“The worst thing about dishonest people is what they think of as honesty,” [Gail Wynand] said. “I know a woman who’s never held to one conviction for three days running, but when I told her she had no integrity, she got very tight-lipped and said her idea of integrity wasn’t mine; it seems she’d never stolen any money.…” [The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand]
What’s a lie? How is the honesty of statements evaluated? How does one think and speak with integrity? People commonly assume that lying is a simple topic and they understand it, but actually confusions are common.
People are dishonest about their knowledge of honesty. They know little about the subject – and pretend there’s little to be known. They aren’t doing their best to seek and face the truth.
People often claim that all lies are conscious and intentional. If you don’t lie on purpose, you’re not lying at all. That’s incorrect, and typically a dishonest belief. By that standard, it’s almost impossible to lie to yourself. How do you fool yourself if you consciously know that you’re lying?
Yet lying to yourself is a well known concept that most people accept, despite it contradicting their belief that only conscious, intentional lies count as lies. Articles about it are easy to google:
(Amazingly, there are also articles in favor of lying to yourself, like The Case for Lying to Yourself - WSJ.)
A lie is a communication (or a belief, for lying to yourself) which you should know is false. If you hold something behind your back and tell someone it’s an apple, when it’s an orange, that’s lying. If you don’t know what it is, and you claim it’s an apple, that’s lying too – by saying what it is, you falsely imply that you know what it is.
Lying has to do with pretending, misrepresenting or faking. You can do those things with yourself or others. If you know something is false, and you say it, that’s lying. And if you choose not to consider whether it’s true or false, and then hide your ignorance (from yourself or others), then you’re pretending to have a more reality-based approach to life than you do, and lying about that when you falsely present yourself as knowing more than you do.
If you lie to yourself, you’ll inevitably lie to others too, as you repeat some of your self-lies to them. If you pretend to yourself that you wear makeup “for you”, not because you’re shallow or seeking the approval of others, then of course that’s what you’ll say to others too.
Some people draw a distinction between lies, dishonest statements, and statements which lack integrity. I discuss these interchangeably. Either you’re making a reasonable effort to be truthful, or you aren’t. Whether you call that acting with integrity, being honest, or telling the truth, it’s still the same thing. And doing otherwise means you lack integrity, you’re dishonest, you’re lying.
Communication is never complete. You always leave lots unsaid. Since you can’t spell out every detail, listeners fill in the blanks. That’s normal. That’s how talking works.
Normally, you say things that would be hard for a listener to guess (you have to tell them or they won’t know it), and you omit things you expect the listener to guess correctly. For example, imagine you’re telling a friend about your steak dinner. You’d tell him what type of steak it was (ribeye) because he couldn’t know that without being told. But you wouldn’t mention that you cooked the steak instead of eating it raw, because he could guess that part. You might mention the method of cooking, but you wouldn’t bother sharing that you used a knife to cut it.
Liars often change this formula of sharing useful information and leaving out what the listener will guess correctly. Liars leave out something surprising or unexpected so that they trick the listener into making a reasonable but false guess. Then the liar can try to blame his victim for guessing wrong.
People without integrity pretend they aren’t lying if they only imply lies. Nonsense. Yes, accidents happen. There are plenty of unintentional miscommunications, and those aren’t lying. But when you create a misunderstanding on purpose, or you see a misunderstanding happening and intentionally don’t correct it, that’s dishonest. The most dishonest people don’t even think about what their purpose is – they lie habitually. That lets them deny giving a listener the wrong idea on purpose, since they did it by a habit they created in the past instead of consciously considering it at the present time.
Hair-splitters, word-lawyers and pedants claim that if the literal content of their communication is true, they can’t possibly be liars. They refuse to take responsibility for what they imply and leave their listener to guess. But communication always involves implications and guesses, so an honest speaker must take responsibility for trying to communicate correctly. You can’t say everything perfectly, but you can do your honest best to give people the right idea instead of the wrong idea. If you communicate so that a reasonable person will get the wrong idea, you’ve either made a mistake or lied – don’t try to defend it.
When you talk, people have reasonable expectations by default due to the society we live in, what they already know about you, and other factors like context. Consider the statement:
My house is painted red.
