Honesty, Importance of Principles, Part 1

Part 1 of a series of posts on the third chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", "Honesty, Importance of Principles".

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is about Lecture Three, "Honesty, Importance of Principles”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Peikoff says that the topic is going to be "Why be honest?" He's going to have people read some prepared stuff on the topic and then analyze the statements. He says that for honesty, we need to establish more context than we did for "life as the standard of value", because honesty is in the middle of ethics, not at the beginning. Peikoff says that we can't actually chew the topic enough to really cover it thoroughly, but the point is to get the method down so that you can chew by yourself.

The first flawed presentation of honesty is as follows:

I have to start by a clear understanding first of what honesty is, so I’ll know what it is that I’m trying to understand. Let’s see. Honesty, first of all, is not telling lies. It means not lying to other people; it means speaking the truth to them. I guess more basically this amounts to facing reality, not evading, focusing on facts, exercising your mind rather than turning it off, not turning to some kind of fantasy or make-believe to replace reality. So honesty, in sum, I would say, is focusing on reality by your mind, and as a result, not lying to other people.

I think there are serious conceptual problems with this presentation. It first defines honesty in terms of a particular concrete (not telling lies to other people). So it doesn't set out the principle. And also the concrete is too small to capture the range of stuff that honesty covers (which makes sense, since concretes are concretes and the whole reason we need concepts in the first place is to cover a range of concretes and integrate some important aspect of those concretes into an idea we can use more broadly -- it's not the concrete's fault that it was used where a concept should be used). Honesty involves not truthfulness to other people but truthfulness to oneself. The presenter tries to go broader, but just speaks in vague generalities ("facing reality, not evading") and then concludes by reiterating their too-narrow concrete.

Peikoff agrees that it is an error to define honesty in terms of other people. Peikoff also says the above is primarily a negative definition in that it mostly tells you what not to do, and that's a problem. Also, Peikoff raises the point that it doesn't qualify the bit about not lying to other people, which is a problem and which you can take as a Kantian absolutist sort of approach. Objectivism doesn't say lying is always wrong (Peikoff gives example of a Nazi coming to door asking for the Jews); lying is wrong in a certain context, like when you're trying to gain some value by fraud or misrepresentation. Peikoff also says the part about facing reality, not evading, etc., was much too broad since it's applicable to all the virtues. Peikoff also gives some explanation about the relationship between evasion and honesty:

Dishonesty is a step after evasion. Evasion: you ignore some aspect of reality; dishonesty is making up a new reality to replace the one that you didn’t like. If you merely evade, you just don’t look at reality, and that is a default. You could walk around in a daze, but it wouldn’t involve any specific dishonesty, just being out of focus. You’re not yet constructing another fact to replace the actual fact. But if you don’t look at something that you don’t like, and you make up or pretend something unreal to replace it, that is specifically dishonesty. Like if you pretend, for instance, that you’re a military veteran and you have tremendous experience when you don’t, then you are making up something; that is not simply not looking at your past; that’s making up a new one.

Ok so this answers a question I had earlier, which was the reason why Peikoff defined honesty elsewhere in the book in terms of making up a new reality -- the making up part distinguishes dishonesty from mere evasion. Peikoff:

What honesty specifically says is, don’t fake reality. Or, the way you can put this—rationality says existence is there, it exists, try to grasp it; honesty says only existence exists, don’t try to make another one, don’t manufacture the unreal as a substitute.

Makes sense. More Peikoff:

So, just to get a concept of “honesty” clearly before us at the outset: All virtues in Objectivism have two aspects—they partly involve a process in the mind, a process of consciousness, and they partly involve a certain course of action in the physical world (an aspect involving existence). In other words, something in your mind, and then a corresponding course of action. And in regard to honesty, the mental side is: Never pretend that things are other than they are, whether you pretend that for yourself or for others. And then in regard to action, never seek to gain a value by such pretext. That’s honesty, the inner and outer side.

Peikoff says that after breaking the idea of honesty down and going into detail about what it is, you've got to squish it down into a simple idea that you can actually hold in your mind. He proposes something like “Don’t try to make up things". He says that it doesn't get into all the details and subtleties but that's fine.

