Not-So-Radical Honesty

“If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy.” – Eliezer Yudkowsky

I. Radical Honesty

Radical Honesty is a philosophy developed by psychiatrist Brad Blanton, which has as its principle tenet that lying is the primary source of human stress and that to become happier, people should tell the truth in all situations.

Lying is the major source of all human stress. It kills us. When people engage honestly, energy that was wasted maintaining a performance to make an impression is suddenly available for real creativity. When we admit our pretenses we can refresh our relationships and powerfully create our future together. Radical Honesty is direct communication that leads to intimacy in relationships.

Unfortunately, Blanton himself seems like kind of a crackpost. He says things like “the primary cause of most both psychological and physical illness is being trapped in your mind.” He is also reportedly an abusive shithead. Still, the source of an idea has no bearing on its value, so I think it’s worth considering Blanton’s ideas on their own merits.

Blanton advocates against telling lies in any situation, but he goes further than that. A critical part of Radical Honesty is the idea that we should share our opinions and feelings all of the time.

He says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It’s the only path to authentic relationships. It’s the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.

My biggest issue with Blanton’s conception of Radical Honesty is that it’s intrusive. It’s often said that opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one, and they all stink. So it’s a pretty hard sell to claim that the world would be a better place if everyone went around telling everyone else their opinions all of the time. Further, expressing thoughts or feelings that people don’t want to hear can create pressure, or even lead to coercion. Blanton’s system seems to privilege the preferences of the speaker over the preferences of the audience. I would reserve any suggestion that people ought to freely share their thoughts for situations in which we have reason to believe that the other person wants to know what we think. This can be because they’ve asked a question, they are in a situation where our input would be valuable to them, or merely that we know them well enough to know that they would want us to speak up.

However, there are parts of Radical Honesty that I find appealing. I agree that telling lies saps our energy and sabotages intimacy. I agree that vast amounts of energy are wasted trying to maintain our facades. I agree that being completely honest is the only way to have an authentic relationship with another person.

One of the things I like about Radical Honesty is that it erases the distinction between lying and other forms of dishonesty. Our societies tends to view outright lies as somehow different from other intentionally misleading actions, but from a Radically Honest perspective, telling a lie, giving a false impression, and failing to correct a known assumption are equally wrong. Since the effect of each is the same, and the mental state of the dishonest party is the same, they all seem equally dishonest to me.

II. Where Dishonesty Is Coercive

Contra Blanton, I think the amount of honesty a person should display varies with situation. Ethically, I feel that honesty is required where honesty is necessary to respect another person’s boundaries and autonomy. This most often comes up in intimate relationships. As More Than Two puts it:

Perhaps the most common justification for dishonestly in a relationship is the notion that the truth will hurt worse than a lie. A person who cheats on a partner may think, If I tell the truth, I will hurt my partners, but if I don’t, my partner won’t need to experience that pain. This reasoning says more about the person making the argument than it does about the person he is “protecting,” because consent is not valid if it is not informed. By hiding the truth, we deny our partners the opportunity to consent to continuing a relationship with us. Controlling information to try to keep a partner (or to get a partner to do what we want) is one way we treat people as things.

Everyone has boundaries in intimate relationships. We might not always know what those boundaries are (though asking usually helps), but we can be confident that every one of our intimate partners has boundaries about who they are willing to have such relationships with. Sadly, one of the most common ways that intimate partners are dishonest with one another is that they hide things about themselves that they thing their partner won’t like. While I think that is foolish for practical reasons, it’s also virtually guaranteed to prevent a partner from giving informed consent to continue the relationship. Intentionally hiding aspects of ourselves is a way of preventing a partner from enforcing their boundaries or making informed choices about who to partner with. While hiding aspects of ourselves will not always result in a boundary violation, it’s likely enough that doing so shows a reckless disregard for our partner’s agency and boundaries.

Wherever a person’s boundaries are dependent upon knowing something about us, being dishonest is coercive. There are no exceptions. There are situations, however, when coercion is justified. The classic example is defense of self or others. If someone punches you, it’s ok to punch them back. But it’s important to remember that being dishonest with a person is likely a boundary violation. If you wouldn’t feel justified hitting someone, you shouldn’t feel justified being dishonest with them.

For this reason, lying in intimate relationships is never justified unless it’s a temporary measure to protect yourself while you exit the relationship. Intimate relationships run on trust. As More Than Two points out, being dishonest with an intimate partner means that, from then on, your relationship is non-consensual. Dishonesty, in this sense, is a form of controlling behavior. It’s a way of managing others rather than connecting with them. It’s a hostile act, and it abuses the trust that a partner has given.

However, I part ways with Blanton at his suggestion that we have an affirmative duty to tell the truth. While I tend to value privacy less than most, people still have a right to it, even from intimate partners. However, this doesn’t extend to a right to be dishonest. The key difference between privacy and dishonesty is that an honest person will admit to keeping things private. An honest exercise of privacy will involve phrases like “I don’t feel comfortable telling you that,” “I don’t want to talk about that,” or “that’s private.” Rather than misleading or misdirecting, an honest private person will merely state that they don’t wish to disclose.

Sometimes, honesty can be dangerous. In intimate relationships, people will sometimes react to our honesty (even if it’s merely a request for privacy) with hostility, rage, or even violence. Often, we can’t know how a person will react to our disclosures. In such circumstances, dishonesty can be a weapon we use to defend ourselves. When we are faced with a situation in which we feel that we should be dishonest with an intimate partner to protect ourselves, unless there are coercive forces keeping us there (see below) the only ethical choice is to leave the relationship. Once a person has been dishonest with an intimate partner, and refuses to correct their dishonesty, that person has robbed their partner of the ability to consent to continue the relationship. The only ethical choice is to end it.

