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!