Scriblings about honesty

I’ve been up writing.  I’ve been thinking about the merits of honesty and how much we should trust deception in others.  It was sparked by talking with my dad, to whom I said:

I wish I had listened to you on the whole honesty thing at a younger age.
But fuck, hardly any kid learns that lesson early, do they?

Here are some of the highlights.  I should preface this by saying that despite the repeated references to drunkenness, I’ve not had so much as a sip.

I want to do my best to paint my experiences as accurately as possible.  If I can capture them in some way that gets them out of my brain I can show them to the world, so I can know if someone out there is seeing and feeling the same thing.  If we are, then we’re truly not alone, and that means a lot in a huge and freezing universe.  But I can only know if I’m willing to be honest with what I see and only f I work until I’m able to reproduce it in some way that’s meaningful to others.

It is only when I’m sober that I’m even tempted with dishonesty.  While inebriated, it never even crosses my mind that lying could benefit me.  Why is this?  If you’re tempted to say it’s because I’m giving less thought to the consequences of my actions when drunk, I’d say that’s a mark against the world if it rewards a man for being less honest than he would be otherwise.

The evil temptation is not to honesty when drunk, it is to dishonesty when sober.  The latter is the occasion for which there is rarely an excuse.

What does it say of this world that inebriation has great allegiance to the truth while sobriety so regularly tempts us to subvert it?

While I believe there are times when lying is a moral good, to this point I’ve rarely been able to conceive of a time when a man should actually be punished for telling the truth.  It’s likely because I’ve never been in a position of power, because those people have shown a knack for it throughout history.

There have been times in my life when I’ve asked someone I cared about to lie for my benefit.  I regret those times and would change them if I could.  It occurs to me now that if the truth cannot benefit me, it’s me that needs to change, not the truth.

I like writing while inebriated.  When I’m sober I lose a lot of time thinking about the best light to shine on the truth.  When I’m not sober, I think the truth is beautiful everywhere.  What a great world it would be if things were the opposite,  and the truth really was wholly beautiful, and only the carelessness of inebriation tempted us to lies…

Silence is neither honest nor dishonest.  But when an answer is expected, it frequently has the same effect as honesty only without any of the integrity.

There is no force that tempts us to abandon our integrity like someone we care about asking us to do it on their behalf.  Sadly, most of us would choose to gut the truth rather than asking our friends what they did to set themselves at odds with it.  How terrible people we must be to think so little of the truth and our friends.

The question, for me, is not if I should lie for my friends, but rather how I came to be friends to people who don’t share my allegiance to honesty?

There are noble reasons to lie.  Most people confuse personal convenience with one of them.

It’s a terrible inconvenience that thoughts require the medium of words.

An unusual esteem for the truth can have an isolating effect.  Not everybody entirely fears the truth, but most have something to lose if the right amount of it rears its head.  For those who shrug, abandon their own pretension, and take the truth for what is is, we wind up staring at the rest of the world as they smile at us and back away to a safe distance, where the truth cannot hurt them.  It’s why a lot of unhappy spouses die smiling while people like Oscar Wilde die in a bottle, where truth is easier, but with the world dismissing them as the miserable ones.

PERSONAL: Happy birthday, Hitch.
PERSONAL: The corrupting power of fame and my love for my commenters.
You guys are wonderful.
PERSONAL: Mid day lab pics from the wife.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/urban.nilsson urbannilsson

    The truth might hurt you, but lies *will* hurt you more.

    • John Horstman

      Not if you’re a gay person in Saudi Arabia, or a trans person practically anywhere. There are some cases where lies mean survival and honesty means death, because other people cannot accept the truth and will literally shoot the messenger. I would very much prefer this to not be the case, but until our laws and cultures no longer oppress people on the basis of behaviors that are not harmful to others or any class memberships, your statement is patently false in a wide range of cases.

  • invivoMark

    I see honesty as not so much an innate good, nor dishonesty as innately bad, but each as a means to an end. I don’t mean that in as coldly calculating a way as it may sound. Habitual honesty garners trust and good reputation, while dishonesty is frequently volatile and liable to explode in your face, so when the consequences of each option is weighed, honesty overwhelmingly comes out the better option. Furthermore, honesty leads to the best understanding of reality, and allows everyone to make the most informed decisions, and that is generally a good thing.

    I have further thoughts on the issue, but nothing is coming together in a writeable format. I definitely don’t have the same talents you do, JT.

    Take care of yourself. A lot of us out here are wishing you the best.

  • Emu Sam

    The prevalence of camouflage indicates that yes, the world does reward a lack of honesty, and hints that it always has and always will.

    Agree with invivoMark. A common example is whether it was moral to lie to Nazis at your door: “There are no Jews in my attic.” Such a lie would be much more effective if you already have a reputation for unwavering honesty even in circumstances where it would benefit you to be otherwise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fran.welte franwelte

    I think your writing is terrific without the drink :-)

    I too, was tempted when young by friends’ requests for my dishonesty. I think somehow, it felt good to them to be “protected” from the consequences of their actions. But it cost a lot in integrity; theirs and mine. It took some time for me to work through.

    Maybe our willingness to confront our friend’s dishonesty is a gift we can give them. A sort of push to experience integrity. Because integrity feels so damn good and works so damn well, once tasted, who’d want to go back?

  • (e)m

    Honesty is not always the best policy. In the state I live in I can be legally discriminated against for my sexuality. Should I be honest at work about the fact that I’m bisexual? They have no protections in place against harrasment or discrimination against me for it. My coworkers and bosses are highly homophobic. I need to be able to put food on my table. Am I being immoral for lying about my sexuality?

    • B-Lar

      You have been put into a situation where honesty would be punished. How can we have a world built on truth when situations like this are created?

      I’m sorry for you. Your co-workers are the immoral ones and deception by ommission appears to be the wisest course of action. Deceiving those who have no virtue is not a bad thing in my view.

      Personally, I would be looking for an escape route at the earliest opportunity. I hope you can be free and happy one day.

  • Daniel Schealler

    Honesty shouldn’t be contrasted with lying.

    Honesty should be contrasted against deception on one hand, and discretion on the other.

    When should someone be punished for telling the truth? When they violate justified discretion: If I were to take the accounts list from my employer and sell it to my company’s competitor then I would be telling the truth to that competitor, but would also be very wrong to have done so.

    Which isn’t to say that violating discretion is always bad, of course. But in normal situations it usually is.

    • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

      I think the key point of honesty is not knowingly communicating false information. “Not communicating any information” is a perfectly legitimate subset of that.

      “Communicating” is an important point, though, because it covers misleading statements and misleading omissions.

      I have some thoughts on this. I’m not sure if they’d be appropriate or helpful here and I need to sleep anyway, so I’ll sleep on them.

      • John Horstman

        I disagree; lies of omission are still lies by virtue of the lack of communication resulting in someone else predictably forming a false assumption on the basis of the lack of information. You didn’t say anything because you knew someone would assume X if you said nothing, and X is false, so by not correcting the erroneous assumption, you are complicit in establishing their false belief.

        I’d agree that it’s not quite the same thing as actively asserting a falsehood, but since my approach to ethics is based on material impacts of actions, I can’t draw any sort of ethical distinction: both behaviors result in one person knowingly establishing/reinforcing a false belief in another person’s mind.

  • B-Lar

    Trust is a kind of currency. It is more valuable than money. It buys the best and finest things a human can get but your trust is not held by you. It is held by others around you to whom you have proved yourself with honesty.

    Every time you perform a virtuous act, tell a difficult truth, or are as good as your word, your stock rises. Every time you act selfishly, are caught in a lie, or fail to keep a promise your stock falls.

    People who put their faith in anything other than truth are fools. Sometimes a lie can be the most moral course of action though (No jews in my house Mr. Nazi!) but these situations are rare. I have often wondered that if I made myself to be physically and tactically stronger, then I would be able to commit to the truth even in these rare situations… Or maybe those are just hero daydreams brought on by too many cartoons.

  • F

    I’d say that’s a mark against the world if it rewards a man for being less honest than he would be otherwise.

    Yeah. This.

  • http://researchtobedone.wordpress.com researchtobedone
  • mildlymagnificent

    I think the “no jews in my house, mr nazi” is a bit cliched. Too safe and distant for real thinking about modern personal responses to demands on our trust, honesty, protection.

    What about “No scared, scarred woman anywhere round here, Mr drunken wife-beater.” The woman needn’t be anywhere in or around your house – but you need to do what you can to avoid giving any clue whatever about her possible whereabouts or escape route to the man who will clearly harm her if things go pear shaped.

    I was horrified when a friend of mine – a strongly Xtian woman – went to her neighbours *because* they were devoutly Xtian after her husband assaulted her. And they sent her back across the road to the home “where she belonged”. They didn’t even spend a couple of hours calming and soothing her anxiety and hurt. I’d hope most of us atheists could improve on that.

    • B-Lar

      Aye you’re right, it is a bit cliched, but the point is there.

      Protecting someone from being abused/attacked/killed is worth lying for. The deception is moral if it means a serious wrong is avoided, just as the concept of the life-giving sword kills Hitler to save 6 million Jews. It doesnt mean that we should lie/kill lightly, and except in these extreme cases it is sub-optimal to resort to those measures.

      Saying that though, if you had the nerve and the strength, you could say “sure, shes in here” and when the drunk wades through the door, bust him in the chops and call the police. No lying required, and a successful result for everyone except the guy who deserves one.

  • http://polyskeptic.com shaunphilly


    I wanted to let you know that these thoughts resonated with my own. I think about honesty and the truth fairly frequently, and I get frustrated with people around me not valuing honesty.

    I’m fairly lucky that most of the closest people to me do value honesty (It’s sort of a requirement in polyamory, and I live in a house with 4 other poly people involved in a complicated little network).

    I appreciate your thoughtsm as usual.