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?

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