If you think exercise is hard, try being honest.
In July last year, I listened to Sam Harris’s book Lying. It is a one-hour quick audiobook that I semi-randomly picked up for the mere reason that it is authored by Sam Harris.
Not a book I read had such a profound impact on my life. A few people experience the feeling of leaving or changing their religion, but this book gave me a similar experience of my whole identity reshaping.
It is worth mentioning that I am writing this essay a little under a year after reading it. I thought about and discussed this book a lot.
Neither the book nor the idea it represents is revolutionary, radical, or even new. Pretty much all religions and social philosophies warn us against lying. All of us seem to know that lying is unethical.
I did not learn much from this book. It was more of a wake-up call and a sobering slap across the face to rethink what most people and I already know about lying.
In those ten months, I have developed mildly egocentric and fairly non-altruistic reasons for truthfulness. I’m training myself to viscerally understand that being honest is not charitable; rather, it’s the best way to live a life. We studied the altruistic reasons for honesty for millennia and we parroted them ad nauseam.
In this essay, I’m sharing those non-altruistic reasons for honesty with you.
Being honest, in my experience, is a quite peculiar ethical obligation. It is so universal that it became a cliché. People lie all the time. We built the whole world around lying. Think contracts, receipts, invoices, passports, and even identity cards; all these instruments are meant to diminish the power of lying. In a utopia where everyone is honest, would we need identity cards? Contracts? Receipts? No, not as precautions against deception.
I am not dreaming of reaching this utopia or even think it is a great place to be. I am arguing that cultures universally assume that people will indeed lie and had built rigid systems to make lying a useless weapon in any serious fight, such as property ownership or paying your phone bill. Lying to the phone company that you paid will not help you; you need proof.
It may or may not be, but it seems that the more rigid those anti-lying systems become, the faster and better liars humans will become. It reminds me of the arms race between predators and prey in nature. To quote Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker:
The arms race between [predators] and [prey] is asymmetric, in which success on either side is felt as failure by the other side, but the nature of the success and failure on the two sides is very different. The two sides are ‘trying’ to do very different things. [Predators] are trying to eat [prey]. [Prey] are not trying to eat [predators], they are trying to avoid being eaten by [predators]. From an evolutionary point of view, asymmetric arms races are more [likely] to generate highly complex weapons systems.
While it is often a bad idea to bring evolution theory into social interactions, I would argue I am not doing that. I am demonstrating that building an advanced anti-X system, will make X more sophisticated as a natural outcome of X’s interest to survive. With total disregard to what X and anti-X might be.
In short, we are excellent liars, and we’ll only get better at it.
Reason I: Lying bleeds into our thinking
“To do this (being honest) is to hold a mirror up to one’s life—because a commitment to telling the truth requires that one pay attention to what the truth is in every moment.”
In this brief yet powerful paragraph, Harris implies that we do not naturally keep track of the truth. This implication is sobering. It is so easy for us to lie, that we lose track of the facts in a significant part of our discussions, whether with others or with ourselves.
In my experience, the lying-machine in our heads is akin to an untamed yet brilliant monster that we have to tighten its chains at every tough moment of confronting reality. The vast majority of these moments are when you are contemplating something. Taming this monster is hands down the most intense exercise I have to endure, and I have been lifting weights for years now.
In short, if you lie, you might not know the truth.
Untruthfulness to oneself is like losing focus while meditating. It happens and will continue to happen for the best of us. However, acknowledging the potential of lying makes you more aware of your nonsense. You become like a biased thermometer with a clear label of
±5%. It is indeed inaccurate, but acknowledges it, and gives you a clear direction on how to enhance it if you were to engineer a new thermometer. Analogically, to build a better self.
Reason II: Honesty makes you special
Just like when you buy a new car and miraculously it becomes the most popular car in the city, not because it became more popular, but because the sight of its type is more noticible to you. Optimizing for maximum honesty makes you more aware of people’s lies. You will begin to notice that it is hard to find people who do not lie as a lifestyle. You’ll start to see that telling the truth in a moment you are expected to lie is invigorating. The respect towards you will be instantly palpable, and others will take everything else you say far more seriously.
