In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed offers of prayers for atheists. The question was:

What should I do when other people offer to pray for me? Sometimes my friends and family members offer to pray for me – whether because I’ve got some problem in my life or because they know that I’m an atheist. How should I respond?

My answer, in brief:

You should tailor your response to the context, but in most cases, you should be clear, firm, and kind in refusing the prayers of others.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

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Dishonesty About 9/11

 Posted by on 10 March 2012 at 9:49 pm  Honesty, Media, Terrorism
Mar 102012
 

OpinionJournal has an interesting article by Claudia Rosett on the 9/11 special airing on CBS tonight. Rosett argues that the special is dishonest in its attempt to be sensitive, sugar-coating the terrorist attack rather than showing it in its full horror. We need to face the reality of those attacks squarely, even if painful.

I have often wondered why the news outlets have shown little footage of the planes slamming into the World Trade Center since those first few days after 9/11. Those images would recapture all of the overwhelming emotion of that day for me, from incredulity to despair. I want to be reminded of those emotions, of the magnitude of the events that day. No too often, for then such feelings are trivialized. But a special on the six month anniversary would seem to be an excellent time to really show us again the full reality of what happened.

We’ll see how well or poorly CBS does tonight. I’m not too hopeful.

Feb 232012
 

In Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Webcast, I discussed telling a friend about romantic feelings. The question was:

Am I obliged to tell a friend that I’ve developed romantic feelings towards her? Recently, I’ve developed romantic feelings for a platonic friend. Is it dishonest to withhold this information from her and just continue our friendship? What should I do if she asks me a direct question about my feelings? When would it be wrong to withhold this information from her, if ever?

My answer, in brief:

It’s not wrong to keep your feelings to yourself, but lying about them can cause serious harm to your character and your friendship.

Here’s the video of my full answer:

If you enjoy the video, please “like” it on YouTube and share it with friends via social media, forums, and e-mail! You can also throw a bit of extra love in our tip jar.

Join the next Philosophy in Action Webcast on Sunday at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET at www.PhilosophyInAction.com/live.

In the meantime, Connect with Us via social media, e-mail, RSS feeds, and more. Check out the Webcast Archives, where you can listen to the full webcast or just selected questions from any past episode, and our my YouTube channel. And go to the Question Queue to submit and vote on questions for upcoming webcast episodes.

Videos: Integrity and Honesty in Action

 Posted by on 16 August 2011 at 11:00 am  Ethics, Honesty, Integrity
Aug 162011
 

In Sunday’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, I discussed two related ethical questions that I found particularly interested. I’ve posted them on YouTube.

The first question was:

If you find money in a house that you’ve purchased should you return it? A man recently found about $45,000 hidden in the house that he’d recently bought. (See this article.) It was saved up by the prior owner, now dead. He returned it to the man’s children. Should the buyer of the house have returned the money? Was he morally or legally obligated to do so? If not, was doing so foolish or altruistic?

Here’s the 9-minute video, now posted to YouTube:

The second question was:

Is it moral to “defraud” a public library? There is an out-of-print book that I can’t get for less than $100, a price I am not willing to pay. My library has a copy but they won’t offer it for sale. Is it wrong to tell the library it is “lost” and just pay the fees, assuming they are reasonable? Does it matter that the library is an illegitimate government program that I’m taxed to support?

Here’s the 8-minute video, now posted to YouTube:

Mar 222002
 

Peter Saint-Andre recently attended my presentation to FROG entitled “The Virtue of Honesty.” He thus blogged:

I attended an informal talk she gave on the topic about a week ago, and it was pretty interesting, even though I thought the small audience in attendance (and Diana herself) skirted some of the tough issues and hard cases.

Let me first thank Peter for his honesty. Then let me defend myself for a moment. With honesty, perhaps more than any other moral issue, the hard cases are in the eye of the beholder. People have, as I have discovered, a rather wide variety of “weak spots” where honesty is concerned. What seems like a difficult dilemma for Peter will seem easy to Paul, but what seems easy to Paul will seem difficult to Peter. Such variation poses a rather serious problem for my speaking and writing on honesty, as I will have to work diligently use examples that explicitly cover most types of dilemmas. Thankfully, I think my idea of telling “the contextually relevant truth” is a useful general principle, one that resolves many of these apparent moral dilemmas without too much difficulty. I first presented that idea in the FROG discussion, so let me elaborate upon it for a moment before turning to Peter’s example.

