Apr 082014
 

Jason Crawford gives an excellent answer to the question: What can non-Objectivists and doubters learn from the works of Ayn Rand? I like these two points most of all:

If you feel burdened by unchosen obligations to your family, your friends, your community, or the world at large, Rand will help you see that the guilt you feel is unearned and that your own happiness is the moral purpose of your life.

If you feel like a chump for being honest and fair to others, if you feel that morality is impractical and that being unscrupulous is the only way to get ahead—Rand will show you that honesty, integrity and justice are in your own rational self-interest, and that a rational person seeks only win-win relationships with others.

Objectivism’s ethics of rational egoism makes possible win-win relationships with others — rather than playing the martyr or predating. That shouldn’t be so revolutionary in ethics, but it is.

Go read the whole thing!

Choose Your Associates Wisely

 Posted by on 13 August 2013 at 10:00 am  Character, Ethics, Justice, Relationships
Aug 132013
 

Last night when watching the excellent television show Major Crimes, I was struck by these words of wisdom from Sharon Raydor: “If you hang out with criminals, you eventually will become a witness, a suspect, or a victim.” Or, I would add, an accomplice.

Too many people think that they can immunize themselves from friends and associates of dubious character… somehow. It’s just not true. If you choose to maintain ties with destructive, crazy, malicious, negligent, irrational, or otherwise sordid people, they will splash their crazy on you, again and again. As a matter of self-protection, you need distance.

I said much more on this topic in the 4 August 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, in answering the question on red flags in relationships. It’s a long discussion, but I was quite proud of it. It’s particularly helpful, I think, to good people apt to get “taken in” by not-so-good people.

If you’ve not yet heard the episode, you can listen to or download the relevant segment of the podcast here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page.

More on Arranged Marriages

 Posted by on 6 June 2013 at 10:00 am  Love/Sex, Marriage, Relationships
Jun 062013
 

As y’all know, I answered a question about arranged marriages on the 19 May 2013 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. In reply, I got the following fascinating comment from an Indian fan of my radio show:

Your answer to the arranged marriage question was stellar! You were bang on target about the fact that a low divorce rate is not inherently good, if that is caused by a social stigma attached to divorce — which only means more people are stuck in a marriage. I grew up in India, and saw it a lot.

I would love to see you answer the follow-up question that you brought up at the end, namely that — is it okay to marry a person who I like and respect, but not love in a deep sense if I don’t think I will find a such a person? When and under what circumstances is it appropriate for a person say — I don’t think I can find someone who I will deeply love — and settle for someone whom he respects and thinks could be a good partner for the rest of his life? What factors should go into such a decision — age, location, etc?

I’ve seen lots of arranged marriages in my life, including my sister. I think they make a good pair, if not a great one. Their personalities are compatible and I can envision them respecting each other and being great partners in the journey of life. Given that I was and am continually exposed to arranged marriages, I am glad to see this issue discussed!

Initially, after discovering Ayn Rand’s ideas as a teenager and as a young adult, I was pretty rationalistic about them and was SURE that they did not work. They did not love each other before they were married and they cannot love each other after they simply get married dammit! But the more I saw couples in an arranged marriage, the more I started to doubt my certainty. I saw that both the guy and the girl were happy about the fact that they were together. I cannot speculate how deep their love for each other was, but they were happy that they shared each others company, and I could see that.

I would have shared the segment on facebook and twitter but that would mean a lot of love loss between me and all my Indian friends who have done arranged marriages! I at least wanted to write you a note to say that that was a great answer.

If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the relevant segment of the podcast here:

For more details, check out the question’s archive page. The full episode – where I answered questions on individualism versus anti-social atomism, poor communication from the boss, visibility of disabled children, arranged marriages, and more – is available as a podcast too.

Also, the follow-up question mentioned — “is it okay to marry a person who I like and respect, but not love in a deep sense if I don’t think I will find a such a person” — is now in the queue.

 

(I wrote this for Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter back in September 2012, but it’s still relevant.)

A few days ago, I was riding my horse in our neighborhood arena while a father was attempting to teach his son to ride a bike in the grass. The father would push the son forward on the bike, and the son was supposed to pedal. However, even from a distance, I could tell that the son was getting scared and freezing. Instead of pedaling, he’d put his feet down into the grass and come to stop. The father had an excellent opportunity to talk to his son about overcoming fears.

Alas, that’s not what happened. Even from a distance, I could hear the father yell to his son in frustration, “If you’d only pedaled when I told you!” and “Why aren’t you listening to me?” Obviously, that didn’t help the boy pedal any better!

The father was making a very serious mistake in taking his son’s failure personally. He was seeing it as a failure to obey, rather than focusing on the son’s actual problem — namely, the difficulty of overcoming fears. As a result, the son was not only deprived of useful help about managing those fears, but also burdened with feelings of guilt too. Even worse, the father was telling the son that the son’s own judgment (including his fears) were not nearly as important as obeying the father’s commands. Oy.

