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!
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