Honesty isn’t just the virtue of not telling lies. After all, we can technically tell the truth while consciously and intentionally misleading someone, often by omitting critical information. A woman, for example, might tell her husband that she went over a friend’s house to fix his computer, while conveniently omitting the sex before and after the computer repair. Given the nature of the commitment in marriage, the husband has a reasonable expectation to such information in a way that a co-worker or casual acquaintance would not. The wife isn’t being honest just because she’s avoided deliberate falsehood. In short, the technical truth is not sufficient for honesty.

But honesty isn’t the virtue of telling the whole truth either. When a husband asks a wife about her day, he isn’t looking for a blow-by-blow of every event, but rather the significant highlights. (This process of selective recounting teaches us what is important to another person, after all.) When a woman asks a co-worker whether a medical procedure went well, she doesn’t need or want to hear about the workings of the colostomy bag. Honesty does not require us to live in glass houses, so that our lives are visible for all the world to see. In short, the whole truth is not necessary for honesty.

Speaking generally, one of the more difficult aspects of our relationships is determining what information to reveal and what information to conceal. The virtue of honesty should help us with those decisions, but at present, such important details are left unspecified in the Objectivist ethics.

As I was reading David Nyberg’s defenses of dishonesty in The Varnished Truth, I realized that the unifying principle for honesty in concealing and revealing is that we ought to tell the contextually relevant truth. So what determines contextual relevance? In the FROG meeting, I proposed six issues which tend to bear upon contextual relevance.

The two most important considerations are the nature of the information and the nature of the relationship. Is the information public or private? Is the relationship close or distant? A couple might announce the birth of a child to anyone and everyone, but reserve the details of difficulties of the labor to close family members. The issue here is not whether or not people have a right to the truth or a need to know that obliges revelation. Rather, if we wish to have a particular sort of relationship with a particular person, then we ought to be sharing particular types of information. I cannot have a close relationship with my husband if I don’t tell him about the even barely significant events in my life. I cannot keep a coolly polite relationship with someone I dislike if I reveal personal, intimate details to him. We actively manage intimacy in relationships by revealing and/or concealing information. So first and foremost in contextual relevance is the nature of the information and the nature of the relationship.

The next four considerations of contextual relevance may or may not apply in any particular situation. But they do take hold often enough to warrant consideration.

First, we must pay attention to the background information that a person may require to come to reasonable conclusions regarding our communications. So a teenage boy might come home and tell his mother that another kid in school punched him, even though he didn’t touch this other kid. But her sympathy and outrage is not well-founded, for he neglects to tell her that he hit the other kid’s younger brother first. He is being dishonest because he deliberately gave a false impression. As Nathaniel Branden says in Basic Principles of Objectivism, “one must always judge the full context of a situation and act in a manner which will not give anybody an objective (that is rational) reason to misinterpret one’s actions and be deceived by them.” We need to take responsibility for other people’s reasonable inferences.

Second, the present situation may or may not be appropriate for the communication of particular types of information. A friend’s dinner party would be a bad place to tell your boyfriend about lunch with an old fling that aroused long-forgotten passions. This consideration, however, ought not be used as a rationalization for putting off honest communication indefinitely. The truth ought to be revealed at the earliest possible appropriate moment. Nevertheless, the virtue of honesty does not always require immediate truth-telling.

Third, the information sought by a questioner does not always match the actual question asked, so a person can be perfectly honest by answering only the implied question. If a woman asks her husband whether she looks fat in some dress, she is not asking to be compared to Kate Moss or Calista Flockhart, but rather to her usual appearance. (The question stated more baldly would be: Do I look fatter than usual in this dress? However, that question lacks a certain dignity, which is why women do not ask it.) If a husband asks his wife whether she would marry again if he died, he is likely looking for reassurance that she deeply loves him, not a calculus as to the probability of her finding another suitable husband. Honesty does not require us to take every inquiry literally.

