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Codex Firestarter

How Do We Keep Honesty?

by Collie Collier
January 2004 Firestarter column

In the study of philosophy there are classic questions used to help determine the nature of truth. These include issues such as if it is wrong to use the "placebo effect," or to lie to save the life of another. Most of those are answered, at least to my satisfaction, in Sissela Bok's excellent book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.

Philosophy is extremely useful for defining, clarifying, and arranging the broad parameters of belief in one's life. However, it's when philosophy slams up hard against reality that you discover if your ideas can withstand the test of real life.

Recently I've observed a few such, um... impacts, up close and personal -- and it's made me review my personal philosophy, in order to make sure it's standing up to the test of real life.

In order to conduct any experiment (verbal, physical, or otherwise), it helps to define one's terms first, then lay out the experiment's parameters -- or in this case, state the questions being asked. After that one can examine the data in light of those questions, and finally a conclusion is drawn.

For scientific accuracy, repeatability is also important, so if anyone applies my conclusions to their life experiences, I'd be quite interested in the results.

Defining Terms

I want to discuss potential aspects of lying, so first I need to define what is honesty and what is a lie.

Honesty consists of sticking to the truth and avoiding lies or falsehood. It does not include (at least for purposes of this article) telling the absolute truth because you know it will hurt another. An example of this sort of non-honesty would be the above philosophical question, as to whether it is wrong to lie in order to save the life of another.

Kant would have one believe this sort of lie is reprehensible. More pragmatic philosophers suggest that kind of lie is commendable, or at worst forgivable. I happen to agree with the more pragmatic philosophers, in this case. A self-righteous 'honesty' achieved at the cost of the life of another, just to assuage Kant's definition of truth, is no honesty at all, in my book.

Another example of this unkind type of pseudo-honesty is the gossipy person who tells you something painful, which they know will hurt you, "for your own good, dear!" That's crap -- it's never for your good. It's because they're thoughtless, or for their malicious titillation, or to assuage their conscience at the cost of your peace of mind, or something else similar... but never truly for your good.

So, for the purposes of this article, honesty will be defined as: sticking to the truth -- but not for self-aggrandizement, and not at the cost of the self-respect of another.

Lying is equivalent to being a vector for non-truth; a meme for falsehood. For the purposes of this article, therefore, I'm going to define lying as: deliberately promoting falsehood.

Update (12.03.04):

As noted by Eric (a scarily smart friend), my definitions of lying are really only feasible if applied between adults, and within this particular culture. I find this unsurprising, since I don't have much to do with children in my daily life, and must live within this culture -- but it bears noting nevertheless.

Parameters of the Experiment

What are the real-life situations I've been involved in, where the reality of falsehood impacts violently with the potential for honesty? So far I've seen two issues, which have appeared repeatedly and in varying forms.

One of them got me started on this line of thought, as it was very obvious and occurred quite recently: someone remaining silent or speaking vaguely, in order to give a particular but non-truthful impression.

The second issue is also one I've seen occur repeatedly: someone believes something which is untrue, and passes that information on to you.

Examining the Data

Issue I

Silence or vagueness to promote untruth is the easiest to deal with, from a philosophical and pragmatic viewpoint. The issue can be clearly defined through examples.

Regarding silence, if you were trying to sell your car and you knew it had a particular engine problem, honesty would dictate telling the prospective buyer about it. Remaining silent about the engine problem would not ordinarily qualify as speaking a lie -- but under our working real-life definition of lying, this would indeed emphatically qualify as a lie. You have actively promoted a falsehood, by deceiving the prospective buyer as to the car's quality.

For our second example -- that of deliberately vague speech -- let us postulate an acquaintance with whom you are accustomed to chatting about somewhat personal subjects. Let us say also you've asked this acquaintance if they will keep your confidence. If their answer is a vague, "Mmmm...?" you might wish to hear that as a yes, especially if you actually like the person.

However, what have they truly told you? Most folks wish to believe those they consider friends truly think well of them, and are trustworthy. It would be unfortunate if that trust were misplaced... which is entirely possible when someone uses vague speech to you, in order to avoid making any commitment, or to gain personal, possibly embarrassing information about another.

