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White Lies

37 Post author: ChrisHallquist 08 February 2014 01:20AM

Background: As can be seen from some of the comments on this post, many people in the LessWrong community take an extreme stance on lying. A few days before I posted this, I was at a meetup where we played the game Resistance, and one guy announced before the game began that he had a policy of never lying even when playing games like that. It's such members of the LessWrong community that this post was written for. I'm not trying to encourage basically honest people with the normal view of white lies that they need to give up being basically honest.


Mr. Potter, you sometimes make a game of lying with truths, playing with words to conceal your meanings in plain sight. I, too, have been known to find that amusing. But if I so much as tell you what I hope we shall do this day, Mr. Potter, you will lie about it. You will lie straight out, without hesitation, without wordplay or hints, to anyone who asks about it, be they foe or closest friend. You will lie to Malfoy, to Granger, and to McGonagall. You will speak, always and without hesitation, in exactly the fashion you would speak if you knew nothing, with no concern for your honor. That also is how it must be.

- Rational!Quirrell, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

This post isn't about HMPOR, so I won't comment on the fictional situation the quote comes from. But in many real-world situations, it's excellent advice.

If you're a gay teenager with homophobic parents, and there's a real chance they'd throw you out on the street if they found out you were gay, you should probably lie to them about it. Even in college, if you're still financially dependent on them, I think it's okay to lie. The minute you're no longer financially dependent on them, you should absolutely come out for your sake and the sake of the world. But it's OK to lie if you need to to keep your education on-track.

Oh, maybe you could get away with just shutting up and hoping the topic doesn't come up. When asked about dating, you could try to evade while being technically truthful: "There just aren't any girls at my school I really like." "What about _____? Why don't you ask her out?" "We're just friends." That might work. But when asked directly "are you gay?" and the wrong answer could seriously screw-up your life, I wouldn't bet too much on your ability to "lie with truths," as Quirrell would say.

I start with this example because the discussions I've seen on the ethics of lying on LessWrong (and everywhere, actually) tend to focus on the extreme cases: the now-cliché "Nazis at the door" example, or even discussion of whether you'd lie with the world at stake. The "teen with homophobic parents" case, on the other hand, might have actually happened to someone you know. But even this case is extreme compared to most of the lies people tell on a regular basis.

Widely-cited statistics claim that the average person lies once per day. I recently saw a new study (that I can't find at the moment) that disputed this, and claimed most people lie rather less often than that, but it still found most people lie fairly often. These lies are mostly "white lies" to, say, spare others' feelings. Most people have no qualms about those kind of lies. So why do discussions of the ethics of lying so often focus on the extreme cases, as if those were the only ones where lying is maybe possibly morally permissible?

At LessWrong there've been discussions of several different views all described as "radical honesty." No one I know of, though, has advocated Radical Honesty as defined by psychotherapist Brad Blanton, which (among other things) demands that people share every negative thought they have about other people. (If you haven't, I recommend reading A. J. Jacobs on Blanton's movement.) While I'm glad no one here is thinks Blanton's version of radical honesty is a good idea, a strict no-lies policy can sometimes have effects that are just as disastrous.

A few years ago, for example, when I went to see the play my girlfriend had done stage crew for, and she asked what I thought of it. She wasn't satisfied with my initial noncommittal answers, so she pressed for more. Not in a "trying to start a fight" way; I just wasn't doing a good job of being evasive. I eventually gave in and explained why I thought the acting had sucked, which did not make her happy. I think incidents like that must have contributed to our breaking up shortly thereafter. The breakup was a good thing for other reasons, but I still regret not lying to her about what I thought of the play.

Yes, there are probably things I could've said in that situation that would have been not-lies and also would have avoided upsetting her. Sam Harris, in his book Lyingspends a lot of arguing against lying in that way: he takes situations where most people would be tempted to tell a white lie, and suggesting ways around it. But for that to work, you need to be good at striking the delicate balance between saying too little and saying too much, and framing hard truths diplomatically. Are people who lie because they lack that skill really less moral than people who are able to avoid lying because they have it?

Notice the signaling issue here: Sam Harris' book is a subtle brag that he has the skills to tell people the truth without too much backlash. This is especially true when Harris gives examples from his own life, like the time he told a friend "No one would ever call you 'fat,' but I think you could probably lose twenty-five pounds." and his friend went and did it rather than getting angry. Conspicuous honesty also overlaps with conspicuous outrage, the signaling move that announces (as Steven Pinker put it) "I'm so talented, wealthy, popular, or well-connected that I can afford to offend you."

If you're highly averse to lying, I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince you to tell white lies more often. But I will implore you to do one thing: accept other people's right to lie to you. About some topics, anyway. Accept that some things are none of your business, and sometimes that includes the fact that there's something which is none of your business.

Or: suppose you ask someone for something, they say "no," and you suspect their reason for saying "no" is a lie. When that happens, don't get mad or press them for the real reason. Among other things, they may be operating on the assumptions of guess culture, where your request means you strongly expected a "yes" and you might not think their real reason for saying "no" was good enough. Maybe you know you'd take an honest refusal well (even if it's "I don't want to and don't think I owe you that"), but they don't necessarily know that. And maybe you think you'd take an honest refusal well, but what if you're lying to yourself?

If it helps to be more concrete: Some men will react badly to being turned down for a date. Some women too, but probably more men, so I'll make this gendered. And also because dealing with someone who won't take "no" for an answer is a scarier experience with the asker is a man and the person saying "no" is a woman. So I sympathize with women who give made-up reasons for saying "no" to dates, to make saying "no" easier.

Is it always the wisest decision? Probably not. But sometimes, I suspect, it is. And I'd advise men to accept that women doing that is OK. Not only that, I wouldn't want to be part of a community with lots of men who didn't get things like that. That's the kind of thing I have in mind when I say to respect other people's right to lie to you.

All this needs the disclaimer that some domains should be lie-free zones. I value the truth and despise those who would corrupt intellectual discourse with lies. Or, as Eliezer once put it:

We believe that scientists should always tell the whole truth about science. It's one thing to lie in everyday life, lie to your boss, lie to the police, lie to your lover; but whoever lies in a journal article is guilty of utter heresy and will be excommunicated.

I worry this post will be dismissed as trivial. I simultaneously worry that, even with the above disclaimer, someone is going to respond, "Chris admits to thinking lying is often okay, now we can't trust anything he says!" If you're thinking of saying that, that's your problem, not mine. Most people will lie to you occasionally, and if you get upset about it you're setting yourself up for a lot of unhappiness. And refusing to trust someone who lies sometimes isn't actually very rational; all but the most prolific liars don't lie anything like half the time, so what they say is still significant evidence, most of the time. (Maybe such declarations-of-refusal-to-trust shouldn't be taken as arguments so much as threats meant to coerce more honesty than most people feel bound to give.)

On the other hand, if we ever meet in person, I hope you realize I might lie to you. Failure to realize a statement could be a white lie can create some terribly awkward situations.

Edits: Changed title, added background, clarified the section on accepting other people's right to lie to you (partly cutting and pasting from this comment).

Edit round 2: Added link to paper supporting claim that the average person lies once per day.

Comments (879)

Comment author: Swimmer963 09 February 2014 02:46:23AM *  43 points [-]

There are certain lies that I tell over and over again, where I'm 99% sure lying is the morally correct answer. Stereotypical example: my patient is lying in a lake of poop, or is ringing the call bell for the third time in 15 minutes to tell me that they're thirsty or in pain or need a kleenex, and they're embarrassed and upset because they're sure I must be frustrated and mad that they're making me do so much work. "Of course I don't mind," I've said over and over again. "This doesn't bother me. I've got plenty of time. I just want you to be comfortable, that's my job." When it's 4 am and I desperately want to go on break and eat something, none of these things are true. But it's my job, and I want to want to do it, so the fact that sometimes I desperately don't want to do it is kind of moot. But the last thing a patient in the ICU needs to hear from their nurse is "yes, I'm pissed that you shat in the bed again because I was about to go on break and now I can't and I'm hungry and cranky." I keep that to myself.

...Other than that, I generally don't lie to friends, although I do lie by omission, especially when it comes to my irrational feelings of frustration or irritation with things they do. I'm generally not bothered by being very open with people about i.e. my relationships or other personal things, so I'm confused when other people want to lie or conceal information about these sorts of things. I actually have a really hard time keeping up with other people's systems of lying; when you're friends with two people who both have specific lists of things they don't want you to ever tell the other person, it gets complicated. (For almost a year my best friend was dating a man without telling her ex-husband, and I was seeing her ex-husband every time I went to play with my godson, and I had to remember to lie about a whole bunch of random things like "what did you and my ex-wife do on Saturday?" I respected that it was her choice whether or not to tell him, but I still found this really, really irritating.)

Comment author: James_Miller 10 February 2014 02:41:43AM 17 points [-]

When a student asks me to write her a letter of recommendation and expresses some concern that this will be a bother for me I have said "Don't worry, that's part of my job" to signal that the request is appropriate.

Comment author: private_messaging 15 February 2014 09:37:39AM *  8 points [-]

I'm not sure there's a lie happening... it seems to me that in said circumstances the meanings of the sentences are conventionally mapped, like:

"yes, I'm pissed that you shat in the bed again because I was about to go on break and now I can't and I'm hungry and cranky." -> I'm incredibly angry with you and I'm going to find out a way to kill you so you don't bother me again. (Exaggerating a bit here for effect)

"Of course I don't mind" -> of course I do mind but it is not as bad as the example above.

Sentences mean what the listener makes of them, that's why you have to speak a foreign language when talking to a foreigner who doesn't speak your language.

Comment author: ThisSpaceAvailable 16 February 2014 06:02:57AM 3 points [-]

A similar argument occurred to me, but I think it does border on proving too much. It also depends on knowing what the listener will make of the sentence. I think that the concept of "lying" does depend largely on the idea that the explicit, plain meaning of a sentence having a privileged position, over implications, signalling, Bayesian updates caused by the statement, etc. If someone says "Well, the probability of me telling you that I am not having an affair, given that I am having an affair, is not much smaller than the probability given that I am not having an affair, so if you significantly updated your prior simply because of my denial, the blame is on your end, not mine", I don't think many people would find that a reasonable response.

Comment author: private_messaging 17 February 2014 09:43:46AM *  3 points [-]

I think I pinned down the distinction here.

If you tell something like this: "yes, I'm pissed that you shat in the bed again because I was about to go on break and now I can't and I'm hungry and cranky.", the patient is going to form a lot of important beliefs regarding the question they're asked that are not true, more than if you say "this doesn't bother me". You have to say what ever sentence ends up misleading the patient the least about what they want to know.

For the affair on the other hand, it is not so, they'd form more valid beliefs if you said that you are having an affair, than if you say you don't.

The truth is such word noises, body language, intonation, and so on, that mislead the listener the least. Usually has to be approximate due to imperfect knowledge and so on.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 February 2014 09:42:33PM 16 points [-]

Upvoted for a rare case of lying where I find myself unable to suggest a good alternative way to not lie, even for people with high verbal SAT scores.

Comment author: Alicorn 09 February 2014 11:14:43PM 15 points [-]

"Don't worry about it."

Imperatives are often a nice fallback.

Comment author: Benquo 10 February 2014 04:50:55PM *  8 points [-]

I would interpret that as a straightforward confirmation that it was in fact annoying. There would be no resulting awkwardness but it would definitely not make me more likely to speak up again.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 February 2014 02:30:36AM 13 points [-]

But is that literally as good for a patient in an ICU who really, really needs to not shut up about these things? i mean, in that situation, it would probably occur to me that the nurse might still be lying... but telling a lie like that is still a kind of permission to bother her which "Don't worry about it" isn't.

Comment author: Swimmer963 10 February 2014 05:26:44AM 16 points [-]

Agreed. One of the things I think is wrong with lying in general is that it can mess up the incentives for behaviours you want to see more of (i.e. a white lie to your friend, claiming to like her awful haircut, doesn't do anything to help your friend improve her future haircuts.) In my example, I'm lying with respect to my first-order desires, but telling the truth according to my second-order desires. I may first-order want a few more minutes to drink tea and socialize with the other nurses, but I don't endorse myself wanting that, and I certainly don't want to encourage my patients to not call me because they're worried I'm too busy or tired or cranky. I second-order want to encourage the behaviour where my patients call me for all the little things and 90% of the time it's annoying and stupid but 10% of the time it's super important.

If I ever had a patient with a rationalist background, maybe I could explain all of that, but maybe not even then; most people aren't at their best for following complex logic when they're loopy on drugs or having trouble breathing or whatnot. So I go for the emotional reassurance, because that gets through. Still working on different phrasings, and I don't always succeed; I was helping out another nurse with her patient who had diarrhea, putting her on the bedpan every half hour, and at one point she fell asleep and pooped in the bed while asleep and then cried with frustration the whole time I changed her, and I wasn't able to reassure her.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 February 2014 02:47:02AM *  9 points [-]

Well, that's a good idea right there. You could tell them: "Please don't be embarrassed, and don't hesitate to call me. You're in an ICU and it's very important that you communicate with us, even if it's just a matter of discomfort. You shouldn't assume you can tell the difference between something trivial and something serious, or something that requires immediate attention and not."

Comment author: Alicorn 10 February 2014 02:42:20AM 10 points [-]

You can expand "Don't worry about it" to include permission to bother her. "Don't worry about it - please never give it a second thought if you need me for anything. That's what I'm here to do."

Comment author: private_messaging 15 February 2014 09:06:57AM 5 points [-]

I don't think "This doesn't bother me" gets parsed literally anyway. In either case what ever you say they are pretty sure it is annoying for you, albeit they do want reassurance that it is not so annoying that you would snap "yes this is annoying!".

Comment author: brazil84 09 February 2014 10:32:44PM 3 points [-]

Well the classic lie in medicine is when a sibling confides in the doctor that he doesn't want to donate a kidney to his brother or sister and he's just getting tested out of family pressure. I understand that in such a situation, the doctor will normally lie and say that they ran the tests and the sibling is not a compatible donor.

Comment author: ITakeBets 10 February 2014 02:44:29AM 10 points [-]

Actually, regardless of the reason, they just say that "no suitable donor is available." If pressed, they say they never release potential donors' medical information to recipients, for confidentiality and to protect donors from coercion.

Comment author: brazil84 10 February 2014 10:09:54AM 3 points [-]

Actually, regardless of the reason, they just say that "no suitable donor is available." If pressed, they say they never release potential donors' medical information to recipients, for confidentiality and to protect donors from coercion.

