Notes on Honesty
This post examines the virtue of honesty (a.k.a. “truthfulness,” “veracity”). This could be a starting point for expanding the LessWrong Wiki entry on Honesty, and I encourage you add comments/questions to help guide that effort. (See also: Deception and Meta-Honesty)
Honestly ;-) this was a difficult post for me to put together. The topic is complex and it was hard to find the sweet spot between being too wordy and too superficial. People have written dense books to try to explain things I cheekily tried to summarize in a sentence or two.
Honesty and rationality
Much of LW concerns how we can better approach knowing the truth. Honesty concerns an aspect of how we communicate that truth. For this reason I think of it as a social virtue rather than an intellectual virtue. Sometimes, however, you hear expressions like “being honest with yourself” used to describe intellectual virtues.
Honesty requires at least a minimum exercise of the intellectual virtues. If you do not exercise epistemological due diligence before you communicate your understanding of the state of the world, you may be telling the truth as you see it, but you are failing to respect the virtue of honesty by not taking enough care to distinguish the false from the true.
For example, an acquaintance of mine is very into the woo. When she speaks to me of woo things that she thinks are important for me to learn about, I don’t get the impression that she’s lying to me, exactly, but she exercises such poor judgement about what to believe that I end up feeling as though I have been lied to and I tend to look upon her as being as much a dishonest person as a foolish one.
On the other hand, Scott Alexander warns against “lie inflation” in which we might accuse people of lying when they are merely honestly representing the poor results of their sloppy thinking. (His argument is something like this: if we expand our definition of dishonesty to cover mistaken sloppy thinking then we risk losing the ability to talk more precisely about deliberately deceptive dishonesty, and this lowers our defenses against just such liars.) See “Maybe Lying Doesn’t Exist” for more discussion of this point, and “Rationalizing and Sitting Bolt Upright in Alarm” for a plea that we invent some epithet as strong and undesirable as “liar” to apply to people who, though they are not being dishonest, are recklessly misreasoning.
There are some other virtues that are closely-related to honesty:
If you are both honest and have cultivated a reputation for honesty, you have the virtue of “reputability” or “trustworthiness”.
Being honest about your commitments to future action is sometimes called “accountability”, “reliability”, “dependability”, or “conscientiousness”.
If you are not merely honest about what you are asked or what you say, but are also proactive about seeking out and expressing what the person you are communicating with needs to know, and/or are unreserved about which truths you express, you are exercising “candor” or “frankness” — or parrhêsia if you’re a Cynic.
A subset of honesty involves meaning what you say about your own motives, desires, and opinions — “sincerity”. You can express sincerity in deeds as well as words, in which case you are being “earnest” (or sometimes “authentic”).
If you don’t beat around the bush or candy-coat your honesty or engage in euphemism, false modesty, or things of that sort, you are being “straightforward”.
Honesty, as a virtue, is the habit of being honest — being honest by default, characteristically. But it can be surprisingly tricky to define in a water-tight way what being honest consists of. Is it honest to express something false if you think it is true? to express something true if you think it is false? Is it honest to express something true that you know to be true if you also believe that by expressing it you will make the person to whom you express it believe something false?
The “wizard’s oath” (never saying anything that is literally false) has been proposed as an attractive approximation for honesty. On closer inspection it “is of limited practical utility given the ubiquity of other kinds of deception.” It is certainly not honest to deliberately create a false impression by means of selective or craftily-worded true statements. But the game of “technically” telling the truth (“I never actually lied”) while deceiving people is a popular one.
To make things yet more difficult, people sometimes say things that they know to be false but with the intention of helping someone understand the truth. Consider, for example, the oversimplifications of physics that we learn in high school or Physics 101 classes. These oversimplifications are falsehoods of a sort, and the professors know this, but it would be too complex for the student to get the whole truth all at once, so placeholder-lies are used in the service of truth.
If you think about this sort of thing deeply enough you may start to go down the rabbit hole of wondering how any communication or even any conceptualization can be a true one: how does language work, what is “meaning” and “representation”, what is the relationship between the map and the territory, and so forth.
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote the essay “On Bullshit” about a particular variety of dishonesty.
What is “bullshit”? Essentially it is indifference to the truth of one’s communication: a sort of bluff in which one goes through the motions of conveying something factual without actually attending to what it takes to represent the truth. It differs from “lies” in part in that the liar does care about what the facts are (in order to misrepresent them advantageously). For this reason also, Frankfurt believes that bullshit is more dangerous to the enterprise of truth-seeking. It also seems to have become especially prominent lately.