If you say this, people expect that you know what a house is, that you know what color “red” is, that you mean a house you live in (not a dollhouse – unless you’re at a dollhouse enthusiasts convention), and that you actually looked at your house to determine the color. People expect that you know what you’re talking about, and that you mean something reasonably normal (or else you’d have to specify more details of your more uncommon point).
Context matters. If you were having a conversation about dollhouses for the last hour, then meaning a regular house could actually be misleading! Without a specific context, there are cultural defaults and reasonable expectations. The defaults include that talking about your house’s paint colors would refer to a full-size regular house. You already knew that – and many other cultural defaults – and pretending otherwise would be dishonest.
If you’re colorblind, it’s your job to ask someone about colors, or use a phone app to determine color. Do something reasonable and truth-respecting instead of just making up the color or guessing when you know that you can’t accurately tell. Another way to be dishonest would be to say “It looks green to me.” (literally true) when you know that you see red things as green and you don’t mention that you’re colorblind.
People reasonably expect that you remember the color of your house. Saying it’s red when you forgot what it looks like would be dishonest. By saying the color you’re implying you have a memory of the house. (Alternatively, a forgetful person with Alzheimer’s could keep a note about some fact on their phone. Tools can help aid memory, and as long as you take reasonable steps to state something correctly then that’s honest.)
Suppose you’ve never thought about what color the house is. Some people would say you’re not lying since you didn’t know the house wasn’t red! It’s not as if you knew the house was painted white, so it’s not a lie!? No. When you say the house is red, you communicate both that it is red and that you took reasonable steps to know it’s red.
Reasonable steps to respect the truth are actually the key part of integrity. If pranksters spray-painted your house black after you left home this morning, and you had no reasonable way to know it yet, then you weren’t lying by incorrectly saying your house is red. Being technically wrong doesn’t make you a liar anymore than being technically right makes you honest.
Here’s some further examples of word-lawyering which involve a double standard. People will make particularly shoddy arguments like this to defend their honesty (how ironic!), but they wouldn’t do it for most other topics:
Communicating that you know more than you actually know is lying. If you speak confidently when you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re being dishonest. An honest person makes his words and tone match his thinking.
The default expectation when you say something is that you made a reasonable effort to know that it’s true. If you say the bag you’re holding contains cookies, you should have looked in it or been told by someone reliable that it contains cookies. If it’s a plain, unknown bag you found on the street, and you say it’s full of cookies without checking, you’re being dishonest: you’re acting disrespectfully and recklessly in regards to truth.
You can change people’s expectations by how you talk. You can say an idea is a “wild guess” to indicate less confidence, or “proven” to indicate more confidence. Communicating truthfully requires attention to what your ideas are, and what you say, so that they match. If you say something is just a wild guess, when actually you’re highly confident – or vice versa – that’s a lie.
Mistakes and ignorance aren’t lies. People often get things wrong despite making a reasonable effort. That’s unavoidable. As long as your statements don’t mislead people about how much effort you made, it’s fine.
If you barely look into something and get it wrong, that’s fine – as long as you’re clear with people that you didn’t look into it much. But if you said you carefully considered it and did three years of study – or you imply that – then you better have done it! If you suggest you studied something more than you did, that’s dishonest.
Consider the mistake of saying your house is red, but pranksters spray painted it black. You made a reasonable effort to accurately know your house’s color by seeing it this morning and having an accurate memory of that. Checking six hours ago is normally recent enough when it comes to house colors. You’d only need more recent info if you were expecting painters, or you lived in a different society where houses get painted all the time.
As usual, context matters. It’s different with other topics, like whether your cat is sleeping, because that changes more frequently. If you just know your cat was sleeping when you left home six hours ago, and you say your cat is sleeping now, that’s dishonest: you have no reasonable way to know if the cat is currently asleep, and saying it’s now asleep falsely implies you have up-to-date information (people will be misled to guess that you have a webcam to see the cat now, or a family member is home and just told you a few minutes ago).
Unless you say otherwise, making a statement that something is a fact communicates that you made a reasonable effort to know it’s a fact, and your knowledge meets society’s typical standards today for knowing something. What is reasonable is determined significantly by the world we live in, and what is typical in our society. This makes lying less clearcut than some people would like, because it involves cultural judgements.