Update (12.03.04):

Eric also notes this could feasibly cover 'technical honesty,' where a deliberately deceptive person agrees to not speak of your confidences, but then later writes them down instead, and uses that medium to share your confidences with others.

He also notes: "Having said all this, it is important to distinguish the notion of lying from the notion of breaching a trust. In the case of technical honesty, there really is no lie per se, but there is a breach of trust which is tantamount to a lie, perhaps even worse. Your definition doesn't target a lie so much as it defines the breach of trust."

I'm obviously going to have to give more thought to the differences between lying and breaches of trust, as this is an aspect I'd not previously considered.

When we examine our definition of lying, both of these examples definitely qualify. If lying is the promotion of falsehood, then allowing someone to believe something you know is false is indeed lying.

The car seller is letting the potential buyer believe the falsehood that the car is a good purchase. The (possibly malicious) conversationalist is letting the trusting friend believe the falsehood that friendship exists between them, and confidentiality will be maintained.

Therefore, in the arena of real-life honesty, silence or vagueness to promote falsehood is not truth -- it is an unequivocal lie. A desire to avoid any kind of confrontation is not sufficient cause to do this sort of thing. If my personal goal is an honest life, this sort of hypocrisy is emphatically not acceptable.

Of course, these examples are but two instances of using silence or vagueness to deceive; they are not exhaustive. The point of the exercise now is to actually use this experimental framing of the issue.

If we next apply personal experience to the framework, we may determine for ourselves whether or not our actions promote falsehood -- and hopefully, we can also use the framework to remove this sort of lying (whether done by us or by others) from our life.


All fine and good, but these examples are also pretty clear-cut. Let's try a slightly more ambiguous real-life situation. What do you say when someone asks you the dreaded question: "Does this make me look fat?"

The easiest answer to this question is not to answer, and hope they accept that as sufficient reply... but unfortunately that silence would fall squarely under the previous definition of lying. It would seem, therefore, some answer is required. However, absolute brutal truth (assuming the garment in question does indeed make them look fat, and they're looking only for reassurance it does not) probably won't serve you any better in this circumstance. What works for both a kind and a truthful answer?

I tend to live in blue jeans, and so my reply is usually along the lines of "Oh, I couldn't possibly answer that -- I'm no good at that clothes-horse stuff." It's true (alas! ;-), and it's not unkind. Also, anyone can come up with variants on that particular theme (i.e. why you personally couldn't possibly answer) which will work just as well.

So what do you do if the person insists on an answer? Replies may be required -- but there's nothing which forces you to actually answer their question. A polite smile or laugh, coupled with a question of your own, followed by changing the subject ("Why are you so insistent about this? Have you tried on this shirt here yet?") can work well to defuse the situation and still remain polite. Someone who insists on an answer after that is just looking for trouble.

How does this keep from falling under the category of lying? To use our previous definition, a lie is deliberately promoting falsehood. Using the above suggestions may steer close to it, but I think they do successfully avoid it, due to your stating clearly your intention to not answer the question.

It may not be the answer they want -- but it is in fact a courteous reply. No one can reasonably demand more of you, unless the relationship between you is deeper than that postulated here.

Issue II

The other kind of (apparently deceptive) behavior I've observed is simpler to lay out than our previous examples. Unfortunately, I think it's also far more complex to actually explain -- as is to be expected with human behavior, I suppose. I refer to the situation of someone telling you something they believe is true -- but due to self-deception, they are asserting something which is actually not true.

So far I can easily identify (from personal experience) four instances of this sort of behavior, and I'm sure there are more. Curiously, a majority of them are middle-aged or older males. In every case, they were either an "only child," spoiled and indulged during their childhoods, or both.

Also, all of these cases have an astonishing capacity for believing themselves the center of the universe -- no one matters as much as they. They seem to truly believe their desires and feelings are the most important thing in the world. It's as if they somehow never learned empathy, and so as a consequence they've deceived themselves in this fashion.

If one is operating under such an incorrect mental constraint, it would follow naturally any statements asserted about this condition would be false. No one is truly the center of the universe, and you'd have to be delusional to believe that of yourself. However, if we apply our definition of lying to this situation, we find it actually does not qualify as lying -- the mistaken individual is promoting falsehood, but not deliberately.

