Full Disclosure and Rationalization. What does it mean to tell the truth?

 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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01 April 2018 21:51
 

I feel that a considered and consistent truth ethic is one of the baselines of any coherent personal morality. Although I find it clumsy I agree with the central points in Sam’s work about lying.

I’m wondering if folks agree with this and, if so how they square it with the every day circumstance of being pressed for details about sensitive or controversial matters. I feel that most grown adults with an average social life will need to tread carefully around some issues on some occasions with some people. I feel the the concept of honesty is not especially harmed by creative omission when that omission does not constitute a deliberate effort to deceive.

I feel like truth telling is more art than science. It’s a project. It’s less about a list of facts and more about a thoughtful intention to inform.

I’m worried though. I’m worried that retrospective qualification and rationalization leave a lot of room for dishonesty. At least passively so. I feel like there really isn’t any kind of code or formula that maps the conviction to be honest with real the circumstance of having to report on daily affairs.

In my own experience I find that I second guess myself in the moment a great deal. I’m often more concerned with giving an impression of honesty than I am with authentic honesty. Even as I try to dispel this thought it returns unbidden. Even when I really don’t put much stock in the opinion of the person present it comes back like a bad habit.

Most conversations I have about this are retrospective in nature. They involve the evaluation of some past report and a rationalization of the specifics. A lot of our common conversations seem to contain some element of dishonesty. That element is frequently justified on a utilitarian basis. I rarely am able to derive any kind of unifying principle. I find this true in my own case as well as in the case of others and it has come to bother me quite a bit.

Does anyone have a fixed point for how to report the truth consistently in an inconsistent world? Does anyone share my worry about this?

 
NL.
 
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NL.
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01 April 2018 23:11
 

I think some of what we think of truth value is a reflection of value priorities. For example, Harris has expressed a strong valuation of both “truth” and “intentions matter”, but with the former clearly ranking higher than the latter. I would rank these in reverse order - to my felt intuitions, it is actually a bit self-indulgent and, well, selfish in some sense if you insist on some of the examples he insists on in “Lying”, such as telling someone that, no, if they actually need your truly honest opinion, you kinda hate the gift they got you. In my personal aggregate of accumulated emotional intuitions, that reads as being That Person, who makes everyone leave a restaurant because dammit, you saw a spot on a glass, and it is a matter of principle to hold people to high standards. Making others pay a price for being vaguely OCD in holding up a standard that becomes far more letter than spirt after a point. I’m not saying my POV is correct - in fact I fully concede it may be way off the mark - just describing my personal intuitions.


That said, as is the case with most human perceptions, I see how things instantly shift when I am the one who values principle over pragmatics, in a given situation. For example, I’ve said before that the whole dynamic of Russian trolling and misinformation campaigns are illustrative to me of what happens when you throw truth value out the window for the sake of achieving a goal, getting what you want. (I think I reached my I Can’t Even Deal With You moment on that when I saw that they even run anti-vaccination misinformation campaigns. I mean seriously? When one is ok with blithely telling lies that kill the perceived ‘enemies’ babies, then truth is not even devalued, it actually has a negative, weaponized ‘value’, to the degree that it can be distorted in order to harm. It is not a void of information but a presence of malicious ‘information’.) Is that so different, really? Isn’t telling a ‘white lie’ and saying you love a gift that is going straight into the donation bin essentially the same dynamic - putting truth aside for the sake of an outcome you hope to achieve, even if the specifics of the outcome (the other person being happy,) strike you as ‘good’ and ‘worth it’? Doesn’t everyone assume their ends justify the means, after all?


So… am I a complete and total hypocrite? Or is this middle-path-ism? Obviously I would claim the latter, but who’s to say? I think we all find our balance between literal truth and intention. On the Best Possible Case side, we can be highly truthful with good intention - share that we really do love a gift no matter what, for example (in the way that a parent really, genuinely loves the lumpy clay bowl their child made in art class, for example - to an outside observer there would seem to be a mismatch between what is true and what is kind there, but in a parents eyes, there is none). On the Worst Possible Case side are ‘wicked lies’ - a lack of truth driven by malevolent intent. And in 90% of cases, there is a balance that we stumble through, I think.


Put another way, when it comes down to spirit and letter - it is probably worth asking what we value the truth for. Unless one sees it as a moral imperative, there is probably some consequence of truth value that we have in mind (well-being of others, ability to cooperate in groups, etc.) that create situations in which following the letter of the law on truth value is in at least some conflict with the intended spirit. I think Harris would argue that this apparent difference is always one of myopic vision, that literal truth value is always the route most conducive to happiness for everyone in the long run, but I’m not entirely sure about that hypothesis. I lean heavily towards it, with the whole eastern philosophy ‘see things as they really are’ mindset, but a part of me thinks anything can be taken to nitpicky and counterproductive extremes.

 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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02 April 2018 10:05
 


I appreciate that. My intuitions are similar.

I do think it’s a ‘middle path’. I think that secular morality is necessarily untethered from dogmatic absolutes. It’s more about resourcefulness and intention than it is abiding by some particular code. Further, it’s about being satisfied with ones limited resources when emerging from a historical background that framed morality in absolute terms. I know that a lot of my confusion and worry related to the effort of trying to salvage a legalistic view of ethics from the wreckage of a failed religious conviction.

If there is a code I think it probably should relate to justification. There ought not be infinite wiggle room when it comes to defending decisions. Otherwise we are, I think, in a downward spiral of relativism where behavior matters less than rhetoric… people can, after all rationalize just about anything. I feel like we need some kind of canary that sings when the indefensible is defended.

 

 
Jan_CAN
 
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Jan_CAN
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02 April 2018 10:26
 

I complete agree that “a considered and consistent truth ethic is one of the baselines of any coherent personal morality”.
(Note:  I have not read Sam Harris’ book on Lying.)

When pressed for details or in sensitive discussions, learning how to avoid or deflect is usually better than answering in a less than honest manner.  It is a learned skill, e.g. one can answer a question with another question, with a blank stare, with an accentuated “excuse me?”, with a smile and silence, with a quick subject change.  There is no obligation to impart information just because one is asked or pressured, unless there is a specific reason to do so and/or not doing so puts another at a disadvantage.

In order to be honest with others, we must first be honest with ourselves.  We need to care more about what we think of our own behaviour than what others think of us.  If trying to present a certain image to the outside world that is not our true selves, one is not being completely truthful (although I suspect we all do this to some extent – it’s a matter of degrees and intentions).  Some people are navigating careers in a competitive world where games are being played that don’t always reward the honest person.  There is often a price to be paid for speaking out against lies or BS; it is not usually appreciated by everyone.  Sometimes we have to be willing to pay this price in order to be able to sleep at night.

Any examples or ‘scenarios’ you could provide might be useful in further understanding of the OP (unless of course you prefer more generalized responses).

 
 
nonverbal
 
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nonverbal
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02 April 2018 10:27
 
Brick Bungalow - 01 April 2018 09:51 PM

I feel that a considered and consistent truth ethic is one of the baselines of any coherent personal morality. Although I find it clumsy I agree with the central points in Sam’s work about lying.

I’m wondering if folks agree with this and, if so how they square it with the every day circumstance of being pressed for details about sensitive or controversial matters. I feel that most grown adults with an average social life will need to tread carefully around some issues on some occasions with some people. I feel the the concept of honesty is not especially harmed by creative omission when that omission does not constitute a deliberate effort to deceive.

I feel like truth telling is more art than science. It’s a project. It’s less about a list of facts and more about a thoughtful intention to inform.

I’m worried though. I’m worried that retrospective qualification and rationalization leave a lot of room for dishonesty. At least passively so. I feel like there really isn’t any kind of code or formula that maps the conviction to be honest with real the circumstance of having to report on daily affairs.

In my own experience I find that I second guess myself in the moment a great deal. I’m often more concerned with giving an impression of honesty than I am with authentic honesty. Even as I try to dispel this thought it returns unbidden. Even when I really don’t put much stock in the opinion of the person present it comes back like a bad habit.

Most conversations I have about this are retrospective in nature. They involve the evaluation of some past report and a rationalization of the specifics. A lot of our common conversations seem to contain some element of dishonesty. That element is frequently justified on a utilitarian basis. I rarely am able to derive any kind of unifying principle. I find this true in my own case as well as in the case of others and it has come to bother me quite a bit.

Does anyone have a fixed point for how to report the truth consistently in an inconsistent world? Does anyone share my worry about this?

Regarding the line I’ve boldfaced, when I’m in most social situations I try to talk less than I might feel like doing. Also, as we age, our reports about situations can tend to become less and less reliable, so I try to pay perhaps closer attention to the things I tell people, especially when estimations are somehow involved. That is, I spoke more recklessly when I was younger and find now that I need to be careful!

 
 
EN
 
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EN
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02 April 2018 10:46
 
Brick Bungalow - 01 April 2018 09:51 PM

Does anyone have a fixed point for how to report the truth consistently in an inconsistent world? Does anyone share my worry about this?

In court you swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  I don’t know anyone who consistently abides by that standard, even while testifying. Not sure it’s a realistic standard. My goal is to generally be truthful, but there are times when full honesty may be more harmful than at other times.  So I guess I employ a sort of utilitarian yardstick - if greater good or less harm is done by fudging or spinning a bit, I’m fine with it.  The default position is truth, but there are exceptions to the rule. That’s about as clear a rule as I can come up with.  100% consistency is difficult because each case is fact specific, and may yield a different measure with my utilitarian ruler.

 
hannahtoo
 
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hannahtoo
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02 April 2018 13:30
 

Brick:

I know that a lot of my confusion and worry related to the effort of trying to salvage a legalistic view of ethics from the wreckage of a failed religious conviction.

This seems insightful. 
Absolute honesty seems like a Vulcan goal.  But we’re human.

 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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02 April 2018 19:09
 
nonverbal - 02 April 2018 10:27 AM

Regarding the line I’ve boldfaced, when I’m in most social situations I try to talk less than I might feel like doing. Also, as we age, our reports about situations can tend to become less and less reliable, so I try to pay perhaps closer attention to the things I tell people, especially when estimations are somehow involved. That is, I spoke more recklessly when I was younger and find now that I need to be careful!

I definitely agree about holding ones peace or taking the fifth. I think we frequently speak as a means of dispelling awkward social tensions. Not necessarily to lie but often to verbalize without content. A more mindful and economic mode of communication is a step in the right direction.

 
NL.
 
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NL.
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02 April 2018 20:07
 
Brick Bungalow - 02 April 2018 10:05 AM

I appreciate that. My intuitions are similar.

I do think it’s a ‘middle path’. I think that secular morality is necessarily untethered from dogmatic absolutes. It’s more about resourcefulness and intention than it is abiding by some particular code. Further, it’s about being satisfied with ones limited resources when emerging from a historical background that framed morality in absolute terms. I know that a lot of my confusion and worry related to the effort of trying to salvage a legalistic view of ethics from the wreckage of a failed religious conviction.

If there is a code I think it probably should relate to justification. There ought not be infinite wiggle room when it comes to defending decisions. Otherwise we are, I think, in a downward spiral of relativism where behavior matters less than rhetoric… people can, after all rationalize just about anything. I feel like we need some kind of canary that sings when the indefensible is defended.


It seems to me that the ‘canary’ is maybe our search for some kind of moral imperative. I am open to the idea that seemingly harsh acts can be the lesser evil in brutal environments, for example (one example I’ve used in the past was the historical use of the vendetta system as law enforcement - if people have no other choice, is pacifism that results in greater harm always the moral option?). And yet I think it’s hard to find an imperative that does not end in a sort of paradox, or, if paradox is too strong a word, at least a frequent dynamic tension. Utilitarianism vs. human rights. Survival vs. quality of life. Pragmatism vs. idealism. Etc.


It’s difficult because the potential space for truly genuine, good-faith based differences of opinion is almost infinite.

 
Brick Bungalow
 
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Brick Bungalow
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03 April 2018 22:35
 
NL. - 02 April 2018 08:07 PM
Brick Bungalow - 02 April 2018 10:05 AM

I appreciate that. My intuitions are similar.

I do think it’s a ‘middle path’. I think that secular morality is necessarily untethered from dogmatic absolutes. It’s more about resourcefulness and intention than it is abiding by some particular code. Further, it’s about being satisfied with ones limited resources when emerging from a historical background that framed morality in absolute terms. I know that a lot of my confusion and worry related to the effort of trying to salvage a legalistic view of ethics from the wreckage of a failed religious conviction.

If there is a code I think it probably should relate to justification. There ought not be infinite wiggle room when it comes to defending decisions. Otherwise we are, I think, in a downward spiral of relativism where behavior matters less than rhetoric… people can, after all rationalize just about anything. I feel like we need some kind of canary that sings when the indefensible is defended.


It seems to me that the ‘canary’ is maybe our search for some kind of moral imperative. I am open to the idea that seemingly harsh acts can be the lesser evil in brutal environments, for example (one example I’ve used in the past was the historical use of the vendetta system as law enforcement - if people have no other choice, is pacifism that results in greater harm always the moral option?). And yet I think it’s hard to find an imperative that does not end in a sort of paradox, or, if paradox is too strong a word, at least a frequent dynamic tension. Utilitarianism vs. human rights. Survival vs. quality of life. Pragmatism vs. idealism. Etc.


It’s difficult because the potential space for truly genuine, good-faith based differences of opinion is almost infinite.

Yes. We have our conscience and our reason. Sometimes we get a clear affirmation of the right course but often it’s murky. I think a big step is getting to know ones particular strengths and weaknesses. I simply will not have the time and attention to communicate effectively about everything but I might be able to learn enough about one thing to be a creator or a teacher.

I feel that people who are effective agents for social and cultural improvement tend to find an economy of effort. They are able to narrow their focus onto an efficient convergence of ability and urgency.