Radical Honesty

I re­cently ran across this in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cle about Rad­i­cal Hon­esty, a move­ment founded by a psy­chother­a­pist named Brad Blan­ton who sug­gests that we should kick our ad­dic­tion to ly­ing and just tell the com­plete truth all the time. I also like this quote from the Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cle on Rad­i­cal Hon­esty: “The sig­nifi­cant ma­jor­ity of par­ti­ci­pants in the Rad­i­cal Hon­esty work­shops re­port dra­matic changes in their lives af­ter tak­ing the course, though they are not always com­fortable and pos­i­tive.” The move­ment visi­bly suffers from hav­ing been founded by a psy­chother­a­pist—it’s more about the amaz­ing hap­piness that ab­solute truth-tel­ling can bring to your re­la­tion­ships (!!) rather than such ra­tio­nal­ist val­ues as seek­ing truth by teach­ing your­self a habit of hon­esty, or not wish­ing to de­ceive oth­ers be­cause it in­fringes on their au­ton­omy.

I once sug­gested a no­tion called “Crocker’s Rules”, which was the mir­ror image of Rad­i­cal Hon­esty—rather than tel­ling the whole truth to other peo­ple, you would strive to always al­low oth­ers to tell you the com­plete truth with­out be­ing offended.

Crocker’s Rules didn’t give you the right to say any­thing offen­sive, but other peo­ple could say po­ten­tially offen­sive things to you, and it was your re­spon­si­bil­ity not to be offended. This was sur­pris­ingly hard to ex­plain to peo­ple; many peo­ple would read the care­ful ex­pla­na­tion and hear, “Crocker’s Rules mean you can say offen­sive things to other peo­ple.”

I was ini­tially a bit sus­pi­cious of Blan­ton’s move­ment—it seemed like the mir­ror-image that so many peo­ple mis­in­ter­preted, the op­tion of say­ing offen­sive things to other peo­ple. But Blan­ton makes it not only op­tional, but manda­tory to speak your mind—a far greater in­con­ve­nience than Crocker’s Rules would ever im­pose on any­one.

Crocker’s Rules didn’t catch on. Maybe it was too hard to tell the differ­ence be­tween some­one de­liv­er­ing a slap in the face, and some­one de­liber­ately in­vok­ing Crocker’s Rules—you don’t want to miss a real clue to real hos­tility be­cause of your ac­cep­tance; you wouldn’t want to not be­lieve a true fact, even if the true fact is that some­one else hates you. And third par­ties may as­sume the truthtel­ler is an offen­sive per­son no mat­ter how much the re­ceiver dis­claims offense—they may as­sume the re­ceiver is “just be­ing po­lite”, or that re­quest­ing hon­esty does not ex­cuse its offen­sive­ness.

Will Blan­ton’s Rules ever catch on? I worry that Rad­i­cal Hon­esty would se­lec­tively dis­ad­van­tage ra­tio­nal­ists in hu­man re­la­tion­ships. Broad­cast­ing your opinions is much eas­ier when you can de­ceive your­self about any­thing you’d feel un­com­fortable say­ing to oth­ers. I won­der whether prac­ti­tion­ers of Rad­i­cal Hon­esty tend to be­come more adept at self-de­cep­tion, as they stop be­ing able to tell white lies or ad­mit pri­vate thoughts to them­selves. I have taken a less re­stric­tive kind of hon­esty upon my­self—to avoid state­ments that are liter­ally false - and I know that this be­comes more and more difficult, more and more of a dis­ad­van­tage, as I de­ceive my­self less and less.

I sus­pect that the neu­ral cir­cuits that we use to lie to oth­ers, also cen­sor our own thoughts. Hon­esty to oth­ers is im­por­tant unto a ra­tio­nal­ist, even one who is seek­ing a strictly self­ish ad­van­tage in find­ing truth only for them­selves. If there were a Bayesian Order, would its prac­ti­tion­ers take a vow of Rad­i­cal Hon­esty?

I think that if there is ever a vow of hon­esty among ra­tio­nal­ists, it will be re­stricted in scope. Nor­mally, per­haps, you would avoid mak­ing state­ments that were liter­ally false, and be ready to ac­cept bru­tal hon­esty from any­one who first said “Crocker’s Rules”. Maybe you would be Rad­i­cally Hon­est, but only with oth­ers who had taken a vow of Rad­i­cal Hon­esty, and who un­der­stood the trust re­quired to tell some­one the truth.

Maybe Rad­i­cal Hon­esty would be re­served for mat­ters sa­cred unto a ra­tio­nal­ist? In some do­mains this is already the case. We be­lieve that sci­en­tists should always tell the whole truth about sci­ence. It’s one thing to lie in ev­ery­day life, lie to your boss, lie to the po­lice, lie to your lover; but who­ever lies in a jour­nal ar­ti­cle is guilty of ut­ter heresy and will be ex­com­mu­ni­cated.

I won­der what it would be like to have any­one in the world, even a sin­gle per­son, who you could ab­solutely trust. Or what it would be like for there to be any­one in the world, even a sin­gle per­son, whom you had to tell all your thoughts, with­out pos­si­bil­ity of con­ceal­ment.