The Psychology of Honesty (Part 3 of 3)

Conclusion of yesterday’s column.

Rationalization # 3:

‘It’s OK to lie if the subject is nobody else’s business.’

This rationalization implies that if someone is violating your privacy, you have no other choice but to lie to them. If, in fact, you have no other choice but to lie, then so be it. Such cases do exist, and your privacy should come first.

But in most cases you have other choices. You can simply say,

‘This is none of your business,’ or ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to discuss that.’ Or, depending upon the circumstances, you can call the police or an attorney. In the United States, you can (under certain conditions) even plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to speak at all.

If you live under a repressive government, or under a negligent government that fails to consistently protect you from thugs or thieves, then you certainly have a right to lie if no other choice exists for saving yourself. The same applies if you are dealing with a terrorist, a kidnapper, or a known cheater whom you are trying to trap.

But in relationships where both you and the other party voluntarily enter in good faith, lying is not justified. Otherwise, a husband could lie to his wife that he’s not having an affair when he is having an affair, rationalizing that ‘it’s none of her business.’ Or a businessman could blatantly lie to his customer about the product he’s selling him on the rationalization that ‘it’s none of his business.’ The fact is that you have no business entering into any kind of association with anybody unless you intend to be truthful.

Rationalization # 4:

‘It’s OK to lie if it works, if I fool everybody involved.’

This is the cynical, Machiavellian approach to truth. It is anti-reality and anti-truth on ‘principle.’ Perhaps it’s the worst of all the rationalizations. It is not only a vicious idea; it’s also foolish.

Lying, over the long-run, does not work—at least, not if others allow it or tolerate it. Sooner or later the truth usually comes out and then the liar is exposed as a fraud.

Of course, lying is impractical only to the extent that a community or society is inhabited with alert, critical thinkers who are not afraid to make moral judgments. Today we live in a society where adherence to the truth and morality is, in general, on the decline.

This is dangerous, because prospective liars see this situation and stand ready to take advantage. They recognize that people don’t seem interested in making moral judgments
any longer.

Ultimately, dishonesty is impractical even in a corrupt society where the majority of people tolerate it. If society is full of liars, it can’t function. Nobody knows where anyone stands. Contracts are valid one moment and invalid the next. Nobody can be trusted to mean what they say; and nobody can be held responsible, legally or morally, for committing fraud or deceit.

Trade and division of labor—two necessary components of a civilized, advanced society—become impossible.

Government also becomes corrupt and unreliable. The advanced, productive, technological world we still enjoy today will flounder and eventually collapse if most of us give up on honesty.

Many say morality is on the decline because people do not believe in God or go to church enough. Actually, this is not the real cause of the problem. While many religions do teach the importance of telling the truth, most religions also emphasize that self-sacrifice and charity are more important than anything—including, presumably, the truth. Many religions also teach their members to ‘turn the other cheek’ and resist judging others—ideas which liars are all too ready to cynically exploit.

By advocating principles friendly to the cause of the liar, religion remains part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Why Is Dishonesty Becoming More Acceptable Today?

The real cause of today’s moral crisis is philosophical and psychological—not religious. Following the lead of our ‘talking heads’ and professors in the intellectual-media establishment, fewer and fewer people believe there is such a thing as objective reality,
at least in the realm of morality.

These ‘experts’ don’t think that the mind is capable of making objective judgments—particularly moral judgments. They claim it’s unsophisticated and ‘simplistic’ to assert that objective reality exists. Consider that today the greatest moral crime is not lying or
cheating; the greatest ethical and social crime is to be ‘judgmental,’ which includes exercising the capacity to judge or think for oneself.

As the idea that there is no such thing as objective reality spreads, we will see less emphasis on truth as a virtue or an ideal. It may take many decades—but without objective truth as the central ideal in the minds of most people, you can be sure our culture is headed down the path of the Roman Empire and other doomed civilizations.

Don’t despair, however. There are still many virtuous people in American culture. Our economy and society could not continue to thrive and advance were this not the case.

Spectacular breakthroughs continue to occur in the fields of science, business, and technology. Millions of decent, basically honest people continue to work and prosper every day. The ultimate fate of American civilization is still anybody’s guess, because it has been very hard for irrational philosophies to take hold of the minds and hearts of most people.

The Real Meaning of Honesty

In the end, you can’t have your honesty and eat it too. You can’t claim to value honesty, while at the same time asserting or implying that something else (e.g. charity, turning the
other cheek) is more important than honesty. To do so increases the risk not only that you will lie, but that you will inappropriately tolerate dishonesty in others. In so doing, you contribute to the spread of immorality in the world and turn yourself into your own victim.

Honesty means remaining truthful to reality, and refusing to fake reality for your own sake or the sake of others.

Honesty, defined in this way, is either the cornerstone of morality or it is not. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that charity, love, kindness, and sensitivity are the most important things—and then wail when somebody you care about lies to you in the name of those things you hold most important.

If you expect others to be your emotional keepers, then you can’t expect them to be truthful with you. If others truly are your keepers, and your caretakers, sometimes they need to decide what’s in your best interest. This includes lying to you when they see fit.

To pursue charity as the ultimate end and to seek objective truth as the ultimate end represents a contradiction. Sooner or later, you have to decide which is more important.
If you want others to be honest with you, then start asserting honesty as the most fundamental of moral principles.

Expect it in yourself, and in others. Grasp the true meaning of honesty as being rational and reality-oriented.

Your life will become clean and free of the psychological distress from which so many suffer today.

Honesty is the best policy. Those who remember this principle will flourish because of it.