Contexts designed to contain dishonesty safely
There are certain contexts in which saying things that aren’t true is arguably unobjectionable. For example, if you are telling a joke, although you are describing a scenario in a way that superficially resembles how you would describe something that really happened, nobody with a mature understanding of conversation expects that you are expressing something that is literally true. If you are an actor delivering a soliloquy, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief — a sort of mutual agreement to temporarily play in a dishonest sandbox — for the audience to think that you are speaking sincerely of your own thoughts.
That particular convention, however, creates a grey area in which actually deceptive dishonesty thrives. For instance, consider an actor in a lab coat in an advertisement who tells you that Miraclon-X™ has transformed the lives of her patients. That actor is doing something superficially no more dishonest than what Laurence Olivier did when he complained about his uncle shacking up with his mom in Hamlet. But the advertisement has been crafted to give the impression that an actual medical doctor with expertise in a certain area has become enthusiastic about the efficacy of a certain drug. It is not meant to be seen as fiction, but is meant to leave a deceptive impression.
There are other ways in which we have carved out areas in which dishonesty is considered acceptable or even appropriate. “Fish stories” for example, in which the point of telling a true-ish story is to entertain or pass the time rather than to convey information — in such stories, exaggerations or even falsehoods that make the story more entertaining are often considered to be unobjectionable or even admirable.
There are common verbal handshakes (“How you doin’?” “Fine.”) that have the superficial appearance of a conveyance of information but that mostly have a different purpose and in which people rarely concern themselves with honesty.
If I am reading someone’s résumé, I consider them to have stepped over the line if they actually lie about having some degree, or having worked for some company, or something like that. But on the other hand, I expect that their résumé is them “putting their best foot forward.” I don’t expect them to be fully candid about their flaws, foibles, and failures but to selectively present attractive parts of their histories.
Another way we carve out space for dishonesty is to use verbal envelopes in which we put untrue things such that they are insulated from being taken as literally true: “Once upon a time…”, “Consider this counterfactual scenario…”, “Imagine for a moment that…”, “If we were to assume X…”, and so forth.
People also use irony and sarcasm, understatement and hyperbole, parody and caricature, modest proposals and other such rhetorical devices to say what is not literally true but what also is not designed to be interpreted as literal truth. These techniques expand our expressive and communicative repertoire but at the cost of playing fast and loose with truth-telling. I mention things like these (and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list) because sometimes they are overlooked by people who recommend a literal and thorough honesty.
Collateral damage of “harmless” dishonesty
In addition to these sorts of spaces in which tales can be told in a way that warns the recipients that they are likely to be a shade or two off from the truth, lies may also be justified in a more ad hoc way but one that preserves their status as actual dishonesty.
Most tempting to consequentialists are lies that are justified by their service to what appears to be a greater good: Giving a placebo to a patient in place of a missing pain reliever, but telling them it’s the real deal in the hopes of making the placebo work better. Telling the Gestapo that actually Anne Frank moved out of the attic some time ago and didn’t leave a forwarding address. Not telling your spouse about that hook-up you had on that business trip because you think the truth would be more harmful to your marriage than a lie would be. Recognizing when “does this make me look fat?” is not a request for an honest and literal evaluation of the question. “Little white lies” that protect someone’s feelings.
Sissela Bok argued, in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, that when people justify their dishonesty, they tend to focus too narrowly — in their little white lies and fish stories as well as their big important utilitarian deceptions. If we restrict ourselves to looking at the immediate effects of the lie, and on only the harm done by the lie to the person or persons lied to, we’re missing some important terms in the calculation. Among the other things we should consider are how the lie affects the character of the liar (eroding that person’s habits of truth-telling, or reinforcing their habits of lying), how the lie might influence bystanders (by communicating something about the culture of truth-telling they belong to), and how the lie might erode future trust between the parties.
“Fish stories,” for example, can reinforce habits of embellishment that spill over into other contexts where they aren’t as harmless — “we’re not talking about grotesque major falsehoods — but the first words off my tongue sometimes shade reality, twist events just a little toward the way they should have happened…” If we develop the habit when we open our mouths of seeking for words that make us interesting to hear or that meet people’s expectations, without having even more regard for their veracity, it can be easy to slip into that habit when we’re not intending to lie but aren’t paying close attention. And it can take a lot of attention to hit the truth precisely; it is so much easier to just aim in its general direction.
“Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult…. Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings — much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth.” —George Eliot (Adam Bede)
Here’s another example of how innocent-seeming lies may cause collateral damage: imagine that in your culture friends will always answer “you look beautiful in that” because that’s what is expected of friends. You may as a result always be a little insecure about whether you look good or not because you cannot expect to get accurate feedback from your friends. This convention, rather than bolstering your self-esteem, instead leaves you in doubt. And if a friend is honest with you and tells you your clothing is not flattering today, the convention may reasonably lead you to doubt their friendship! What if you “want to have friends you don’t need to second-guess” instead? So even in the case of a little white lie, there are broader consequences to consider.