Happily though, the father seemed to muster some better control over himself after that burst of anger. He stopped yelling, and the tension seemed to ease. Hopefully, he realized his error. Hopefully, he’ll stop himself sooner next time.

I’m not immune from the error of atttemping to dictate others — whether children, animals, co-workers, friends, or husband. I suspect that I’m not alone in that! So here are a few suggestions, which you can take or leave:

When you find yourself growing frustrated by the fact that other people aren’t doing what you’ve told them to do, remind yourself that they’re not likely attempting to spite you. Perhaps you didn’t give clear instructions. Perhaps you’ve asked too much of them. Perhaps they saw problems with your plan that you missed. Perhaps their goals don’t mesh well with yours.

Instead of stewing over their failure to obey, consider how you might be genuinely helpful. You might want to ask them if they want help. You might want to clarify your instructions. You might want to just keep your mouth shut.

Whatever the circumstances, acting like a petty tyrant is always the wrong answer. Nothing alienates rational thinkers — young and old — more quickly.

 

Here’s an interesting little story from Campaign Doctor Newsletter:

The famous New York diamond dealer Harry Winston heard about a wealthy Dutch merchant who was looking for a certain kind of diamond to add to his collection. Winston called the merchant, told him that he thought he had the perfect stone, and invited the collector to come to New York and examine it.

The collector flew to New York and Winston assigned a salesman to meet him and show the diamond. When the salesman presented the diamond to the merchant he described the expensive stone by pointing out all its fine technical features. The merchant listened and praised the stone but turned away and said, “It’s a wonderful stone but not exactly what I wanted.”

Winston, who had been watching the presentation from a distance stopped the merchant and asked, “Do you mind if I show you that diamond once again?” The merchant agreed and Winston presented the same stone. But instead of talking about the technical features of the stone, Winston spoke spontaneously about his own genuine admiration of the diamond and what a rare thing of beauty it was. Abruptly, the customer changed his mind and bought the diamond.

While he was waiting for the diamond to be packaged and brought to him, the merchant turned to Winston and asked, “Why did I buy it from you when I had no difficulty saying no to your salesman?”

Winston replied, “The salesman is one of the best men in the business and he knows more about diamonds than I do. I pay him a good salary for what he knows. But I would gladly pay him twice as much if I could put into him something that I have and he lacks. You see, he knows diamonds, but I love them.”

Few people are moved by mere recitations of technical facts. On the DiSC Personality Model, High Cs can be, but most others are left cold by that.  (Recall that in DiSC, D = Dominance, I = Influence, S = Steadiness, and C = Conscientiousness.  If that doesn’t ring a loud bell for you, review this post or this podcast interview before reading further.)

However, that doesn’t imply that the other DiSC types — meaning, the High Ds, Is, and Ss of the world — are indifferent to facts or blindly driven by their emotions. Rather, I suspect that for them (or rather, us), motivation involves stronger emotions, different emotions, and perhaps more emotional expression.

All motivation requires emotion, I think. (That’s major part of Aristotle “action theory”, and I agree with it.) For C’s, the requisite emotional motivation seems to be tightly bound to the facts: they want to be right, most of all. (Hence, if you’re in a conflict with a High C over who is right… watch out! I’ve seen some scary-strong emotions from High Cs when challenged.)

Ds can seem unemotional — particularly unconcerned with the emotions of other people.  In fact, they’re highly motivated by feelings of power and capacity associated with achievement.  It’s their (er, my) drug.

Among the two people-oriented types, Is and Ss, the motivating emotions will be quite different. For High Is the emotions of excitement associated with new ideas, people, experiences, and challenges will have the most motivational force. High Ss find that daunting, but they’ll be motivated by feelings of sympathy and care.

Importantly, such personality differences never override a person’s free will choice to think or not. Whatever the strength, content, and source of a person’s motivating emotions, he can choose to recognize the facts for what they are and think them through rationally.  If he wants to be happy and successful, he’d better do that!

As for practical advice, I’d like to limit myself to two quick points:

First, just because someone seems less emotional than you doesn’t mean that they’re indifferent, that they don’t care, or that they’re some kind of robot in human form.

Second, just because someone seems more emotional than you doesn’t mean that they’re unthinking, that they’re indifferent to facts, or that they’re some kind of wild-eyed emotionalist.

Other people’s personalities differ in a million ways from yours.  Some of those differences are ginormous, while others are minor.  If you attempt to read everyone through the lens of your own personality, the only result is that you’ll find most people quite baffling, if not seriously frustrating.  This issue of emotion in motivation in just one example.