That's interesting . . . what happens if the potential donor asks for (and is willing to sign a release) so that his medical information can be released?

Comment author: Kawoomba 10 February 2014 12:02:43PM 2 points [-]

Depends. Different countries have different laws governing such. For the most part, if the hospital sees any legal liability at all, they'll do the standard CYA. Signing waivers / releases often doesn't do a whole lot, some of your rights you cannot sign away. Regarding your question, with releasing medical information, such waivers shouldn't be a problem, although the transplant scenario may be a special case.

Regardless of the legalese, transplant doctors typically get to know you quite well, and more information slips out (implicitly and explicitly) than may be allowed by law (HIPAA be damned). Nullum ius sine actione, as they say. If noone complains, noone sues. Bit like driving without seatbelts.

Comment author: Alicorn 09 February 2014 10:16:17PM 4 points [-]

I'm curious about how you, being a nurse, would prefer that the patient behave in situations like this? There don't seem to be great options - is there a least-bad attitude?

Comment author: Swimmer963 10 February 2014 05:03:32AM *  12 points [-]

...I feel like a lot of that boils down to stuff out of patients' control, like "don't be confused or delirious." Assuming that my patient is totally with it and can reasonably be expected to try to behave politely, I prefer that patients tell me right away when they need something, listen to my explanation of what I'm going to do about it and when I'll be able to do it, or why I can't do anything about it, and then accept that and not keep bringing up the same complaint repeatedly unless it gets worse. I have had patients who rang the call bell every 5 minutes for hours to tell me that they were thirsty, when I'd already explained that I couldn't give them anything by mouth, or that their biggest concern was being thirsty but I was more concerned that their heart rate was 180 and I really really needed to deal with that first.

I obviously prefer it when patient's aren't embarrassed and I can joke around with them and chat about their grandkids while cleaning their poop. But emotional reactions aren't under most people's control either, so it's not a reasonable thing to ask.

Comment author: badtheatre 10 February 2014 05:26:25PM 3 points [-]

My ex wife is in Geriatrics and I've heard a few situations from her where she, possibly appropriately, lied to patients with severe dementia by playing along with their fantasies. The most typical example would be a patient believing their dead spouse is coming that day for a visit, and asking about it every 15 minutes. I think she would usually tell the truth the first few times, but felt it was cruel to be telling someone constantly that their spouse is dead, and getting the same negative emotional reaction every time, so at that point she would start saying something like, "I heard they were stuck in traffic and can't make it today."

The above feels to me like a grey area, but more rarely a resident would be totally engrossed in a fantasy, like thinking they were in a broadway play or something. In these cases, where the person will never understand/accept the truth anyway, I think playing along to keep them happy isn't a bad option.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 February 2014 03:05:57PM 2 points [-]

Stereotypical example: my patient

Relevant recent Slate Star Codex post

Comment author: moridinamael 08 February 2014 07:05:24PM *  19 points [-]

I don't normally like to blather on about myself, but I feel that a bit of self-exposition might help some people with their apparent ... Fundamental Attribution Error, perhaps?

I have an extremely malleable identity in certain types of social situations, to the point that I literally come to believe whatever I need to believe in order to facilitate rapport with whomever I'm talking with.

For example, I normally have a pretty strong aversion to infidelity in relationships, but on a few occasions I've deeply connected through prolonged conversation with friends who were engaged in relationship infidelity. It is sort of a running joke among my closest friends that I can get almost anybody to open up to me and share their deepest darkest secrets, and the way I do it is that I am genuinely nonjudgemental, and the method by which I am genuinely nonjudgemental is that I have a "core" module that has my actual beliefs and then I have my surface chameleon module which is actually talking which just says whatever it needs to say to establish the connection.

All of this babbling is to convey that if you were to interrupt me in the middle of doing this and say, "moridinamael, was that a lie?" I would answer "No." Because although I might be saying something that isn't in line with that "I" (whatever that is) don't really "believe" (whatever that means) it doesn't in that moment feel like a lie, it actually feels really good and pure and warm because I'm connecting with somebody over their pain.

Now, there are some people in this discussion thread who I feel like would think I am some kind of monster. And I think my brain probably works very, very differently than theirs, or at least the social circuitry is wired differently. But just bear in mind that people like me exist and we can't really help the way we are ... or if I could help it, I should say, it would basically cripple me.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 07:22:53PM 7 points [-]

Now, there are some people in this discussion thread who I feel like would think I am some kind of monster. And I think my brain probably works very, very differently than theirs, or at least the social circuitry is wired differently. But just bear in mind that people like me exist and we can't really help the way we are ... or if I could help it, I should say, it would basically cripple me.

Well, I'm not going to call you a monster or anything, but I will say that I sure would hate to find out one of my friends was the way you describe yourself. I don't think I could continue to be friends with that person, and I sure wouldn't choose to be close to a person if I knew in advance they were like this.

Basically, it seems like you're saying: I am really good at self-deception, and so when I lie to you, it's not really a lie because I'm also lying to myself! And believing that lie!

Which doesn't change the fact that what you're saying, in such a circumstance, isn't the truth. Your attitude seems to boil down to: "Truth? Haha! What is truth anyway, eh? If I believe any old lie I can come up with, then it becomes my truth, doesn't it? That's just as good as 'the truth'! Whatever that is!"

Furthermore and separately:

I literally come to believe whatever I need to believe in order to facilitate rapport with whomever I'm talking with.

Once you decide to not care about whether your beliefs are true, almost any conversation I could have with you about any of your beliefs, or that is based on any of your beliefs, becomes pointless. Because I know that what you believe has no correlation with truth, and that you just don't care about whether it does. If you'll say anything to establish a rapport with me — even if you make yourself believe that thing while you're saying it — then that rapport is worthless to me; because (however much you may protest the terminology) that rapport is based on a lie.

(However, all of that said, I do think your post is valuable, as it contributes a useful data point, as was your stated intention.)

Comment author: Bugmaster 11 February 2014 12:28:01AM *  3 points [-]

I agree with everything you said on a personal level, but I think you're committing the fallacy of false generalization.

You (and I) both place a very high value on truth over comfort. We feel incredibly uncomfortable -- perhaps even painfully so -- when we suspect that any of our beliefs might be false. Therefore, for us, finding out that a friend was lying to us (as well as to himself) is tantamount to experiencing a direct attack.

However, not everybody in the world is like us. Other people place a very high value on comfort and positive reinforcement. When they talk to their friends, they do so not in order to Bayes-adjust their beliefs, but in order to reinforce their feeling that they are valued, needed, and cared about.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that such people do not care about truth. They often do; but truth-seeking is not the reason why they engage in conversations.

So, for people who value comfort in their relationships, having a friend like moridinamael would be ideal. And I can't state with any amount of certainty that their worldview is inferior to mine.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 11 February 2014 12:50:39AM *  5 points [-]

Well, sure. That's why I phrased my comment the way I did, referencing what I like/prefer/feel. I agree with your assessment of how we (you and I, and others here on Lesswrong) compare to most other people.

However, I don't entirely agree with this:

When [other people] talk to their friends, they do so not in order to Bayes-adjust their beliefs, but in order to reinforce their feeling that they valued, needed, and cared about. ... truth-seeking is not the reason why they engage in conversations.

I, too, like feeling that I am valued, needed, and care about; and I don't necessarily engage in conversations only for truth-seeking. I sometimes have conversations for the purposes of entertainment, or validation, or comfort. It's not like truth-seeking is my only reason for talking to another human-being, ever.

But!

But. One thing I never want is to be entertained by lies[1]; to be validated with lies; to be comforted by lies. As I said in another thread, truth may be brutal, but its telling need not be. There are many ways to comfort and to validate without lying.

If I come to a friend for comfort, and they comfort me by lying, I would feel somewhat betrayed. How betrayed, to what extent — that would depend on the subject matter and magnitude of the lie, I suppose.

[1] Obvious exceptions include storytelling, hyperbole, sarcasm, performance, and all the other scenarios wherein a person says something that they don't believe is the truth, but they correctly expect that their audience is not expecting that statement to be true, and is not going to believe it as the truth.

Comment author: Bugmaster 11 February 2014 01:05:28AM 7 points [-]

Well, sure. That's why I phrased my comment the way I did, referencing what I like/prefer/feel.

Yes, good point.

I sometimes have conversations for the purposes of entertainment, or validation, or comfort. ... But. One thing I never want is to be entertained by lies[1]; to be validated with lies; to be comforted by lies.

I agree, and I feel the same way. However, I believe that you and I see conversations somewhat differently from other people.

When you and I engage in conversation (unless I misunderstood your position, in which case I apologize), we tend to take most of the things that are said at face value. So, for example, if you were to ask "did you like my play ?", what you are really asking is... "did you like my play ?" And, naturally, you would feel betrayed if the answer is less than honest.

However, I've met many people who, when asking "did you like my play ?", really mean something like, "given my performance tonight, do you still consider me a a valuable friend whose company you'd enjoy ?" If you answer "no", the emotional impact can be quite devastating.

The surprising thing, though (well, it was surprising to me when I figured it out) is that such people still do care very much about the truth; i.e., whether you liked the play or not. However, unlike us, they do not believe that any reliable evidence for or against the proposition can be gathered from verbal conversation. Instead, they look for non-verbal cues, as well as other behaviors (f.ex., whether you'd recommend the play to others, or attend future plays, etc.).

So, as I said above, the two types of people view the very purpose of everyday conversation very differently; and hence tend to evaluate its content quite differently, as well.

Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 07:47:42PM *  2 points [-]

I think I used to experience something like this when I was a teenager. I'd reflexively assume whatever identity was needed for rapport, not necessarily always with skill, and this seemed like lying only afterwards when I realized I had gone too far and would probably get caught. This was annoying because I didn't really have control over my lying. At some point in my early 20s this spontaneously stopped happening. I wonder if this simply had something to with my brain maturing and whatever represents the relevant parts of my identity solidifying.

Do you think your family has anything to do with your curious cognition? In my paternal family, lying seems more like a sport than anything morally reprehensible and successful deception is considered something to be proud of. I don't agree with them but can't say I hate them either.

Comment author: byrnema 09 February 2014 10:31:21PM *  3 points [-]

I also discovered I was like this as a teenager -- that I had an extremely malleable identity. I think it was related to being very empathetic -- I just accepted whichever world view the person I was speaking with came with, and I think in my case this might have been related to reading a lot growing up, so that it seemed that a large fraction of my total life experience were the different voices of the different authors that I had read. (Reading seems to require quickly assimilating the world view of whomever is first person.)

I also didn't make much distinction between something that could be true and something that was true. I don't know why this was. or if it is related to the first thing. But if I thought about a fact, and it didn't feel currently jarring with anything else readily in mind, it seemed just as true as anything else and I was likely to speak it. So a few times after a conversation, I would shake my head and wonder why I had just said something so absurdly untrue, as though I had believed it.

In my early twenties, I found I needed to create a fixed world view -- in fact, I felt like I was going crazy. Maybe I was, because different world views were colliding and I couldn't hold them separate when action was required (like choosing an actual job) rather than just idle conversation.

That's why I gravitated towards physical materialism. I needed something fixed, a territory behind all of these crazy maps. I think that the map that I have now is pretty good, and well-integrated with the territory, but it took 3-5 years. I'm still flexible with understanding other world views. For example, I was in a workshop a few days ago where we needed to defend different views, and I received one that was marginally morally reprehensible. I was the only one in my group able to defend it. (It wasn't such a useful skill there, I think most people just assumed I had that view, which is unfortunate, but I didn't mind -- if it was important to signal correctly at this workshop I would have lied and said I couldn't relate.)

Comment author: moridinamael 09 February 2014 01:07:51AM 2 points [-]

FWIW my parents both possess aspects of what I think of as this skill of becoming whoever I need to be to fit whomever I'm talking to. I really do think of it as a bit of a superpower and I've intentionally developed it rather than letting it fade which it probably would have done naturally.

Perhaps you think of me as having curious cognition but my point in posting this was actually to express the converse -- that I see pieces of myself in everybody, that I see everybody doing this to some degree all the time, I'm just one of the rare people with the introspective awareness to see what I'm doing and guide it.

Ever go out to lunch/coffee/whatever with your boss or some figurehead of power, and witness how everybody except the boss transforms into an unimpeachable paragon of bland monotonous virtue? Folks are always selectively showing only the parts of themselves that they think need to be seen in a given context, and this is a type of deception through guiding expectations.

Comment author: Ixiel 13 February 2014 04:04:12PM 16 points [-]

This reminds me of something Mark Horstman (I think) said, that people are entitled to honest answers to questions to which they are entitled an answer. He was using it in a workplace context, for example that if one's boss asks about one's sex life it's okay to lie, because she is not entitled to an answer thus she is not entitled to an honest answer. Good post.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 February 2014 09:53:01PM 15 points [-]

I think an important additional concept being invoked in the above example is that the person you are lying to has social power over you. While generally abiding by a wizard's code of speaking the literal truth, I consider there to be a blanket moral exemption on lying to the government. It is not always pragmatically wise to lie to a government official, but in a moral sense the option is at your discretion.

For example, when the TSA asks you if anything in your luggage could be used as a weapon, you just lie.

Comment author: Burgundy 14 February 2014 08:51:56AM *  7 points [-]

Certain interactions with the government (assuming you are behaving peacefully) seem like a special case of dealing with an adversarial or exploitative agent. When an agent has social power over you, they might easily be able to harm or inconvenience you if you answer some questions truthfully, whereas it would be hard for you to harm them if you lied. Telling the truth in that case hurts you, but lying harms nobody (aside from foiling the exploitative plans of the other agent, which doesn't really count).

A more mundane example would be if a website form asks you for more personal information than it needs, and requires this information. For instance, let's say the website asks for your phone number or address when there is suspiciously no reason why they should need to call you or ship you anything. If you fill in a false phone number to be able to submit the form, then you are technically lying to them, but I think it's justified. Same thing for websites that require you to fill in a name, but where they don't actually need it (e.g. unlike financial transactions, or social networks that deal with real identities).

The website probably isn't trying to violate your rights, but it's trying to profit from your private information, either for marketing to you (which you consider pointless), or selling the information (which is exploitative, and could result in other people intruding into your privacy). Gaining your info will predictably create zero sum or negative sum outcomes. Lying is an appropriate response to exploitation attempts like these.And if they aren't trying to exploit your private information, or use it to give you a service, then they don't really need it, so lying doesn't hurt them at all, and you might as well do it to be safe from spam.

Telling the truth is a good default because human relationships are cooperative or neutral by default. But the ethics of lying are much more complex in adversarial or exploitative situations.