Fourth and finally, in certain limited circumstances, dishonesty is known by all to be part of the fun of a game, so misleading others is morally acceptable. Bluffing in poker games, for example, often requires more than a straight face, but also actively giving false impressions about your hand. Gentle teasing, in which a technically false statement is made in an obviously mocking tone of voice, is also not a moral problem. (Morality, after all, ought not outlaw fun had by all.) However, mere desire for or expectation of dishonesty on the part of another person does not justify dishonesty, as such lies often have pernicious consequences, such as undermining integrity or supporting self-deception. And some lies told apparently in fun often conceal hostility. But the virtue of honesty does not forbid untruthful silliness between willing participants.

Given those six criteria, let’s take a look at Peter’s example:

The example I brought up at Diana’s talk was that of a good friend who is rushing in to give a presentation to the board of the company and asks me quickly how she looks. Now, the 100%-honest reply is something along the lines of “You’ve got bags under your eyes and look like you haven’t slept in three days, and actually now that you mention it you could definitely stand to lose a few pounds, have you thought about starting an exercise program?”. Is that a helpful or caring thing for me to say? No. But it is “honest”. In this situation one could argue that my friend is not actually asking me for information about her appearance, but rather for support and encouragement — which is what I’ll give her when instead of being fully honest I say something like “You look great, knock ‘em dead!”

Peter is right that his friend isn’t seeking information about her weight. To tell her that she needs to lose weight would be worse than unhelpful given the context; it would be morally deflating and terribly rude. And she probably isn’t looking for information about the bags under her eyes, as she likely saw them in the mirror that morning. But she probably would like to know whether she has spinach in her teeth or if some bit of hair is wildly out of place, as those problems could be fixed in the moments before her presentation. And, as Peter said, she’d like some encouragement. That analysis largely falls under the “information sought” criteria.

Looking deeper and to my delight, this example demonstrates the need for a seventh criteria of contextually relevant truth, namely whether the information will make a positive difference to someone. Identifying painful facts that cannot be addressed due to physical, temporal, or other constraints is often merely pointless and hurtful. The spinach in the teeth can be fixed in time for the presentation, but the excess weight cannot. So mention the spinach, but don’t mention the weight. Not all truths are worth saying.

Of course, determining what truths can make a positive difference is often tricky business. Personally, I would tend to err on the side of tactful and gentle revelation for people close to me, as the information might be useful to them in a way that I might not be able to predict. More information is usually better than less, provided that the method and moment of communication is appropriate.

Returning to Peter’s example, I would argue that the lie “you look great” isn’t necessary to be either caring or encouraging. There are benevolent and truthful alternatives open to us in such situations. We might make a more bland statement about the friend’s appearance like “You look fine” while emphasizing the “Knock ‘em dead!” part. We might only answer the implicit question by saying “You’re going to knock ‘em dead!” Or we might say, “Oh, you look a bit harried. Stop for a second and take a deep breath! … Okay, now go knock ‘em dead!”

There is no necessary conflict between benevolence and truthfulness. Honesty is not an impediment to good relationships, but a boon to them. The problem is that people tend to be unskilled in the arts of benevolent honesty, so lying too often seems like the only option. But instead of simply falling back on dishonest habits, which may cause serious trouble down the road, we can choose to actively cultivate the skills needed for benevolent honesty. Miss Manners’ delightful book The Right Thing to Say is excellent training in such techniques.

I hope that analysis adequately addresses Peter’s hard case. (Thanks for the example, Peter!) I’m always interested in more, so bring them on!

Mar 192002
 

The phenomenon of self-deception has received a great deal of attention in recent years from philosophers and psychologists. The general account of self-deception that has emerged is, as one might expect, strikingly similar to the Objectivist understanding of evasion.