That’s why the DiSC Personality Model is so helpful, I think.  It focuses on two major axes of difference — assertive versus reserved and thing-oriented versus people-oriented.  Those axes are of particular importance for communication and collaboration with other people.  By learning DiSC, you can understand yourself better, including your strengths and weaknesses.  You can understand and appreciate the ways in which others differ from you too. It’s a gold mine!

Jul 252012
 

I’ve often said that closets are hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable places to live. That doesn’t just apply to gay closets, but to atheist closets, Objectivist closets, and pretty much any other kind of closet. For a person to hide who he is, pretending to be something more socially acceptable, is deeply self-destructive. How so?

To hide who you are creates feelings of shame, often wholly unwarranted. It causes massive anxiety about being found out. It trains you to cowardice, betraying your values rather than standing up for them. It encourages you to focus on how others see your values, rather than why they’re your values. It creates strong incentives to lie, by implication or explicitly, to preserve the secret. It assumes the worst about other people, namely that they’d condemn or even disown you if they knew who you really were.

Closets, in essence, erode a person’s moral character, trust in others, and emotional well-being.

In a blog post for the Harvard Business ReviewCome Out of the Closet at Work, Whether You’re Gay or Not — Dorie Clark makes some interesting remarks about how social media destroys the pretense of closets. Basically, the connections forged by social media mean that “the boundaries are breaking down, privacy is a shimmering mirage, and we’re stuck in a world where you’re expected, and required, to be yourself.”

That isn’t merely good for a person’s integrity. It can help a person succeed:

While it’s not always easy to share personal news at work, it can have an unexpected payoff. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Karen Sumberg reported last year in the Harvard Business Review, it actually pays for GLBT employees to come out of the closet. They’re more likely to be promoted because they spend less time worrying about secrecy and hiding and more time focused on their jobs.

That’s hardly not surprising. The mental energy, effort, and anxiety required to keep yourself a secret from people that you’re interacting with on a daily basis can be overwhelming.

Does that mean that a person should share everything? Are people wrong to value their own privacy? No, of course not! A person being reserved is very different from a person stuffing himself into a closet. The reserved person will not share his thoughts, feelings, values, and activities with strangers at the drop of a hat, but he will share relevant information with people in his life. Moreover, he doesn’t quake in fear at the prospect others knowing him, nor actively work to hide himself from others. The closeted person does not share relevant information, does quake in fear of others knowing him, and does actively conceal himself.

Yet even for the reserved person, to be more open might be of benefit. Dorie Clark writes:

Many people still argue there’s a fundamental right to privacy. But post-Zuckerberg, that illusion has evaporated — and, as I wrote in a previous HBR post, that’s a good thing: closing the gap between one’s public and private images results in more people being honest about themselves and their lives.

Whether you’re gay or not, it’s likely that you’ve faced complicated privacy issues: should you friend your co-workers on Facebook? How about your boss? How should you present — some would even say “curate” — your social media persona? As [Anderson] Cooper’s example reminds us, the best answer may be simply to open up and erase the division between public and private. You certainly don’t have to share everything, but it makes for a better world if you share the most important things.

In my experience, my sharing more about myself and my values means that I’m much better able to find and connect with people that I like — and that’s a huge win for me.

Jul 102012
 

In tomorrow evening’s episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll discuss DiSC Personality Types with Santiago Valenzuela. Santiago introduced me to DiSC, and I’ve found it hugely useful for understanding my own defaults and preferences, including in communication, as well as that of others. It’s far more useful, I think, than other personality schemes like Meyers-Briggs.

Here, before the broadcast, I want to introduce you to some of the basics of DiSC.

DiSC is a personality inventory focused on predicting behavior, particularly a person’s default behavior. Remember though, personality is not destiny. A person can always choose to act against the grain of his personality.

DiSC has two axes: (1) assertive versus reserved and (2) people-oriented versus task-oriented (or better, thing-oriented). Those two axes yield four personality profiles — Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness. People are often blends of multiple types.

Here are the four quadrants, taken from this DiSC Basics PDF from Manager Tools:

Wikipedia summarizes the four types nicely:

Dominance: People who score high in the intensity of the “D” styles factor are very active in dealing with problems and challenges, while low “D” scores are people who want to do more research before committing to a decision. High “D” people are described as demanding, forceful, egocentric, strong willed, driving, determined, ambitious, aggressive, and pioneering. Low D scores describe those who are conservative, low keyed, cooperative, calculating, undemanding, cautious, mild, agreeable, modest and peaceful.

Influence: People with high “I” scores influence others through talking and activity and tend to be emotional. They are described as convincing, magnetic, political, enthusiastic, persuasive, warm, demonstrative, trusting, and optimistic. Those with low “I” scores influence more by data and facts, and not with feelings. They are described as reflective, factual, calculating, skeptical, logical, suspicious, matter of fact, pessimistic, and critical.