Another flawed presentation on the honesty topic:

Okay, now that I know what honesty is, let me try to understand why I should be honest, why anyone should be honest. And I think I can do this best by illustration. Say, for example, you cheat your way into a job you’re not equipped for. You don’t have the ability to do the job. You’ll be terrified at the prospect of having to do it, not being able to do it. And you know that you don’t have the ability, so you’ll be terrified most of the time, worried that somebody is going to catch you, knowing you won’t be able to perform the way you should, the way you said you would be able to when you got the job. You’ll have to fake more and more, and one day, sooner or later, you’ll be caught. It just doesn’t work. In general, if you lie, you’ll experience remorse, you’ll experience guilt. At least you will if you’re a decent, moral person. If not, what’s the whole point of devising a moral code for you? You don’t want to go through life feeling guilty. It’s not in your interest. And we’re trying to define here what course of action you should take that’s compatible with your interest. Besides, it’s impractical in another respect. People will usually find out. You’ll get caught. Look at all the embezzlers who were caught and disgraced, even though they all thought they had this perfect scheme. Or take another example—suppose you cheat on your wife. Well, she’s going to know, or anyway, even if she doesn’t find out, you’ll know, you’ll know you’re cheating. You won’t be able to carry it off, not in the long run at least. You’ll feel guilty. It won’t work. I remember a friend of mine—Joe Edwards—who did this. And what happened was his girlfriend found out about it, they had a terrible fight, they broke up, he went into a depression for six months, and the net result was he was much worse off for having cheated than if he hadn’t. So put it this way—it’s a matter of respect for yourself and for others. No matter how horrible the truth, it’s better to face it head-on than to try to evade it. For example, a doctor who tries to lie to a patient and not tell him the truth about his condition—that’s not right. The patient has a right to know that, let’s say, he’s dying, even if it’s as bad as that. So in other words, you’ve got to face the truth and be honest.

IMHO this has a lot of concretes but is scattered and doesn't really connect with a specifically Objectivist idea of honesty very well. It's just kind of a mass of concretes with no organizing principle and with some common sense ideas instead of Objectivist ideas.

In terms of specific issues, regarding the example of getting a job you can't do, the focus in the presentation is on being worried and getting caught, but there's also an issue of wasting your own time trying to do something you can't actually do when you could spend your time on stuff you can actually do. Like, the presentation is focused on the downsides of acting dishonestly, but you'd also have some benefit if you acted honestly.

Also there is a problem here:

In general, if you lie, you’ll experience remorse, you’ll experience guilt. At least you will if you’re a decent, moral person. If not, what’s the whole point of devising a moral code for you?

This is not an Objectivist perspective. Objectivism does not treat guilt as the purpose of morality!

Peikoff says the presentation reverses cause and effect by bringing up guilt, and that's not good because guilt is a consequence of doing something wrong, but the question we're trying to investigate is why dishonesty is wrong (good point). He says this is a more minor point, and the more major one is that it kinda sounds like he's espousing the view of pragmatism (which I almost mentioned by name in my own analysis, but wasn't quite sure about it or something), which looks to whether something works or not.

Peikoff agrees that the presentation was a pile of examples/concretes with no principle tying them together. He says you need a union of examples with a principle. And Peikoff says a key problem is there's no structure to the reasoning, no step-by-step logical presentation or development. He says sort of error is typical of an empiricist, as compared to a rationalist.

Here is another flawed presentation of honesty. Peikoff says the problem here is neither rationalism nor empiricism.

I’m assuming we’ve already covered the definition of “honesty”; now I’m going to try to proceed systematically. First, I want to specify for myself the context that I’m taking for granted. What am I assuming? Well, honesty is not the beginning of ethics. It’s pretty far down the road. So I’m already assuming a lot that has been established. And let me identify what it is, exactly, that I’m assuming. First, I’m assuming metaphysics and epistemology—that there is a reality, and reason is the means by which you know it. And in ethics, I’m assuming part of ethics; I’m assuming that life is the standard of value. That much at least I have to assume, or else what’s the whole point of even discussing virtues, if you haven’t established that life is the ultimate end toward which these virtues are the means? Then I’m also assuming something else, that life has objective requirements. It’s not enough to say life is the standard; you have to say life has certain requirements; it’s not true that you can do anything, that anything goes, that any arbitrary action will keep you alive. You have to do certain specific things. If that’s not established, then again, there’s no point in virtues, because you can do anything and survive. Then there’s a third thing I think that I’m taking for granted—that the basic virtue, before honesty, the basic virtue is adherence to reality, conformity to the facts; it means behaving in accord with what is. Obviously, we live in reality; if we don’t adhere to it, we’re not going to survive. Reality dictates how you should live. This seems to me essential to getting to honesty. Once I’ve established this, I think honesty follows pretty easily, because honesty is a form of adhering to reality. Under the virtue of honesty, we’re not allowed to make up a phony reality; we must adhere to the real one. So it’s obvious, from that context, you must be honest; it’s very logical.

IMHO, in terms of overall structure this is crow overload (crowverload?). This is a large paragraph that's supposed to just be setting the context for honesty within the structure of Objectivist thought. It's trying to explain that whole context as it goes along. Bad! It needs to be more like "Assume there is an objective reality, we know it through reason, life is the standard of value, life has certain requirements, and reality is the cardinal virtue." The purpose here is to just remind people what floor they're on in Philosophy Tower, not provide a detailed architectural blueprint for the building. You need to have some idea of what these concepts are already to really understand the context and not try to explain everything at once. So a short statement will either remind you about stuff you already know or give you keywords to research later.

There is a step-by-step procedure being attempted here and the concepts being discussed aren't abstractions unanchored to reality, so I agree with Peikoff that it isn't rationalism. And since it is step-by-step and logical, and not just a pile of concretes for which the relationship is unclear, it's not empiricism either. So the flaw, IMHO, is really that it's an info dump on the context for honesty when a short summary would be way better.

Peikoff address a different point entirely. He thinks the problem is in "adhering to reality". He says it's very vague. He says to imagine if someone said something like:

“Life is the standard, and we have to have certain objective requirements if we’re to achieve it; the crucial one is adhering to reality. Therefore, we have to have capitalism.”

He says that's true but omits way too many steps. You need to address details like why socialism is an evasion of reality, what aspects of reality socialism evades, and so on. You need a context of how man functions, how we need productive ingenuity, how mind and force are opposites, etc., in order to be able to make this connection. And likewise a person could think they have to be dishonest in order to get by in a dog-eat-dog world and not see why adhering to reality involves honesty. Makes sense.

So Peikoff actually says the error is inadequate context. Basically, you try to establish a necessary context but skip too many steps. So that's interesting, because I thought the presentation was too long-winded, but Peikoff says it was insufficient. I do recall him saying earlier that you need to be economical in setting your context, and so I still think that applies, but you also need to set your context properly. He says to do that, you should try criticizing your own arguments to see if they hold up.

The last erroneous presentation is long enough that I don't want to include all of it. I will just paste one part that I comment on. Notably, Peikoff says at the beginning of the presentation that the error committed is "a different kind of error than any that we've had in this course". Here's one part:

Now, with this context of rationality, then the proof of “honesty” comes down to the following, I think: I have to show that dishonesty necessitates the violation of rationality; if you’re dishonest, you’re irrational; that it must involve or lead to some sort of evasion, some kind of anti-thinking attitude. If I’ve done that, then I’ve proved that honesty is a proper virtue. It’s a very logical proof. “Evasion is evil” is my first premise. If I can then prove dishonesty involves evasion, then it’s perfectly logical, it’s the end of a syllogism to simply say “Dishonesty must be evil.” First I have to assume that evasion is evil; that’s part of the context that we’re assuming. If I can prove dishonesty is evasion, I have therefore proved dishonesty is evil. Now the question is, how can I show it? How can I show that dishonesty is in fact evasion?

There was a transition here from wanting to argue that dishonesty "must involve or lead to some sort of evasion" to wanting to argue that dishonesty is evasion. That's a difference between there being a relationship between two things and one thing being a subset of the other. So I think there is maybe some rationalism here, some disconnection of concepts from reality and a desire to just manipulate them as abstract symbols (which is also indicated by stuff like "It's a very logical proof.") Also, "dishonesty is in fact evasion" is wrong as a statement of Objectivist ideas (as I understand them, anyways). As Peikoff has discussed things, dishonesty is when you make something up after evading. It's a separate step. Evasion is the blanking out, the refusal to think. There is a relationship between those two things, but not an identity.

Overall, the final presentation starts off saying it's going to present the context of honesty, but then it winds up spending a long time trying to prove a connection between dishonesty and evasion. And the examples are okay in that they give you some sense of what dishonesty involves, but they're misframed in terms of what they're accomplishing within the discussion. They're introduced as establishing a context for honesty but then they wind up being more of a substantive discussion of of a misconceived connection between honesty and evasion.

Peikoff has a different issue in mind. I see what he's saying but didn't really catch it at first (I had some intuition that the presentation started off okay but then got messy, but Peikoff describes the issue clearly). He says that basically, the presenter specified the context up to a point, but then started bringing up all sorts of stuff.

The whole point about the error is that the person specifies a context up to a point, and then the rest of Objectivism is, in effect, all on a table before him. He went through a couple of steps—“life, rationality”—okay, and then from there, on the table, on the same exact level, equal, is productivity and trade and everything else. And then he struggles to get to honesty, and whenever he gets stuck, he drags in one of those off the table—productivity is dragged in.

Will continue in Part 2. A note to myself: next time, especially for the longer erroneous presentations, I should try using trees to break them down and see if I see more issues that way.