(A note in advance: This article starts with ~400 words worth of contextual information that I believe are necessary in order to support my main point at the end. If you can be patient during the first half, it will pay off. Thanks!)
Since committing to uncompromising honesty, I’ve had dozens of conversations with people, practically all of which involve being asked to navigate – using complete honesty – some scenario in which lying would appear difficult to avoid. While many of these are quotidian, involving common white lies to friends, family members, or children, many of the scenarios people challenge me with are characterized by a high degree of absurdity and improbability. These scenarios almost always seem to involve a gun to one of my loved one’s head, as well as the promise that, unless I tell some highly specific lie in response to the kidnapper’s demand, he will surely take their life. (The people I know must love action movies… or hate my loved ones.)
Now to be fair, many of these inquiries are – as far as I can tell – motivated by entirely harmless reasons (e.g. genuine curiosity). In these cases, the conversations that take place are often welcome, in particular because they have a way of keeping this pursuit lighthearted and fun (something that has been surprisingly difficult at times). However, there are many other inquiries of this nature that appear to be strongly motivated by… less than constructive reasons (to put it mildly). In these cases, the person presenting me with a scenario seems to do so not out of curiosity or a need for intellectual rigor, but rather out of a desire for confrontation. Whatever the motivation for these particular conversations (more on this later), they can fortunately be identified fairly easily (opinions motivated by agenda and tinged with vitriol are often conspicuously obvious). Unfortunately, though, they occur with surprising frequency.
The reason challenges of this nature are so common is simple: If one can find any scenario whatsoever in which lying is the preferred course of action, they immediately introduce – as a general maxim of life – that lying has at least some potentially necessary place in our existence. The logical next step, then, is to question whether other scenarios also merit lying, and soon enough lying apologists are off and running with their growing list of exceptions. Discovering even one pro-lying scenario, regardless of how improbable and ridiculous it is, calls into question the grander claim I’ve made regarding the societal need for uncompromising honesty (i.e. that everyone should commit to honesty in all situations), and by doing so, weakens the expectations to which I believe we should all hold one another. Obviously, this is a significant consequence.
As such, I feel obligated to partake in these conversations, despite the fact that many of them feel like deviously planted traps, and all of them feel like distractions (even if sometimes both welcome and enjoyable). Fortunately, I find these “lies in extremis” to be fairly easy to counter.
The first move is to deny the value of what – in political philosophy – is often referred to as ‘ideal theory’. While the academic definition of this is outside of the scope of this article, essentially the response is this: If the only way to call into question the validity of radical honesty is to concoct a fairly impossible (or at least highly unlikely) scenario – essentially to use as the backdrop of your argument a world that doesn’t exist – it’s unclear that there’s much value in it. Put more simply, how good is your criticism if it has arguably no practical implication for real life? Because let’s be clear: Very few of us will ever be held hostage and informed that our freedom is contingent on some highly specific lie. All of us will be asked how a loved one looks in a certain ensemble. Why use the former to prove the value of lying in the latter? As a justification for lying, this seems desperate.
The truth is, I have yet to hear of any real or likely situation in which a lie could achieve an outcome that some truth could not. (Of course, I welcome any suggestions to the contrary.) Yet, again, all of this (i.e. arguing for or defending against lying in extreme situations) feels like a complete distraction away from the real question we should be asking ourselves. That is: Rather than being motivated to discover that it is something we should and can do away with entirely, why does is seem that everyone wants to find a reason to hold onto lying?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard all manner of reasonable (although still erroneous) and absurd justifications for lying, from ‘it’s necessary to get ahead professionally’ to ‘lying was an early evolutionary adaptation that was needed for survival’ (an interesting – although unsuccessful – argument that may be deserving of a future article). I’ve even had a profoundly intelligent and successful person I know suggest that “brutal honesty” in some significant way laid the foundation for Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter. And while I can’t help but feel the compulsion to spend time responding to each of these shallow, reductionist, or even irresponsible defenses of lying, I simply cannot comprehend why so few people are willing to agree with a defense of absolute honesty. Worse, why so many will go to such great lengths to maintain lying’s privileged position.
Why are we so protective of lying? Why do we tend to put the burden of proof on the honest person in terms of arguing against lying? Why do we resort to absurdity when defenses of lying in common scenarios prove unfounded? Only by being honest with ourselves can we ever hope to be honest with one another.
So in the future, do me a favor and really think about what’s going on when you consider the role honesty plays in your life. If you find yourself starting to argue in favor of lying, ask yourself why – why it is so important that you continue to lie to strangers, acquaintances, friends, and loved ones. If you can at least bring yourself to apply internal radical honesty, there is a chance for us to one day be able to discuss openly what is really going on below the surface when we defend the existence of lying.