Comment author: private_messaging 13 February 2014 10:28:55PM 4 points [-]

For example, when the TSA asks you if anything in your luggage could be used as a weapon, you just lie.

Most people are neither too dull to imagine or recall from a movie the ways to use ordinary items in their luggage as weapons, nor lying, when they say no...

Comment author: shware 08 February 2014 05:53:03PM *  38 points [-]

I find it takes a great deal of luminosity in order to be honest with someone. If I am in a bad mood, I might feel that its my honest opinion that they are annoying when in fact what is going on in my brain has nothing to do with their actions. I might have been able to like the play in other circumstances, but was having a bad day so flaws I might have been otherwise able to overlook were magnified in my mind. etc.

This is my main fear with radical honesty, since it seems to promote thinking that negative thoughts are true just because they are negative. The reasoning going 'I would not say this if I were being polite, but I am thinking it, therefore it is true' without realizing that your brain can make your thoughts be more negative from the truth just as easily as it can make them more positive than the truth.

In fact, saying you enjoyed something you didnt enjoy, and signalling enjoyment with appropriate facial muscles (smiling etc) can improve your mood by itself, especially if it makes the other person smile.

Many intelligent people get lots of practice pointing out flaws, and it is possible that this trains the brain into a mode where one's first thoughts on a topic will be critical regardless of the 'true' reaction. If your brain automatically looks for flaws in something and then a friend asks your honest opinion you would tell them the flaws; but if you look for things to compliment your 'honest' opinion might be different.

tl;dr honesty is harder than many naively think, because our brains are not perfect reporters of their state, and even if they were good luck explaining your inner feelings about something across the inferential distance. Better to just adjust all your reactions slightly in the positive direction to reap the benefits of happier interactions (but only slightly, don't say you liked activities you loathed otherwise you'll be asked back, say they were ok but not your cup of tea etc)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 09 February 2014 11:24:11AM *  19 points [-]

If I am honest without accuracy... if I am proud to report my results of my reasoning as they are, but my actual reasoning is sloppy... then I shouldn't congratulate myself for giving precise info, because the info was not precise; I simply removed one source of imprecision, but ignored another.

Saying "you are annoying" feels like an extremely honest thing, and I may be motivated to stop there.

However, saying "sorry, I'm in a bad mood today; I think it's likely that on a different day I would appreciate what you are trying to do, but today it doesn't work this way, and it actually annoys me" is even more honest, and possibly less harmful to the listener.

A cynical explanation is that while attempting to be extremely honest, we refuse to censor the information that might hurt the listener... but we still censor the information that would hurt us. For example, the short version of "you are annoying" contains the information that may hurt my friend, but conceals the information about my own vulnerability.

Perhaps a good heuristic could be: Don't hurt other people by your honesty, unless you are willing to hurt yourself as much (or 20 % more, to balance for your own biased perception) -- and even this only if they agreed to play by these rules. (Of course you are allowed to select your friends according to their ability and willingness to play by these rules. But sometimes you have to interact with other people, too.)

Comment author: pjeby 13 February 2014 11:55:59PM 12 points [-]

This is my main fear with radical honesty, since it seems to promote thinking that negative thoughts are true just because they are negative. The reasoning going 'I would not say this if I were being polite, but I am thinking it, therefore it is true' without realizing that your brain can make your thoughts be more negative from the truth just as easily as it can make them more positive than the truth.

My own (very limited) observation of trying to be radically honest has been that until I first say (or at least admit to myself) the reaction of annoyance, I can't become aware of what lies beyond it. If I'm angry at my wife because of something else that happened to me, I usually won't know that it's because of something else until I first express (even just to myself) that I am angry at my wife.

Until I actually tried being honest about such things, I didn't know this, and practicing such expression seemed beneficial in increasing my general awareness of thoughts and emotions in the present or near-present moment. I don't even remotely attempt to practice radical honesty even in my relationship with my wife, but we've both definitely benefited from learning to express what we feel... even if what we're feeling often changes in the very moment we express it. That change is kind of the point of the exercise: if you've completely expressed what you're resenting, it suddenly becomes much easier to notice what you appreciate.

I think that even Blanton's philosophy kind of misses or overstates the point: the point isn't to be honest about every damn thing, it's to avoid the sort of emotional constipation that keeps you stuck being resentful about things because you never want to face or admit that resentment, and so can never get past it.

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 06:29:00PM 9 points [-]

This made me think; I may have some luminosity privilege that needs checking...

Comment author: Benquo 10 February 2014 05:00:47PM 3 points [-]

Wow. This comment made me happy, even with the jargon. Positive reinforcement for thinking about how your experience might be atypical and other people might have needs or disabilities you hadn't considered!

If you are interested in some more things that may distinguish your experience from ChrisHallquist's, you might consider that his examples are mainly about lying in self-defense to hostile people or people who have deliberately asked questions that are costly to evade or answer honestly. Picture an Aikido expert who lives and works in a safe neighborhood getting angry at a janitor who lives in a violent slum for saying they reserve the right to throw a punch if the situation calls for it. I might think the poor janitor has the right to defend themself, but that doesn't mean I'd be very likely at all to punch someone at your dinner party.

Comment author: Alicorn 10 February 2014 05:26:00PM 1 point [-]

Some of his examples were like that. The part of his post that most bothered me was "accept others' right to lie to you", and the title has now been changed to "White Lies", which I've never heard used conversationally to cover things like "no, Mom, not gay".

Comment author: Vaniver 10 February 2014 09:42:46PM 5 points [-]

the title has now been changed to "White Lies", which I've never heard used conversationally to cover things like "no, Mom, not gay".

I have always interpreted "white lies" as "lies I approve of" rather than "small lies," because the size of a lie is clearly a subjective measurement. It looks like wiki mostly agrees.

Comment author: blacktrance 10 February 2014 09:51:04PM *  4 points [-]

"Lies I approve of" and "white lies" are overlapping sets, but aren't quite the same. For example, if a Nazi asks you if you're hiding any Jews (and you are), I approve of lying to them, but this isn't a white lie. On the other hand, if your horrible racist aunt asks you if she's racist, telling her that she's not would be a white lie, but not one that I approve of.

Comment author: Vaniver 10 February 2014 10:05:36PM 2 points [-]

Looking at Augustine's taxonomy the terminology seems clearer, as it differentiates "lies told to please others in smooth discourse," which is what I think Alicorn would associate with 'white lies,' with "lies that harm no one and that protect someone from bodily defilement." (And note how the lies in religious teachings mirrors the discussion of lies in science!) As expected, Augustine thinks it's better to lie to the Nazi than to lie to your aunt.

But again it seems the subjectivity shines through in the definition of harm, if you want to put the hidden Jew lie in Augustine's last category. Isn't the Nazi harmed when you lie to him, and he doesn't get to catch the hidden Jew?

Comment author: drethelin 10 February 2014 10:48:01PM 6 points [-]

most people WANT the nazi to be harmed.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 February 2014 01:30:33AM 2 points [-]

Indeed.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 February 2014 01:23:51PM 2 points [-]

but only slightly, don't say you liked activities you loathed otherwise you'll be asked back, say they were ok but not your cup of tea etc)

In that case a real honest answer might be: "I felt uncomfortable during that activity but I don't know whether it's because of the activity or because it's I generally focus to much on the negative."

That gives the person you are dealing with a lot of useful information to interact with you. Sharing something deeper about yourself builds trust. If the person is well intentioned they can use the information in a way that makes the interaction for both of you better.

The goal of honest communication is to give the other person useful information. Transmitting more useful information is being more honest.

If you just say your loathe the activity or you say you liked it, you might be holding something back. If you have a trustworthy friendship than knowing about your emotional state is useful information for your friend.

Your friend might be good at reading body language and be able to tell the difference between your fake smile and a real smile but it makes it so much harder for a friend to help you when you aren't open about what you are feeling.

To me not being open about your emotions on a deep level when you are with friends or loved ones feels like defecting in a prisoner dilemma. You might get some immediate benefit but overall it's not the path of the game tree that's optimal. To the extend that there are people who can't deal with me being open about what I feel I don't want them as friends or loved ones.

Comment author: JRMayne 08 February 2014 07:37:39PM 13 points [-]

There's a fundamental problem with lying unaddressed - it tends to reroute your defaults to "lie" when "lie"="personal benefit."

As a human animal, if you lie smoothly and routinely in some situations, you are likely to be more prone to lying in others. I know people who will lie all the time for little reason, because it's ingrained habit.

I agree that some lies are OK. Your girlfriend anecdote isn't clearly one of them - there may be presentation issues on your side. ("It wasn't the acting style I prefer," vs., "It's nice that you hired actors without talent or energy, because otherwise, where would they be?") But if you press for truth and get it, that's on you. (One my Rules of Life: Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to.)

But I think every lie you tell, you should know exactly what you are doing and what your goals are and consciously consider whether you're doing this solely for self-preservation. If you can't do this smoothly, then don't lie. Getting practice at lying isn't a good idea.

I note here that I think that a significant lie is a deliberate or seriously reckless untruth given with the mutual expectation that it would be reasonable to rely on it. Thus, the people who are untruthing on (say) Survivor to their castmates... it's a game. Play the game. When Penn and Teller tell you how their trick works, they are lying to you only in a technical respect; it's part of the show.

But actual lying is internally hazardous. You will try to internally reconcile your lies, either making up justifications or telling yourself it's not really a lie - at least, that's the way the odds point. There's another advantage with honesty - while it doesn't always make a good first impression, it makes you reliable in the long-term. I'm not against all lies, but I think the easy way out isn't the long-term right one.

Comment author: Bugmaster 10 February 2014 11:16:23PM 11 points [-]

I was at a meetup where we played the game Resistance, and one guy announced before the game began that he had a policy of never lying even when playing games like that.

That's exactly what I'd say too. And then, I'd commence the lying :-)

Comment author: tristanhaze 11 February 2014 04:37:11AM 11 points [-]

'Continue', you mean :-)

Comment author: DanielLC 08 February 2014 10:35:39PM 9 points [-]

I think the big thing to remember is that the meaning of something isn't the dictionary definitions of the words combined with the rules of syntax. If someone asks you what you though of a play, wanting to know what you thought of them, and you know this, saying "the acting was bad" is intentionally misinterpreting their question. It is an example of lying with truth.

I would expect someone who presses me for an answer would actually want to know the answer, but maybe I just have bad social skills.

There is one thing I dislike about lying. It's considered rude to tell the truth in certain situations, because it signals that you don't care about that person, because people who care lie, because people who care don't want to appear rude. If people didn't try to signal, things would be better off, but if you lie, you're not only signalling that you care, you're increasing the need everyone else has to signal. You're making things more confusing for other people. It's basically a large-scale prisoner's dilemma. It's like talking in a noisy room, where the other person can hear you if you speak up, but that just makes it noisier for everyone else.

Comment author: Strange7 09 February 2014 03:01:14AM 3 points [-]

The solution to the noisy room problem is to either pass notes, or lean over and speak at a low-to-normal volume as close as reasonably possible to the intended listener's ear. Alternative communication channels and building up trust/intimacy can be generalized to some, though probably not all, other versions of the problem.

Pressing for an answer could also mean you've said approximately the right thing, but your tone and phrasing didn't convey a sufficient degree of conviction, or that you've said something wrong-but-not-unconscionable and they're giving you a chance to retry. (I do not like "guess culture" very much.)

Comment author: JQuinton 12 February 2014 04:17:33PM 2 points [-]

There is one thing I dislike about lying. It's considered rude to tell the truth in certain situations, because it signals that you don't care about that person, because people who care lie, because people who care don't want to appear rude

This is something I also struggled with for a long time and I'm definitely sure it was because I had (or probably still have) poor social skills. The thing I started to notice was that people might seem to be asking a question, but that question is really just a proxy for another question. It's like people were communicating at two different levels. Like the stereotypical asking a girl to get coffee at 2am; the guy isn't literally asking the girl if she wants coffee, and everyone knows this, and to answer as though he's literally asking for coffee is demonstrating poor social skills. If the girl says yes to the coffee suggestion, she's actually "lying" because she doesn't want coffee, but wants the implication of what the guy is asking for when he suggests coffee.

If a friend asks me what I thought about a poem she wrote, she might be asking me literally about the poem, or she might be asking some other underlying question like her worth as a person or something else, using the poem as a proxy for that question. Giving my honest opinion about the poem might be, to her, me giving my honest opinion about her underlying question.

Comment author: Swimmer963 10 February 2014 10:12:23PM 8 points [-]

I can see how a reputation for lying would be a bad thing to have, but I can also see why a reputation for not being capable of lying would be a bad thing (mainly in social contexts). From one of my other comments:

For almost a year my best friend was dating a man without telling her ex-husband, and I was seeing her ex-husband every time I went to play with my godson, and I had to remember to lie about a whole bunch of random things like "what did you and my ex-wife do on Saturday?"

This was hard for me. There've been other times where I've slipped up and forgotten. Usually not in the context of friends explicitly telling me to lie about something, but in the context of Person X them telling me something which, to them, is obviously something that they want to conceal from Person Y because of conflicts it would cause. However, I don't model this–I model Person X and Person Y both as friends who I trust with details about my life, and assume that's commutative. I don't even think about it on a conscious level–it's not "I want to tell this person the truth about the thing this other person did because lying is complicated"–they just ask me a question and I answer it. I try to avoid having enemies because it makes things complicated, but that's not something I could force my friends to do, and it's not even something I would think was right to force them to do...I just don't get around to noticing potential conflicts.

Among certain groups of my friends, I've definitely earned the reputation for being a bit socially inept because of things like this.

Comment author: CCC 08 February 2014 04:23:42AM 21 points [-]

Failure to realize a statement could be a white lie can create some terribly awkward situations.

While this is true, it is also true that knowing that a given person won't lie, that they will tell you how bad the acting in your play is, makes their praise even more valuable; because one knows that it is not a white lie.

By allowing yourself the small lies, that is what you are trading away. Whether it's worth it or not, I can't say for sure...

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 09 February 2014 04:01:42AM 4 points [-]

In theory, committing to not lying has some advantages, but in my experience, it doesn't actually work. In my experience, people who commit to not lying are less accurate and less trusted than those who don't. And I'm pretty sure the causality flows from the commitment and not from a third factor.

Comment author: CCC 10 February 2014 07:59:05AM 3 points [-]

In my experience, people who commit to not lying are less accurate and less trusted than those who don't.

This runs contrary to what I would expect.