Lying comes so natural to us that people treat it like the fear of death. Everyone is expected to fear death. However, every folklore has a form of art praising those who do not fear death.
Telling the truth when it is shallowly expected to belittle you is an anti-pattern behavior, and most people will immediately notice it. Most of us have had encounters with professors or teachers saying “I don’t know” to a question. You almost feel an impulse to clap your hands in respect to those people in such rare situations. It’s instinctively counter-intuitive to tell a negative truth about yourself, but does it go a long way.
Reason III: Honesty makes you a better professional
Our professional skills are products that circle the market just like a bottle of shampoo. They offer some value to some entity, and we try to maximize the value itself and the compensation we get for it.
Since your clientele is 100% humans, they’re target to the brilliant lying-monster in your head. If you could falsely convince someone that you are more valuable than you are, you are suddenly more valuable than you are! But only in a small world where only you and your victim live.
This reality creates a real quandary. It can be an actual decision in today’s world whether to design a better house or build a better facade. It is challenging to strike a healthy balance between the two. Public relations is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Being professionally honest makes your facade a mere extension of your skills. It also largely diminishes the need to strike the balance I mentioned above. Your facade becomes a natural byproduct and even a stable stream of accurate feedback. Clarity will ensue, and you will determine your weak points efficiently, and reinforce yourself around them. You will gradually become less in touch with the whole concept of facades and all your time will be spent strengthening your actual skills and general character.
Occasionally, someone will remind you about the elegance of your work, at which point you’ll take real pride in your work and will not have a shred of doubt that they’re complimenting an appearance.
Reason IV: Honesty makes you a better lover
While being a lover is different from being a professional, the overlap between the two remains vast. Interacting with other human beings, especially on intimate terms, is an acquired skill that takes years to master, if ever. Many other things like sex, romance, flirting, or even cooking are difficult skills that help you be a better lover.
When training for any skill, feedback is tremendously valuable. Sadly, people become better in relationships by dashing through several intimate relationships. Implying that the best feedback people get is a breakup.
At least in my experience, the most important lessons in my relationship skills were learned through breakups. Breakups are moments of truth when you are cornered with the truth and have to digest it. Although I have seen people with their lying-monster so untamed, they learn nothing from a breakup.
With honest feedback, you do not need a breakup to hone your lover-skills. You’ll deal with reality all the time; building true resilience for change and real respect for relationship challenges.
If you and your partner are sincere, you’d learn much more about yourself, them, and life. You would lose the silly questions to elicit compliments and praise when it is not real. You will build an authentic compliment-worthy self, and you will get all the compliments that, ironically, you do not need at this point.
As the days go by, your life will converge with what your true self wants and I cannot begin to describe the amount of satisfaction you get there.
Moreover, remember reason II; people like you are hard to come by, and that is sexy.
Reason V: You are not being nice
People often think a white lie is a charitable act of kindness. “I am just being nice!”. Is that right?
Most of the time, we are indeed being nice. However, quite commonly we tend to be lazy and cowardly. Especially when the truth is bitter. We often obey the brilliant lying-monster urging us to tell a white lie such as “You look fantastic!” when the person does not. We follow this monster to avoid the discomfort and the possible harsh comeback from the other person when the truth is distasteful.
A white lie, in this case, is an entirely selfish cop-out. If you have your own tendencies and reasons to tell a white lie, you have to acknowledge that these are your tendencies and reasons, not the other person’s. So is a white lie, told for your benefit and purposes, still a white lie?
Making the decision to label a lie as “white” is presumptuous. You presume that shielding the other person from the truth is better for them.
To quote Harris:
When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives — about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?
In my opinion, being honest makes life easier because it turns reality into your memory, richer because you will be a better professional, happier because will be a better lover, and nicer because you will actually be nice.
Honestly, thank you for making it to this point.