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.
[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.
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.
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.