Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Lying, part 3

In Lying part 1, I argued that in situations where one party wants to communicate the truth to another party who wants it, lying may accomplish that goal. In Lying part 2, I argued that in situations where the first party doesn't want to communicate private information to the second party, lying may accomplish that goal. Today I will argue that there are also situations where the second party doesn't even want (or only thinks it wants) the information that would be communicated in the absence of a lie.

First of all, it's important to quash any notion that more information necessarily makes people better off. There are arguments and counterarguments that could be made, but for most people I don't anticipate this being a controversial point. Most people avoid searching for things like "smallpox" on google images (don't do it!). Most people don't want to be carrying around a memory of how horrible war is -- or how awesome heroin is -- for the rest of their lives. And most people, when they ask how you are, don't actually want to know that you are not fine today...because they barely know you, and it's awkward for both parties, right? (Forget Lying parts 1 and 2...how odd is it to make a rule that says you have to tell the truth when neither of you wants the truth to be told? Just say you're fine). And on a personal note, the maitre d' does not want me to explain that actually my name is Xan, not Shawn...and neither do I, because what purpose does it serve besides wasting 20 seconds of both of our time? Truth can be costly and pointless to deliver; when it's time to put a name down, I for one am quite content to say "Shawn" and move on with my life.

These examples, ranging from the trivial to the intense, are picked from an entire menu of ways information can do us wrong...and while they hardly cover the gamut, I'm hoping they are suggestive of the variety of problems we can run into. (Apologies if you couldn't resist googling smallpox...in which case did I harm you by telling you something?)

Okay. Next, given that information does not necessarily benefit people, it immediately follows that people don't necessarily know what information will benefit them. Because, before they know it, how can they know it's good for them? (How can they know my name isn't worth the bother?) When people ask you a question, when they solicit information from you, they have some expectation about how much they will value that information -- evidently they think it will benefit them. But you have more than an expectation; you actually know it...and if you know them well enough, you may be in a better position to judge whether they would truly benefit from that information. If you care about their wellbeing, this is something to take very seriously. Just deciding to follow a simple rule like, "When someone requests the truth, give it to them"...well, it's certainly an easy rule to follow, but that's not enough in my book.

And once we get to this point, hopefully it's clear that a lie may come in handy, serving a purpose that benefits one or both parties. Just like in part 2, a lie may be the only way of not revealing problematic information. It may be that silence is not an option (after all, I have to say something to the maitre d'), or it may be that silence conveys exactly what we're trying to avoid conveying in the first place: "What's in the box...an iPod?" "No." "...an iPad?" "No." "...an iPhone?" "Umm...no comment?" Wrapping paper is costly, but talk is cheap. If you're going to wrap your gifts with paper, don't be stingy with your words.


Of course, I'm not really just attacking the most extreme viewpoint, that increased information is always good. The real point is that information doesn't even come close to being always good. The point is to rip off information's holy cloak and actually consider what's underneath...because, once we recognize how far it is from being the ideal, we are forced to take seriously the question of whether and when we really want to pursue it. In truth, information is immensely complicated. In truth, it's hardly obvious what information should and should not be dispensed to whom. In truth, this is a hard problem, not an easy one, and hard problems deserve serious consideration, not simple rules like "Always tell the truth." Information is sometimes our enemy, sometimes our friend, and at times it happens to be best be accessed or avoided by a lie. What's left to say? Lies are not the enemy here; honesty and dishonesty are better thought of as weapons than targets. A knife is not good or bad, it is simply a knife. The question is how to use it.

By the way, I really wasn't sure how much content to put in this post. On the one hand, I worry that it will seem particularly obvious to people who have read it. Nevertheless, my feeling is that people are often unthinkingly cavalier with information, conveniently justified with a simple appeal to the "sanctity" of truth. "Don't knock it till you try it," they say, as if you can just throw it away if you don't like what you learn. And when someone is wrong, do we always have to tell them? It's certainly hard to resist, and this is exactly when it's most tempting to believe that honesty is inherently justified, to ignore the possibility that maybe we should really stop and think about whether we should speak our minds. If the goal is wellbeing, truth is not sacred.

In the end, I figured that actually saying the obvious thing makes it harder to ignore, so I decided to say it a few different ways.

Finally, all of that said, don't get me wrong: truth is sacred to a rational agent whose goal is to understand reality. Just don't forget that in many contexts, information is also a lot like a good, with utility associated with the act of consuming it. And really, without free disposal, why should we expect info to be good for our wellbeing in general? No one wants an annoying song stuck in their head...

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