Honesty and Deception: Part 2

A brief consideration of the subject in part 1: here

I think letting the truth and telling lies is one of the fundamental moral struggles in life. We all recognize the moral and practical value of the truth, and yet we also well understand the practical value of deception, and sometimes we struggle with the moral value of it as well.

I’ve encountered some who think that the truth is an absolute moral value and any departure from it is immoral. It is good ground to argue from and I think you can support that readily, but my intuition and experience tell me that it is not always the case. Like other social institutions such as politics/government, in an ideal world, absolute honesty and truth would probably always be the best practice. In reality, people’s emotions and peace of mind, as well as the fact of discord and conflict, mean deception is often of significant value to society.

Truth vs Falsehood and Honesty vs Deception

I think it helps to define these with some precision. Truth vs Falsehood is a question of whether information is factually accurate. True statements can be borne out as accurate, and Falsehoods as not accurate. Honesty is the act of representing the truth as far as you are aware of it, while deception is an act of conveying information that is known to be false and masquerading it as truth.

The distinction is meaningful because one can honestly give false information, such as telling a story of science-fiction which can have great value. Also, all imagination is essentially Falsehood, states that don’t exist, yet it is essential for us to conceive of the consequences of our actions which is what truth is so valuable for. Honest can likewise convey false information.

The Value of Truth and Honesty

I think the value of truth is mostly self-evident but it bears some examination. When we know the truth we are able to make decisions that have the best chance of the outcome we intend. The core of what we deliberate over is to predict outcomes based on possible actions and interactions and then choose an action that will bring about desired goals. A lack of truthful information or an excess of false information leads us to fail in reaching our objectives. This I think is the fundamental value of truth.

There is a secondary value to honesty within the realm of society. We often use it to determine who in our social groups is worthy of trust and who is not. In extreme cases, a lack of honesty is cause for exclusion from society. I think there are two aspects here. The first is that those who provide honest and true information to us are providing a valuable service. The second is those who are consistently honest become trusted, and with trust comes a host of other advantages in a social realm. Of course, both these qualities bring into play Truth vs Honesty. While we prize the virtue of honesty, it alone, without truth is of small value. A person honest but wrong most of the time is both hard to trust and of little practical value. In general, we still trust the good intent and the idea that with help, the person could become better at discerning and conveying true information.

In general, we still trust the good intent and the idea that with help, the person could become better at discerning and conveying true information. I think this is a common perception but it might not be the best. I think that just as you can teach an honest person to better see the truth, you can teach a dishonest person to be more truthful. Also, as hard as it is to take a dishonest person and make them honest, it can be very difficult to get someone to be more critical of information and work harder at seeking the truth.

The value of falsehood and deception

I mentioned before the essential nature of fiction in that it drives our ability to imagine the outcomes of our actions and the processes of the natural world. We must be able to imagine a range of possible non-true futures to decide which will be true based on what we do. Those with the greatest gifts of falsehood allow us to see possibilities we hadn’t envisioned and perhaps should strive to achieve or avoid. This is however not deception, we call it imagination and we tend to value it.

Deception is a social tool used to manipulate other people by essentially hacking their thoughts. We create a false set of information that we then provide to others in an attempt to influence their actions to get a desired outcome. This has at least three outcomes we find especially heinous. Firstly it represents an attempt at manipulating us and thus an abrogation of our liberty and self-determination. Generally, this is seen as a hostile act against us. Secondly, it gives us false information which leads us to make decisions that have outcomes contrary to our interests. Even if the outcome we are being deceived into is not harmful, other decisions we make based on the information may be. Finally, we may unawares, pass the false information to others which both hurts them and may harm our reputation as someone to be trusted.

One area where deception is sometimes admired in society is when it is used on people outside of that society. A corporate executive who creates a plan to deceive a rival corporation is seen as a champion. Likewise, a general who lures enemy forces into a trap is seen as cunning and wise by the side that he serves. Rival societies will, of course, paint them in the worst light of being deceptive. I think it can be argued that such conflict is, to some degree, an evil in and of itself and the fact it gives rise to a positive value for deception of this kind is further proof of its evil nature. I even favor that line of thinking to a point, war is always an evil in my mind, even if at times it can be a necessary one. That said, when in evil times, perhaps evil measures are most appropriate. If deception lets you defend yourself against hostile forces, then I can’t say it is evil intrinsically. If deception is an effective counter against other evils such as hostility and violence, then it may well be, on balance, a good moral choice.

This sets up the other common situation in which deception is seen as admirable. When deception is used to manipulate people out of altruistic motives such that the falsehood leads someone to make a choice that is better for them, or used simply to assuage someone feelings rather than influence a decision. In an area such as being polite, we tend to take minimal umbrage with the notion. Telling someone you thnk they are ugly may be truthful, but it is not going to be much appreciated and the social friction and hostility created outweigh any possible value the information may have. Similarly, we may look on telling an addict there are no more drugs available is a kindness that could lead them to break their addiction even if it is a deliberate lie. Similarly maintaining a fiction for children such as Santa Claus is seen as a way to give them a sense of excitement and fun with no real harm done to them as eventually they will be told the truth.

Of course, there may well be consequences to deception that is done as a service. We don’t always know the true outcome of it. It could be a belief in Santa undermines trust in adults once discovered, or could inculcate someone to self-deceptive fantasy as an adult. It is a subtle thing and one I think we judge largely from first-hand experience. Of course, some would find any deception with the intent to manipulate an abridgment of liberty and autonomy which they hold as an essential moral virtue. Others may hold social harmony and peace as being as high or higher a virtue and that it necessarily entails some loss of autonomy and or liberty to attain.

Finally, we have the situation, such as in playing a game, that deception is considered an acceptable, even admirable practice. In a game like poker, deception is part and parcel with good play provided it is within the defined boundaries of the rules. It makes sense since the consequences of any deception in gameplay is limited to the scope of the game. You could argue that a game encouraging deception could lead to its use outside the game, but you could also see it as an outlet for the impulse in a protected environment where it does no harm. Both are likely true to some degree, though I’d argure it serves more as an outlet than encouragement.

Concluding thoughts

My take on all this is that as a moral foundation, honesty and truth should be held as a baseline virtue to be strived for and honored. This means not only fostering honesty, but also a love of seeking the truth and critically examining information. Fiction and imagination should be carved out as a valuable expression of falsehood that carries the virtue of honesty and is essential to our lives. Deception should be viewed with suspicion, and used only after careful consideration for all the possible impacts it can have and the context in which it is engaged. If deception is countering a greater harm or evil, then it may be acceptable in the short term, though getting at the root cause of the evil necessitating it should be a greater focus. Each use of deception outside of a game setting is likely a reaction to some other problem that should be addressed so that deception is not needed. When deception is used, it should be with caution and due consideration to keep it as limited in scope and consequence as needed for the aims. As soon as it can be revealed as deception it should be in order to minimize the negative impact of the false information.

Have further thoughts?

I’d love to hear your reflections and thoughts on the subject. I’m sure it’s something I will write more on in the future as it is such an essential part of the human condition and something we wrestle with every day in our lives.


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