Everyone understands their culture a little differently. We have to be somewhat lenient and tolerant, and expect some misunderstandings. We can make a reasonable – but not foolproof – effort for our statements to give people the right idea. In borderline cases, be forgiving. Misunderstandings are common even among very honest men. But there are also plenty of cases where dishonesty is clear, not borderline, so don’t be too eager to make excuses for liars.
Consider someone who loses track of time pretty badly. That can be an honest and innocent mistake – if it doesn’t happen very often. But if you do it routinely, you should either change or stop making statements about time (since you should know you’re unreliable about it). If you think your cat is sleeping since you lost track of time since you last saw it, and you rarely lose track of time, no problem. But if you’re careless about timekeeping throughout life and don’t warn people, or you wanted something cute to say to be popular in a social situation, then that’s dishonest.
If you don’t know something, you’re supposed to say so (or just keep silent in the first place). You can say, “My memory is hazy, but I think my house is red.” Then there’s no dishonesty even if you get it wrong, since you acknowledged the non-standard (unguessable by reasonable people in a typical context) issue of hazy memory.
It’s appropriate to say, “This is my uneducated, initial guess…” instead of asserting a philosophical claim that you haven’t considered much. But only say that if it really is an uneducated, initial guess. Understating your knowledge is dishonest too. You always have to put effort into making your statements match reality; there’s no mindlessly-safe default (like always claiming ignorance).
Consider the dishonest pool player who pretends to be a beginner in order to trick a sucker into betting money on the next game. He’s no more honest than a lying braggart. And note that with the pool player it’s possible for him to be dishonest, and sucker people, even without speaking a single word (just by playing badly on purpose in early, low-stakes games).
Hedging isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. To speak honestly, you need to make what you say match your actual thoughts, including whether they’re confident or not. And you need to make your confidence reasonably match reality – honestly consider whether you should be confident given the actions you’ve taken (like research or just hearing something from an unreliable friend).
People lie to themselves because they don’t like some aspect of reality and don’t want to face it. They see a problem, and don’t expect to solve it, and don’t want to live with an unsolved problem.
Self-lies come in big webs (layers and layers of tangled lies supporting each other), and almost everyone has tons of self-lies.
People cut off lots of negative thoughts without letting them reach conscious, clear expression so that it’s easier to be dishonest about it.
Honesty is for people who deal with reality effectively. Most people don’t, so they take refuge in a dishonest relationship with reality. You can take steps to control reality, or you can distort your view of reality. If you do neither, you’ll be unhappy because reality won’t be the way you prefer and you’ll know it.
It’s OK to lie to defend yourself from criminals and to protect your privacy. However, this shouldn’t come up often. If you find yourself lying frequently in exceptional circumstances, you should reconsider your lifestyle so that you’re in those situations less.
Do you commit crimes or associate with criminals? Have you chosen friends who keep prying into your private affairs and won’t stop even after you request they stop? Those are bad lifestyle choices which merit thinking about. Have you honestly considered why you’re friends with disrespectful people like that?
Lying to protect privacy comes up due to errors by yourself and/or others. Why are you in a position where you can’t remain silent? Why are they asking you an invasive question? Something has gone wrong, such as you sharing 90% of your life publicly and then having a hard time hiding the rest, or other people are pressuring you because they don’t respect your privacy. Try to figure out why the lie is needed (if it really is) and who should have done what differently.
People often tell “white lies” for convenience. You thank someone for a gift you don’t like, and imply you do like it. This is bad. Either tell them the truth (they might take it better than you expect) or stop associating with people who want to be lied to. A person who cares about the truth will take action to have a more truth-filled, honest life.
Integrity primarily makes your own life better. It’s hard enough to think clearly and rationally, and face reality, even if you’re consistently honest. Try to be honest all the time and you still may fail. Make a bunch of exceptions in your relationship with (true) reality and you don’t have much chance.
Lying to others requires having dishonest ways of thinking in your head. You will use them to lie to yourself too. It’s much easier to recognize lies directed towards others, and you should take them as a warning sign about your dishonesty in general including with yourself.
Associations with others matter too. Who wants to deal with a liar? Liars lose out on opportunities for mutually-beneficial cooperation. And if your lies screw someone over enough, you risk them seeking revenge.
Most of all: when you lie, you’re disrupting your own relationship with (true) reality.