by Eric Heubeck
In my overview of the “honesty culture” strategy, I present “four rules” that I propose all members of “truth groups” would agree to abide by (or, at the very least, agree to make efforts to abide by). I also propose a single, narrow exception to the first rule (that is, the “never lie” rule) which allows lying for the purpose of protecting one’s personal privacy or autonomy if it is being unreasonably threatened.
In that overview, I do not explain why I chose to draft those particular four rules or the scope of that particular exception in the precise way that I did. (I do, however, provide a relatively brief argument regarding the overall irrationality of the practice of lying in another writing on this site, “Why society’s tolerance of lying is not rational.”) Readers should know that I have given the matter a great deal of thought; and it is as a result of that thinking that I came to certain conclusions regarding the general standards of behavior that would need to be expected of all truth group members if the honesty culture strategy is to have a realistic chance of succeeding. But it is essentially only those conclusions that I have presented in the overview of the strategy, without very much in the way of supporting argumentation.
And so, when I recently read philosophy professor Sissela Bok’s book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, 1979), I was gratified to find that, after having studied that same subject matter of lying and dishonesty with great analytical rigor, and after having carefully examined the various excuses that have been made down through the centuries for the practice of lying, Dr. Bok came to roughly the same conclusions that I did: that lying cannot be rationally justified except when an individual needs to defend himself or herself from threats against personal privacy or from unfair coercion, as well as in a few other rather unusual situations (for example, when a certain amount of mutual deception is understood to be allowed according to generally understood and agreed-upon “rules of the game,” such as in a poker game or in the haggling that takes place in a bazaar). Dr. Bok thus provides much of the explication of the argument against lying that I have not yet presented in my own published writings, even though I already generally shared her views even before reading the book.
I anticipate that if the “honesty culture” strategy is able to get off the ground, just as soon as it does, strong pressure will immediately come from many quarters to expand the scope of the single exception to the “never lie” rule, or to expand the number of exceptions. I won’t say dogmatically that the exception that I propose should never be changed even in the slightest degree, but I will say that persons who wish to expand its scope ought to do so only with the greatest reluctance. It is imperative that the exception or exceptions to the rule against lying be very carefully contained; and people should not allow the “sob stories” and highly unrealistic hypotheticals that will inevitably be trotted out to lead them to lose sight of the importance of making sure that the exception or exceptions are not allowed to swallow up the rule, thereby rendering the entire “honesty culture” strategy a futile endeavor. And, whatever the exception or exceptions might be, they should be clearly articulated and delineated, so that all members of the honesty culture would know what they were, and therefore what treatment it would be fair for a member to expect from other members.
So, for persons who do not already intuitively understand or who have not already independently discovered the compelling reasons for strongly insisting upon a general “never lie” rule in society—as well as for insisting equally strongly that any exceptions to that rule be very carefully contained—I encourage them, along with anyone else who is at all interested in the subject matter discussed on this site, to begin by reading Dr. Bok’s book.
Having said that, however, I must note that although I am almost fully in agreement with Dr. Bok with regard to her arguments against lying, I am not in agreement with the solutions to the problem of lying that she offers in the Conclusion to her book. As is typical with most academics, the only solutions that she considers at all feasible are “top-down” solutions, such as appealing to policy-makers and government officials to more strictly enforce laws such as those against fraud and perjury, and appealing to educational institutions to put more emphasis on instruction in ethics. She also exhorts the government to “look to its own practices, to the very ‘climate’ of its dealings with the public” in order to “try to reverse the injuries to trust and to public life of the last decades.” (p. 258.) But why would she expect the government to ever do that? What incentives would it have to suddenly reverse its characteristic ways of behaving when it has never felt the need to do so previously? Has there ever been a government in human history that didn’t lie to its own people? And if not, why might that be?
In addition, she recommends that various professions develop codes of ethics if they have not already done so. Furthermore, “Lay persons, and especially those affected by the professional practices, such as customers or patients, must be included in these efforts, and must sit on regulatory commissions.” (p. 260.) Yes, regulatory commissions.
In fairness, though, Dr. Bok does mention the fact that economists in particular have been “seeking procedures that reward honesty in such activities as voting, giving expert advice, bargaining, and bidding at auctions. … They suggest that such changes be made in common social procedures that, when people choose strategically, it will also be in their best interest to be honest. In this way, social practices that have sprung up helter-skelter, and that at present appear to reward deception, may be altered in such a way that all benefit thereby.” (p. 261.) Pursuing this sort of “incentive-realigning” approach when designing social practices seems somewhat more promising than her other proposed solutions, and is consistent with what I have written elsewhere on this site; but even so, taken by itself, I still do not think it will ever be enough to create a fully honest society. Something more deeply transformative will be needed.
Dr. Bok gives short shrift to the ability of ordinary individuals to effect social change. She writes, “The social incentives to deceit are at present very powerful; the controls, often weak. Many individuals feel caught up in practices they cannot change. It would be wishful thinking, therefore, to expect individuals to bring about major changes in the collective practices of deceit by themselves. Public and private institutions, with their enormous power to affect personal choice, must help alter the existing pressures and incentives.” (p. 258.)
And, as I note toward the end of my article “Why society’s tolerance of lying is not rational,” I completely agree with Dr. Bok that individuals are powerless to effect social change—but only so long as they are isolated, and not organized into communities of persons sharing the same moral values. When they organize themselves into such communities, in turn organized into networks of such communities—thereby creating an expansive, organic honesty culture—then voluntary associations of individuals, and not just remote “institutions,” will gain the power to effect change with regard to the problem of dishonesty in society. It is only by following that sort of “bottom-up” approach, through the formation of a mass social movement of individuals sharing certain crucial, core moral values—rather than by assigning sole responsibility for solving the problem of dishonesty to “policy-makers” and “institutions” that will hopefully see what they can do to encourage more truthful “practices” here and there—that I believe it will be possible to create a society largely free of all lying and dishonesty. Social institutions cannot be relied upon to ensure truthfulness in society unless those institutions are already resting upon the solid, supportive foundation of an organic honesty culture.