So many relationships — business, personal or otherwise — end up boiling down to honesty. For example, is someone obligated to deal honestly with somebody who has been proven to be dishonest? The person who asked me this question suggests that dealing honestly with a person like that would be a form of self-sacrifice. Regular readers of this column know that I define that sort of self-deprecation as mentally unhealthy. But is honesty in this case actually self-deprecation?
Let’s first assume that honesty, i.e., adherence to reality, is in your self-interest. You have command over reality, your mind and your overall well-being when you are honest. As a character in a movie recently remarked, ‘You’re half a man [or woman, of course] when you have to hide.’
So, if honesty is indeed in your self-interest, then it’s in your interest to be honest, even if you’re dealing with a crooked landlord, business associate or whomever. If you value honesty in yourself, you expect others to do the same, so the solution is to eliminate as many dishonest people from your life as you possibly can. In other words, you don’t have to give up honesty just because some people are dishonest; you simply have to avoid them.
That being said, when the reader implies that he shouldn’t be honest with somebody who’s dishonest, he’s inferring that honesty is self-sacrifice. If that’s true, then why are we honest to anyone in the first place? If we see honesty as being in our self-interest, then we can say, ‘If someone is lying to me, all bets are off. I no longer have to play fair.’ In other words, it’s morally acceptable to lie to a kidnapper, if by doing so you can effectively free a hostage. Or, it’s acceptable to lie to a known business cheat in order to bring him to accountability. Both of these cases are self-evident, of course, but neither implies that honesty isn’t in our self-interest. They merely show that when a criminal or evildoer ignores the laws of morality, you can do nothing about this other than what’s necessary to escape that criminal behavior.
I think the reader’s conundrum stems from the apparent contradiction that, on one hand, honesty is rational and self-interested, while on the other hand, feeling resentful that he ‘has’ to be honest with a dishonest person.
Most situations in life are not played out in the context of dealing with violent criminals or hostage-takers. In most cases, we’re free to assess someone’s integrity, and then deal with them accordingly. Even if you’re ‘stuck’ with a dishonest co-worker or landlord, it doesn’t follow that you have to become like them. Instead, you can simply hold them accountable for their actions by refusing to excuse them for their behavior.
For example, let’s say you work in a store. A co-worker says, ‘Let’s close two hours early. The owner will never know. Are you with me?’ By refusing, you’re refusing to provide a cover for him. You’re also refusing to become a cheat who must now also hide and cover up.
Many people assume that being honest isn’t in their self-interest. They see facts and truth as inconvenient threats to their own personal fulfillment. Given this belief, they will naturally view facts and the truth with resentment. The reader asks why a dishonest person should be ‘given’ the reward of virtue, mistakenly implying that virtue, like mental health or self-esteem, can be given to another. Like self-esteem, virtue has to come from within; from one’s choice to think rationally and to put that thinking into practice. 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.
So the answer boils down to this: You do what’s best for yourself. Honesty is indeed in your interest, and that remains true regardless of the virtues (or lack thereof) possessed by those around you.