In such situations I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the person telling what they believe is truth. However, as numerous friends have pointed out to me, I also tend to a rather idealistic view of the basic rationality of humankind -- and these individuals are not truly rational. Barring genetic malfunction, one doesn't get into such a fallacious situation by accident. Somewhere deep inside, these people know they are lying about their own importance.

This can easily be demonstrated by attempting to reason with them about their beliefs. At any hint they aren't always perfectly in the right, or they don't truly have an eidetic memory, or they might not actually have all their facts straight, and they respond with classic psychological avoidance techniques.

They'll try humor to change the subject, flattery to distract you, tears and passive aggression so you feel guilty about 'making' them feel so bad, or even anger and violence to intimidate you.

If that doesn't work they'll hastily bring up countless other issues in order to confuse the original, true issue; or they'll attempt to convince all those present of your wrongness and meanness, in order to isolate you and make themselves feel more self-righteous.

These are just a few examples I've personally experienced, of course. I'm sure there are many more psychological avoidance techniques which can be bent to their cause: to always get their way.

If there are problems in their lives, it simply must be someone else's fault -- never their own. If there are people who are less than flattering to them, it must be due to jealousy or spite -- never because the criticism is constructive or deserved.

They are masters of ignoring or avoiding the consequences of their actions, even if the only way to do so is to perpetuate their own mistaken self importance. It's a little... sad, a little pathetic, to watch their constant bemusement as to why they constantly run out of friends every two years or so... assuming they allow themselves to remember that clearly.

There is a phrase in philosophy, which I rather like and aspire to: "The unexamined life is not worth living." To those who deceive themselves regarding being the center of the universe, this phrase is apparently not just utter nonsense -- it is greatly to be feared and avoided. Their most important goal is to absolutely never attempt the philosophical goal of knowing oneself -- to emphatically not think about what the terrifying, liberating truth actually is.

Whew! The above is a tough issue to write about, since it usually involves painful emotional escapism when you stumble across it. However, let's get back to our original experimental question: is lying involved?

As we previously noted, the initial false statement given to you, believed by the speaker to be true, does not qualify as a lie -- the speaker is not deliberately promoting falsehood. However, their personal beliefs do qualify as lies. These delusional individuals are clearly and deliberately promoting falsehood regarding their own importance in the world -- both to themselves and, indirectly, to you.

Sounds simple when you put it that way, of course. However, there is a version of this sort of absolute conviction of personal rightness which I find harder to quantify. Let us take the example of a believer in creationism -- someone who believes the world came into being not through the process of evolution, but through the creative efforts of some higher being.

We may amusedly scoff at creationists for "clinging to their primitive belief system" -- but is a rudely dismissive "evolutionist" who is just repeating what he's been told really "better" or "smarter" than a thoughtful creationist? Which one has actually given some thought to their beliefs, and which is just blindly following majority opinion?

If you try discussing this issue with a creationist and they respond with reasoned arguments, then it's obvious they're not self-righteously delusional, as are the cases I mention above. Instead it shows they have examined the data and have drawn what are to them logical conclusions.

Regardless of subject matter, just because someone draws different conclusions than I, when examining data, does not automatically make them wrong or stupid.


I've heard at least one good argument from creationists, too, which I cannot refute: i.e. the theory of evolution is just that -- a theory. That means it has not been conclusively proven.

Admittedly, the reason it cannot be definitively proved is because nothing's been alive long enough to completely see or record it. Thus we use the next best thing to empirical proof -- we examine the data and draw what we believe are logical conclusions from it.

To me this is conclusive enough. I have examined and pondered historical data; I have seen and touched fossils. Both are quite miraculous and wondrous to me -- and also quite convincing.

In a nutshell, to me there is enough data to conclusively demonstrate the existence of the slow, constant miracle of evolution.

However, even though I've never seen any proof of the existence of a creator deity, and have determined personally convincing logic which precludes the existence of one, for me... I cannot conclusively prove one does not exist! Furthermore, even though I have no such proof, I know there are individuals who feel they do have such proof. I may not find it convincing -- but they do.

Does this make them wrong? I don't know, but I'm guessing we'll find out definitively, after our individual deaths, whether or not there's a creator deity.

Does this make creationists liars? I don't think so, using this article's working definition of lying. They're asserting what they honestly believe to be truth. At best they're right, and I'm the one who's wrong; at worst they're simply mistaken.


Gathering together all the ramblings and data we've gone through so far, we can now hopefully reach some useful insights on dealing with issues such as these.

Note: please consider the pronoun 'you' to be a general reference term for myself and any readers.

First, let's state the goals for which we performed this thought experiment:

  1. To remain honest in day to day life, and
  2. To recognize and avoid lying and liars

Second, here's the basic information we've come up with:

  • Using vague speech or silence to deliberately give a false impression is lying,

  • Speaking what you believe is the truth is not lying, even if you are mistaken, but

  • Deliberately promoting falsehood, to yourself or others, is lying.

Now to put it all together, into a useful framework for daily life. How to avoid lying and remain honest, with situations such as those mentioned in this article?

  1. When asked a question you do not want to answer, cannot answer without hurting someone, or cannot answer without lying:

    • Try stating an intention to not answer, or a truthful inability to do so
  2. When faced with an absolute belief system, try to figure out if self-deception is involved:

    • If yes, be extremely wary, as the speaker is likely to be both unpleasantly adamant, and mistaken in their beliefs,

    • If no, the speaker may still be mistaken on some subjects, but at the very least they're trying their best. Reasoned argument with them could be fascinating, regardless of whether or not anyone's mind is changed.

Finally, when given the opportunity to engage in reasoned debate about your personal beliefs with someone, take it! I know no better way to check and see if you're harboring a self-deceptive belief system.

If you find yourself constantly getting angry, sarcastic, defensive, or upset when thoughtfully questioned... you might want to take a good, long, hard look at yourself, and make some changes. Living in deception or constant fear of self-discovery is not healthy.

I so love philosophical debate... I wonder if I'm any good at it. ;-)

12.01.04: Fascinating Comments from Ian

I don't have much to say about creationism; other than not to bother arguing with them for the most part. Most of them are going to view refutation of their belief as refutation of their god and view it as a personal attack.

What I did want to comment on was this statement here, which put me in mind of a conversation I had with a good friend of mine a few days ago.

Finally, when given the opportunity to engage in reasoned debate about your personal beliefs with someone, take it! I know no better way to check and see if you're harboring a self-deceptive belief system.

This is a well-intentioned idea. However I'd be reluctant to just go tell everyone to do it. The simple fact is, not everyone's a good debater. It's a skill, and you'd be surprised how few people actually possess it.

Worse, if you don't know you're not a good debater, and take this advice and get your ass shot off the first time you try, it would be a short logical hop to assuming your ideas are just bad.

[P]hilosophy is one of those things that's a lot harder than everyone thinks it is. The fact is that it's easy to fall on your face when logically confronted. I could tell you, "The sky is blue."

And if you told me that it was only the phenomenon of my perception which had no substantive connection to the apparent object -- if I hadn't actually read Merleau-Ponty -- I'd have to go, "Uh, okay, it's not blue then."

My idea's not wrong, and yours is patently goofy, but if I don't have the means to say so, that's it -- debate's over and you won anyway. Silly example, sure, but if you're not quick on your feet, if you don't have the benefit of good logical training, or hell, even if you're shy, it's really easy to get hammered by someone who is.

So how's this relate to the article? What's the advice for someone who can't argue? Good question. ...

I suggest the following before you run out to lock horns with someone over personal belief: ask yourself, first. Ask yourself honestly why you feel the way you do, walk backward through the cause and effect chain.

And then ask yourself what the other person believes. And then try to go back through their causes and effects. You can still apply the same sort of didactic questioning you list in the article to these reasons, but do it all by yourself first... then ask the other person how close to the mark you were.

People have an innate psychological reaction to the concept of 'debate', that it's a confrontation of sorts and they instinctively want to 'win.' Asking them for their thoughts first is a little less aggressive.

And this also cloaks your intention of determining whether their beliefs are deceptive. This can be useful for sussing out the 'friend' you think is lying to themselves, or maybe lying to you; and for the prickly sort who takes any challenge of their beliefs as a personal attack.

A little philosophical guerrilla warfare, if you will. Not the method for everyone, but for those that don't like/don't know how/just suck at arguing, or are trying to be unobtrusive about it, it's a reasonable alternative.

03.01.04: Thought-provoking Comments from Eric

I think the things that are competing here are the desire for truth and the desire to avoid harm. Examine the following two questions:

  1. Does this make me look fat?

  2. Does this make me look fat, you asshole?

I bet that many people would respond differently to question 2 than to question 1. The answer to question 2 would normally be structured to cause whatever level of discomfort to the questioner that the answerer desired, as opposed to optimizing truth (although they may have the same result.)

When we say "avoid harm" what we are really identifying is our desire to extend respect and courtesy to people. This includes extending our hospitality and courtesy, sympathy and empathy, understanding, and trust. Trust is the most important in that it defines a level of expectation, unilaterally or bilaterally, which provide the framework for affirmation and disappointment.

Someone that fervently believes in the correctness of divine creation may be quite happy with their own beliefs. When those beliefs are not accepted by others and the covenant of "social trust" is broken, we dispense with reciprocation and things degrade from discourse to points south.

So, if you are offended that I don't believe in evolution, I posit that your offense is unjustified, which breaks the social contract and makes discourse unproductive. So we have:

Tenet 0: As a social contract, we expect a quid pro quo.
Tenet 1: I will respect your rights if you respect mine.
Tenet 2: As people, we have equivalent rights.
Tenet 3: I will respect your opinions if you respect mine.
Tenet 4: I will respect your feelings if you respect mine.

So, the exchange of trust is a transaction in which we expect equitable treatment. We acknowledge that we each have rights, and that they are equivalent. Since we respect our rights, we can decide to respect out opinions. Further, we agree not to hurt each other without respect.

In the examples you gave, at least one of the parties violated the tenets. For self-absorbed individuals, they usually fail almost all of these, in that since they are so very important, there is no necessity of a quid pro quo. Without that simple notion, all other tenets are meaningless. For a creationist that insists you adopt her or his beliefs, they violate Tenet 3 at least, maybe Tenet 2 (They aren't Christian, so burn them at the stake.)

In the evolution vs creationism debate, what is important to note is the satisfaction of the above tenets, as they provide a necessary (but perhaps not sufficient) basis for the discussion itself to be meaningful.

Religious beliefs are based upon faith, almost by definition. Things which have tangible, reproducible results and irrefutable proofs are usually not categorized as religion, but rather as Science. Theology is an interesting concept, as it seems to me to be the adoption of logical reasoning to religion.

The problem with this is that often the notions of "mystery" are used to avoid the examination of inconsistent results or clearly conflicting theory and data. "We know this is so, so we must find a logical framework within which to explain it" is the basic tenet of both religion and science. Science adds the restriction that "...explain it in a way that is consistent with all known facts." whereas religion is not so encumbered.

Is evolution provable? It depends on your definition of proof, but I would posit that it is not yet provable. Are the theories of evolution provable? Not yet. At the same time, it does not make the theories false.

The same is true of religion. Can we prove that there is no God? I don't think so (Kant et al notwithstanding.) Does that make God exist? No! Not being able to disprove evolution doesn't make creationism correct any more than not being able to disprove creationism proves evolution is correct.

The issue is not about proof, however. It is about persuasion. People constantly use analogy to "prove" things. Reasoning by analogy proves nothing, and cannot. What it can do, however, is sway minds that do not think critically or already have an answer in mind and are just looking for any means to show that their beliefs can be true. If they can be true, then they are legitimate and deserving of respect.

Which brings us to the great debate, to which I think the next millennium will be dedicated. That is the acceptance of the following tenets:

Tenet X: I will incorporate new information into my beliefs.
Tenet Y: I will value logical deduction if you will.
Tenet Z: We can agree to disagree until we know more.

Dogma cannot be reasoned with, as it assumes its conclusions, disregarding inconsistent facts while embracing supportive facts. Tenet X means that someone is open to an expansion of their views, the first step in overcoming dogma. Tenet Y means that people will agree that the process of determining a logical result (aka the truth) should be universal. Finally, Tenet Z allows us the luxury of permitting other beliefs to exist without endangering our own.

The egotists that you mentioned have a personal dogma that denies most of the basic tenets, which is why they are impossible to maintain a discourse with (sorry about the dangling bit here.)

