The Balancing Act of Honesty and Lies

This format is one I rarely work in, the text is more of a column/piece that you would find in a newspaper. It’s mostly a stream of consciousness regarding truth and lies, and what it means to be a human dealing with it.

”To live outside the law you must to be honest.” – Absolutely Sweet Marie, Bob Dylan 1966

Honesty is a matter difficult to grasp. Is it a rule to live by? Is it something used only when the sole benefactor of it is yourself? Is it always inherently good, can it be evil? Trying to understand the entire spectrum between truth and lies can be both logically and emotionally complex. This complexity, to be mild, is something you’re troubled with every day. You need to lie or be honest to everyone you meet, even if you lie in bed locked up for a day you still have to do this to yourself. Of course, the easiest thing in the world would be to approach life by constantly lying to yourself, then you would never have to take responsibility for your actions since they can always be blamed on someone else. Therefore, there is some value to honesty, not only for yourself but for society as a whole. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that society as a whole needs more productive members, rather than couch potatoes. Although, I would be the first to admit how nice it can be taking a day off sometimes. So, when honesty has a value that, from this view, makes you a functioning, productive individual and citizen, it is a subject to be examined with interest. However, as stated earlier, honesty is just one side of the truth (yes, I did). Honesty lies on a spectrum ranging to lies. To describe actions in terms of honesty and lies must be done with the utmost carefulness. An action is not one hundred percent honest or dishonest, it does in fact exist on a spectrum. To illustrate this, imagine yourself in an interrogation at the police station. The situation is as follows:

You’re being interrogated on the grounds of withholding information regarding the disappearance of your friend who is wanted for murder. You know that your friend is innocent because this murder was committed when you two were at your home watching bad movies. No one else can confirm this, and there is no evidence proving you two were together. However, your friend is sure they’re being framed. You know that your friend did not do it since you were in their company. Now, your friend is hiding in a safe place, you know where. To lie to the police in this situation is not an inherently evil action. Though, you could say that being honest and turning your friend in would be proper procedure, your friend will be protected by the judicial system, if they’re not guilty, they will be acquitted. However, if your friend has forcefully begged you not to reveal their location to anyone, not even the police, if you accept, you will have to be honest or lie to your friend as well. If you’re honest to the police and reveal your friend’s location, you’re being dishonest to your friend for revealing where they’re hiding, and vice versa.

In this situation of the interrogation you are faced with an action of truth or lie, and it affects being honest or dishonest to your friend. Perhaps you regard your moral judgement just as important as that of the judicial system? A lot of us would. By telling the police a lie you may feel like you’re protecting your friend who is innocent and taking a moral high ground. The moral high ground can be just that, the peak of just action. However, it’s very easy to think you’re on it when you’re actually not. Morality is often tied to just action via truthfulness and when actions can be both honest and dishonest, as in the example, it is a great claim to make, to take the moral high ground.

If you lie in this situation, there could be outside factors not to your knowledge. The lie could lead to unexpected consequences you could not have imagined. What if by lying to the police and being honest with your friend, leads to a tragic situation that is disadvantageous for the same? This illustrates the spectrum of truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty. If an action can be both at the same time, it is not a question of a black or white phenomenon. In order to navigate this spectrum, it is necessary to be humble and not to claim a moral high ground when talking about honesty and lies. In fact, I’d like to return to your everyday life. When faced with lying to yourself, there is a possibility of doing it as a defense mechanism, to protect you from a breakdown so hard you wouldn’t function for a while. In this case the lie to yourself might be good for you in the short run. If you were to be better off in the long run though, you would have to be honest with yourself though.

So how do you know when lies are justified, in what situation to be honest, is the truth holy? To be of an opinion which deliberately is dishonest can be a morally questionable action to say the least. However, if the lie you’re telling is something you’ve, let’s say, invented to help you handle a hard situation which is out of your control. Even if you are lying to yourself there might be a value attributed to this lie, just as value can be attributed to honesty. This would mean that in order to find where on the spectrum between honesty and dishonesty you lie, you would subtract the value of truthful- and dishonest actions and reach a sum. Since this is not mathematics, we’re not talking about absolute numbers, but if you weigh your actions against each other you would probably be interested of having the honest part of the scale heavier. And this is just where the core of the matter lies. There is a reason to strive for honesty, but it may not be appropriate or the best action in certain situations, a situation may also be about lying to yourself which makes being honest extremely hard. So, if you fail at being honest, there is no reason to beat yourself down. The important thing is to aim for an overweight of honesty and truthfulness, and not the other way around. In fact, life is much about balancing this scale, if you can find a balance that does not shift a lot, you might find that life turns out more balanced as well.