Could it be that people who commit to not lying:

  • Do not follow up on their commitment
  • Proceed to twist their words so as to be dishonest without technically lying
  • Or is there some other reason for this?
Comment author: pianoforte611 08 February 2014 04:25:18AM 6 points [-]

I agree that the immediate consequences of lying are sometimes better than telling the truth, however, one big problem is lying then having to tell the truth later or lying then getting caught. The more complex the lie, the bigger the risk. The social conventions surrounding lying - feel free to lie, accept other people's right to lie, the guess culture (don't make your desires and feelings explicit) - are a good solution to interacting with strangers since under those conventions, no one is making and effort to detect your lies. This is useful when you don't know how sensitive someone is so you need a strategy for dealing with them without treading on their toes.

I admit I don't have much of a justification for this but the idea of such a social norm within a romantic relationship makes me go Ugh. I'm okay with someone telling me "I don't want to talk about it" in fact I wish that most people were receptive to that. But the idea of someone I trust lying whenever its more convenient than telling the truth does not sit well with me. But perhaps I'm just being unreasonable.

Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 05:14:57AM *  2 points [-]

But the idea of someone I trust lying whenever its more convenient than telling the truth does not sit well with me. But perhaps I'm just being unreasonable.

I suggest you explore the concept of trust on a less binary basis. Trust makes no sense to me unless it has some kind of a rough probability estimate attached to it. Different truths have different probabilities and different moral weights.

Comment author: Carinthium 08 February 2014 05:31:26AM 2 points [-]

True, but it is also true that you can't somebody on certain matters if they are willing to tell you white lies. It's better to try and hang around more honest types so you can learn to cope with the truth better.

Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 06:36:12AM *  3 points [-]

I actually prefer the honest types, but don't judge normal people either. This preference is of minor importance. In most situations I can't choose who to interact with and being stubborn about it won't help.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 03:06:59AM *  20 points [-]

I endorse the vast majority of the post. Lying in most of those circumstances seems like an entirely appropriate choice, particularly to people you do not respect enough to expect them to respond acceptably to truth. Telling people the truth when those people are going to screw you over is unethical (according to my intuitive morality which seems to consider 'being a dumbass" abhorrent.)

If you're highly averse to lying, I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince you to tell white lies more often. But I will implore you to do one thing: accept other people's right to lie to you.

People have the right to lie. People do not have the right to lie without consequences. I suggest people respond to being lied to in whatever way best meets their own goals and best facilitates their own wellbeing. Those adept at navigating a sea of social bullshit and deception may choose to never treat lies as defections or provide any negative consequences. Those less adept at that kind of thinking may be better served by being less tolerant of lies from those with a given degree of closeness to them.

I implore you to respect other's right to treat lies, liars, and you in whatever way suits them.

On the other hand, if we ever meet in person, I hope you realize I might lie to you. Failure to realize a statement could be a white lie can create some terribly awkward situations.

I personally assume people lie all the time (or, more technically, I assume they bullshit all the time). However, speaking about other people you may encounter I hope you realize that some people do not interpret lies the way you hope. Failure to realize that your lie will create some terribly awkward situations is your behaviour and your consequence (as well as a consequence to the non-savvy recipient). As the person who is (presumably) more socially aware of the two parties and the person who has analysed the subject more you are going to be better equipped to adapt. So either don't lie to people when it's going to create terribly awkward situations or avoid talking to people when you expect your preferred behavioural pattern will not work with them (eg. based on apparently clumsy body language).

As is the case with all notions about how people ought to interact with each other, if you attempt to enforce your own standards and don't adapt to the person you are interacting with you can expect things to go poorly. This applies to lying averse people interacting with liars. It applies to liars interacting with the lie-averse. It applies to 'Guess culture' people forcing their behaviour or interpretations on non-guessers and the reverse.

The most notable failure pattern that I observe is that of a wilful, stubborn, insistence that consequences are responsibility of the other party because "my" way is the naturally right way for the universe to be. A psychological disposition based precommitment not to swerve in a game of chicken.

Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 06:14:26AM *  6 points [-]

Those less adept at that kind of thinking may be better served by being less tolerant of lies from those with a given degree of closeness to them.

Does this really serve many of them better though? Combine implicit high trust in people with judgmentality and poor lie detection in an environment where everybody lies. From an outside perspective the most extreme version of this seems like a recipe for lashing out at random people and alienating them. People openly judgmental about lying actually seem like good targets for deception, because you can expect them to be worse at spotting it.

if you attempt to enforce your own standards and don't adapt to the person you are interacting with you can expect things to go poorly. This applies to lying averse people interacting with liars

Can lying averse people reliably spot the other nonliars?

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 09 February 2014 01:30:03AM *  3 points [-]

I endorse the vast majority of the post.

Thanks!

People do not have the right to lie without consequences. I suggest people respond to being lied to in whatever way best meets their own goals and best facilitates their own wellbeing. Those adept at navigating a sea of social bullshit and deception may choose to never treat lies as defections or provide any negative consequences. Those less adept at that kind of thinking may be better served by being less tolerant of lies from those with a given degree of closeness to them.

I implore you to respect other's right to treat lies, liars, and you in whatever way suits them.

Some lies should have consequences. But I think "respect other people's right to you [about some topics]" is a really important principle. Maybe it would help to be more concrete:

Some men will react badly to being turned down for a date. Some women too, but probably more men, so I'll make this gendered. And also because dealing with someone who won't take "no" for an answer is a scarier experience with the asker is a man and the person saying "no" is a woman. So I sympathize with women who give made-up reasons for saying "no" to dates, to make saying "no" easier.

Is it always the wisest decision? Probably not. But sometimes, I suspect, it is. And I'd advise men to accept that women doing that is OK. Not only that, I wouldn't want to be part of a community with lots of men who didn't get things like that. That's the kind of thing I have in mind when I say to respect other people's right to lie to you.

The most notable failure pattern that I observe is that of a wilful, stubborn, insistence that consequences are responsibility of the other party because "my" way is the naturally right way for the universe to be. A psychological disposition based precommitment not to swerve in a game of chicken.

I agree with this. Though I think some degree of acceptance of white lies is the majority position, and figuring out when someone deviates from that and to what degree is tricky. Such social defaults tend to be worth going along with unless you have a pretty damn good reason not to.

Comment author: Vulture 11 February 2014 01:55:45AM *  4 points [-]

A note w.r.t. the quote:

But please keep in mind that, beyond the realm of science, the views of the characters may not be those of the author. Not everything the protagonist does is a lesson in wisdom, and advice offered by darker characters may be untrustworthy or dangerously double-edged.

-- The Author, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Comment author: drethelin 10 February 2014 06:59:00AM 4 points [-]

As long as enemies exist, secrets must be kept.

Comment author: brazil84 09 February 2014 10:29:26PM 4 points [-]

Here's an excerpt from an attorney disciplinary code:

In the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of fact or law to a third person.

And from the commentary on that rule:

This Rule refers to statements of fact. Whether a particular statement should be regarded as one of fact can depend on the circumstances. Under generally accepted conventions in negotiation, certain types of statements ordinarily are not taken as statements of fact. Estimates of price or value placed on the subject of a transaction and a party’s intentions as to an acceptable settlement of a claim are ordinarily in this category . . .

My take on this is that it's pretty much understood and accepted that in negotiations, people bullshit about their intentions all the time. (Whether it's a good idea or not is another question of course.) I was a bit surprised when I first read this rule.

Comment author: Oligopsony 08 February 2014 02:18:07PM *  4 points [-]

At LessWrong there've been discussions of several different views all described as "radical honesty." No one I know of, though, has advocated Radical Honesty as defined by psychotherapist Brad Blanton, which (among other things) demands that people share every negative thought they have about other people. (If you haven't, I recommend reading A. J. Jacobs on Blanton's movement.) While I'm glad no one here is thinks Blanton's version of radical honesty is a good idea, a strict no-lies policy can sometimes have effects that are just as disastrous.

To point out the obvious, speaking from personal experience, this is indeed a terrible idea.

A couple of months ago I told a lie to someone I cared about. This wasn't a justified lie; it was a pretty lousy lie (both in its justifiability and the skill with which I executed it) and I was immediately exposed by facial cues. I felt pretty awful because a lot of my self-concept up to that point had been based around being a very honest person, and from that point on, I decided to treat my "you shouldn't tell her _" intuitions as direct orders from my conscience to reveal exactly that thing, and to pay close attention to whether the meaning of what I've said deviates from the truth in a direction favorable to me, and as a consequence, I now feel rising anxiety whenever I feel some embarrassing thought followed by the need to confess it. I also resolved to search my conscience for any bad deeds I may have forgotten, which actually led to compulsive fantastic searching for terrible things I might have done and repressed, no matter how absurd (I've gotten moslty-successful help about this part.) She's long since forgiven me for the original lie and what I lied about, but continues to find this compulsive confessional behavior extremely annoying, and I doubt I could really function if I experienced it around people in general rather than her specifically.

Comment author: shminux 08 February 2014 02:59:21AM 8 points [-]

I wouldn't too much on your ability to "lie with truths," as Quirrell would say.

You accidentally a verb.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 09 February 2014 01:36:56AM 2 points [-]

Thanks. Fixed.

Comment author: maia 09 February 2014 05:18:31PM 5 points [-]

I bet wouldn't too much

Off by one.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 09 February 2014 05:42:44PM 2 points [-]

Okay. Now I think it's fixed.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 04:11:39AM 21 points [-]

A few years ago, for example, when I went to see the play my girlfriend had done stage crew for, and she asked what I thought of it. She wasn't satisfied with my initial noncommittal answers, so she pressed for more. Not in a "trying to start a fight" way; I just wasn't doing a good job of being evasive. I eventually gave in and explained why I thought the acting had sucked, which did not make her happy. I think incidents like that must have contributed to our breaking up shortly thereafter. The breakup was a good thing for other reasons, but I still regret not lying to her about what I thought of the play.

Boy, I sure wouldn't want to date a person like this (your girlfriend-at-the-time). She asked for your opinion; pressed you to actually give it, thus communicating (by any reasonable measure) that she actually wanted your opinion; and then, when you gave it honestly, was unhappy about it? That's horrible.

I don't think I'd ever willingly choose to be close to someone to whom I'd ever regret not lying in response to being asked for my opinion. The thought of living like that, living with the knowledge that honest communication is basically impossible because any time the person asks me (and presses me) about my opinion, I have to consider the possibility that what they actually want is lies — that this person prefers lies both to truths and to no comment — repulses me.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 08 February 2014 11:56:21PM *  11 points [-]

As best I can tell, "people who sometimes ask questions they might not want to hear the answer to" are a large majority of the population. "Does this dress make me look fat" is a cliche put-you-on-the-spot question for a reason.

Sometimes is an important word here. Too often, and it might be an issue, but it's not like this was a regular occurrence with her. (A big THANK YOU here to Pablo and hyporational for noticing they shouldn't be making too many assumptions based on one anecdote.)

Now, another approach is to exclusively date people who value total honesty at all times. But (1) there are other qualities I value more in a mate and (2) I suspect such openness to "total honesty at all time" tends to correlate with being social inept and overly honest even with people who don't want that, qualities I'd like to avoid.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 February 2014 09:56:32AM 6 points [-]

 "Does this dress make me look fat"

(BTW, I usually answer that with "you looked better in that other one", so I don't offend her but I still help her choose flattering clothes.)

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 09 February 2014 12:25:01AM 10 points [-]

Now, another approach is to exclusively date people who value total honesty at all times. But (1) there are other qualities I value more in a mate and (2) I suspect such openness to "total honesty at all time" tends to correlate with being social inept and overly honest even with people who don't want that, qualities I'd like to avoid.

To reiterate a point I have made several times in this post's comments:

"Valuing total honesty at all times" and "refraining from pressing someone for an honest answer when what you actually want is a lie" are two very different things.

Correspondingly, being totally honest at all times, unprompted, is not the same as being honest when specifically pressed for an honest answer.

"Does this dress make me look fat" is a cliche put-you-on-the-spot question for a reason.

I try to restrict my circle of friends to people who do not ask precisely such put-you-on-the-spot questions. That, among other policies and attitudes, makes my circle of friends small.

Or, to put it another way: people worth being friends with are rare. And those are the only people I want to be friends with.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 February 2014 12:37:51AM 5 points [-]

As best I can tell, "people who sometimes ask questions they might not want to hear the answer to" are a large majority of the population. "Does this dress make me look fat" is a cliche put-you-on-the-spot question for a reason.

You're misunderstanding the message.

"Does this dress make me look fat?" is not really a question. It's a request for a compliment.

If I may engage in gender generalization for a moment, men usually understand words literally. This annoys women to no end as they often prefer to communicate on the implication level and the actual words uttered don't matter much.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 09 February 2014 01:03:52AM 2 points [-]

"Does this dress make me look fat?" is not really a question. It's a request for a compliment.

In a sense, yes. But less-cliche questions sometimes get used the same way, and you have to be on guard with that.

(You can argue that giving the expected responses to such questions isn't technically lying, but that seems like semantic hair-splitting to me.)

Comment author: gjm 08 February 2014 10:41:45AM 9 points [-]

Boy, I sure wouldn't want to date a person like this [...]

Depends on the details. I don't think there's anything necessarily unreasonable about the following sequence of events: A wants some information from B, and presses for it despite B's reluctance. When the truth actually comes out, A finds it upsetting. ("Do you love me?" "Yes, of course." "It sometimes doesn't seem that way. Seriously, and honestly, do you really love me?" "Well ... no, not really. I just enjoy having sex with you." "Oh, shit.")

Now, being upset because your boyfriend thinks the acting in a play wasn't much good? Yeah, that seems less reasonable. So I agree that this probably wasn't a great relationship to be in. But I really can't endorse any general claim that it's bad to press for someone's opinion when one of the possible answers would upset you.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 05:00:54PM 9 points [-]

Having the truth upset you, and being angry at a person for telling you the unpleasant truth, are two very different things.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 February 2014 09:01:27PM *  7 points [-]

But there are times when both are appropriate. Example: "did you strangle my puppy?" It's hardly unreasonable to expect an honest answer and then be angry at the person when the honest answer is "yes."

More generally, it is not inherently contradictory to expect total honesty and to be occasionally angry at what that honesty reveals.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 15 February 2014 06:45:57AM 4 points [-]

Example: "did you strangle my puppy?"

In that case, you're not angry at the person for telling the truth, you're angry at them for having strangled your puppy. Similarly, in the love example, the problem isn't so much the fact that B told A the truth, the problem is that B had systematically lied to A in order to get sex before. In neither case are you actually angry at the person for telling you the truth, you're angry at them for committing a separate moral wrong.