In The Varnished Truth, David Nyberg describes self-deception as “voluntary blindness, numbness, dull-mindedness, and ignorance” (81). According to Nyberg self-deception is an active purposeful process, for “remaining ignorant on purpose requires effort” (82). The centrality of purposefulness to self-deception appears earlier in Herbert Fingarette’s book Self-Deception (16). Fingarette notes that “this element of internal purposefulness is reflected in such phrases as ‘persuades himself to believe’, ‘makes it appear to himself’, ‘lies to himself’” (28). Mike Martin’s Self-Deception and Morality describes self-deception as “the purposeful or intentional evasion of fully acknowledging something to oneself” (7).

Such characterizations of self-deception do sound fairly similar to the Objectivist account of evasion as the refusal to think. (However, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that self-deception is commonly regarded as unavoidable and morally acceptable by philosophers and psychologists.) In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents the basics of evasion in Galt’s Speech:

[Man's] basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think–not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment–on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict ‘It is.’ (944)

Despite the similarities between evasion and self-deception, I do not think the concepts of self-deception and evasion are quite identical. Rather each concept emphasizes a slightly different aspect of a single mental phenomena.

Both evasion and self-deception involve attempting to fake the facts to ourselves. Evasion specifically refers to the process of avoiding and suppressing knowledge or reasonable suspicions. This emphasis fits well with the other meanings of evasion as avoidance of something. Thus, a criminal might evade capture by a policeman by running away physically, just he evades awareness by running away mentally. Self-deception, in contrast, focuses on what that person is running towards, on the false (or suspected to be false) belief that he convinces himself of instead. Self-deception is like the friend’s apartment in which the criminal hides while the police are looking for him.

So, let’s separate out self-deception from evasion using the example of the father of the drug addict from Sabini and Silver’s Emotion, Character, and Responsibility:

A loving father notices that his normally ebullient daughter is becoming more and more withdrawn, listless, and grouchy. She loses her appetite. She gets calls at odd hours and then leaves abruptly, yet her old friends don’t stop by anymore. She starts wearing long-sleeved blouses even though it’s summer and refuses to go to beach, once her favorite spot. She begins to lock her room, something she rarely used to do. He occasionally asks if she’s feeling all right, but she dismisses him with a laconic “yeah.” One day she is discovered dead with a needle in her arm. When the police tell him the news, he says that he can’t believe that his daughter was a junkie, that he is dumbfounded, that it’s all impossible (106).

The father’s evasion consists of refusing to consider the implications of his daughter’s changed behavior. Any thought that she might have a drug problem is immediately pushed out of his mind. He refuses to follow up on any suspicions to confirm or deny them. He won’t connect the dots, no matter how numerous they become. He is avoiding truth.

The father’s self-deception consists of the alternative theories and explanations that he concocts for himself to explain his daughter’s behavior. Her long sleeves are just the latest fashion. Her emotional withdrawal is just the usual teenage angst. She locks her door because she doesn’t want anyone to walk in on her while she’s undressed. He is pursuing fiction.

Whatever conceptual distinctions we might make between self-deception and evasion, the fact is that usually these processes are usually tightly intertwined like a Gordian Knot. The self-deception supports the evasion and the evasion supports the self-deception. So, for example, to make the self-deception that long sleeves are just the latest fashion, the father has to evade the fact that other fashionable teens don’t seem to be wearing long sleeves. To avoid the obvious implications of her strange behavior, the father needs to self-deceive with alternate explanations. It does seem, however, that evasion might be possible without self-deception. A person might push something out of her mind, but not latch on to some other false or dubious idea in its stead.

So evasion is faking reality by refusing to accept what you know or suspect to be true. And self-deception is faking reality by persuading yourself of what you know or suspect to be false. They are, as Ayn Rand might say, two sides of the same coin.

So the question to my readers, particularly those familiar with the Objectivist theory of evasion, is: Does this sound plausible? Would you describe the differences and similarities between self-deception and evasion differently?

Honesty and Tenure

 Posted by on 19 March 2002 at 10:02 am  Academia, Honesty, Responsibility
Mar 192002
 

Steve Simpson pointed me to this op-ed by Robert Bartley on the myriad of recent scandals in the “supposedly high-minded quarters” of society, from academia to the Catholic Church. Dishonesty seems to be on a rampage. But there may be reason for hope, as Bartley suggests towards the end of his piece:

On whether we have experienced a general erosion of standards, I think I can rest my case. Human nature, of course, remains a constant over time and across fields of endeavor. What matters is accountability, that is, whether we as a society are willing to sit in judgment on each other. And perhaps the anecdotes above in fact suggest that in this post-Clinton era we’re making some progress; at least the issues are coming to light and creating some agony in church, government and universities.

