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12 Rules for Cultivating Moral Virtue, An Antidote to Sin; Rule 4: Honesty Empty 12 Rules for Cultivating Moral Virtue, An Antidote to Sin; Rule 4: Honesty

on June 6th 2020, 11:47 am
There’s a reason the Devil in the Bible is referred to as the Father of Lies, and Jesus as the way the truth and the light, and this is because lies contain intrinsic badness, and truth intrinsic goodness. To be honest is to sincerely try your best to speak the truth (though sometimes in honesty we speak mistruth, this is never by intent, rather only in genuine error). Thus, honesty is one important part of what it means to be a light in the world, because you cast light on your best understanding of the world for other people, and allow them to best understand you. In a sense, an honesty is an attempt to speak the truth, and the truth is a light which, if people use their proper judgment, reveals the way to them. Dishonesty on the other hand is as darkness, it obfuscates the truth from others and leaves them blind in a world of illusion. It is a particular form of arrogance, as you conceptually twist the very fabric of reality away from its proper order, to suit your own desires. It is very damaging to the relationship between someone and the world around them, as it greatly erodes trust.

Great men such as Viktor Frankl, Sigmund Freud, Adler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Jordan Peterson have all asserted in some form or another that lies are precursors to the collapse of the psychology of the individual, and the moral fabric and integrity of wider society. The societal effects of deception are something to be spoken about in a different topic. For now, I am content to focus on the subject of this series, which is the moral cultivation of the individual, internally and within their relationships to other people. For the attitude of a liar is one that is corrosive to one’s character, and one that often leaves a person badly positioned in the wider world.

The first of the three kinds of lies I shall seek to address are the lies of overt manipulation. These are the lies, which a person is most often self-aware of, used to manipulate a person for one’s own benefit or satisfaction. These kinds of lies are obviously cruel and unfair to the person being manipulated, however they are also profoundly destructive to the moral character of the person doing the manipulating. This lies in the fact that it takes a certain view of the human being to manipulate them as if they were a mere object, and what that results in for the character of such a person who indulges in such a view.
A large part of Christian sexual ethics is built on the idea of the sanctity of the human being. Sexual immorality, in the Christian worldview, violates that sanctity in reducing that person to a mere object for one’s own pleasure in such an intimate way. While this is very much correct and sexual morality is obviously important, it is worth noting that in most sexually immoral acts, the other person is either not participant to their own objectification, or they knowingly consent to it. The porn star and prostitute know what they are being paid to do and what they will be used for by others. Two people who engage in a one night stand knowingly consent to their reduction into an object for mere sexual pleasure. Someone who is unknowingly the subject of another’s masturbatory fantasy is not a participant in their own objectification.

It is certainly the case that these sexually immoral attitudes towards other human beings are damaging to a person’s character, as is the position of the Christian Church generally speaking, and this is something that has drawn a great deal of cultural emphasis from Christians. It is my conviction, however, that lies of overt manipulation do more to objectify and degrade the human being than most acts of sexual immorality. This is because a person being objectified in this manner is unknowingly participating in their own objectification, by definition without informed consent. Such a person is deliberately made to act in a way that isn’t in accordance with their own will, all without being aware of it. To lie so deliberately in this fashion for such purposes, to indulge in such a view and usury of your fellow man, is an act which chips away at your own recognition of the sanctity of their fellow human beings and the love you should have for your neighbor. It is to invite rot into the foundation of your own moral character. To any seeking to cultivate a character of virtue, these kinds of lies are something to be assiduously avoided.

The second kind of lie to be addressed is a lie that is either wholly, or in part, one of self-deception. A person who lies to themselves does themself no favor by intentionally blinding themselves, that is extremely foolish and unwise, and not something that leaves a person well positioned to act out their genuinely best intentions. A person whose life and relationships are built upon deception has essentially built a house atop sand rather than stone, one that will quickly collapse under the weight of honest truth. Such a life is a facsimile, a mirage, not something built to last, and not something fundamentally real. It is not prudent to position yourself in such a weak position, for even those on the receiving end of another’s deception may suffer greatly when the truth comes to light, and suffer in confusion over their own identity due to their participation in a lie enacted by another. If this is the case, how much more so can a person’s sense of identity or relationship with their past be threatened by the collapse of their own self-deception.

