Honesty: The Best Policy?

I admit to having a somewhat tenuous relationship with honesty. Don’t let that statement fool you, however. I’m a huge supporter of being honest, and an equally big detractor of  lying—most of the time. I firmly believe in being honest whenever practical, which translates to damn near all of the time, but the suggestion that we should always be entirely honest in every situation perplexes me. Here are my thoughts on honesty; hopefully you’ll judge them to have merit. If not, I trust you to tell me where I’ve gone wrong.*

* * *

Is radical honesty a good idea? It has one of those happy-go-lucky, pie-in-the-sky names that makes it sound really great, but when you look at what it looks like in the real world, there’s room for doubt. Here we see an approach to interacting with people that fetishizes telling the truth to the likely detriment of interpersonal relationships.

As I see it, the test of an honesty policy has two prongs: the Anne Frank test, and the asshole test.

The Anne Frank test: If you were housing Jews in Germany in WW2, and a Nazi officer came to ask you if you knew the location of any Jews, an honesty policy that requires you to answer, “Why yes, actually. There are some right here!” is flatly unacceptable. This code lacks morality because it causes undue harm.

The asshole test: If your significant other asks if a new look makes them seem attractive, and your honesty policy requires that you go into excruciating detail to describe why it does not (unless this detail is sought), then your code requires you to be an asshole. This code lacks tact and thus invites harm. This is something that should not be overlooked.

When considering what to tell someone, failing to give proper respect to how you say that can lead to hurting the other person. People are complicated amalgamations of values and ideas, but our minds don’t exist in emotionless, intellectual vacuums; when you insult someone, you are actually doing something to them. Thus, it is a good idea to consider the effect your words will have on their intended recipient(s).

That doesn’t mean you have to only say things that are guaranteed to avoid offense; such a rule would not only be practically impossible to follow, but (and this is probably more important) if everyone did manage to live under this rule, it would lead to a worse society. It seems distressingly common for some people to misinterpret an attack on their beliefs as an attack on them personally. It isn’t, and a culture in which no one corrects misconceptions would be a terrible place to live. I prefer the idea of being part of a group that advocates having beliefs that correspond with reality. I don’t want to believe false things. I don’t want people to knowingly let me believe false things. When the maintenance of a false belief is plausibly capable of bringing harm to a person, the moral choice is to intervene.

But I also don’t want people to be assholes. How can I have both?

Crocker’s rules seem to be a good starting point to solve this problem:

“By declaring commitment to Crocker’s rules, one authorizes other debaters to optimize their messages for information, even when this entails that emotional feelings will be disregarded. The underlying assumption is that rudeness is sometimes necessary for effective conveyance of information, if only to signal a lack of patience or tolerance: after all, knowing whether the speaker is becoming angry or despondent is useful rational evidence.”

In adopting this kind of view, consenting listeners take responsibility for their own emotions in rational discourse. This resonates with me quite strongly because we can only accept limited responsibility for someone else’s emotions. The “don’t be an asshole” rule is always relevant, of course, and when we violate this rule, we must admit some partial responsibility for the consequences. That said, there are times when it becomes necessary to risk offense in making a point.

None of us has the right not to be offended. Of course, we might prefer it if we never experienced offense, but it appears to be impossible to live in a society and never be offended. At the risk of repeating myself, not everyone is the same—people handle being challenged in various ways. For some, being contradicted at all is perceived as a personal attack. I take the opposite stance. As a result, I deny responsibility for someone misconstruing my rejection of their argument as a personal attack.

Being told that you are wrong is not an attack, even in the case of the entirely untactful delivery: “No, you’re wrong.” It would become a personal attack if you appended the word idiot to the end of that statement, but in its absence, this cannot be perceived as an attack. Derision should be avoided to obey the asshole rule. Quote from Crocker’s rules suggests, a blunt (and thus possibly rude) rebuke is an excellent tool to illustrates one’s lack of patience. In the right context, rudeness can be a virtue, as long as it doesn’t veer into asshattery.

At the heart of morality is the premise that we should avoid doing harm. Confessing to the Nazi would directly lead to the harm of the people you had agreed to protect. Insulting your significant other for experimenting with fashion also causes harm. Is it always morally necessary to avoid harm? It depends on the scope. Here’s a helpful example:

If you’re taking an exam, and you discover that the person sitting next to you is copying your answers, is it moral to tell the proctor (or invigilator, if you prefer) about it? If you tell, you are causing immediate harm to your neighbor, but is this harm immoral? No. Academia is set up in a way that is meant to reward students in proportion to their hard work, so a student’s grade theoretically represents the degree to which that student can demonstrate their comprehension of the subject matter. A deliberate attempt to circumvent this system undermines its premise, and if this is permitted, there is no incentive for a student to learn; the system becomes pointless. In this way, cheating is itself a social harm, and although ratting on your neighbor might contribute to an individual harm (and evoke ire), the responsibility for this harm lies not with you, but with your neighbor whose actions threaten the integrity of the whole. Thus, being truthful in disclosing this cheating to the proper authority is a moral good in that it prevents larger harm. We are social creatures, and we thrive in groups. Harm to the group becomes harm to the individual, even if this harm is not immediately apparent. Allowing this harm to be perpetrated is an implicit admission that one has no regard for the well-being of the group. (At the very least, this failure to protect the group is myopic).

The goal of a moral structure is to minimize harm, so we have a moral imperative towards honesty when lying does not prevent harm.

Tact becomes important in this consideration because it requires us to consider how our words will affect their target. It is possible to cause great mental or emotional harm through a carelessly worded statement (or a deliberately confrontational one, but I have no time to waste on self-styled trolls). In this way, this prong of the test may be seen as a corollary to the former, but it is not always given the consideration it deserves (as we saw in the case of radical honesty). As we develop relationships with people, we grow to understand what degree of tact is necessary to avoid hurt feelings.

Sadly, you can’t always avoid causing pain, but you can always attempt to limit the harm done. This is merely part of being an adult. Sometimes your interlocutor is determined to the offense no matter how you phrase your objection, however, and in these cases, what matters is merely that you have done your due diligence in trying not to be an asshole. Crocker’s rules appeal to me because of the acknowledgement that people maintain responsibility for their reactions in the face of emotional triggers. I find the position “I want your completely honest, blunt opinion about this” liberating. Within the realm of critical discourse, this approach may even be necessary. In adopting it, you take responsibility for putting aside any initial emotional reactions to criticism. This is not always easy, and we cannot expect universal proficiency in doing so, neither of ourselves nor of others, but we can strive for it, and in doing so, we progressively increase the likelihood of success.

Putting aside issues of pride and ego empowers us to develop ideas about the world that are both more accurate and more consistent. In this way, honesty, as long as it is delivered in good faith, empowers us to reach these conclusions, which I’m not convinced can be done otherwise. If we are required to abstain from every conceivable cause of offense, it is impossible to have a debate.

So what happens when circumstances lead you to into a debate with someone you care about? This makes the tact prong all the more salient, and potentially invites the excessive moderation of honesty in the hope of not burning bridges. What’s the best solution? I don’t know yet, but I doubt there can be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Edit: I have written a follow up to this.

* I invoke Crocker. Don't hold back.
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