This seems different from "did you like my play", since disliking a play isn't a moral wrong by itself. In that case you really are angry at someone for telling the truth.

Comment author: [deleted] 16 February 2014 02:37:45AM *  2 points [-]

I personally am not so much of a saint as to only get mad at people for moral wrongs. I can absolutely see myself getting angry at a close person for not liking a book I wrote / play I directed / whatever. It still has nothing to do with truth -- I want them to be honest, I just want them to honestly like my stuff! (Of course that isn't entirely mature and fair, but people get their emotions all tied up in their artistic work).

Comment author: gjm 08 February 2014 08:56:48PM 3 points [-]

That's exactly my point. And I conjecture that what upset Chris's girlfriend was the fact that her boyfriend wasn't impressed by her friends' acting. I could, of course, be wrong. If her problem was simply that he'd been tactless enough to tell her what she asked him to tell her, then indeed she was bring grossly unreasonable.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 10:04:25PM 4 points [-]

If that's indeed what upset her, then she was also being unreasonable. Consider:

  1. Chris could have been unimpressed because the acting was, in fact, bad. (Let's not get into whether art can be objectively bad, or any such thing; that's not the point of the discussion.)

If so, then his reaction is information that the acting is bad. Being angry at the messenger who is conveying this information to you is unreasonable.

  1. On the other hand, Chris could have thought the acting sucked because of differing tastes, and not any objective badness of the acting.

If so, then what his girlfriend has just found out is that their tastes don't entirely align in this arena. Being angry at Chris for this revelation is, also, unreasonable.

So, in either case, being angry at your boyfriend for not being impressed with your friends' acting is unreasonable.

Unless, of course, you take the view (as did another poster elsewhere in the comments) that one may, and should, alter one's opinions on the basis of what one thinks will please one's close ones. I strongly reject such views.

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 10:45:18PM 3 points [-]

It could be that she thought the most likely explanation for him not liking their acting was because he had unrealistic expectations or didn't watch the show with an open mind.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 10:58:11PM 2 points [-]

Both of those suggestions confuse me.

unrealistic expectations

"Their acting sucked. I expected it to be good!" "Well, that was unreasonable of you! Clearly, you should have expected it to suck!" "Oh, well, in that case... yep, it sucked."

???

didn't watch the show with an open mind.

What on earth does that mean...?

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 11:04:34PM 4 points [-]

More like:

"That show was not in the top 30% of all entertainment I have ever consumed."

"...How was it as amateur theater goes?"

"Oh, easily top fifteen percent there."

The open-mindedness criterion is a little harder to explain.

Comment author: ete 08 February 2014 05:53:36PM 3 points [-]

In that scenario lying may be better for both in the short term, but lying about being in love with someone to trick them into sleeping with you seems pretty likely to upset them more in the long term. And there are more gentle ways to put it which could make honestly explaining that it's mostly a physical thing which would reduce the immediate negativity considerably, though the amount depends on the listener's disposition.

I agree that it's not necessarily unreasonable for a truth to be upsetting, but it is somewhat unreasonable to press someone for a truthful answer (especially something important), then be upset with them specifically for being honest, especially if they have indicated discomfort giving a direct answer and tried skirting around the subject (since this hints that it's something which may be an uncomfortable truth they may want to avoid), even if it's pretty common in many circles.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 February 2014 11:59:49PM 20 points [-]

Demand by rational men for rational women exceeds supply, even taking into account that some of the women have harems. If you're one of the lucky men, or a woman, be aware of your privilege and don't criticize men who lack it.

Comment author: ciphergoth 09 February 2014 09:04:38AM *  21 points [-]

I think the set of women you can be honest with in a relationship is much larger than the set of women who are full on CFAR style rationalists.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 February 2014 05:56:39PM 4 points [-]

My experience is more like "real honesty, in or out of a relationship, only works with the upper echelon of CFAR style rationalists" though admittedly exposure to the naked, sharp gears of my own intellect may have more Lovecraftian results than it would in the population average.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 09 February 2014 12:05:36AM 6 points [-]

I agree with the point in your first sentence, but I'm not sure I follow what your advice is in the second sentence.

Are you suggesting that my criticism comes from having rational women to date, whereas Chris (at the time of the anecdote) did not, and so was forced to date an irrational woman, for which I was criticising him?

Those are three wrong things, it seems to me:

  1. I don't find it to be the case that rational women occur in abundance in my dating pool;

  2. No one (presumably) forced Chris to date the young lady in question;

  3. I wasn't criticising him for his dating choices; if I was criticising anything, it was his advice that we accept such behavior in our partners / friends, and expressing the view that I, personally, would not accept such behavior.

P.S.

some of the women have harems

Really?

Comment author: hairyfigment 09 February 2014 04:39:57PM 2 points [-]

That surprises you? Do you think rational women wouldn't want harems?

Scott tells us that polyamory seems like a suboptimal way to get sex, and I assume this holds true even for women - technically. But sex is not fungible.

Comment author: [deleted] 09 February 2014 09:39:18AM *  2 points [-]

That doesn't entitle any irrational woman to date any rational man. Men are allowed to stay single, you know.

Comment author: pianoforte611 08 February 2014 10:14:32PM 3 points [-]

That actually reminded me of my parents. My dad is not allowed to say that he dislikes a dish prepared by my mom, even if asked for his opinion. Whenever I ask him if he liked one of my dishes, if I notice any hesitation I usually qualify it with "You can say no".

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 10:46:44PM 10 points [-]

Wow. Yeah, see, that's exactly the kind of relationship dynamic of which the very thought horrifies me.

I, too, sometimes make similar comments to people to convey that yes, I really do want their feedback on my cooking/baking, because getting better is important to me. Empty praise is worthless to me.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 08 February 2014 05:38:55AM *  3 points [-]

Boy, I sure wouldn't want to date a person like this (your girlfriend-at-the-time).

Human beings are complex creatures, and the decision to date a person involves weighing up the different elements that make up that complexity. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I'd say that in your current state of almost total ignorance about the physical and psychological traits of Chris's ex girlfriend, you are simply not in a position to know whether or not you'd want to date her. (Perhaps a focusing illusion--"nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it"--was involved in causing you to believe otherwise.)

ETA: After reading the replies below, I realize I had misinterpreted Said's comment above as making an all-things-considered claim, when it fact the claim was supposed to be subject to a ceteris paribus clause.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 06:27:08AM 2 points [-]

So, essentially, this is: "yeah, sure, my boyfriend/girlfriend has this horrible aspect of their personality, but they were otherwise a good person / the sex was great / whatever".

Ok. Sure. If your criticism would be obviated by the addition of a ceteris paribus clause to my comment, then consider it added.

You can say that about almost any undesirable personality trait, though. That doesn't make said trait any more desirable. Many things can be very undesirable without being hard dealbreakers (especially if discovered after you're already involved with the person). All else being equal, though, I would certainly prefer dating a person without the trait in question, than with.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 06:50:40AM *  3 points [-]

I'd say that in your current state of almost total ignorance about the physical and psychological traits of Chris's ex girlfriend, you are simply not in a position to know whether or not you'd want to date her.

It seems this objection could largely be ameliorated by the inclusion of a ceteris paribus clause. Or, given the way you phrased it, perhaps a measure of how just how many units on the Craziness/Hotness scale the behavioural pattern moves her.

EDIT to remove references to mythical three headed guardians of hades.

Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 05:47:41AM *  2 points [-]

She asked for your opinion; pressed you to actually give it, thus communicating (by any reasonable measure) that she actually wanted your opinion; and then, when you gave it honestly, was unhappy about it? That's horrible.

Looks pretty normal to me. One incident isn't a strong indicator of personality, I think. There are situations where a significant fraction of people want to be lied to in a reassuring way, and these situations can be recognized reliably enough if one has the necessary skills to do so.

I don't think I'd ever willingly choose to be close to someone to whom I'd ever regret not lying in response to being asked for my opinion. The thought of living like that, living with the knowledge that honest communication is basically impossible because any time the person asks me (and presses me) about my opinion, I have to consider the possibility that what they actually want is lies — that this person prefers lies both to truths and to no comment — repulses me.

There are skills that allow you to discern when people actually want your opinion and when they're just asking for reassurance. Wouldn't you rather have those?

Comment author: [deleted] 08 February 2014 08:51:42AM 10 points [-]

Looks pretty normal to me.

That word always¹ sounds to me like its only point is to sneak in the connotation that what's usual must therefore also be desirable.

“Normal is a cycle on a washing machine.”


  1. Not literally.
Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 09:05:09AM *  2 points [-]

My point is you mostly don't get to choose what's normal whether it's good or bad, so might as well consider adapting to it*. If you come up with a less disagreeable expression of usuality that fits this case, I'll make the switch.

*this obviously applies only if this fits your other goals

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 10:56:08AM 2 points [-]

I'm torn between upvoting this comment for the footnote and upvoting this comment for the insight. Decisions, decisions.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 06:19:33AM 6 points [-]

There are situations where a significant fraction of people want to be lied to in a reassuring ways, and these situations can be recognized reliably enough if one has the necessary skills to do so.

A significant fraction of people do all sorts of things. That doesn't mean I want to associate with them, much less data them.

There are skills that allow you to discern when people actually want your opinion and when they're just asking for reassurance. Wouldn't you rather have those?

Yes, I would definitely want to have those skills — and I would just as definitely want to not have to use them on someone I was dating, or otherwise close to.

Comment author: Creutzer 09 February 2014 09:52:45AM 2 points [-]

There are skills that allow you to discern when people actually want your opinion and when they're just asking for reassurance. Wouldn't you rather have those?

The trouble is, you have to be really good with those skills and get things right almost all of the time before they're worth much, since people weigh negatively-perceived interactions much more strongly than positively-perceived interactions in close relationships.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 06:55:32AM *  2 points [-]

She asked for your opinion; pressed you to actually give it, thus communicating (by any reasonable measure) that she actually wanted your opinion; and then, when you gave it honestly, was unhappy about it? That's horrible.

Particularly given the replies you have prompted it is worth emphasising the 'pressed you' phrase. The combination of pressing for honest feedback and handling it poorly is a very different thing to handling honesty poorly without attempting to force 'honest' feedback be given.

(Note that the information given does not lead me to conclude that the girlfriend must have been executing that pattern but hypothetical people who do so do thereby lose some measure of want-to-date-them-ness.)

Comment author: Antisuji 08 February 2014 05:32:43AM 2 points [-]

I understand the sentiment, but I'd caution that the desire to be able to express yourself freely can be seen as cover for having license to say whatever you want without regard to how it effects the other person. This is bad even if you don't intend to use it that way: you should be spending some cycles thinking about how the other person will feel about what you say. I speak from experience: saying what's on my mind has at times been hurtful to people I care about and I should have censored it or redirected the impulse.

Perhaps part of what you're objecting to is not that the person prefers you to lie, but that they prefer a world that can't exist to exist. If this were really what's going on, that would be a severe lapse of rationality. But that world can exist: our opinions are mutable and it's quite possible to decide to like the play. The conversation is actually about something completely different: whether you're willing and able to emphasize the positive over the negative aspects of something for her sake, which is an essential skill in any relationship.

The conversation is also about asking for acknowledgement and approval for something she's worked hard on and probably partially identifies with.

Please note that I'm not saying this is easy or obvious. Empathy is a difficult skill and requires training (or socialization), followed by practice and attention even for those to whom it comes easily.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 06:47:29AM 7 points [-]

(and now, the other part of my reply to your comment, with a quite intentional difference in tone)

I understand the sentiment, but I'd caution that the desire to be able to express yourself freely can be seen as cover for having license to say whatever you want without regard to how it effects the other person.

Certainly. I'm not suggesting that you ought to just run your mouth about any opinion that pops into your head, especially without giving any thought to whether expressing that opinion would be tactful, how the other person will feel about it (especially if it's a person you care about), etc. Often the best policy is just to shut up.

The problem comes when someone asks you for an opinion, and communicates that they really want it. If they then take offense at honesty, then I am strongly tempted to despise them immediately and without reservation. (Tempted, note; there may be mitigating factors; we all act unreasonably on occasion; but patterns of behavior are another thing.)

One of the issues with behaving like this is: so what happens when you really do want the person's opinion? How do you communicate that? You've already taught your partner that they should lie, tell you the pleasing falsehood, rather than be honest; how do you put that on hold? "No, honey, I know that I usually prefer falsehood to truth despite my protestations to the contrary, but this time I really do want the truth! Honest!" It erodes communication and trust — and I can think of few more important things in a relationship.

Behavior like this also makes your partner not trust your rationality, your honesty with yourself; I don't think I could be with a person whom I could not trust, on such a basic level, to reason honestly. I couldn't respect them.

This is bad even if you don't intend to use it that way: you should be spending some cycles thinking about how the other person will feel about what you say. I speak from experience: saying what's on my mind has at times been hurtful to people I care about and I should have censored it or redirected the impulse.

Yes. Certainly. Heck, I sometimes don't want to hear the truth, or someone's honest opinion of me. Not because I am necessarily in denial, or any such thing, but because I don't want to think about it at the moment; or any number of reasons.

But you know what I don't do in that case? I don't ask them for their honest opinion! I don't do what the girlfriend in the anecdote did, which is essentially demand that someone close to her to lie to her, and furthermore without acknowledging that this is what she was asking! To demand that your partner subvert their reason, and engage in doublethink to support your own irrationality... I really have a hard time finding words strong enough to express how much the very idea revolts me.

But then, this might be one of those "different people have different values/preferences" things.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 08 February 2014 07:36:11AM 1 point [-]

demand that someone close to her to lie to her, and furthermore without acknowledging that this is what she was asking! To demand that your partner subvert their reason, and engage in doublethink

One scary thought I had a while back is that this is essentially what friendship and especially love is, i.e., sabotaging one's rationality, specifically one's ability to honestly asses one's friend's/lover's usefulness as an ally as a costly way to signal one's precommitment not to defect against the friend/lover even when it would be in one's interest to do so.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 06:34:17AM 3 points [-]

But that world can exist: our opinions are mutable and it's quite possible to decide to like the play.

Possible, but utterly abhorrent.

whether you're willing and able to emphasize the positive over the negative aspects of something for her sake

Doublespeak for "doublethink, self-deception, and lies".

The conversation is also about asking for acknowledgement and approval for something she's worked hard on

One can acknowledge hard work without lying about outcomes. Approval given regardless of worth is meaningless and devalues itself (because if I approve of what you made, even if it's crap, then my approval is worthless, because it does not distinguish good work from bad, good results from dreck).

and probably partially identifies with.