Some of these lies are less obviously self-deceptive, such as the ones told for acceptance. To pretend to be somebody you’re not to fit in is an alluring temptation for many people, and it’s something all of us do to some extent or another in our lives, the adoption of a persona that is socially accepted. Of course, to some extent, this is a necessary part in the development of the human being, human socialization in particular. A child or teenager learns how to wear a mask and change their behavior insincerely, to some degree, as a precursor to the ability for sincere and genuine self-reflective change and disciplined behavior. At best, however, this is a chrysalis that a more mature person ought to emerge from rather than staying cocooned within. As a small child we are authentic but undisciplined, as teenagers we inauthentically wear a mask as a cultivation of surface level ability for the discipline of change and self-control, and as adults we ought to return to the authenticity of small children while possessing the discipline for self-transformation and self-control found in maturity.

The real danger of this mask, this facsimile of yourself, is that you mistake the mirage for reality, and form a relationship with a false sense of self that is fundamentally unreal. This is chief among the many alluring temptations faced by teenagers, and it does them no credit except in self-reflection after the fact, and it is something to be assiduously avoided by an adult. It is said that man ought to find his identity in God rather than finding it in the impermanent things of this world, to be in this world but not of this world, to not be conformed to this world. As I previously spoke about, it is dangerous to become overly attached to and overly identify with the real things of this world, wealth, sexual pleasure, anger at perceived injustice, and even the admiration of your fellow man can be false idols. If the real things of this world are dangerous as false idols, how much more dangerous is it to identify with an image of yourself that is fundamentally not real?

Even for those who are self-aware, it is very difficult to escape identifying with your own mirage when you affect it for other people, even as you know you are doing it. For example, with my old high school friend group, I was not fully honest with them in my presentation of myself in the last year of our friendship. There was tension in our relationship since we had grown to disagree on politics, and so I pretended my views were more mild than they actually were. Whenever conflict came up and needed to be resolved, I made a bigger deal of my own fault (which was certainly present) while not being fully transparent about my issues with them in order to appease them and salvage the relationship. I was aware I was doing this, but I was blind to the true nature of the relationship that was created by my actions, and of my place within it. I mistook the love of their friendship for something directed at me, when it was instead directed at the mask I had adopted. I had mistaken my place in the friendship for that of my mask, and thus the relationship ceased to be sincere. Once it fell apart I was left with the pain of realizing I never found closure, because the relationship that ended was one I wasn’t truly a part of, even though I had identified with it. It wasn’t that I believed I was who I portrayed myself as, I was aware that I wasn’t. It was instead that I believed their affections were geared towards me, when they were in fact concerned with the mirage I had built.

The third kind of lie I wish to address is the lie of preservation. These can be lies for the interest of self-preservation, or for the protection of another person. These kinds of lies are more defensive in nature and thus less intrinsically corrupt than lies which are more malicious or inherently status seeking. This kind of lie is a bit more unique because it may, in some cases, even be morally justified, particularly when concerned with the preservation of another. For example, I doubt there are many who would morally denounce a person in Nazi Germany who lied to the Nazi’s about whether or not there was a Jew hiding in their basement, or those who lied to keep secret the underground railroad in America during the time of slavery. In those cases it is rather obvious, that it is more prudent and just to lie so as to not become an accessory to slavery or genocide.

Most situations we are presented with are not quite as extreme however. For example, say I have a friend who confides in me with feelings regarding a second friend I have, perhaps frustrations, perhaps romantic feelings, perhaps relationship troubles. Were the second friend to ask about the situation, the only way of preserving that implicit trust and confidentiality from the first friend would be to feign that I know less than I really do, because to say the truth, that I do know but can’t talk about it, may give information away that I am not justified in giving. Or that the conversation is one that ought to happen between those two as opposed to me being a proxy. In a lot of these cases it may be more dishonest to tell this second friend the truth and betray the trust and implicit agreement of the first friend in their moment of vulnerability than to lie and protect that trust. Such a thing is, however, a complicated situation, and there is a lot of other added detail that could change the nature of my moral obligations regarding that situation. Who knows, I may even be wrong about what I just said or there may be a different solution I haven’t thought of.

Then of course there’s the self-preservative variant of this type of lie. Throughout the history of the Christian faith, to the modern day even, many Christians have been forced to hide their faith to protect themselves and their families from persecution at the hands of a hostile government. Most examples where this kind of lie comes into play are much less extreme in their degree. One example could be the protection of your own privacy in such an instance where an honest refusal to answer the question would give away too much information, and privacy is certainly an important thing for the sake of our security or control over our own lives. Or perhaps it could be time preservative out of consideration for your own limits and those of other people, that to be truly honest and accurately represent yourself would take up more breadth of time than would be appropriate in the situation.

Do not make the mistake, however, of assuming I am making the claim that all lies of preservation are morally justified. Certainly many of them are not. For example, there is a difference in justification between lying to protect privacy regarding something truly intimate and more morally neutral and lying to protect something you or somebody else did from the appropriate moral scrutiny. There is also a difference between the person who uses the lie as their most expedient choice in these instances, and the person who lies reluctantly when all other options are insufficient or have been exhausted. For instance, in a situation where to protect your privacy an honest answer of “I would rather not discuss this” or “that’s private” would suffice without giving away too much personal information, that ought to be the option taken over lying.

