The Psychology of Honesty (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from yesterday’s column.

It’s not enough to ask people, intellectually, if they subscribe to these rationalizations or not. They might say ‘no,’ they sincerely don’t agree with these statements. Yet they could still feel something different on the emotional level, and practice something different on the behavioral level. If someone tells you that, no, she does not believe lying is right, then you can relax somewhat; but you still need to recognize that human beings have free will and in any given moment of their lives are free to reject something they consider a moral principle.

If someone tells you that ‘yes,’ intellectually he does agree with any of the above statements, then consider yourself forewarned. Such a person might lie to you at any time. If you don’t want a husband who cheats, or if you don’t want a business partner who will steal from you, then spend some time getting to know how he thinks and what he believes, on the deepest level. To some, this may sound too judgmental. But the inescapable fact remains: You can’t enjoy the expected security of a personal or business relationship with someone who believes that lying is OK.

Rationalization # 1:

‘It’s OK to lie when it spares somebody else’s feelings.’

This may be the most common rationalization for lying. Instead of holding others responsible for their emotional reactions—and respecting their right to know the truth, the same right we insist upon for ourselves—too many of us rationalize that we know what’s best for others and therefore ‘shield’ them from the truth. In effect, we end up treating grown, autonomous adults as if they were little children.

In order to resist this most common of rationalizations for lying, you must let go of the idea that you are personally responsible for other people’s emotions. You must resist the idea that you are everyone’s emotional keeper. Of course you should not go out of your way to be nasty, rude, or hurt others’ feelings. At the same time, you should not spare valued friends and associates from the truth, even if it sometimes hurts.

Try to think of the nicest and most compassionate way to express the truth. Yet always remember that reality must come first—before anyone’s feelings, yours or another’s.

Does this mean you must express your opinion even when it’s not solicited? Should you walk up to strangers on the street and tell them what you think of their taste in clothes or hairstyles, all in the name of honesty? Of course not. The principle of honesty between two parties presupposes a voluntary, mutual relationship between the two parties.

What about loved ones or close business associates? Should you give them your opinion even if it’s not asked for? Generally it’s not a good idea to give an opinion unless someone seeks it out. If you’re not sure whether they’re seeking it out, you can request their permission ahead of time. You can ask, for example, ‘Would you like to know what I honestly think?’ Or: ‘Can I make a suggestion?’ Usually people will reply ‘Yes, of course,’ but it’s still considerate to prepare them. It’s also in your own interest to prepare them, since they are more likely to listen to you and less likely to go on the defensive when you show them this courtesy.

If you already believe it’s wrong to lie—even to spare other’s feelings—then make sure people with whom you associate know of this fact early in the relationship. Make sure they know that you never want to have your feelings spared if this means sacrificing the truth. Show them you believe it’s possible to communicate in a mature, sensitive way but still not to violate this very important principle. If this scares them off, so be it. You will know this was not a person with whom you ever needed to associate.

Rationalization # 2:

‘It’s OK to lie if I have a higher, more noble purpose in mind.’

If you hold this belief, then ask yourself: What higher or more noble purpose is there than the truth? Is there anything more important than adherence to reality?

Again, the answer to this question presupposes a particular philosophical perspective. If you believe that truthfulness is important, your belief rests on the premises that: (a) there is an objective reality by which truth or falsehood can be assessed, and (b) that becoming competent and happy in the realm of objective reality is the central moral purpose of life.

To some people, adhering to the truth is indeed the most important aspect of morality. They practice this principle in their daily lives. Consequently, they are easier to trust. In any dilemma between the truth and something else, you have good reason to expect they will choose the truth.

Consistently truthful individuals are—contrary to popular opinion—among the most productive and successful, because consistent adherence to reality allows for more competent, effective work. If you doubt this assertion, then ask yourself which television set or computer products you prefer to purchase: ones which break down easily and don’t honor their warranties; or ones with guarantees to stand by their products and deliver on what they promise? What kind of surgeon do you want operating on you: one who lied his way through medical school, or one who makes adherence to objective reality his highest goal?

To many people, however, there are more important things than the truth. Charity, for instance, supersedes truth in the eyes of some. If somebody holds charity as the ideal, then he may feel justified in lying or even stealing in the name of that ideal. To such people, the end justifies the means.

People who lie and cheat in the name of ‘feeling your pain’ or acting ‘compassionately’ are merely cashing in on the very principle you hold so dear. Logically, they have every right to say to you, ‘So you hold compassion and service to others as the most important ideals? OK. Then that means I can lie and steal, if necessary, to achieve those ideals. The end justifies the means.’

This is known as the Robin Hood approach to morality. The Robin Hood approach to ethics applies both materially and spiritually: materially, when self-appointed Robin Hoods take your money or property; and spiritually, when they steal a part of your mind or ‘soul’ by lying to you.

So long as you keep on insisting that charity, sacrifice, and kindness to others represent the most important moral principles of life, then you have no business complaining when
people lie to you. They’re just practicing what you preach. They’re simply giving you what you demanded.

Concluded in tomorrow’s column.