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Is it ever moral to be dishonest?

asked Oct 01 '10 at 16:11

Sandi%20Trixx's gravatar image

Sandi Trixx

retagged Oct 04 '10 at 12:44

Tammy's gravatar image

Tammy ♦♦

No, not if you mean literally dishonest. Honesty is "the refusal to fake reality" (OPAR, p. 267, cited in the Glossary of Objectivist Definitions). Dishonesty thus consists of faking reality in some way, and is never moral.

Dishonesty is not the same as lying or deceit. Not every lie is dishonest, in the sense of faking reality. To lie is "to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive" (Merriam-Webster). Most lies are dishonest—for instance, lying about cheating on one's wife in order to preserve a marriage, or about one's qualifications in order to get a job. But there are honest lies—to protect oneself from a criminal, for instance; to deceive the enemy in wartime; even to protect one's privacy from the prying questions of strangers.

answered Oct 02 '10 at 02:21

jasoncrawford's gravatar image

jasoncrawford ♦

No. But it is moral to lie in certain situations.

How? The issue concerns what honesty really is. Most people equate it with telling the truth. But this totally omits concern with to whom you are telling the truth.

Properly understood, honesty is the refusal to fake reality. If a known criminal comes to your door and asks you where your baby is sleeping, to tell him the truth would be pretending he were a trustworthy man. Similarly, giving true information to the enemy in wartime is to pretend he's not an enemy. Telling true, personal information to a prying stranger is to pretend he deserves your trust.

In the above ways, telling the truth can end up being an act of fakery. And it is fakery in deed, not just fakery in word, that honesty forbids.

Honesty tells us to act according to the facts -- and not to give precedence to some fantasy we might prefer.

answered Oct 02 '10 at 12:55

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Oct 02 '10 at 12:58


If you are being threatened with force, it is morally right to lie, if necessary, to save your own life.

answered Oct 01 '10 at 21:23

Earl3d's gravatar image

Earl3d ♦

I agree with the substance of your answer, but not with the formulation that it's moral to be dishonest. See my answer on dishonesty vs. lying.

(Oct 02 '10 at 02:22) jasoncrawford ♦ jasoncrawford's gravatar image

But suppose someone points a gun at you and says, "Do you love me?" Fearing for your life, you reply, "Yes, definitely." That's certainly a lie. In what sense would it not also be dishonest?

(Oct 02 '10 at 02:28) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

If someone is threatening your life, he's not asking for an honest statement. He wants you to speak certain words. Complying, in order to save one's life, is not faking reality in any way.

(Oct 02 '10 at 02:41) jasoncrawford ♦ jasoncrawford's gravatar image
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I agree with Jason's answer. Another way to put the point is that, for Objectivism, morality means your guide for conforming to reality. So what this question really amounts to is: can I conform to reality by faking reality? Can I be rational by engaging in pretense?

answered Oct 02 '10 at 12:44

Publius's gravatar image

Publius ♦

It is immoral to lie to gain a value. It is moral to lie to protect a value from those who would forcibly expropriate it and who do not have a legitimate claim to it. Whether it is prudent to lie in the second case depends upon the context, including the level of force you are facing and whether other or higher values may subsequently be jeopardized.

For instance, a totalitarian government may send an agent to your door to confiscate a particular item. Resistance in any form may result in loss of higher values such as your domicile, your family or your life. Thus, it may be moral to lie in such case but imprudent to do so.

answered Oct 02 '10 at 13:10

c_andrew's gravatar image

c_andrew ♦

edited Oct 02 '10 at 13:11

In the answers and comments on this topic, much has been made about a distinction between lying and being dishonest. Examples have been offered in which lying is moral, but is not dishonest and thus does not constitute an instance of dishonesty being moral.

It has been pointed out that under normal conditions, lying is dishonest and does not serve the life of a rational being. As a contrasting example of abnormal conditions, the case of a victim of physical force lying to protect his life (as best he can under those conditions) has been offered. It has been further argued that lying in that case is not dishonest, since the force initiator allegedly is not expecting the victim to tell the truth or to reveal what he honestly believes in his own mind.

Although I had not understood the original question to be implying (or inquiring about) any distinction between lying and dishonesty, I am inclined to agree (for the most part) with the clarifying comments about the nature of dishonesty that have been offered so far in this discussion thread. Refer also to The Ayn Rand Lexicon, entry on "Honesty."

However, I still question whether or not a force initiator necessarily expects and wants to be lied to. The real-life example that I am thinking of is living in a dictatorship, especially a totalitarian dictatorship. My understanding of dictatorships is that the dictator wants and expects his victims to do everything in their power (and more) to create the kind of fictional universe that he envisions, with the "vision" frequently changing unpredictably, and not to try to tell him that it's impossible. He believes, in effect, that a collective consciousness can override anyone's concept of "reality," and make "theoretical" contradictions real. This puts the victims in the impossible position of conforming to the dictator's wishes (and whims), and being destroyed by reality as a result -- or conforming to reality and being destroyed by the dictator. Trying to conform to the dictator would be faking reality and thus dishonest, but it could not properly be described as immoral in that case. Life in a dictatorship is inherently a context in which objective morality is impossible and inapplicable for those forced to cope with that context. While this technically is not a case of dishonesty being moral, since no objective moral standards are possible, it is likewise not a case of dishonesty being immoral, either. (For more on dictatorship in general, refer to the entry on "Dictatorship" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

The Lexicon entry on "Emergencies" may have applicability here, as well. One can view a dictatorship as a kind of chronic emergency in which no objective moral principles can be defined.

answered Oct 03 '10 at 02:40

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Oct 01 '10 at 16:11

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Last updated: Oct 04 '10 at 12:44