[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.