Diana Hsieh

I'm a philosopher, radio host, blogger, paleo foodie, gardener, skier & boarder, horse rider, farm gal, entrepreneur, GTD'er, Objectivist, and lover of life!

Honesty Under Coercion

 Posted by on 11 March 2002 at 10:30 am  Coercion, Ethics, Favorites, Honesty, Rights
Mar 112002
 

In preparing for my talk on honesty to TOC’s 2002 Summer Seminar, I have been exploring the limits of the virtue of honesty. The standard Objectivist position is that honesty is not required when force has been initiated against us. Why not? Because the virtue of honesty is formed in the context of trading relationships. Because our virtues ought not be used against us in the service of evil. Because we can avoid irrational people, but people initiating force. In Basic Principles of Objectivism, Nathaniel Branden says that someone who has initiated force has “suspended morality” with respect to himself. Anything that the victim chooses to do in self-defense against the initiator of force is morally right. But of course, although honesty is not required where coercion is present, neither is dishonesty. Morality has been “suspended,” not inverted.

My thinking about this issue lead to me to the question: In situations where force is being initiated against us, when is it in our self-interest to lie and when is it in our self-interest to tell the truth? Given the prevalence of coercion in human history and even in a country as free as the US is today, some general principles would certainly seem to help us make better decisions.

I posed this very question to FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group) Saturday night in my presentation on honesty. I was completely surprised by the resounding and near-unanimous answer: There are no principles. Whatever people do is moral. People have their own unique breaking points. People have their own goals. So no general principles can be constructed. We make decisions based on the particulars of the context.

The primary problem with this account is that it seems to leave us with little guidance in dealing with coercion. How am I to decide what to do if there are no principles involved? Aren’t there any moral considerations at all?

Rand doesn’t have much to say on the subject, but I did find an interesting comment at the end of her essay “The Wreckage Of The Consensus” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She writes:

Once in a while, I receive letters from young men asking me for personal advice on problems connected with the draft. Morally, no one can give advice in any issue where choices and decisions are not voluntary: “Morality ends where a gun begins.” As to the practical alternatives available, the best thing to do is to consult a good lawyer.

There is, however, one moral aspect of the issue that needs clarification. Some young men seem to labor under the misapprehension that since the draft is a violation of their rights, compliance with the draft law would constitute a moral sanction of that violation. This is a serious error. A forced compliance is not a sanction. All of us are forced to comply with many laws that violate our rights, but so long as we advocate the repeal of such laws, our compliance does not constitute a sanction. Unjust laws have to be fought ideologically; they cannot be fought or corrected by means of mere disobedience and futile martyrdom. (CUI 325)

Rand seems to be drawing a distinction here between “moral” and “practical” advice. Such words seem ill-chosen, given the Objectivist rejection of a moral-practical dichotomy. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that there are prudential concerns even when force has been initiated against us. Whatever goals and values we have in life, there are better and worse ways of achieving those values, even when our freedoms are curtailed. In the quote from CUI, Rand is arguing precisely along those lines: If you wish to fight unjust laws, then fight them “ideologically” rather than through “mere disobedience” or “futile martyrdom.”

So, perhaps the only universal principle when making decisions in the face of coercion is: Act as best you can according to your hierarchy of values. Act to preserve what is more important to you before you act to preserve what is less important. Be willing to give up lesser values to preserve greater ones. To put it bluntly: save your spouse before you save your TV. To the extent that your hierarchy of values is rational, you will be acting in your own self-interest.

That’s not much of a moral principle, but it’s a good start.

Mar 112002
 

National Review has a delightful article by Victor Davis Hanson on the US-Kuwaiti relationship. Regarding our foreign aid in the Islamic Middle East, Hanson writes that “it would be far more intellectually honest — and cheaper — simply now to allow them all to be the enemies that they wish to be rather than the friends they do not.” Indeed!

Here’s my favorite bit:

“…public opinion in Kuwait confirms that the root of anti-Americanism is not poverty (they are rich), not exploitation (they do not give oil away), not past grievance (we saved them), not purported solidarity with the Palestinians (whom they ejected), but a basic sense of umbrage and accompanying envy that grows with greater exposure to the West.”

Mental Viagra

 Posted by on 10 March 2002 at 6:13 pm  Firearms, Psychology, Self-Esteem
Mar 102002
 

Men who advocate gun control have pathetically low self-esteem and are attempting to prevent real men from owning guns in order to protect their fragile egos. So argues Julia Gorin in this rather interesting op-ed. Given the other loony reasons why people are in favor of gun control, this psychological explanation doesn’t seem too far off base.