There are religions where unbelievers are doomed to hell. There are others where unbelievers must be converted or murdered. These violate the earlier tenets where we agree to respect each others rights, such as "to exist."

Creationists with whom I have spoken have, by and large, desperately wanted to convert me to their thinking, because they need to know that they are right. Evolutionists want me to believe them because they want to know the truth. Logic, persuasion, force... all manner of techniques have been used throughout the ages to change minds. There is one, simple fact, however, that makes this an easy choice for me.

False premises prove all statements.

That is, given even a single false premise, you can usually find a way to use it to "prove" something that is false. Furthermore, there are definite limits to what is provable, what is knowable, and what is computable.

So to accept truth is to believe in logic and critical thinking, to accept the Tenets above that permit the growth of truth and knowledge. Once we do so, we can then accept that we will have to change our beliefs when we act based on theory instead of fact, and be accordingly responsible.

So, there is the word we have been looking for... responsible. To deny truth, to lie, to deny the rights of others... it is simply not responsible. To live in denial is irresponsible as well.

Responsibility -- that is a whole different essay! In my view, that is about what duties are placed on my behavior based on the number of tenets to which other parties agree.

For instance, if someone doesn't agree that any relationship requires a tit for tat exchange in any way, then I have no responsibilities to them (or do I?) Are there cases where two parties can agree to different tenets and still maintain discourse? Are my responsibilities with respect to each tenet differently weighted? Are theirs?

07.01.04: Extensive Comments from Lou

You wrote:

"Kant would have one believe this sort of lie is reprehensible. More pragmatic philosophers suggest that kind of lie is commendable, or at worst forgivable. I happen to agree with the more pragmatic philosophers, in this case. A self-righteous 'honesty' achieved at the cost of the life of another, just to assuage Kant's definition of truth, is no honesty at all, in my book."

I'm not sure that defining this as not being honest is the right thing to do. It may be all right for the limited scope of a single article, but telling the truth is honesty, even when it's horrible. Just because it's honest does not make it any less reprehensible or wrong, though.

It sounds to me like you're defining "honesty" so you can say simple things like, "It's always good to be honest." That sounds like a stretch of a definition to me, because you're clearly suggesting that it isn't always good to be honest. It's usually good to be honest. Is it always bad to be dishonest?

The ethical dilemma of whether or not to tell my Grandmother that my sister had had her lip pierced is an example of this. It would very much upset Marion, for no real reason, were she to find this out. So, we're all lying about it to her, or, more likely, not mentioning it. The family has chosen to deliberately promote this falsehood. Is it wrong?

You use the example of not telling someone of a problem with a car as a lie. I don't like your definition, because they didn't tell any lies or falsehoods. They did do something wrong; they decieved someone of the truth, and did it deliberately. I just don't know if the description of this as a lie is accurate.

You also describe vagueness as a way to lie. In that case, the problem is the person who makes the assumption's assumption, or that the person who was vague's using that as a way to get what they wanted; again, it's a deliberate, malicious deception. If the vague person was saying, "Mmmm?" to suggest they didn't hear or weren't listening, and the other person took it as, "Go ahead." then the person who was vague hadn't deliberately decieved the speaker; they'd merely not realized that this was important, and missed a part of the communication. In either case, demanding clarity could prevent this.

As you can guess, I'm writing this as I read the article. Eric's conclusion about trust, and mine about deception are similar observations about what your article has labelled "lying". The dictionary describes "lie" as "A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood." An omission or an avoidance aren't really such an act.

I think, as Eric suggested, the breach of trust, or the deception is the part that bothers you. This goes along with what I know of you, where trust is a very important and sensitive issue.

You write: "Therefore, in the arena of real-life honesty, silence or vagueness to promote falsehood is not truth -- it is an unequivocal lie. A desire to avoid any kind of confrontation is not sufficient cause to do this sort of thing. If my personal goal is an honest life, this sort of hypocrisy is emphatically not acceptable."

The sentence "A desire to avoid any kind of confornation is not sufficient cause to do this sort of thing." seems out of place here to me. The beginning and end of this paragraph talk about what lies are, and that they are not acceptable. This one cites a common excuse for doing so, that of being a spineless weasel, rather than a malicious weasel.