If you feel the pull to lie for the sake of self-preservation, it is important for you to ask yourself why. What is it you are avoiding and why are you doing so? What is it you are afraid of and is that fear appropriate? Are you afraid of standing up for your own beliefs? Of trusting other people? Are you shutting out people who could help or support you? Are you afraid of conflict? All of these questions are important to ask as they relate to what response to fear you are conditioning into yourself through repetitive action. Is it one of courage or cowardice? To what degree are you saying things that make you weak? Because whenever you cower out of a fear of truth you are atrophying your courage in speaking truth.

It is once again important to remember that lying is intrinsically bad. It clouds perception, leads people astray, and makes you at best more cowardly, at worst more malevolent. Sometimes there are no good choices, and I do not believe it is bad for a person to choose the lesser of two or more evils when no other option can be found. It would however be unwise to not realize that that is, in fact, what you are doing. Lying even in justified situations is a lesser of multiple evils, and you should be very careful to avoid it whenever that is not the case.

So what does being honest do for your character? Well first off it makes you the opposite of what lies make you. It makes you more courageous as you practice speaking honesty even when lies would be easier. It allows you to see yourself more clearly, understand who you are, and get a greater sense of where you truly are in the world as you engage with it honestly. It leads you to treating other people less as objects or tools, and more as human beings with a certain quality of sanctity that demands respect. Beyond that however, honesty also aids in the cultivation of your character in other ways.

When you engage in a relationship with the external world built upon truth, it opens more avenues and opportunities between yourself and others. Honesty makes you more trustworthy to other people, which allows you to form more stable and intimate relationships with them where you, rather than your mirage, are actually the person they are engaged in a relationship with. Additionally, when other people trust you more they will come to rely on you more, which opens the door to another host of virtuous and character building works you could participate in. However, engaging with others honestly does mean you, rather than your mask, will be exposed to their moral scrutiny, which is terrifying but also deeply important. By opening yourself up to such criticism and, just as importantly, engaging with it honestly, you begin to take a more honest and less biased view of yourself and your own actions. You become more motivated to act in ways that don’t weaken your character, ways that don’t make you truly and deeply ashamed to be honest about with others.
Honesty is also an important prerequisite to other practices which will be discussed in this series. You have to be honest in order to be intimately vulnerable with another person. You must speak truthfully about your own actions in order to truly confess your wrongdoings. It is necessary to take an honest view of yourself in order to cultivate a proper relationship with yourself, and to understand human nature in general, even as it relates to other people. For these reasons honesty is one of the most important moral and character building practices.

I must note that honesty is not the same as having an unwavering belief and confidence in everything you say. On the contrary, it can be a form of self-deception rooted in arrogance, and prevent you from actually engaging with your own beliefs and criticisms of them truthfully, rather than merely rationalizing a justification for everything you say after the fact. Speaking truthfully is also not necessarily the same as speaking whatever is on your mind at all times, because not all things you could say truthfully are actually useful. I’m not going to retort “if you don’t have something nice to say don’t say it,” because such a statement lacks nuance, for there is certainly a time and a place for harsh words and conflict. Instead I would suggest that if what you have to say will cause harm without offering the proper benefit to justify it, don’t say it. In some instances, silence is preferable to shooting your mouth off.

Of course true honesty is difficult because it can be rather terrifying. As previously stated when you engage in an honest relationship with the world, you open your true self up to scrutiny and potentially shatter a false image of yourself you have created and indulged in. Perhaps a good place to start in the further practice of truth is being honest with yourself about your lies. Observe and reflect upon the truthfulness or lack of in what you say, as well as the reasons why you say them. This not only helps erode whatever false image of yourself you may hold, it also helps you become aware of the reasons behind your lies so you can potentially address them at their root level. Importantly, doing this grants you a more conscious rather than subconscious awareness of your own temptation towards lies, which will, moving forward, allow you more of an opportunity for self-control in the moment. When you consciously recognize the temptation, you have more of an opportunity to listen to your conscience and turn away from it.

To live in truth is not easy at first, it can even be painful, but it is something rewarding in the long run. Value truth, recognize the twisted nature of deception, and cultivate disciplined control over the honesty of your own words and thoughts. Treat lying, even where justified, not as something to be rationalized or as the expedient option, but as something to be assiduously avoided where possible. Cast light upon the world for others in your speech. Live in truth, and reap the benefits of having an honest relationship with the world and yourself.
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