The Apocalypse

 Posted by on 8 March 2002 at 9:49 am  Christianity, Cloning, Religion, Religious Right
Mar 082002
 

Peggy Noonan apparently thinks that cloning will bring on the apocalypse, as she indicates in the second section of this piece. As she says “God is not mocked.”

Strangely enough, it only gets worse.

And, just for fun *pbbbbbt* to God!

Smart and Evil or Good and Dumb

 Posted by on 8 March 2002 at 9:38 am  Ethics, George Bush
Mar 082002
 

Larry Elder has an interesting op-ed today on Gore’s alleged intelligence versus Bush’s alleged stupidity. He makes a good case that, even if Gore is smarter than Bush, his school records show failure after failure to apply that intelligence. Like Elder, I’ll take the hardworking less-smart guy over the lazy more-smart guy any day.

But intelligence, although important in the president, isn’t nearly as important as moral character, particularly commitment to constitutional principles. If our presidents did adhere to the constitution, the job wouldn’t take much more than a 120 IQ. They would be able to nap for most of the day. They would be able to work two or three days a week, at most. The job of the president just shouldn’t be so taxing! (The jobs of citizens shouldn’t be so taxing either, but that’s another subject.)

Evil Evil Evil

 Posted by on 7 March 2002 at 9:40 am  Communism, George Bush, North Korea
Mar 072002
 

In today’s OpinionJournal, a German doctor who worked in North Korea for two years has a great piece on the horrors experienced by the people of that country at the hands of their power-hungry dictator, Kim Jong Il. He writes:

What I witnessed could best be described as unbelievable deprivation. As I wrote last March, “In the hospitals one sees kids too small for their age, with hollow eyes and skin stretched tight across their faces. They wear blue-and-white striped pajamas, like the children in Hitler’s Auschwitz.”

Essentially, he is defending North Korea’s inclusion in the axis of evil. Towards the end of the article, he says:

President Bush has rightly identified North Korea as a prison state that uses terrorism against its own people. Moreover, his “axis of evil” has sent a strong message to the North Korean people that they are not forgotten–and they are listening. Every North Korean defector I spoke to over several weeks was delighted by President Bush’s words. For the first time in their lives they feel as if the outside world understands the hell they have endured. Moreover, they are full of hope that, like President Reagan’s “evil empire” speech,” President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech will eventually lead to the collapse of Kim Jong Il’s brutal regime.

I’m sold!

This article seems particularly timely given Will Wilkinson’s indignant comments yesterday on North Korea as merely preferring their bread butter side down.

 

One of the ideas I’ve been working on for my various lectures and papers on honesty is that deception of others promotes deception of the self. Here are some thoughts:

Most habitual liars are also habitual self-deceivers. People usually believe their own lies. (Some people enjoy the thrill of lying, but I suspect those are a minority.) Is this connection between other-deception and self-deception merely the result of self-deceivers repeating their lies to others? Or does deception of others somehow pave the way for deception of the self?

Certainly, self-deception makes lies to others more plausible and consistent. Believing your own lies immerses you into the networks of details and logical implications of the lie. So you have answers (although perhaps transparently pathetic ones to outsiders) for the likely questions and objections. You don’t stammer and stutter when your friend says, “But how could you have known about the hole in the roof if you didn’t see Mary before I saw Jim?” You also are much less likely to act like a liar by looking at your feet, hesitating, and so forth. But I seriously doubt that these purely practical considerations could motivate self-deception. They are merely reasons to spend more time and effort planning and scheming deceptions.

So what might motivate self-deception?

Guilt. A person might feel guilty about lying, about the harm their lie caused, or about the facts concealed by the lie. By falsely convincing himself that he actually told the truth, the liar’s acute feelings of guilt and shame may dissipate. A woman who feels terrible for having said some nasty things about a co-worker might deny ever having said those things or having meant what people took her to mean.

A person might also self-deceive by rationalizing the lie as justified for some bogus reason. She might deny having said these terrible things to others, while telling herself that the false denial was necessary to preserve her well-deserved reputation. People don’t want to feel bad, so they deceive themselves about what they have done. (This is a bad but common strategy.)

How might we convince ourselves of our own lies?