Perhaps, then, she should heed Paul Graham's advice to keep her identity small; and apply the Litany of Tarski to whether the thing she worked on was good.

Please note that I'm not saying this is easy or obvious.

Sure, but something can be difficult, non-obvious, and undesirable.

Empathy is a difficult skill and requires training (or socialization), followed by practice and attention even for those to whom it comes easily.

I strongly disapprove of equating empathy with deception and tacit support for irrationality and emotional manipulation. They are not the same.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 03:26:51AM *  14 points [-]

I worry this post will be dismissed as trivial. I simultaneously worry that, even with the above disclaimer, someone is going to respond, "Chris admits to thinking lying is often okay, now we can't trust anything he says!"

If you extract the hyperbole this is an entirely valid reasoning. An observed pattern of lies (or an outright declaration of such a pattern) does mean that people should trust everything you say somewhat less than they otherwise would. Reputation matters. Expecting people to trust your word as much when you lie to them as when you don't would be foolish. This is a tradeoff that seems worthwhile but you must acknowledge that it is a tradeoff.

If you're thinking of saying that, that's your problem, not mine

False. It is their problem and yours. People not believing you is obviously a negative consequence to you. Acknowledge it and choose to accept the negative consequence anyway because of the other benefits you get from lies. (Or, I suppose, you could use selective epistemic irrationality as a dominance move and as the typical way to defect on an ultimatum game. Whatever works.)

all but the most prolific liars don't lie anything like half the time, so what they say is still significant evidence, most of the time.

With the caveat that the 'most of the time' excludes all the time when it matters to them most. Assuming a vaguely rational liar the times when they should be least trusted are times when being believed would benefit them the most.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 09 February 2014 01:36:47AM 2 points [-]

An observed pattern of lies (or an outright declaration of such a pattern) does mean that people should trust everything you say somewhat less than they otherwise would.

Really? Someone saying "I do the socially normal thing with white lies" is reason to distrust what they say about science?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 15 February 2014 07:07:51AM 2 points [-]

To some extent, though probably not to a large extent.

An older version of my recent article about trust used to have the following paragraphs, which I then cut since the essay was already long enough:

One of my friends, who I know to be good at telling lies, was recently offended when I admitted that the possibility of them lying to me has sometimes crossed my mind. They protested that they only lie in some very specific situations that force them to lie, and that they’ve never had any reason to lie to me. I think the underlying idea was something like, since they’ve always had a good reason to lie to others, that shouldn’t be counted against them. I tried to explain that I don’t hold it against them, but that doesn’t mean that I could just forget about it, either. Means, motive, opportunity: they’ve demonstrated that they have the means, that while they dislike lying they’re not absolutely opposed to it, and there would certainly have been plenty of opportunities for them to lie to me. And while I cannot imagine a reason for them to lie to me, I also don’t have a full understanding of how their mind works, so I must take into account the possibility of something unforeseen.

None of this causes me to assign “they will lie to me” a very high probability, which is why the thought only crossed my mind without actually causing me to worry.

Comment author: wedrifid 09 February 2014 09:00:36AM *  4 points [-]

Really?

Yes.

Someone saying "I do the socially normal thing with white lies" is reason to distrust what they say about science?

(I question the claim that this is merely an expression of normality but assume it for the sake of the answer.)

Yes, it is a reason to trust what they say about science less. The "socially normal" thing to do with respect to mentioning science is to be much more inclined to bring up findings that support one's own preferred objectives than to bring up other things. It also involves a tendency to frame the science in the most personally favourable light.

An above normal obsession with epistemic accuracy and truthfulness (which is somewhat typical of people more intellectually inclined and more interested in science) ought to (all else being equal) make one more comfortable trusting someone talking about science. I, for example, often can't help making references to findings and arguing against positions that could be considered "my side". That political naivety and epistemic honesty at the expense of agenda is some degree of evidence. Possibly evidence that I can't be trusted as a political ally on the social-perceptions battlefield but that I can be more useful as a raw information source.

Again, assume "all else being equal" is included in every second sentence above.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 10 February 2014 02:45:04AM 2 points [-]

Saying "I do the socially normal thing" is pretty good evidence that you don't do the socially normal thing.

Structurally, this post and its comments are extremely similar to the pua threads.

Comment author: Lumifer 08 February 2014 04:39:32AM *  7 points [-]

I will implore you to do one thing: accept other people's right to lie to you

I don't quite understand what are you imploring.

Of course other people have the right to lie to me. And I have a right to change my attitude and my expectations on that basis.

Rephrased in a slightly different way, other people have the right to lie to me but not the right to escape the consequences.

Comment author: Larks 19 February 2014 02:05:45AM 3 points [-]

If you're a gay teenager with homophobic parents, and there's a real chance they'd throw you out on the street if they found out you were gay, you should probably lie to them about it. Even in college, if you're still financially dependent on them, I think it's okay to lie. The minute you're no longer financially dependent on them, you should absolutely come out for your sake and the sake of the world. But it's OK to lie if you need to to keep your education on-track.

In the ordinary course of events, parents are allowed to not support their children in college. So I'm puzzled as to what the principal at work here is meant to be. "It's ok to deprive people of their autonomy on the basis of a moral belief of theirs, even if this belief doesn't cause them to undertake any actions that would be considered immoral in the absence of the moral belief"?

Suppose I think that being a communist is immoral. Is it thereby ok for me to found a charity called "Workers Communism", solicit donations from communists, and then secretly donate them to the US Republican Party?

Comment author: Jiro 19 February 2014 06:40:34AM *  2 points [-]

I would say that it is possible that it may be moral to unconditionally do X or to unconditionally refuse to do X, yet immoral to do X based on conditions. For instance, it may be moral for a politician to vote against a bill, or to vote for the bill, but it would not be moral to vote for or against the bill based on whether I pay him a bribe. Few people would accept the argument "paying him the bribe doesn't cause him to take any actions that would be immoral in the absence of the bribe".

I would apply that to parents who will only pay for their child's college if the child is straight. Just because they could morally pay (period), or morally refuse to pay (period), doesn't mean that they can morally refuse to pay conditional on the child's sexuality.

And for the Communist analogy to work you would have to say something like "It is moral to pay a charity, and moral to not pay a charity, but immoral to pay a charity conditional on the charity being for a cause you like". which comes out as nonsense.

Comment author: ChristianKl 08 February 2014 07:14:32PM 3 points [-]

All this needs the disclaimer that some domains should be lie-free zones. I value the truth and despise those who would corrupt intellectual discourse with lies.

I don't think this will work in practice. Lying is a habit. If you habitual lie in private life I won't you expect you to be completely honest when you are in academia. Even if you try to be honest I doubt you will be so completely. It relatively easy to try to control your data in different ways and then report the way that provided the best p value while not reporting the other ways. Yes, the p value is real for that statistic test but you weren't fully honest either.

Then there are the big lies such as: "The data that we have follows a normal distribution." which you find in a lot of papers and which you can't really escape.

I don't think lying in relationship with significant other is a great idea. There a girl with whom I dance fairly intimately. Two weeks ago I accidentally hit her with my elbow with a bit of force. She doesn't has that much experience but wants to dance fancy so I danced fancy with her. We both made a little mistake and my elbow hit her face.

She directly told me nothing happened and we continue dancing. Next week I meet her and she has a big bruise at the location and tells me my elbow was responsible. The fact that she told me in the moment that it didn't hurt was a lie. In the moment she got what she wanted by continuing the dance but it makes the whole interaction between us so much harder. Dancing relatively intimately without any good feedback about when you hurt the other person is hard.

Normally I have decent feedback about whether the kind of intimicy I have with a girl is a bit uncomfortable for the girl I'm dancing with and can adept in that moment. With her I don't feel like I can read her one that level. It feels like she made a decision that she wants to dance close and if that raises a bit of anxiety in her she won't show any sign of it because it might mean that I increase the distance.

I think my lack of reading her body even resulted in the situation of hitting her with my elbow.

The whole situation is pretty weird for me. I have a woman that I find attractive who wants physical intimacy during the dance but it doesn't feel right because I have no feedback about what she feels.

In intimate relationship I think it's very worthwhile to be open about feelings so that the other person can react to what you feel. When in doubt, focus on communicating what you feel instead of making judgements.

Comment author: AshwinV 08 February 2014 03:44:03PM 3 points [-]

I guess one problem that crops up when dealing with the issue of lying is that there is no clear litmus test. It may be possible to give broad guidelines such as "it is ok to lie in situations A,B and C, but most definitely not OK to lie in situations D,E and F." Real life is far more complex and subject to all manner of interpretation (not to mention all manner of bias as well). I strongly suspect that before we can rule on when it is ok to lie, or when it is ok to use a half truth we need to perfect the art of communication i.e. develop a system where we can keep perfect score of what words truly mean and how much deviation there is from the intent as well as how much effect the said deviation will have.

Comment author: Benito 08 February 2014 08:53:11AM *  3 points [-]

Your discussion of Harris's 'Lying' is a little terse, and does miss some of his arguments. I think anyone interested should get his book, its very short and can be read in about half an hour to an hour, depending on your speed. PM me for a PDF copy of the first edition (note: second edition is much updated).

Here's two extended quotes, that I think contains ideas not addressed in the post:

Once one commits to telling the truth, one begins to notice how unusual it is to meet someone who shares this commitment. Honest people are a refuge: You know they mean what they say; you know they will not say one thing to your face and another behind your back; you know they will tell you when they think you have failed—and for this reason their praise cannot be mistaken for mere flattery. Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves. In committing to be honest with everyone, we commit to avoiding a wide range of long-term problems, but at the cost of occasional, short-term discom- fort. However, the discomfort should not be exaggerated: You can be honest and kind, because your purpose in telling the truth is not to offend people: You simply want them to have the information you have, and would want to have if you were in their position. But it can take practice to feel comfortable with this way of being in the world—to cancel plans, decline invitations, critique others’ work, etc., all while being honest about what one is thinking and feeling. To do this is also to hold a mirror up to one’s life—because a commitment to telling the truth requires that one pay attention to what the truth is in every moment. What sort of person are you? How judgmental, self-interested, or petty have you become?

...

But let’s imagine the truth is harder to tell: Your friend looks fat in that dress, or any dress, because she is fat. Let’s say she is also thirty-five years old and single, and you happen to know that her greatest desire at this moment in life is to get married and start a family. You believe that many men might be disinclined to date her at her current weight. And, marriage aside, you are confident that she would be happier and healthier, and would feel better about herself, if she got in shape. A white lie is simply a denial of these realities. It is a refusal to offer honest guidance in a storm. Even on so touchy a subject, lying seems a clear failure of friendship. By reassuring your friend about her appearance, you are not helping her to do what you think she should do to get what she wants out of life... ...False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 February 2014 08:43:23AM *  3 points [-]

I wouldn't count non-literal use of language (“it was okay” when it's obvious to both interlocutors that the actual intended meaning is ‘[it sucked but I don't want to hurt your feelings]’) as lying.

But still, I prefer to be with people to whom I can also say why it sucked (so they get a chance to do better the next time) without hurting their feelings either. I can't choose my own parents and I can't choose whether the Nazis will come to my door, but I can choose whom to interact with in most other situations (excluding NPC-like situations, where topics I'd want to withhold my opinions about aren't likely to come up in the first place). Feeling like I'm walking on eggshells whenever talking to someone is not a pleasant sensation and kills most of the fun of talking to them in the first place. (YMMV.)

Comment author: Burgundy 11 February 2014 10:37:21AM *  5 points [-]

I think this is a great post. I fully agree about accepting other people's right to lie... in limited circumstances, of course (which is how I interpreted the post). I figured it was primarily talking about situations of self-defense or social harmony about subjective topics.

I think privacy is very important. Many cultures recognize that some subjects are private or personal, and has norms against asking about people's personal business without the appropriate context (which might depend on friendship, a relationship, consent, etc...). Some "personal" subjects may include:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Heath issues
  • Configuration of genitals
  • Reasons for sexually/romantically rejecting someone
  • Current physical state of pain
  • Sexual history (outside STI discussion between partners)
  • Sexual fantasies
  • Past traumatic experiences
  • Political views that would be controversial or difficult to explain in the current context

The ethics of lying when asked about personal subjects seems more complicated. In fact, the very word "lying" may poison the well, as if the default is that people should tell the truth. I do not accept such a default without privacy issues being addressed. I will suggest that people do not have a right to other people's truthful responses about private information by default; whether they do depends on the relationship and context.

If someone asks you for information about yourself in one of these areas, and this request is inappropriate or unethical in the current context, then you are justified in keeping the truth away from them.

There are two main ways of withholding the truth: evasion, or lying. As several people in this thread have observed, there are often multiple methods of evading the question, such as exiting the situation, refusing to answer the question, omitting the answer in your response, or remaining silent.

If an evasive solution is feasible, then it's probably morally preferable. But if evasion isn't feasible, because you are trapped in the situation, because refusal to answer to the question would lead to greater punishment, or because evading the question would tip off the nosy asker to the truth (which they don't have a right to know), then lying seems like the only option.

While I admire the creative methods proposed in this thread to evade questions, such a tactic isn't always cognitive available or feasible for everyone. Sometimes, when dealing with a hostile or capricious questioner, pausing to come up with a creative deflection, or refusing to answer, will indicate weaknesses for them to attack. And if dealing with an ignorant or bumbling (but non-malicious) questioner, refusing to answer a question might cause them more embarrassment than you want.

An example from my recent experience: I was at work, and grabbing some Ibuprofen from the kitchen. A new employee walking into the kitchen and asked, "oh, is that Ibuprofen? You're taking it for a headache, right?" I said, "yes."

I lied. I was taking Ibuprofen for a chronic pain condition, which I did not want to reveal.

To me, information about health conditions is private, and I considered the truth to be none of his business. I'm sure there are ways I could have evaded the question, but I couldn't think of any. I viewed his question as a social infraction, but not such a big infraction that I wanted to embarrass him by scolding him, or be explicitly refusing to answer the question (which would be another form of scolding). I didn't sufficiently understand his motivation to want to scold him; maybe he was genuinely curious about what Ibuprofen is used for.

It's possible that he would have liked me to reveal that his question was overly nosy, to improve his social skills in the future and avoid offending people. The problem is that I didn't know him very well, and I couldn't know he would desire this sort of feedback. In a work context, where social harmony is important, I wasn't feeling like educating him on this subject. It's too bad that he has no way of learning from his mistake, but it's not my job to give it to him when it's costly to me. In situations that don't involve my body's health conditions, I am vastly more enthusiastic about helping other people with epistemic rationality.

