Honesty the Best Policy … For Self?

Dishonesty is widely considered “selfish.” The implication is that lying serves the self-interest of the person who’s deceiving. But does it?

The moment somebody lies to a significant other in business or personal life, the obligation is on him to remember the lie, and anticipate each and every implication of the lie. The only way to get away with the lie is to remember and anticipate every false implication of the lie, along with hoping that people in the liar’s life are not paying attention. Now how self-interested, objectively speaking, is this?

It’s fine to say that lying is wrong, and it’s fine to say that lying harms its victims. But it’s foolish to assume that the liar himself does not suffer. A liar depends upon the weakness of others, i.e. on the capacity of others to be fooled. This means the liar must surround himself with weak and foolish, naïve people. How self-interested is this?

Interestingly, the most common form of lying is what psychologists call “denial.” Denial refers to the biggest lie of all: Lying to oneself. It behooves everyone who’s close with another person to be aware of whether that person is in the habit of lying to himself, or not. People who lie to themselves will almost certainly lie to you at some point. By definition, they’re drawing you into their web of self-deceit, even if they mean you no harm.

Here are some examples of things people often lie to themselves—and therefore others—about:

‘We’re breaking up, but we’re still friends.’ You don’t go from romantic feelings to friendship feelings overnight. Think about it. Do you have romantic feelings towards your nonsexual best friend? Similarly, you don’t just suddenly feel friendly towards people you recently (like yesterday) loved as a spouse. If you think so, you’re kidding yourself. Maybe you’re trying to spare someone’s feelings, or maybe you’re trying to keep your options open to see if you can find someone better—and if not, return to the friend as a romantic partner. Either way, you’re kidding yourself ‘ and therefore another.

‘I’m starting my diet tomorrow.’ The fact that you intend to go on a diet implies acknowledgement of a weight problem. Yet if you really have a weight problem which concerns you, there’s no reason to put it off. In fact, you wouldn’t want to put it off. You’re kidding yourself ‘ and therefore another.

‘I’m not that kind of person.’ Sometimes people do things that aren’t consistent with their ideal self, with the kind of person they think they should be. They engage in the false belief that because it’s behavior they don’t agree with, they never would have done it. But it’s entirely possible to engage in behavior you don’t agree with. Maybe you’re confused about the issue. Maybe you were having a bad day. Maybe you’re not so convinced the behavior is all that wrong or bad, although you believe it might be. Regardless, you ought to consider the possibility you did something with which you don’t agree. Otherwise, you can’t change it, correct it, or figure out the nature of the contradiction which ails you inside.

Self-deceit happens when people don’t reflect on themselves enough. A self-aware person is more able and willing to catch himself in contradictions and errors than a person who stubbornly refuses to be self-aware. The false belief behind a refusal to be self-aware consists of circular reasoning. ‘I don’t have any problems. Why do I need to think about myself more?’ Well of course you don’t see yourself as having any problems—because you never look at yourself!

Imagine that somebody said, ‘Look in the mirror. You have ketchup on your mouth.’ The fact that someone says this doesn’t automatically make it true. Still, you refuse to look in the mirror for verification. ‘I don’t have any ketchup on my mouth. It’s not there.’ How will you ever know? It’s the same kind of circular reasoning which underlies a refusal to seek psychological therapy. The person is resisting self-reflection more than even therapy.

Self-reflection implies a willingness to think objectively, about oneself. This is how you prevent self-deceit. Objectivity means thinking. Thinking is crucial for all of life, including yourself. You avoid thinking about yourself at your peril.