Thoreau wrote: “It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to hear.” In order for honest communication to take place, the speaker must speak honestly, and the listener must be prepared to hear honest speech. This means that some groundwork must have been established to indicate that the speech is meant to be honest, and not to be serving some other purpose. This might include trust between the parties, or a cultural expectation of honest communication.
The listener can help by signaling that honesty is what they expect and are prepared for. This can be done explicitly: “I’m not trolling for complements here. What did you think of my paper?” “Don’t candy-coat it; how bad is the cancer?” You might invoke “Crocker’s Rules” in which you explicitly request the speaker to prioritize honesty over other concerns like tact or respect for taboos. Certainly if you want people to be honest with you, you should not disincentivize them by punishing them for doing so.
The power of honesty
Some philosophers claim to have discovered unexpected powers in the virtue of Honesty. Tolstoy, for example, thought that honesty was revolutionary. “No feats of heroism are needed to achieve the greatest and most important changes in the existence of humanity…. it is only needful that each individual should say what he really feels or thinks, or at least that he should not say what he does not think.” He was followed in this by Solzhenitsyn (“Live Not By Lies”) and Václav Havel (“The Power of the Powerless”):
In the post-totalitarian system… living within the truth has more than a mere existential dimension (returning humanity to its inherent nature), or a noetic dimension (revealing reality as it is), or a moral dimension (setting an example for others). It also has an unambiguous political dimension. If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.
William Wollaston — a now mostly-forgotten philosopher who was important in the early enlightenment — defended a system in which all religion ultimately reduced to ethics and all ethics reduced to honesty (The Religion of Nature Delineated). “[E]very intelligent, active, and free being should so behave himself, as by no act to contradict truth; …treat every thing as being what it is.” All else would follow from that.
When honesty is dangerous
It can be dangerous to tell the truth when the truth is unwelcome to someone who is hostile when angered. This can suppress truth-telling of certain sorts, particularly when the hostile are organized into powerful institutions. Truths that are blasphemous, unpatriotic, or in other ways challenge the sacrosanct or privileged can be difficult to utter safely. “Cancel culture” and the shifting and unpredictable taboos that may drive its piranhas into a frenzy can frighten people into being less candid or into saying things they do not believe to be true.
Strategies for truth-telling in such circumstances are varied. You might simply stay silent, picking your battles and being truthful elsewhere, accepting the passive falsehood of silence. You might use euphemism or other circumlocution to approach the truth at a safe distance without breaching the taboo. You might surround the truth so that its outline is clearly visible without stating it explicitly: engraving the first two lines of the syllogism in ten-foot-high letters and leaving the last line blank as an exercise for the reader.
Another strategy is esoteric communication, which means to tell the truth in a sort of encoded or between-the-lines way that will only be obvious to people who are not among those who will be enraged by it.
Kant made the duty of honesty a sort of showpiece of his impressive moral theory. I am no expert on Kant and will probably be oversimplifying dangerously here, so please take this with that caveat attached.
Kant asserted that lying was always wrong; that you always have a duty to be truthful. One of his arguments was that dishonesty could not be defended coherently. This is why: Say you believe that a person is justified in deceiving others because it can be useful to a person to deceive other people. But if everyone were deceitful whenever they thought fooling someone might be helpful, then no expectation of honesty would survive. Everyone would just assume that everyone else may be lying at any time and that therefore there is no good reason to believe them. But if that is the result, then dishonesty will lose any advantages it might have had — it will no longer be helpful to you — nobody can be usefully deceived by your lies because nobody puts any stock in them in the first place. So in this way the supposed justification for dishonesty undermines itself.
Kant’s recommendation of absolute honesty without exceptions is a tempting target to consequentialists who oppose the Kantian moral system. Imagine you have seen where someone is hiding from a crazed murderer who is intent on killing them — are you obligated to refrain from lying to the murderer who asks you where to find them? Kant’s answer to this objection (on first approximation: “yes”) was not very convincing, and has been subject to scorn and ridicule ever since (perhaps unfairly).
Philosophers sometimes suggest that contra Kant, there is a “universalizable maxim” that can encompass some dishonesty, if you just draw it up skillfully. Something like: “Be honest except in rare and extreme situations in which a reasonable person would conclude that with a high likelihood dishonesty would clearly result in a much better outcome…” for some to-be-determined values of reasonable, high, clear, and much better. (See Eliezer Yudkowsky’s discussion of meta-honesty for one possible formula.)