The process of constructing and maintaining plausible lies requires us to focus upon the facts which seem to support the lie, while ignoring or explaining away the facts which contradict the lie. So a student who mostly copied his math homework from his roommate might pay attention to only the problems that he did solve, glossing over those he merely copied in explaining the similarity between the homeworks to the professor. Over time, the student might convince himself of this lie, because he is presenting the same skewed evidence to himself that he is presenting to others. By being lax, by passively allowing himself to accept that skewed data, the lie to others paves the way for the lie to the self.

Also, a person with a impoverished sense of the standards of proof may regard other people’s acceptance of the lie as evidence of its validity. So a teenage boy might be helped in his own self-deceptions about whether he beat up the new kid at school or just shoved him around a bit if his mother believes his explanation. The delusion of others serves “social proof” in one’s own self-deceptions.

Whatever the process to meld other-deception into self-deception, the motivation must be something very strong, like powerful negative emotions or a threatened sense of self-image. The people who are in the most danger, interestingly enough, are people who are generally committed to the principle of honesty. They have so much more reason to self-deceive because of their moral failure to be honest. Self-deception placates that cognitive dissonance of “I am an honest person” and “I just lied.” But of course, self-deception is the most dangerous and least fruitful method of coping with moral failure.

Surfing

 Posted by on 6 March 2002 at 10:25 am  Compromise, Firearms, Politics
Mar 062002
 

Jay Nordlinger has a new Impromptus out on National Review Online. While I often disagree with him, his commentaries are often amusing and astute.

National Review also has a nice article today on why the push to sue handgun manufacturers has completely backfired. However, the article presents the NRA as a defender of gun rights, when really they’re a bunch of compromising weenies. (The Gun Owners of America, in contrast, does take a principled stand towards gun rights.)

 

I’m in the middle of David Kelley’s short book on welfare rights, A Life of One’s Own. For some silly reason, I haven’t ever read it before. It is sheer delight. For example:

In the opening pages, DK contrasts our personal to our public sense of each person’s responsibility for his own life. In our private lives, we see supporting ourselves as our own responsibility. We have to find a job, show up on time, pay our bills, feed our children, and so forth. In contrast, as a matter of public policy, we expect the government to provide these good and services for everyone. The world does not owe us a living, but the world does owe everyone a living. DK then goes on to show that similar contradictions crop up in our personal versus public views about helping those in need.

(Sadly, that summary does not come close to doing the introduction justice. The point is that the introduction lays bare a very interesting and common contradiction between what we expect of ourselves and what we expect of others.)

In general, the book exhibits the same patience and fairness found in most of DK’s work. He clearly separates his discussion of the content of the opposing ideas from his evaluation. He presents those opposing views in their most plausible form. His analysis is slow and painstaking, but crystal-clear in the end. It was this patient and fair method that first caught my attention in reading Truth and Toleration (now The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand). As I said: sheer delight!

Re-reading Ayn

 Posted by on 4 March 2002 at 11:26 pm  Children, Ethics, Honesty, Objectivism, Parenting, Rights
Mar 042002
 

I’ve been re-reading Ayn Rand’s fiction and philosophical essays in preparation for teaching the six-lecture Objectivism 101 course at the 2002 Summer Seminar of The Objectivist Center. It’s been a while since I’ve read Ayn Rand’s writings in full. Usually I’m just looking up particular paragraphs here or there to find a quote.

So it’s been particularly delightful to re-acquaint myself with her work. I particularly enjoyed reading The Fountainhead again after so many years. It has a light touch, giving it much more psychological realism than found in Atlas Shrugged. But perhaps AS is simply more direct, more blunt than The Fountainhead. Given what I regularly hear on talk radio and read in advice columns, people’s thinking is often so much worse than we tend to charitably assume.

For example, check out the second letter in this Ann Landers’ column. The woman is feeling guilty over modest punishment for her son’s stealing and wondering whether to return the stolen property. That’s silly enough already. But then Ann Landers’ suggests fixing the problem by lying, by telling the store manager that her son “took the cards by mistake.” (The phrase “to take something by mistake” indicates confusion about whether you were in possession of an object or had paid for it, not stealing!)

Call me crazy, but lying just doesn’t seem to be a good remedy for the problem of theft! Confused thinking indeed!

Update: Due to serious philosophic and moral objections, I am no longer associated with The Objectivist Center in any way, shape, or form. My reasons why can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism.

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