Steadiness: People with high “S” styles scores want a steady pace, security, and do not like sudden change. High “S” individuals are calm, relaxed, patient, possessive, predictable, deliberate, stable, consistent, and tend to be unemotional and poker faced. Low “S” intensity scores are those who like change and variety. People with low “S” scores are described as restless, demonstrative, impatient, eager, or even impulsive.

Contentiousness: People with high “C” styles adhere to rules, regulations, and structure. They like to do quality work and do it right the first time. High “C” people are careful, cautious, exacting, neat, systematic, diplomatic, accurate, and tactful. Those with low “C” scores challenge the rules and want independence and are described as self-willed, stubborn, opinionated, unsystematic, arbitrary, and unconcerned with details.

You can take a free DiSC test. However, in my experience, those results aren’t nearly as accurate as the $27 test from Manager Tools. That test offers a detailed and useful report too. If you like, you can view my DiSC report (PDF). I’m the classic “results-oriented” pattern, meaning high D, lesser I, no S, and a bit of C.

For Wednesday’s broadcast, you might want to print a copy of Manager Tools’ DiSC Cheat Sheet: How to Be Effective with DiSC Every Day (PDF).

Also, I strongly recommend listening to the core Manager Tools Podcasts on DiSC:

You can find more awesome podcasts on DiSC in the full Manager and Career Tools feeds. (Those feeds are available to anyone who registers for free on their web site.)

I’m super-excited to talk about DiSC tomorrow evening — and I hope that you’ll join us! As usual, the live show airs at 6 pm PT / 7 pm MT / 8 pm CT / 9 pm ET. Later that evening, I’ll post the audio on the archive page.

Apr 272012
 

I love a bit of silly, including in work. That’s certainly reflected in my own style of webcasting and blogging. Happily, lots of people enjoy that: I routinely receive e-mails expressing delight that I make exploring ethics and philosophy enjoyable, as opposed to feeling like a burden or a chore.

Recently, I discovered that MailChimp takes their form of silly to a particularly high level of awesome. Let me explain.

MailChimp is an e-mail newsletter service, and I use it for my weekly Philosophy in Action Newsletter. (Not yet subscribed? Gack! Get yourself subscribed today!) I’ve been really pleased with their offerings and prices. (They’re better than Constant Contact, particularly on price.)

I’ve also been entertained by their little touches of irreverence. So in their header, they’ll have their chimp logo say and link to something amusing. For example:

That links to this silly video of Chimpanzee Outtakes.

Even better, the bacon lance:

That links to this awesome video:

It gets even better than that, however. In my settings, I found this switch for “Party Pooper Mode.”

So yes, you can turn off the bits of humor in MailChimp. But if you do that, they’re going to poke a bit of fun at you, just one last time. I love it!

Some people, I’m sure, find such humor quite offensive. I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that a person can’t be doing good work unless dead serious. Yet a bit of observation easily proves that false. Particularly in customer service, a touch of humor can brighten a person’s mood and create goodwill. (Think Southwest Airlines!) The same is often true for dealing with co-workers, clients, suppliers, and the like: a touch of benevolent humor can make the work so much more enjoyable.

With the use of humor, a person must aim for that Aristotelian mean — meaning using humor “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.” That “mean” may depend on the individual too, as people differ in their senses of humor — often purely as a matter of personality, not morality. Of course, it’s good to be sensitive to the preferences of others.

So if you think that philosophy or business or politics or romance or sex or parenting or almost any other pursuit in life is TOO IMPORTANT to ever be lightened by benevolent humor… think again. Heck, even dour-faced rationalism can be funny!

Marriage is Good

 Posted by on 25 March 2002 at 9:11 am  Ethics, Marriage, Relationships
Mar 252002
 

Maggie Gallagher has a good piece on whether divorce is all that it’s cracked up to be. (She’s reviewing Hetherington’s new book For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.)

Two interesting facts stand out. First, people usually aren’t better off after a divorce. Many seem to be far worse off, particularly women. They are often poorer, depressed, miserable, embittered, and so forth. Second, most people don’t divorce “to escape from violent hellholes” but rather because “they are lonely, bored, depressed, dissatisfied.” A “minority of divorces” are the result of the three A’s: adultery, abuse, and alcoholism.

People make all kinds of philosophical mistakes in their marriage that make divorce seem like an attractive option. They expect the other person to fill all their needs. They develop bad habits. They don’t think creatively about how to solve their problems. They dwell on minor problems, blowing them completely out of proportion. They ignore critical issues, allowing them to become entrenched and difficult to resolve. They focus on the other person’s problems, rather than their own. They think that the mere change of a divorce will alleviate their troubles.

Given the amazing and wondrous potential of a good marriage, such failures are depressing, precisely because they are usually so unnecessary.

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!

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha