Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Published · 2-minute read

Some Lessons in (Dis)honesty

Billy: “Do you lie?”
Madolyn: “Why, do you?”
Billy: “No, I’m asking if you lie.”
Madolyn: “Honesty is not synonymous with truth.”
Billy [grins]: “Yeah, you lie…”

In a recent discussion with some people, we got on the topic of lying. I asked how they think an honest person would react when being accused of having lied.

One of them, Karl (fake name for privacy), gave a long-winded version of: honesty is not synonymous with truth.

The answer is technically correct – even a conscientious person making a genuine effort to tell the truth may fail to do so. That’s an important link between honesty and fallibilism,1 and it doesn’t make him a liar. But it’s not an answer to my question.

As I’ve written before, “an honest person will take seriously accusations that he has lied […].” In other words, such an accusation should at least give him pause. If it’s the first time he’s heard it, he shouldn’t deny it without reflection; he definitely shouldn’t respond with self-righteous indignation. And any claim that he never lies is itself a lie.

An honest person will entertain that he may have lied, if only because he is fallible.

“Honesty is not synonymous with truth”, on the other hand, sounds like a liar’s excuse, and I said as much to Karl. As you can imagine, that was not appreciated. It was a social misstep, but I don’t think what I said was false.

A few days later, Karl said he needed a new coat. The problem was that he only needed it for a week-long trip and wouldn’t need it anymore afterwards. Somebody suggested taking advantage of Amazon’s return policy and buying the item with the sole intention of returning it after the trip for a refund. Karl and the others agreed this was a good idea.

The suggestion struck me as fraudulent and I didn’t want my silence to be mistaken for agreement, so I said that wasn’t cool. They then explained that it wasn’t a big deal because Amazon has a lot of money and it wouldn’t even hurt them (ie, punishing Amazon for its success). They also claimed that Amazon’s pricing already accounts for fraud so they expect it to happen anyway. But I think that’s bad reasoning: just because someone invests in a fence around their house doesn’t mean they consent to having their home invaded. Eventually, the group called me petty – they didn’t like that I was being conscientious and took them seriously. This is a defensive reaction because they know I’m right.

Many if not all of these issues were addressed in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Suffice it to say that, amazingly, suggesting that someone has lied is a social misstep, but openly advocating fraud is not. That tells you something about how anti-rational social dynamics are. People are happy to sacrifice truth to preserve group cohesion.

I’d rather live in a world where honesty is welcome and fraud is not. I will use better judgment regarding who I associate with in the future.

  1. Another link between fallibilism and honesty is that you can’t lie in the pursuit of truth; it takes a fallibilist and honest attitude to seek truth. 

    Or maybe those are two sides of the same coin. As in: I wonder if fallibilism and honesty imply each other. Maybe fallibilism implies honesty because a fallibilist is honest to himself in his awareness of his own fallibility, of only knowing very little, and of his mistakes once he finds them, and wishes to correct them; conversely, honesty implies fallibilism because it seeks to correct a specific category of mistake, namely lies.


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