Anne Frank in your house, and a Nazi soldier knocks on the door and asks if she is there, are you obligated to answer honestly? Of course not! Of course, it’s generally preferential to be honest – and it’s mandatory that one be honest with oneself.
Two other consequences of the truth being sacred: one must never claim or pretend to know that which one does not know, and one must also be ready and willing to sacrifice each and every truth one currently holds if evidence or reasoning calls it into doubt. To put another way: Be slow to claim truth, but quick to question – both others and yourself!
Finally, always keep in mind that something isn’t considered true unless all the evidence mandates it. It is never enough to show that something could be true, unless something is shown to be necessarily true believing it isn’t justified.
Pragmatic choices are the most effective. It’s all about results. As they say, spit in one hand and hope in the other, and I will tell you which hand has more in it. This is utterly not to say that we ought to be ruthless, or that we have to give up hope, or that the end justifies the means. This is only to say we need to be realistic, and try to face the world and our choices within it as they really are. It’s all well and good to stand on principle, but what good are we doing those principles if our choices accomplish nothing or worse?
I think it boils down to this: instead of asking whether the choices we make are in line with our desires, it is more practical and more effective to instead ask if the true consequences of our choices are in line with our desires. If not, we need to make different choices.
Our duty to each other is to try to lessen each person’s suffering and increase their wellbeing. This is a reformulation of the idea of Noblesse Oblige, that those who are doing better should take care of those who are doing worse, and act to help them. It means that we need to take whatever steps necessary to make sure people have shelter, food, water, medical support, and a rudimentary quality of life – and that we don’t seek to shame them in the process.
There is nothing wrong with there being super-rich people who bathe in caviar and who drive gold Mercedes provided that the poor, the needy, the wretched, are attended to first. But to have some of us thoughtlessly enjoy a life of privilege while others starve, or remain sick and untreated (emergency rooms do not treat cancer, don’t forget), or are otherwise suffering – that is selfish to the point of monstrosity.
And note that I said “whatever steps necessary”. This means that if private charities are handling the full burden of this duty, great – but if not, we do not shrug our shoulders and say, “Too bad.” No, even though it might be a last resort, if necessary we instruct our government take what is needed from the people who have more than they need to help those who lack the basics.
Responsible Freedom. I want to be crystal clear, this isn’t a la carte here. Freedom alone, without responsibility or any other guiding principles is little more than rampant selfishness. Freedom without respect for the truth, without a practical approach, and especially without compassion and duty to others is a recipe for a “Lord of the Flies” situation, where the morally challenged among us do horrible things to the disempowered masses to gather as much power and money as possible. This is capitalism run amok. Without other guiding principles, this turns any government into a soulless corporatocracy – the like US today. And, to the best of my knowledge, this concept of wild-west no-holds-barred ugly competition is the beating heart of the Randian Libertarians.
But although I do not for one moment embrace that kind of irresponsible freedom where anything goes, make no mistake, the cause of responsible freedom is near and dear to my heart. True freedom is not about making sure that we can evade all the responsibilities we have to one another. It’s about tolerance for all but the intolerant and options for just about everybody.
I embrace the freedom that says that anyone can do whatever they like, so long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s right to do the same, and so long as they are still embrace the other principles above as well. I embrace the freedom that says that anyone can be whoever they like, so long as they do not turn their back on their fellow human in their hour of need. I embrace the freedom that says that we must accept – or at least tolerate – other people’s choices and ways, even if we do not find them palatable, so long as they cause no demonstrable infringement on any non-consenting adult.
The true soul of actual freedom, when you get right down to it, is not about making sure that I am free from others, it’s making sure that others are free from me. It’s not about telling other people to change their behavior to suit me, it’s about all of us embracing our obligation to change our own behavior to not inflict our preferences, choices, or prejudices on others.
The true soul of freedom is our shared duty to each other to tolerate and stay out of each other’s way, not some kind of cudgel we can use to justify any behavior, no matter how selfish.
Freedom is an attractive idea, but like most key concepts, it is used to mean a lot of different things, some of which are truly heinous. Freedom is only earned, however, when used responsibly. Freedom only lives when it’s a duty we work hard to make sure we respect in others and grant to all, rather than a privilege we are trying to grasp just for ourselves.
Alright, that’s all I have for right now. Are there other things needed beyond the above? Or are any of the above better combined into one? Not sure, let’s see where this goes.
Or to be more accurate, what is driving this thing? Now that I have started a new journey to more clearly hear the calling of my heart, to better discern the spirituality that has always been calling me, I am trying to squint and make out its brush strokes, its outline. A belief system is primarily embodied through its core precepts and principles. What are mine?
I suspect that this will be an ongoing conversation, an investigation that lasts the full length of this second journey. It seems likely to me that if and when the time comes when I can answer that question with confidence and completeness, I will have attained my current goal of knowing, understanding, and being able to well describe my spirituality. This is my current journey.
But this post isn’t that – we’re nowhere near any kind of final formulation. This is the opposite end of this journey. This is the time for wondering aloud, for musing, for throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
As such, please don’t expect this first part to be well developed, well ordered, or thought through. This is the chaotic messy part from which comes order. It’s like cleaning up a room – things have to get more messy before we can get things all back together.
So let me begin with some “stream of consciousness” initial thoughts – a starting point for me to add or remove ideas, try on different thoughts for size, and generally explore. Again, the goal ultimately will be to sort out and discover the core precepts of the spirituality which calls to me. Much of what I bring forth may wind up being part of my belief system, but not everything I consider will wind up being kept as a core precept or principle if it ultimately turn out to be a consequence of a deeper and/or higher piece.
Since this preamble post is already not short, let me end here for now. I will plan for my next post (perhaps later today) to be the first brain dump of thoughts as to what could possibly be core to my spirituality.