It occurs to me also that Kant’s objection lacks empirical support. Case in point: President Trump is notoriously dishonest. And rather than trying to project an air of reputability — trying to remain “technically true” and saving his lies for when they’re really necessary, as a more mundane politician would — he just starts making stuff up from word #1 and never bothers to touch down in the land of truth. Kant would predict that this would mean people would stop trying to evaluate his utterances for their meaning or to evaluate them against a standard of truth: that his lies would lose their effectiveness. But, four years into his presidency, the New York Times assigned two reporters to go line-by-line through one of his 87-minute campaign speeches to highlight the falsifiable statements that were also false ones. “Trump said X. Is that really true?” remains a common headline and debates about the truthiness of whatever he said today continue to rattle the wires across the land.
The “Glomar response” (prototypically: “I can neither confirm nor deny X”) is a way of preserving reputability while concealing information that you do not want to be honest about: you refuse to answer rather than lying.
If you refuse to answer only on those occasions when you do not want to tell the truth, this can have the effect of leaking the very information you want to hide, as it may be obvious to your interrogator which answers you would want to conceal, and your interrogator can just fill in the Glomar blank with the more embarrassing of the answers. So for the Glomar response to work as designed, you must also deploy it on occasions when you would not ordinarily be bothered by speaking the honest truth. This means that you have to anticipate well ahead of time which class of questions might at some future time require an answer that you would prefer not to give truthfully, and begin Glomarizing them now. This is difficult to pull off as a general practice.
Sometimes people will suggest a Glomar-style response as a possible solution to the murderer-seeking-the-hidden-victim thought experiment. When asked “Where is that no-good so-and-so I want to kill?” you can honestly answer “I feel no inclination to share information of that nature with you.”
Description pilfered from the LessWrong wiki:
Radical honesty is a communication technique proposed by Brad Blanton in which discussion partners are not permitted to lie or deceive at all. Rather than being designed to enhance group epistemic rationality, radical honesty is designed to reduce stress and remove the layers of deceit that burden much of discourse.
The Radical Honesty technique includes having practitioners state their feelings bluntly and directly, even if it may be in a way typically considered impolite. Avoiding all “white lying” is said to lead to a more truthful relationship with themselves and others.
See also: “Radical Honesty” by Eliezer Yudkowsky.
According to its proponents, radical honesty has many benefits: It allows you to develop a deeper connection with other people rather than only connecting on a falsification-to-falsification basis. By atrophying the lie-telling part of your brain, it allows you to see the world more accurately. It shows respect for the people you communicate with. It promotes an ethos of honesty in society. In a sort of Zen way, it takes you out of the stories you tell yourself and back into the real world. And it cures insomnia & sexual dysfunction, saves marriages, makes you rich, and other pop-psychology marketing points of that sort.
How do you go about being radically honest? Here’s the program in a nutshell: Train yourself to accept honesty at all times — permit yourself to see the truth even when it hurts. Learn the ways you deceive yourself — cognitive biases, illusions, logical fallacies, bad habits, etc. — and retrain yourself. Observe yourself lying, ask yourself what occasions it, look more deeply and explicitly at what motivates you to lie and try to find a more honest way to deal with such situations that also meets your needs. Confess your dishonesty to others when you catch yourself (“I just said how much I’d love to come to your book club, but actually it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would hold my interest and I wasn’t being honest about my level of enthusiasm.”) Start by saying what you notice, then how it makes you feel, and only much later what you think about it. Be a detective of cultural dishonesty: euphemisms, things that “aren’t talked about,” the elephant in the room, things we do to avoid discussing certain topics, myths we take for granted, political correctness, taboos, etc.
Honesty about future commitments
It is a valuable thing to be able to make credible promises about your future actions. It is an honest thing, having made such promises, to follow through on them. But such promises are problematic because the future is uncertain. You may die before you are able to fulfill your promise, or fate may interfere in some other way that makes it impossible for you to do as you said you would or that causes an unanticipated conflict between incompatible commitments.
Perhaps it is best to assume by convention that all such promises have a “but for unforeseen accidents of fate” clause attached to them. However it can be tempting, when fulfilling a promise turns out to be harder or more costly than anticipated, to claim that this nullifies our promise under such an implicit clause. If we give in to such a temptation, we will not be honoring the virtue of honesty, and so this should make us cautious when we make promises about our future acts.
Open-ended promises are especially bad this way: Oaths of undying loyalty, pledges to obey future orders without specifying the content of those orders, and so forth. Something like 45% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and most of them begin with a pledge to stay married “until death do us part.”