I endorse lying as a last resort in response to people being unethically, inappropriately, or prematurely inquisitive about private matters. Conversely, if I want to question someone else about a private matter, I keep in mind the relationship and context, I note that they may not be ready or willing to tell me the truth, and I discount their answers appropriately. That way, I am less likely to be deceived if they feel the need to lie to protect their privacy.

I want to have an epistemically accurate picture of people, but I don't want to inappropriately intrude into their privacy, because I consider privacy valuable across the board. I recognize that other people have traumas and negative experiences which might lead them to rationally fear disclosure of facts about themselves or their state of mind, and that it can be ethical for them to hide that information, perhaps using lies if necessary.

If the topic isn't entirely personal to them, and effects me in tangible ways, then I would expect them to be more truthful, and be less likely to endorse lying to hide information. Lying in order to protect privacy should be a narrowly applied tool, but these situations do come up. Consequently, I agree with the original post that there are at least some situations where we should accept that other people can ethically lie.

Comment author: Carinthium 08 February 2014 05:32:54AM 6 points [-]

Another thing I should note that it can simply be a matter of human preferences. I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of having any truely close relationship (lover or close friend) with somebody who would be willing to lie to me. I see no reason why other wants should somehow override this one.

Comment author: Carinthium 08 February 2014 04:58:17AM 4 points [-]

I reject this idea for a fairly simple reason. I want to be in control of my own life and my own decisions, but due to lack of social skills I'm vulnerable to manipulation. Without a zero-tolerance policy on liars, I would rapidly be manipulated into losing what little control of my own life remains.

Comment author: kalium 09 February 2014 07:34:26AM 6 points [-]

Without a zero-tolerance policy on liars, I would rapidly be manipulated into losing what little control of my own life remains.

I suspect this is inaccurate and you would be better off with rules like "I won't do large favors for friends who haven't reciprocated medium favors in the past" or "I won't be friends/romantic partners with people who tell me what to do in areas that are none of their business." Virtually none of the manipulation I've been harmed by in the past has involved actual lies. Though maybe your extended social circle (friends of friends of friends, people at university, etc.) has different preferred methods of manipulation than mine does.

Comment author: Nornagest 08 February 2014 05:25:41AM 6 points [-]

You seem to be treating lack of social skills as a static attribute rather than a mutable trait. This may not be the most productive frame for the issue.

Comment author: Carinthium 08 February 2014 05:31:58AM 6 points [-]

Improving my social skills is HARD. I could invest a massive effort into it if I tried, but I'm at university right now and my marks would take a nosedive. It's not worth the price.

Comment author: Nornagest 08 February 2014 05:46:58AM *  1 point [-]

Never claimed it wasn't. As a matter of cost-benefit analysis, though, I think you might nonetheless find it attractive in comparison to unilaterally declaring war on the liars of the world, which I'd expect to be strenuous, socially costly, and largely ineffective in preventing manipulation.

As a matter of fact, drawing a sufficiently hard line on lying opens up entirely new avenues for manipulation of your trust.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 06:40:41AM *  2 points [-]

As a matter of cost-benefit analysis, though, I think you might nonetheless find it attractive in comparison to unilaterally declaring war on the liars of the world,

I did not read Carinthium's statement to be a declaration of war against liars. At most it would be analogous to a trade embargo.

One can make choices about what one welcomes in one's own personal life and attempting to change or fight everyone who doesn't do those things. The choice to not welcome lies limits Carinthium's social options quite significantly but it needn't be as strenuous or overt as you suggest.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 06:36:04AM 4 points [-]

You seem to be treating lack of social skills as a static attribute rather than a mutable trait. This may not be the most productive frame for the issue.

Neither the extreme of treating social skills as static nor the extremes of refusing to take into account current skill or refusing to acknowledge a comparative neurological weakness in that particular area are likely to be optimal.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 09 February 2014 01:46:03AM 5 points [-]

I strongly suspect this is harming you in the long run, and you'd benefit from trying to work on your social skills. Does your social circle consist only of people whose social skills, feelings about lying, etc. are similar to yours?

Also, do you think you can distinguish between "people who never lie to me" and "people who sometimes lie to me" more reliably than "people who are mostly honest but tell socially acceptable white lies" and "people who will manipulate me in ways that will seriously harm me"?

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 February 2014 12:44:32AM 2 points [-]

If you have no social skills do you have enough status and enough friends to still have friends to hang out with with a zero-tolerance policy.

Comment author: scav 08 February 2014 05:38:32PM 2 points [-]

The breakup was a good thing for other reasons, but I still regret not lying to her about what I thought of the play.

Why? Best case scenario is she keeps taking you to unenjoyable plays until you find you have to end the relationship yourself anyway or finally tell her the truth. Out of all the things in a relationship whose end was "a good thing for other reasons", one argument about whether a play was any good seems like a trivial thing to regret.

I can't favour lies as such. I am however on board with people honestly communicating the connotation that they care how you feel at the expense of the denotational literal meaning of their words.

In lies, the intention is not to soften but to deceive. So I don't even like the phrase "white lie". It's like, if you're going to stab me in the back, is it better if it's with a white knife?

Comment author: Ritalin 16 February 2014 05:29:20PM *  3 points [-]

I find that, sometimes, perfectly honest words are interpreted as white lies because they sound like such.

"What are you doing this weekend?" Me (very early in the term) "Studying for midterms."

"Let's be just friends from now on, okay?"

"You're a wonderful person, and I wish you the best of luck."

On another topic, I find myself lying, not to protect others' feelings but out of cowardice, to hide misdeeds, especially those that I irrationally didn't expect anyone to notice. The worst instances have involved frequent and compulsive food theft, and the occasional sneaking "improvements" into the minutes of a meeting or the report of an interview. Worst of all, for a rationalist, I tend to lie to myself, specifically by hiding my head in the sand and refusing to check on something that I expect will yield inconvenient truths, such as the state of my bank account, or whether I'm late in returning my books to the library. I feel that both kinds of lying are part of a same phenomenon of cowardice that I have yet to understand and resolve... Could it be as simple as "suck it up"?

Comment author: DeevGrape 10 February 2014 06:35:15AM 3 points [-]

Thanks very much for writing and posting this.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 10 February 2014 06:57:34PM 1 point [-]

You're welcome!

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 06:31:41AM 2 points [-]

A few years ago, for example, when I went to see the play my girlfriend had done stage crew for, and she asked what I thought of it. She wasn't satisfied with my initial noncommittal answers, so she pressed for more. Not in a "trying to start a fight" way; I just wasn't doing a good job of being evasive. I eventually gave in and explained why I thought the acting had sucked, which did not make her happy. I think incidents like that must have contributed to our breaking up shortly thereafter. The breakup was a good thing for other reasons, but I still regret not lying to her about what I thought of the play.

It could be that the wrong lesson is being learned here. If someone were to write a relationship debugging cheatsheet flowchart it would almost certainly start with "Was I being a pussy[1]?". Weakness is the problem here, the honesty is secondary. The pattern described is:

  • Request for feedback.
  • Evasiveness.
  • More requests.
  • More evasive answers.
  • Push for clear communication.
  • Critical comment.

That is one of the worst reply strategies imaginable[2]. It signals fear, lack of confidence, untrustworthiness, incompetence at navigating the flow of conversation and submissiveness. The precise details of the final reply there are not important. The reluctant honesty presented effectively as a 'confession' doesn't work well. Reluctantly getting badgered into lying to say what you think she wants you to hear isn't exactly optimal either.

If you want to lie in response to a social-feedback review situation then just do it, straight off. If you don't want to lie then an option is to honestly say that you enjoyed the play and particularly liked <one of the many things that didn't suck> and have a clear boundary against being pressed. Evasiveness then compliance is just way off.

  1. People uncomfortable with that term can either replace it with a preferred one or do a search for previous discussions here of the etymology.

  2. There are exceptions including but not limited to "get naked and start beating her with a maggot infested Koala liver".

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 06:59:33AM 6 points [-]

This seems broadly correct, but could you say more about

have a clear boundary against being pressed.

What does that look like? (A bit of sample dialog or somesuch would be particularly appreciated.)

Comment author: Lumifer 08 February 2014 08:47:17PM *  12 points [-]

It signals fear, lack of confidence, untrustworthiness, incompetence at navigating the flow of conversation and submissiveness.

I don't know -- depends on the context. Imagine a relationship that is strongly based on the Guess culture. The interpretation then would be quite different:

  • Request for feedback.
  • Evasiveness (this is a signal: I won't comment positively, don't ask)
  • More requests (either "I didn't understand your signal" or "I really want your positive comments")
  • More evasive answers (another signal: I REALLY won't say positive things, back off, you're setting yourself for a fall)
  • Push for clear communication (either "I'm clueless about your signals" or "I don't fucking care")
  • Critical comment ("Well, you forced the situation to this, if you really insist you can have it")

Certainly not the best way a conversation can develop, but it's mostly miscommunication, not lack of confidence or being not trustworthy.

Comment author: VAuroch 08 February 2014 06:51:02AM 8 points [-]

People uncomfortable with that term can either replace it with a preferred one or do a search for previous discussions here of the etymology.

There are numerous ways you could have said the same thing (including the same connotations) without alienating parts of your audience. You clearly were aware you were going to alienate part of your audience, so why didn't you use an alternate phrasing?

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 08:06:15PM *  0 points [-]

There are numerous ways you could have said the same thing (including the same connotations) without alienating parts of your audience. You clearly were aware you were going to alienate part of your audience, so why didn't you use an alternate phrasing?

Because I don't have have an alternative phrasing which does have the same meaning and connotations. The alternatives I did consider required a paragraph of explanation. (And, of course, my model of the people that have a problem with the phrasing expects most of them to find the fundamental claim offensive too and so, quite frankly, are not valued highly as a target audience for that kind of conversation.)

Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 08:20:17PM *  2 points [-]

What's wrong with wimp? Wuss might work too if the etymology is obscure enough to people.

I didn't find your comment offensive and pretty much agreed with it, but might care if other people did.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 08 February 2014 08:48:49PM 3 points [-]

"Wimp" and "wuss" have the connotations of weakness in conflict with other men, in personal, or at best, professional, circumstances. "Pussy" has the connotation (among others) of weakness in relationship power dynamics, which your suggestions do not.

Comment author: hyporational 08 February 2014 09:07:26PM 2 points [-]

If these indeed are the usual distinctions in connotation, thanks for the clarification. Some kind of a connotational dictionary would be nice, but I suppose the contents might change quite rapidly.

Comment author: Vulture 08 February 2014 09:09:10PM 2 points [-]

Some kind of a connotational dictionary would be nice, but I suppose the contents might change quite rapidly.

A strange idea, but not necessarily a bad one. I am intrigued.

Comment author: wedrifid 09 February 2014 07:49:02AM *  2 points [-]

What's wrong with wimp? Wuss might work too if the etymology is obscure enough to people.

SaidA's answer is likely better than the explanation I could come up with. Those words cannot stand alone to convey the same meaning. (Tangentally, they are also frankly much more sexist and presumptively gender normative in practical usage than the term I used.)

There is also the critical desiratum that this kind of heuristic needs to be simple. It can't be obfuscated behind a sentence of political correctness if it is to be used as the first step in a diagnostic flowchart. There needs to be a single word that has precisely the connotations that 'pussy' has. If there was another word that meant the same thing then I would be eager to use it. However the kind of people most inclined to suppress that term tend to be the same kind of people who don't want there to be a word for the concept at all because they find any bare bones and literal discussion of social reality to be uncouth.

This is the kind of situation where I would be (and in the past have been) reasonably content to submit to the will of the participants 'write off' lesswrong as a place where useful conversation cannot occur but not willing to distort the discussion to appease social politics. I happen to think it's an error to learn "My problem is that I don't lie enough" when the explanation "I was being a pussy" fits perfectly but it isn't a battle I am willing to spend social capital to fight.

Comment author: Benquo 08 February 2014 06:35:25PM 0 points [-]

Downvoted for the use of a gendered insult.

Comment author: EGarrett 13 February 2014 11:16:37PM *  2 points [-]

I think one of the reasons that we are hesitant to say negative things is that we leave out a lot of positive things. I noticed that it's a lot easier to say when someone is bothering you when you've let them know about the many times you've been glad they came over or you were happy they called. The same is true when critiquing things, accurately reflecting the good and bad in something as you see it causes you to say far more positive things than you might otherwise even realize.

Also, I think that a lot of our negative opinions are probably a result of our own limited perspective. For example, if a friend asks me "does this make me look fat"...I notice that I start thinking of women I see in .jpg's and fashion magazines, who aren't representative of the general population. So while I might think "yes" within that incorrect perspective, in comparison to the actual population of people and the average body they have (which I assume is the standard which "fat" reflects), the REAL correct answer is "no."

Comment author: ete 08 February 2014 07:58:30PM 2 points [-]

I agree that in some cases, including the homophobic parents example, lying can be justified. Even in significantly more mild cases, I can see lying as occasionally consequently the better course of action, even if you take into account the chance of the lie being found out and trust being lost/hurt to other people due to being lied to.

However, correct me if I am wrong but you seem to be arguing something much stronger than this? From my read this article promotes at least accepting, maybe even encouraging, using white lies as a way to ease potentially uncomfortable social situations. I'd guess some of the other commenters (particularly Alicorn) have a similar read, and that's prompting some strong reactions. While white lie culture may be common, and going against the grain (e.g. replying that you're not particularly keen on some item of clothing when asked by an acquaintance) may go against our social instincts, refusing to say you don't like things in many situations disallows useful opinion giving in all similar situations. If I want to get a second opinion on something, I want to ask someone who will give me information. If no matter their true opinion, they'll give some mild nicity/white lie to spare my feelings, I'm not going to learn much. If every time someone asks if their friends if their new hair cut suits them their friends must say yes, that person is both never going to learn they have a haircut few people like and maybe more importantly they're going to start automatically downgrading similar praise, quite correctly, because "people saying my haircut is nice" has zero correlation to the haircut being nice.

I accept that many, maybe even a significant majority of, people do just look for compliments or niceties some of the time. I accept that giving them those compliments rather than honesty may be better for their self-esteem in the short term. However, I have found that so long as I present myself as direct but gentle from the start and don't hide honesty from someone then spring it on them at a bad moment, a vast majority of even those compliment seekers at least respect gentle honesty and many of them find it refreshing. Perhaps this is in part due to my social group being unusually tolerant, and this strategy would fail elsewhere.