Would it be useful to discuss what are possible valid reasons to lie (and here I mean "utter an untruth"), or to discuss others that aren't, but are often used as excuses?

Question: "Does this make me look fat?" Answer: "No." Why is this hard?

If they're overweight, it's not what they're wearing that makes them look that way. It's the fat that makes them look fat.

Worse, that's almost never what they're asking. This is not a dangerous question because there is no good answer; it's dangerous because it's a loaded question, full of implications which can hardly be predicted. (Are they looking for reassurance that they aren't fat? Are they trying to see if you think they look nice? Are they, as your sidebar suggests, an idiot?)

So, avoiding an answer is okay, but a falsehood is not. How is that different? In a situation that's more critical than the one you suggested, avoidance is just as bad as vagueness, perhaps more so, because it's deliberate. You can breach trust by changing the subject and not dealing with an important issue that the other person would have thought important or expected you to be honest about. Wouldn't that be as bad or worse than the lie of omission?

Wouldn't it be better to try and answer truthfully but not hurtfully, "Gee, I don't know if that is the right style for you." or, "No, you look great." are both fine answers. Also, many people will take, "Gosh, I don't know." or refusal to answer as "Yes, you look like a bloated cow." This likely does not help.

(And, what about the others who'll take "No, you look great!" as, "Yes, you look like a bloated cow." This question is horrible because there IS NO RIGHT ANSWER, even when it's TRUE. I honestly don't know if it's the best example, because it's not the question that is the problem; it's the baggage that goes with it.)

One avoidance which would not be a lie that you didn't mention is to turn the question back around; "Hmm. Well, what do you think?" This doesn't dodge the question; they'll answer it or not, but it means you don't have to tell them something they might not want to hear. (Even if it's good news.)

For the second issue, is these poor deluded souls' goal to always get their way, or is it not to have to face something they find scary or horrible? Is it demanding rudeness or fear?

There are reasonable creationists? Woah! =)

If there is such a thing, and they really have reasoned arguments, then I don't think there is a lie. Regardless of subject, there may be something we don't understand, or information we lack, that they interpret one way and the evoloutionists interpret another. At some point, you have to agree to disagree and just say, "We don't agree on this." That doesn't make either of you liars, or mean that either of you is ignoring obvious truths. It means we don't know. Nothing is wrong with not knowing.

(Most Creationists are overly sure zealots, though, which never helps.)

I think I have concerns with the suggestion that people go around gleefully challenging people's thoughts and opinions on things. That sounds dangerous. You want to make sure that you've got an understanding of how to have this kind of discussion, and that you know and can respect the other person's limits, even if they don't.

That last is particularly imporatnt when arguing against someone less prepared than you, or against one of the self-deluded. Either of those types can find themselves standing on very thin ice over a huge lake of uncertainty on something they thought they understood. Neither one of those people has a positive response in the event that they fall through the ice. One of them attacks. The other just drowns. The reaction to the thin ice will tell you which kind of person they are. One will deny violently, or try and lead back to more solid ares, and the other will have to stop and think or research.

The hard part is knowing which is which.

Hmm. I see that Ian has described some of my concerns better. Not only, though, are lack of skill debating, or the challenge of views as a personal attack issues, but also the person who has not got information or has not had time to consider the issue must be taken in to account.

(For instance; for me to debate anything from the Bible or most of mythology with you is silly. You've got lots more informaiton, and had lots more time to consider it. For you to debate Perl with me, however, is just as silly; I've got the preparation and experience on you there. And Eric could talk about either of those subjects. Perhaps at the same time.)

Nothing is wrong with asking the question and getting them thinking. Pushing them too hard, right out in to that frigid lake, is unhelpful at best and malicious at worst. Yes, debate can be used as a weapon. Why do you think so many avoid it?

People need time to learn about topics, particularly ones that have had a lot of other thought put in to them and which have a lot of related information and areas of study.

And, as far as Eric's comments... I wish I were that smart. I like most of his tenents, and wish people would actually believe them.

Our current society, however, makes that hard. While you're told to act like you believe them, it's really difficult to do so. Many people aren't willing to take the time and effort, and don't like the apparent pain it causes them.

I suspect there's another essay there. =)