Other times, honesty is merely difficult. It might cause people not to like us, to break up, or to get justifiably angry. Being honest might make us feel shame, guilt, or fear. Being honest might mean we don’t get what we want. But none of that justifies recklessly violating another person’s boundaries. None of that justifies coercing someone into a nonconsensual relationship.

III. Where Honesty is Ethically Optional

Pragmatically, I’m a fan of honesty in most situations. As stated above, I feel that honesty is a requirement to have a genuine connection with another person. There are also social benefits to being seen as an honest person, and the only reliable and lasting way to create that image is to actually be an honest person. However, that’s a subject for a different post.

As we’ve seen above, being dishonest with a person turns a consensual relationship into a nonconsensual one. However, where a relationship is already nonconsensual or coercive in nature, dishonesty can be justified. The biggest example is employment. In the United States, most employment relationships are coercive. Employers generally have vastly more power than employees, and employees are dependent upon employers for even basic necessities. Most employment relationships are based on a foundation of coercion, and so a prospective employee has no ethical duty to be completely honest with an employer. There, it’s more a pragmatic decision about what is safe to disclose or not. The same applies in mostly consumer transactions, or really most interactions between individuals and large businesses.

Similarly, other personal relationships can be coercive, where the power imbalance becomes so great that one party cannot simply leave without unnecessary consequences:

When leaving the relationship means destitution, social isolation, estrangement from family, or other avoidable and destructive consequences, it is coercive. When a partner attempts to make a breakup unnecessarily difficult or painful, it is coercive.

So where a person is already at such a power disadvantage that they have no meaningful choice but to stay in the relationship, that relationship is already nonconsensual, and the disadvantaged party is justified in using dishonesty to protect themselves. Abusive relationships, in particular, often create this type of coercion, where the abused party feels that they have no meaningful choice but to stay with the abuser.

However, there’s a pretty high bar. Where a person knows that leaving the relationship is a reasonable option and has no insurmountable barriers to doing so, dishonesty is only justified as an exit strategy. It’s critically important not to overuse this justification. “You made me do it” is an excuse that’s much more likely to be used by an abuser than a victim, so think hard before you decide that you have no choice other than to violate another person’s boundaries.

Sometimes, dishonesty can be consensual. In certain relationships, there is a “don’t ask don’t tell” understanding about certain topics, or even an understanding that a person should lie or hide certain information. Practically, this can be difficult. Ethically, it’s not a problem. Honesty is never required if the audience doesn’t want it. This enables a lot of familial relationships that would otherwise end up being antagonistic. It also tends to facilitate getting along with coworkers or other people that we don’t choose to be around. In other friendships, it’s understood that people aren’t sharing their full thoughts, and that’s ok too, so long as both parties are aware of what is being disclosed and what isn’t.

IV. Conclusion

Radical Honesty seems like a pretty silly idea, but there are elements of it that I like. My own policy would look something like this:

Dishonesty is a hostile act. This includes lying, intentionally misleading people, or knowingly failing to correct assumptions. Tell the truth in most circumstances. The importance of telling the truth increases with the amount of trust the other person is giving. Share your thoughts liberally, but only when you have reason to believe that your audience wants to know them. If you wish to keep something private, say so explicitly.

Avoid telling the truth where dishonesty is the least harmful alternative. Situations like this in social relationships are rare, and should be exited as quickly as possible. Where exiting is not a meaningful option, long-term dishonesty may be the best policy, though we should be highly skeptical of this option as we are all biased to favor it.

Where a person does not want honesty, there is no need to be honest with them.

Corporations are not people. There is nothing coercive about lying to a corporation.


Addendum (4/9/15):

I left this out the first time, but I think it’s important to recognize that the More Than Two Relationship Bill of Rights recognizes that “You have the right, without shame, blame or guilt, in all intimate relationships, to be told the truth.” Eve Rickert has convincingly argued that this right cannot be waived:

If a right is something you cannot give up in a relationship, do all of the rights in our RBoR still stand as rights?

To answer this question, we need to consider, for each right, what it means for that right to not exist in a relationship. Does consistently violating that right lead to coercion? Does it violate ongoing, informed consent? Will it lead to abuse?

I read through the RBoR again with these questions in mind. Amazingly, I found that all of the rights still meet the bar for being a right. There are certainly cases where you might choose not to exercise a right. It might be easy enough to say you don’t need the right to leave when, well, you don’t want to leave. But when you decide you do want the right? It’s still there.

And that’s what makes it a right.

2 responses to “Not-So-Radical Honesty

  1. I think that in relationships there’s a place for answering the real question with honesty while perhaps lying in response to the one asked.

    My best example is this: I am happily computing. My husband asks if I want to go to the store with him. If I parse this as “do I wish to stop what I’m doing and do something else involving getting dressed and dealing with people” the answer is no. (Sometimes HELL no.) But if I parse this as, “I want to spend time with my wife doing something and get something done at the same time,” my answer’s different, because that’s about our relationship, and I do like spending time with him. So am I lying? That depends.

  2. I think either answer could be honest, depending on what *you* want. This is actually related to a different post of mine about what we want, but questions of human motivation can get kind of complicated. You could not want to put on pants, but want to spend time together, and it’s up to you to weigh those desires against each other and come up with a decision. It’s only lying if you tell him that you want to go when you really don’t. If your answer is a true reflection of your internal debate about what you want to do, then you’re being honest.

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