Oaths, pledges, and formal declarations of intent to honesty
Marriage vows are an example of a formal pledge, which, from its solemn and traditional format and context is supposed to give greater weight to the vows made. Such deliberate attention to phrasing and ritual context gives the pledger notice that they ought to carefully consider their vow and its implications. Other examples include oaths of office, pledges of allegiance, swearings-in of witnesses, and so forth. People may more informally try to emphasize how much they intend to honor their promises by means of pinky-swears, “may God strike me down if I’m lying”, “I swear on the name of my mother,” and other such formulas.
None of these rituals seems to be reliable in compelling truth-telling or promise-keeping. They also imply that the promises people make in the absence of such rituals are not to be taken as seriously, which strikes me as potentially erosive of any general tendency to truth-telling.
Some Christians for this reason eschew oath-giving, citing the advice in James 5:12 (“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”)
Contracts are another matter. They typically enforce promises and make them more reliable by providing for sanctions against promise-breaking. This then tends to leave the arena of honesty for the arena of material incentives.
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of honesty, but mostly in the context of self-representation: Do people brag about their skills and experiences and credentials, do they with false modesty self-deprecate, or do they straightforwardly share an honest assessment of themselves?
People have long used disguises, imposture, cosmetics, titles, credentials, and so forth to try to make an impression. But now that more of our social presence is digitally mediated, this has presented new possibilities — things like pseudonymous sock-puppetry, auto-suggested phrasing, catfishing, video filters, purchased “likes”, and so forth.
We can be more deliberate and selective about what we choose to share about ourselves on a social media outlet than we could be in a more free-form, face-to-face, real-world social context. If people are incentivized to filter how they project their lives in a certain way — showing happy and exceptional moments and suppressing sad and mundane ones, for example — this creates a misleading impression, and maybe a harmful one if people compare their own real lives to the filtered lives of those in their virtually-social circle.
The pressure to “brand” your internet presence threatens authenticity. If an increasing portion of what you are to other people is your mediated projection of yourself, and that projection represents your brand rather than your authentic person, do you run the risk of atrophying your authentic social self or making it subservient to your brand? Might you wake up one day to discover that your brand is well-loved but you are still lonely, for instance?
Social media culture is still fairly new and very much in flux. The choices we make today about how honestly to represent ourselves on-line will help set a standard that will have long-lasting influence.
Spin or Framing is the attempt to fit revealed or asserted facts into a rhetorical framework in such a way that they will lead people to desired conclusions or away from undesirable ones. Often this takes the form of seductively modeling the desired variety of motivated reasoning.
When this is called “spin” it usually implies purposeful dishonesty; when it is called “framing” its proponents sometimes claim it can be done in the service of clarity and honesty, or to defend against spin. (Impartial rationality, or our best approximations to it, might be considered as one variety of frame from within which we can draw conclusions.)
How to become more honest
One prong of becoming more honest has to do with overcoming ways of thinking that prevent one from approaching the truth in the first place. Learn to love truth and refuse to fear it. All of that is well-covered elsewhere on LW. The second prong is about communicating honestly, and that’s what I’ll concentrate on in this section.
One way to become more honest is to get in the habit of speaking truthfully even when it seems harmless to do otherwise. Tolstoy put it this way:
To tell the truth is the same as to be a good tailor, or to be a good farmer, or to write beautifully. To be good at any activity requires practice: no matter how hard you try, you cannot do naturally what you have not done repeatedly. In order to get accustomed to speaking the truth, you should tell only the truth, even in the smallest of things.
(Tolstoy was an author of fiction, however, so he must have allowed for some safely-compartmentalized uses of untruth, unless perhaps he had a late-life change of heart about fiction.)
Another way to become more honest is to exert more effort and attention toward the details of your communication. Lazy inattention can lead to falsehood when we sleepwalk through something we’re saying — spitting out phrases because the words sound right together because we’ve heard them that way before.
“Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.” (Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind):
Although lies are often described as being delivered in fancy, honey-coated language, honesty may also be best served by sophisticated use of language: originality of metaphor, inventiveness in phrasing, a poet’s attention to precise word-use, a rich vocabulary, and a critical eye for ambiguity.
Avoid the use of “weasel words” that give the appearance of saying something truthful while actually throwing up an obscuring cloud of syllables around an absence of truth.
Finally, in spite of our best efforts we may nonetheless give an unintentionally mistaken impression. It can be valuable to check in with those we are communicating with to ask them to verify that their understanding of what we are trying to say matches what we mean to communicate. Adding “checksums” of some sort to our communication may enhance its integrity.