But it only gets more interesting. Barley goes on to suggest businessmen do not share the “immunity from accountability” that tenured academics and civil servants have. They are not protected from their own immorality by the cushion of a more-or-less guaranteed job.

In my opinion, the tenure system doesn’t really protect professors against political ax-grinding. Those with unpopular opinions are simply weeded out before tenure is awarded. The downsides to the tenure system, in terms of ensconcing terrible professors and permitting little effort, are considerable. A system requiring competence and diligence while protecting professors against unjust politics would surely not be impossible to construct.

Encouraging Honesty

 Posted by on 17 March 2002 at 10:13 pm  Children, Ethics, Favorites, Honesty, Parenting
Mar 172002
 

In Why Kids Lie, Eckman talks about reducing the temptation to lie. Speaking of his son, who he caught in a big lie two years earlier, Eckman writes:

Whenever something has come up that [my son] might be tempted to lie about, I have been very careful about questioning him in a way that would encourage him to be truthful. Not “Who broke the vase?” or “Did you break the vase?” But “We shouldn’t have kept that vase in such a vulnerable spot; it would be too easy to knock over. Was it you or your sister?”

In other words, Eckman is recommending asking leading questions that put the wrongdoing in the most favorable light so that truthfulness isn’t so scary for the child. The child feels safer in telling the truth, with fewer worries about harsh punishment to come.

However, the most charitable explanation for behavior isn’t always the most accurate. The son might have broken the vase playing baseball inside or smashed the vase in a fit of anger. In such cases, the leading question encourages the child to confess to the wrongdoing — but only superficially. The child might honestly admit to causing the damage, but then lie (either by omission or commission) about the reasons for that damage. In essence, the leading question provides a ready-made false excuse.

So using this method of leading, charitable questions in an attempt to promote honesty and responsibility may instead promote habits of dishonesty and irresponsibility.

In contrast, Linda and Richard Eyre’s book Teaching Your Children Values contains some excellent suggestions for teaching honesty to children of all ages. Perhaps the most interesting is implicit in the opening story of the chapter on honesty.

Pulling into the driveway one way, I noticed a broken milk bottle on the pavement. I asked nine-year-old Josh and his friend, Chip, if they knew how it happened. Chip quickly said no. Josh looked over at him, somewhat startled, then walked over and put his hand on Chip’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay, he’ll understand.” Then to me, “The basketball hit it, Dad. Sorry. We were going to clean it up, but we forgot. Come on, Chip, I’ll get the dustpan.”

Despite his father’s direct question, Josh isn’t afraid to answer honestly. But most importantly, he knows what to do to fix the situation: clean up the mess he made. Not all wrongdoings can be so easily fixed, but most can be fixed with a bit of thought and effort. By focusing the child’s attention on the constructive task of making amends rather than awaiting punishment, the admitting the truth becomes less scary.

In other words, children ought to be explicitly taught the skills of redemption as part of learning about the necessity of honesty. The former will make the latter easier.

Why Kids Lie

 Posted by on 13 March 2002 at 7:29 pm  Children, Ethics, Favorites, Honesty, Parenting, Reviews
Mar 132002
 

Since starting work on my various projects on the virtue of honesty, I have been voraciously reading anything and everything on the subject. So I was pleased to find Paul Ekman’s book Why Kids Lie in a used bookstore recently. The book proved to be an easy read. The writing style was clear, engaging, and even friendly. But like many psychology books written in such a breezy tone, Eckman’s book fell a bit short in the substance department.

However, the book was certainly not entirely lacking. Eckman summarizes some psychological studies that I have not seen elsewhere, such as those that investigating the factors influencing children’s choices to cheat and lie. Of particular use to parents is his discussion of the evolution of children’s attitudes towards lying throughout childhood. Most children start off with the view that lying is always wrong, then slowly allow more exceptions until dishonesty is pretty much okay whenever as a teenager. And he does offer practical advice to parents of lying children.

