Originally posted January 2004

Thanks to Bob, Lou, George, Eric, & Ian, who helped make this a better article.

I also extend an (admittedly somewhat grudging) 'thank you' to life in general — were I not exposed to the bad as well as the good, I would not be able to try constantly to improve myself. Sometimes it's very hard, or not much fun, but I think (I hope!) it's worth it to keep trying.

Michelangelo's motto works best for this, I think:

"Ancora Imparo"
(Still I am learning)

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.

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