Resenting Being Honest Doesn’t Make Sense

I received a question from a reader who asks if a person is obligated to deal honestly with a person who has been proven to be dishonest. The writer suggests that dealing honestly in a situation like this would be a form of self-sacrifice, and, as such, morally wrong (and mentally unhealthy).

The writer goes on to propose that a dishonest person should not be given the reward of being treated honestly. The essential question of course, is if a person is obliged to extend honesty to a dishonest person.

Let’s first assume that honesty is in one’s self-interest. The self-interested function of honesty is to adhere to reality. One has better command of reality, his mind and his overall well-being by being honest rather than being a crook, a thief or a liar. As I heard a character in a movie recently remark, ‘You’re half a man when you have to hide.’

So, if it’s true that honesty is in your self-interest, then it remains in your self-interest to be honest whether you’re dealing with a crooked landlord, business associate or whomever.

Because you value honesty in yourself, you expect others to do the same. Your biggest priority, then, is to eliminate as many dishonest people from your life as you possibly can. You don’t have to give up honesty just because there are dishonest people out there; you simply have to avoid the dishonest people. That being said, the reader is asking the wrong question. He implies, ‘Why should I have to be honest if someone else isn’t being honest back?’ The inference is that honesty is self-sacrifice.

Well, if honesty is self-sacrifice, and, by definition, against your own interest, then why are you being honest to anyone in the first place? I recognize that a rational person who views honesty in his self-interest can say, ‘If someone is lying to me, then all bets are off, morally. I no longer have to play fair.’ In other words, it’s not only acceptable but also actually moral to lie to a kidnapper, especially if by doing so you can effectively free a hostage. Or, it’s acceptable and even laudable to lie to a known business cheat in order to bring him to accountability.

None of these situations, however, imply that honesty is not in one’s self-interest. They merely show that when a criminal or evildoer ignores the natural laws of morality, you can do nothing about this fact other than do what’s necessary to ‘take him down.’

It’s a troubling contradiction to hold the belief that, on one hand, honesty is rational and self-interested while, on the other hand, also feeling resentful that you ‘have’ to be honest with a dishonest person. Most situations in life are not played out in the context of dealing with cheats, violent criminals or hostage-takers. In most cases, you’re free to assess someone’s integrity and other characteristics about them, and then judge and deal with them accordingly. Even if you’re ‘stuck’ with an unreasonable or dishonest co-worker or landlord, it doesn’t follow that you have to become like they are. Instead, you can hold them accountable for their actions. You can refuse to shield them or excuse them for their contradictions or evasions.

For example, the dishonest coworker might invite you to ‘benefit’ from a lie he tells your boss. Let’s say you work in a store. The co-worker says, ‘Let’s close the store two hours early. The owner will never know. Are you with me?’ By refusing, you’re refusing to provide any shield or cover for the lying fellow employee. You’re also taking care of yourself, by refusing to become a cheat who must hide and cover up.

Many people assume that honesty isn’t in their self-interest. They don’t see honesty as a way of adhering to reality, keeping their minds clear and straight, and of living life with integrity. They don’t see it as a contradiction to engage in lying to loved ones or friends they have chosen to have in their lives as valuable people. Instead, they see facts and truth as inconvenient threats to their own personal fulfillment. Given this belief, they will naturally view telling the truth with resentment—not just to dishonest people, but to honest people as well.

The reader asks why a dishonest person should be ‘given’ the reward of virtue. This question implies that virtue, like mental health or self-esteem, can be given to another. It cannot be. It has to come from within, from one’s choice to think rationally and then consistently put that thinking into practice. Virtue is a characteristic of a person who acts in a rational, self-interested and benevolent way. Virtue essentially means integrity. You don’t extend virtue by being that way to another. If you’re dealing with a liar, all his problems and vices remain what they are whether you’re honest with him or not.

The answer boils down to this: You do what’s best for yourself. If it’s true that honesty (as an extension of rationality) is in your own interest, then that remains true, regardless of the virtues (or lack thereof) possessed by those around you.