But two failings did stand out:

First, Eckman’s understanding of the justification for honesty as a virtue is entirely limited to the argument that dishonesty destroys trust in relationships. No other reasons for honesty are given explicit attention. However, since so many lies go undetected, this argument from trust is one of the weakest arguments for honesty available. Additionally, trust works in strange and muted ways in family relationships, because the option of scaling back or terminating a relationship is simply not available as in adult relationships. Members of a family are, for the most part, stuck with each other for better or worse for many, many years. If a child betrays a parent’s trust, that parent cannot trade in their child for a new and better one. But the (limited) power of the appeal to trust comes from exactly this possibility: that our relationships might be severely hampered or even destroyed by the discovery of a lie. As a result, where children are concerned, the argument from trust really boils down to the fact that kids avoid lying for fear of being caught and punished. This sad fact certainly highlights the need for a more complete view of why honesty is a virtue.

Second, Eckman hops, skips, and jumps through important moral arguments concerning the scope of honesty as a virtue. He asserts (without much argument) that certain types of lies are acceptable, such as those told to be polite or to protect oneself from danger. Unfortunately, Eckman’s moral distinctions are fuzzy and unclear, and thus prone to expansion. We see such expansion in his teenage son Tom’s views on morally acceptable lies, as laid out rather well in Chapter Four by Tom himself. Tom argues that any lie “told for good purpose” is acceptable, including lies to “avoid getting in trouble” (109). We also see the failure of altruism to establish honesty as a virtue in his question: “As long as [a lie] doesn’t hurt anybody, what is so wrong about it?” (109). Unlike Eckman, parents need to demarcate clear moral lines with clear reasons if they wish their kids to adhere to moral principles.

For any parent trying to cope with a deceitful child, Why Kids Lie may prove useful. But don’t get your hopes up.

Do Kids Lie More Than Adults?

 Posted by on 13 March 2002 at 4:31 pm  Children, Favorites, Honesty, Parenting
Mar 132002
 

Most kids lie. They lie to avoid punishment. They lie to be polite. They lie to preserve their privacy. I certainly lied all the time as a kid, particularly as a teenager.

But so many questions linger. Do people generally lie more as kids or as adults? If people lie more often as kids, as I suspect they do, why? What follows are three possible explanations.

1. Social Ineptness: Honesty often requires a great deal of skill. Conveying gratitude for an unwanted gift without being dishonest requires careful crafting of words. Fending off nosy inquiries requires experience in the sorts of answers likely to deflect attention. Children are in the process of developing such moral skills, so those skills may be only rudimentary and generally inadequate for the harder cases. As a result, dishonesty might more often seem like the only option to kids. Adults generally have more experience, more practice, and more skill in the arts of communication, so consequently they generally experience less pressure to lie.

2. Empirical Testing: Children might learn about the costs of dishonesty and benefits of honesty from their parents and teachers, but such consequences might not seem entirely real until seen or experienced firsthand. So some portion of lying in children might be attributed to empirical testing of this moral choice. And some portion of lying in children might be attributed to a lack of direct experience with the negative consequences of dishonesty. (These consequences will include those imposed by the liar’s own consciousness, by other people, and by reality.) It’s worth nothing that kids can manage to avoid some of the stupider moral principles that adults attempt to foist upon them by taking such an empirical approach to ethics.

3. Perverse Incentives: Children face punishment for their undesirable behavior in a way that adults do not. A child who lies to a parent might be grounded for a month, whereas an adult who lies to a parent cannot be forced to experience such punishment. Punishment is simply not a consequence of dishonesty for adults, unless that dishonesty is part of otherwise criminal activity. Because kids usually wish to do stuff that they parents forbid (like drinking at parties), the threat of punishment if the truth is revealed certainly encourages lying. This is not to say that adults do not face negative consequences if caught doing something wrong, but rather that kids face the additional negative consequence of parental punishment if caught.

What other aspects of a child’s life contribute to dishonesty?

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha