Honesty, Importance of Principles, Part 3

Part 3 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 the third in a series of posts about Lecture Three, "Honesty, Importance of Principles”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. It’s in the form of a dialog.

Adam: Hi.

Bob: Hi.

Adam: In Lecture Three, Peikoff talks about dishonesty as an extra step after evasion. He says that evasion is being out of focus, but dishonesty is where you make up false facts. He gives the example of someone pretending to be a military veteran who has experience they don't have. This earlier post discussed someone in dire financial circumstances and facing a potential eviction. They convince themselves that some money will come in when they do not have a reasonable basis for doing so. So these cases both involve making up false facts. The military veteran case is more clearly an example of this, since that involves making up stuff about things that already happened. When talking about the future, there is a bit more wiggle room and so it's a bit harder to judge things, because your situation might improve, you might get some money coming in due to an inheritance, you might win the lotto ... who knows? But you still are under an obligation to be objective and use your best judgment, and so if you fail to do that, and inflate the likelihood of unlikely events or latch onto vague hopes, that still seems like dishonesty to me. So that would mean that dishonesty isn't about just falsifying facts but also includes misrepresenting facts in a way that one knows or should know is unreasonable.

Bob: That seems like a reasonable definition.

Adam: Ok. So why are people dishonest in the first place? What is the process that leads people to make up false facts? What is their motivation for being like that?

Bob: Any particular reason why you are interested?

Adam: I'd like to know how to look out for dishonesty in my own life better. Seeing what motivates dishonesty in other people seems like it might be helpful for that goal.

Bob: Okay. So let's analyze some scenarios. Let's try to specify some details rather than just talking about general abstractions. Imagine Charlie is facing an eviction. Charlie is only intermittently employed in various low-paying, low-skilled jobs. He never really figured out what he wanted to do with himself in life. He's got some hope that he'll have some money coming in due to getting "back pay" from an unemployment claim. He's convinced himself it will be many thousands of dollars, but a knowledgeable attorney told him it will probably just be a few hundred because he disqualified himself from a bunch of payments due to a refusal to go back to work when he had the opportunity. Charlie "thinks" he knows better than the attorney, though, and has convinced himself that he has enough money coming in to solve his various problems, including his eviction. So then suppose things turn out like the attorney says they would and he doesn't get enough money to cover his rent. Charlie thinks this is a bad break. He asks his brother Dan and his sister Elaine to help him get through this "rough patch". Dan and Elaine have problems of their own, though, and are tired of bailing out Charlie, which they've repeatedly done in the past. Just his luck, Charlie thinks. First he has a bad break, and then it turns out he has rotten siblings.

Adam: So it sounds like Charlie's being dishonest about the likelihood of the unemployment money being enough to solve his problems. My first impression is that is dishonesty is connected to a lack of independence and productivity. If Charlie were more independent, he wouldn't want to toss his problems onto his siblings or blame "bad breaks", but instead would recognize that this problem is his problem to solve. It's his responsibility to take care of his life. And if he were productive, or more productive, he wouldn't have this particular problem (facing eviction) to solve. He would have figured out how to make money in a way he likes and be able to afford his expenses. Also, he wouldn't have refused an opportunity to work (which is what disqualified him from receiving many unemployment payments) when he was in such a dire financial situation. It also seems he has a desire for the unearned (housing is a value that needs to be earned like any other), and a belief that his refusal to acknowledge the problem will somehow fix things.

Bob: I agree with that analysis. I also think you could keep going deeper and making more connections to other things. Why isn't Charlie independent? Maybe he has an issue with learned helplessness. Why isn't he productive? Maybe his approach to learning is broken in some way. And so on.

Here's a different scenario with someone ultimately facing an eviction. Francis makes a good living as a professional in the city. But he's a big spender who doesn't save and spends way beyond his means. He has a nicer apartment than he can reasonably afford and spends big on clothes and haircuts and various other things. He justifies it with the basis that he's a serious professional and has to have the things that go with that image and lifestyle. He relies on his image as a successful go-getter in order to get clients and romantic partners. That image as a successful go-getter is also a part of his self-image and self-esteem. So it's important both to himself and in how he relates to other people. But things at the firm haven't been going great lately. He might get let go, and even if they keep him, he'd probably have to take a big salary cut to survive. A friend, Geoffrey, tells Francis that he should start downsizing his lifestyle in order to accommodate his new situation, but Francis won't hear anything about it. Francis has vague hopes that he'll be able to bring enough new business to the firm to keep things going, but his hopes are nothing solid enough to justify making plans around. So then let's say he doesn't bring in new business, gets let go, and gets an eviction notice due to not making his rent. He remains adamant to Geoffrey that he'll be able to find a new job that will let him maintain his lifestyle. That's not realistic. He doesn't want to deal with the reality of his situation.

Adam: Ah so in this case the vague hope of bringing in new business is analogous to the inflated expectations regarding the unemployment check in the previous scenario.

Bob: Yeah that's one of the things I had in mind as the thing he's being dishonest about.

Adam: Well the scenario seems similar in various ways to the previous one, but also different. I would say that for this one, second-handedness seems to be more of a primary motivation. There's a dependence on other people in both scenarios but it manifests differently here. Francis' ability to project a certain image to other people of being a successful person is a core part of his identity. He doesn't want to think about having to downsize his lifestyle because the yardstick by which he's measuring his self-worth is the fact that he has such a lifestyle.

I actually looked up the Objectivist definition of independence to clarify the point. The most precise/useful statement I found is actually in another definition, for Rationality. Rand is describing various corollaries of Rationality as Objectivist virtues:

[Rationality] means one’s acceptance of the responsibility of forming one’s own judgments and of living by the work of one’s own mind (which is the virtue of Independence).

So there are very clearly two parts there to independence: 1) the responsibility of forming one's own judgments and 2) the responsibility of living by the work of one's own mind. And it seems like in the first eviction scenario we discussed, with Charlie, the default was more on the second part -- on the responsibility of living by the work of one's own mind. And now, with Francis, the default is more in terms of the first part, of forming one's own judgments, since Francis has made himself captive to other people's opinions of him in a self-destructive way.

Francis also seems to have a desire for the unearned (a certain lifestyle they can no longer afford given his actual income), and a belief that his refusal to deal with his problem will somehow fix things.

When we looked for someone's motivation for being dishonest, we keep finding other vices that breach other Objectivist virtues or ideas.

Bob: Yes. This should be expected. Recall that Peikoff said this in Lecture Three:

If you take a real example, it’s very hard to get a self-contained example in which the only thing that he does bad is be dishonest. Why? Because in real life, all the aspects are interconnected, for the same reason that all of the virtues are interconnected. So as soon as you give an example, as soon as you chew it one step, you’re plunged into the thicket of all of the other virtues. You say, “Don’t lie, because then you become dependent on others”—you’re right away in independence; “Don’t lie, because then you’re a hypocrite”—you’re right away in integrity; “Don’t lie, because it’s going to lead you to a life of parasitism”—you’re right away in productiveness. You see why I think the best way to present this is in a novel, because you give all of it at once. Ayn Rand doesn’t have one chapter on integrity, and the next on something else; it’s all in everything, and then at the end, she says, “To summarize.”

Trying to understand some particular point and break it down in detail can be a fine project. You may want to focus on dishonesty and see how other vices (second-handedness, a desire for the unearned, whim worship, sloth, dependence, self-loathing, injustice, whatever) fit "under" dishonesty and motivate it, similar to what we just did. But in reality, in the mind of a real living human being, various flaws and vices are all simultaneous and interacting. They are more like a web of mutually-supporting problems than a pyramid with whatever you happened to be focusing on at the top and the rest of the problems underneath.

I think people can find this overwhelming when looking at their own life, because when they start breaking down one problem in detail, they find five others, and then if they analyze those five problems, they find a bunch more, and it just seems like it's going to be an exponentially increasing wave of problems that won't ever end.

Adam: Yeah! That seems demotivating. What to do?

Bob: Well one thing to think about is that the same issue will come up in various areas of your life. Like, if you're a very dependent person, that may cause you problems in your professional life, and your personal life, and your hobbies, and so on. It'll show up all over. So if you take that one issue and work on it, you'll be working on something which will have an impact all over your life. It's not like each problem you have is a totally unique thing. People's issues can be categorized, they belong to certain classes. And the fact that your problems are mutually supporting is actually a good thing in a way, because if you make a big improvement in some area, you knock out one of the "supports" of your problems in a variety of areas.

Here's an analogy. Say you are physically weak. You might have all sorts of problems from this. You might have trouble getting up the stairs. You might have trouble getting down on the ground and getting under stuff when cleaning. You might have trouble putting heavy items away on your kitchen shelves or bringing in groceries. You might have problems with back pain. I could keep going.

Adam: Right. That could seem overwhelming if you break it down like that.

Bob: Right. And you know, getting stronger is a long project with a bunch of steps. I don't want to say it's easy. But if you approach it in a reasonable and systematic way and do it over time, you address a whole class of problems. And you know, you may wind up with new problems. Life is just solving problems. Like maybe you get stronger and you decide you want to take up sports or something, and you have to deal with all the problems associated with that. I think most people would consider that problem a better problem than the weakness-related problems we were just discussing though.

Adam: Right, I agree.

Bob: And I think the same basic analysis applies to virtues of character as applies to strength. If you work on your character in a systematic way over time, using some reasonable method and sufficient effort, you will address a whole class of problems in your life, and things will slowly improve. And you will have new problems, like I said, but you won't be dealing with an infinite spiral of existing, unpleasant problems. You'll be able to move onto better stuff.