On the other side, I prefer people to be honest with me and attempt to self-modify towards being someone who would, in all but the most convoluted situations, prefer in the long term to be told the truth in response to all serious questions. I do this specifically so I can appear to be a person who it is better to tell the truth to in effectively every case, because I want to be able to reliably get true opinions. This is something I have never had a negative reaction to once explained, and has been the gateway to many interesting conversations.

Due to these working well for me and the large advantages of being able to communicate openly with greatly reduced fear of unintended offence provided by a general near-universal policy of honesty, I remain very skeptical of the idea that the habit of looking for reassurance at the expense of honest advice or opinions is something to be respected or encouraged (especially in rationalist circles where truth-seeking is prized).

Last note: I see the saying the truth but bending the meaning to be polite as signaling to someone that you don't quite mean what you're saying subtly enough that if (and only if) they care about your true opinion enough to pay attention to what you say and ask a followup question you'll tell them the full story. If they were just looking for a generic nicity, they either won't notice your slightly careful wording, or should not request information they do not want. This is useful for people who may have reason to want your true opinion, and as a way of avoiding getting into the habit of telling white lies. It's rarely hard to avoid the question or skip over it even if you can't come up with a convincing not-lie, so long as you don't get too obviously caught up in debating internally what to say or how to avoid offense first.

Comment author: Oligopsony 08 February 2014 02:36:21PM 2 points [-]

All this needs the disclaimer that some domains should be lie-free zones. I value the truth and despise those who would corrupt intellectual discourse with lies.

Can anyone point me to a defense of corrupting intellectual discourse with lies (that doesn't resolve into a two-tier model of elites or insiders for whom truth is required and masses/outsiders for whom it is not?) Obviously there is at least one really good reason why espousing such a viewpoint would be rare, but I assume that, by the law of large numbers, there's probably an extant example somewhere.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 February 2014 12:46:18AM 2 points [-]

Do you believe that Sokal was immoral when he wrote his famous paper? There are people who suggest that Bem wrote his latest famous paper for the same reason.

If you think that the system is inherently flawed and corrupt and has no error correction build in, the strategy of placing lies into the system to make it blow up makes sense.

Comment author: EHeller 09 February 2014 01:00:03AM *  3 points [-]

Do you believe that Sokal was immoral when he wrote his famous paper? There are people who suggest that Bem wrote his latest famous paper for the same reason.

Daryl Bem? I think people suggesting Bem isn't being serious (though sadly mistaken) haven't talk to him. If Bem is trying to do something like Sokal, he has been doing an Andy Kaufman level job of trolling for many years now.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 February 2014 12:03:04PM 4 points [-]

Daryl Bem? I think people suggesting Bem isn't being serious (though sadly mistaken) haven't talk to him.

I think I remember reading that sentiment from someone who's a student with him on a blog. Bem is certainly deeply serious about his belief that the academia is full of hypocrites.

Even if Bem does belief in psi he's not as stupid as believing that the data he gathered for that paper proves that psi really exists. But if he can use that data to show how deeply wrong academia happens to be and shake up academia from his perspective maybe academics start to take data more seriously. To the extends that he beliefs taking data seriously leads to believing in psi shaking up academia serves that agenda.

In a world full of pseudoskeptics someone who's serious about evidence gets annoyed at pseudoskeptics. To the extend that you don't mentally distinguish pseudoskeptics from the real thing, it's hard to understand people like Bem.

I'm enough like Bem in that regard to feel with him. I'm the kind of person who goes on skeptic exchange to write a question asking for whether there evidence that supports the core assumptions of evidence-based medicine and have the highest upvoted answer be for a year a answer opposing evidence-based medicine.

Part of the trick was to take the most authoritative source as definition for evidence-based medicine and that source actually puts up a strawman that nobody in their right mind would defend at depth.

I'm deeply troubled when I read people saying that the evidence for climate change is comparable to the evidence for evolution because I think the evidence for evolution is pretty certain and better with p<<0.0000001 and climate change isn't in that reference class. I'm serious enough about evidence to find that claim a big lie that offends me, especially when made in highly authoritative venues.

Bem is deeply serious but that paper is him saying: "Even if I play by your strange and hypocritical rules of "evidence", I still can provide "evidence" that psi exists. Take that." I think that the data he measured is real but I don't think that he thinks the data of that particular experiment proves that psi is real. He might or might not believe that psi is real, I don't know.

It a different kind of lie to lie by following the rules to the letter then to lie that evolution and climate change in the same reference class but both are lies. Both aren't about telling the truth as is.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 08 February 2014 04:38:48PM 2 points [-]

Can we taboo "intellectual discourse"? As I think about your question I realize that I'm not sure I understand what that phrase is being used to refer to in this context.

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 04:44:38PM -1 points [-]

I find being generally known to be unwilling to lie highly useful in many situations. Less than a week ago I spontaneously volunteered a compliment to someone who politely thanked me, only to then double-take and remark that she thought that I wouldn't have said it if I hadn't meant it. Consequentialists who think that consequentialists should be able to solve the precommitment problem and be effectively honest nonetheless, in real life, cite my deontological prohibition on lying as a good reason to trust me. I am fairly good at omission, and have successfully avoided outing closeted people of my acquaintance who make that preference known to me, though I never felt the need to go through a similar period myself.

Arbitrary people are not obligated to trust me to handle the truth correctly. If for some reason I'm giving the impression that I'm the equivalent of a Nazi at the door or a homophobic parent, I see no reason from their perspective that they should confess to me these secrets even if I ask. This does not mean that we will be friends if I learn that this has been happening. There are plenty of things people might choose to do for reasonable or even unavoidable reasons that mean we will not be friends.

This post makes me less interested in inviting you over for dinner again. What has to happen in your head for you to be willing to come to my house and eat food I cook and participate in charming conversation and then blithely slash our tires if we ask the wrong question because you think we're going to become hysterical or behave immorally should we gain access to information or be told that we cannot have it? Why does that sound like a welcoming environment you'd like to visit, with us on such a supposed hair trigger about mere true facts? Why should you sound like a guest I'd prefer when you say this? Whatever it is, I don't like or want it closer to me. You may make that tradeoff, but imploring the people around you to "accept" others' "right" to lie to them seems like a kind of fucked-up way to attempt to cheat the tradeoff.

Comment author: ChrisHallquist 09 February 2014 10:24:17AM *  18 points [-]

What has to happen in your head for you to be willing to come to my house and eat food I cook and participate in charming conversation and then blithely slash our tires if we ask the wrong question because you think we're going to become hysterical or behave immorally should we gain access to information or be told that we cannot have it? Why does that sound like a welcoming environment you'd like to visit, with us on such a supposed hair trigger about mere true facts?

There are some communities I consider incredibly welcoming where I don't imagine by any means that anything I say will be received well just because it's true. On the other hand, a subculture that not only has idiosyncratic social norms but aggressively shuns anyone who follows mainstream norms, likening violations of their idiosyncratic norms to slashing people's tires... that sounds incredibly unwelcoming to me.

"Hair trigger about mere true facts" is hyperbole. But the truth is that the overwhelming majority of the human race consists of people who sometimes respond badly to being told "mere true facts." Insisting you are an exception is quite a brag. It's possible, but the prior is low. I'd give members of the LessWrong community better odds of being such an exception than I'd grant to most people, but I don't think every member of the community, or even every prominent member of the community, qualifies. In some cases I think I've seen strong evidence to the contrary. (For reasons that should be obvious, please do not ask me to name names.) Because of this, I'm not going to default to treating most members of the LessWrong community radically differently than how I treat non-LessWrongers.

Comment author: V_V 08 February 2014 08:18:10PM *  18 points [-]

This post makes me less interested in inviting you over for dinner again. What has to happen in your head for you to be willing to come to my house and eat food I cook and participate in charming conversation and then blithely slash our tires if we ask the wrong question because you think we're going to become hysterical or behave immorally should we gain access to information or be told that we cannot have it? Why does that sound like a welcoming environment you'd like to visit, with us on such a supposed hair trigger about mere true facts?

Not really my business, but a reaction like this may give people an incentive to lie to you.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 February 2014 12:11:53AM 6 points [-]

Not really my business, but a reaction like this may give people an incentive to lie to you.

I think that reaction is walking her talk. She could have changed her preference for inviting him over for dinner silently. Being truthful about her position is an example of being radically honest.

Comment author: David_Gerard 10 February 2014 08:26:03AM 3 points [-]

That doesn't, however, make the response incorrect.

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 08:56:04PM 6 points [-]

It doesn't make sense to adopt a policy where a person sharing information about what it is like to interact with them must never affect how likely you are to interact with them. If someone tells me they've taken up smoking, they have contracted tuberculosis, they have decided that punching people in the arm is affectionate behavior, etc., then it's kind of them to warn me and they could achieve short-term gains by deceiving me instead until I inevitably notice, but I will not reward the kindness of the warning with my company. The case of lying recurses here where the other examples don't, but my goal is not, "make sure that people who have a tendency to lie don't lie about having that tendency". It's "don't hang out with people who are going to lie to me, like, at all".

Comment author: V_V 09 February 2014 01:23:11AM 20 points [-]

It's "don't hang out with people who are going to lie to me, like, at all".

Good luck with that.

Comment author: Kawoomba 08 February 2014 05:35:27PM 14 points [-]

Has his post offended you or something? You employ pretty strong language, and "this post makes me less interested in inviting you over for dinner again" is a kinda public way of breaking off a friendship, which (regardless of cause) is somewhat socially humiliating for the person on the receiving end. Is that really necessary? Settle such personal details via PM?

I don't see it as a sort of grey fallacy argument to note that "lying" isn't much of a binary property (i.e., either you lie, or you don't). There may be simple enough definitions on the surface level, but when considering our various facets of personality, playing different roles to different people in different social settings, context-sensitivity and so on and so forth, insisting on anything remotely like being able to clearly (or at all) and reliably distinguish between "omitting a truth" and "explicitly lying" versus "telling the truth" loses its tenability. There are just too many confounders; nuances of framing, word choice, blurred lines between honesty and courtesy, the list goes on.

Yes, there are cases in which you can clearly think to yourself that "saying this or that would be a lie", but I see those as fringe cases. Consider your in-laws asking you whether the soup is too salty. Or advertising. Or your boss asking you how you like your new office. Or telling a child about some natural phenomenon. The whole concept on Wittgenstein's ladder ("lies to children") would be simplistically denounced as "lying" in an absolute framework.

"Hair trigger about mere true facts" is disregarding all these shades of "lies" (disparity between internal beliefs and stated beliefs), there are few statements outside of stating mathematical facts for which a total, congruent correspondence between "what I actually believe" and "what I state to believe" can be asserted. Simply because it's actually extremely hard to express a belief accurately.

Consider you were asked in a public setting whether you've ever fantasized about killing someone. Asked in an insistent manner. Dodge this!

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 06:27:39PM *  2 points [-]

Has his post offended you or something?

It upset me. I don't like to see lying defended. I would react about the same way to an equally cogent "Defense of Pickpocketing" or "Defense of Throwing Paint On People", though I imagine those would be much more difficult to construct.

I think there should be negative social consequences to announcing one's willingness to lie and that there should be significant backlash to issuing a public request that people put up with it.

I think you're exaggerating the difficulty both of identifying lies and of omitting/deflecting.

Consider you were asked in a public setting whether you've ever fantasized about killing someone. Asked in an insistent manner. Dodge this!

"I think about killing my characters off pretty regularly, though often I come up with more creative things to do instead. As far as I know I'm an average amount of susceptible to intrusive thoughts, if that's what you're asking, but why are you asking?"

Or if I don't even trust them with that answer I can just stare at them in silence.

Comment author: Mestroyer 10 February 2014 12:47:21AM 12 points [-]

Thanks for telling the truth. But downvoted for "I dislike this position, don't want to hear it defended, and will punish those who defend it." This is a much stronger rationalist anathema than white lies to me.

Comment author: Alicorn 10 February 2014 02:46:21AM 0 points [-]

I think it's worth distinguishing between punishing discourse in general and personal social consequences. Chris, the OP, has literally been physically in my house before and now I have learned that he endorses a personal social habit that I find repellent. I'm not trying to drive him out of Less Wrong because I don't like his ideas - I didn't even downvote the OP! - but it seems weird that you feel entitled to pass judgment on the criteria I have for who is welcome to be in my house.

Comment author: Kawoomba 08 February 2014 06:46:12PM *  5 points [-]

"I think about killing my characters off pretty regularly, though often I come up with more creative things to do instead. As far as I know I'm an average amount of susceptible to intrusive thoughts, if that's what you're asking, but why are you asking?"

(In the role of a hypothetical interlocutor)

"See this here?" (Pulls out his Asperger's Club Card) "I have trouble distinguishing what's socially acceptable to ask from what isn't, and since you're such a welcoming host, I hope you also welcome my honest curiosity. I wouldn't want to lie -- or suppress the truth -- about which topic interests me right this moment.

As for the reason for my interest, you see, I'm checking whether your deontological barrier against lying can withstand the social inconvenience of (ironically) telling the truth about a phenomenon (fantasizing about killing someone) which is wildly common, but just as wildly lied about.

Your question answered, allow me to make sure I understood you correctly: My question was referring to actual people. Have I inferred correctly that you did in fact fantasize about killing living people (non-fictional) on multiple occasions?"

ETA:

Or if I don't even trust them with that answer I can just stare at them in silence.

I see. Unfortunately, unlike "pleading the fifth", not answering when one answer is compromising is kinda giving the answer away. The symmetrical answering policy you'd have to employ in which you stare in silence regardless of whether the answer would be "yes" or "no" is somewhat hard to sell (especially knowing that silence in such a case is typically interpreted as an answer*). Unless you like to stare in silence, like, a lot. And are known to do so.

* "Do you love me?" - silence, also cf. Paul Watzlawick's "You cannot not communicate."

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 07:27:33PM 0 points [-]

You or your character or both have confused "not lying" with "answering all questions put to one". And for that matter "inviting people who ask rude questions indiscriminately to parties in the first place".

Comment author: Kawoomba 08 February 2014 07:33:41PM *  3 points [-]

I'd hoped I addressed this in the edit, "cannot not communicate" and such.

You may find yourself in situations (not at your parties, of course) in which you can't sidestep a question, or in which attempts to sidestep a question (ETA: or doing the silent stare) will correctly be assumed to answer the original question by the astute observer ("Do you believe our relationship has a future?" - "Oh look, the weather!").

Given your apparently strong taboo against lying, I was wondering how you'd deal with such a situation (other than fighting the hypothetical by saying "I won't be in such a situation").

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 07:57:45PM 2 points [-]

Sorry, I didn't see your edit before.

Questions I really can't sidestep are usually ones from people who, for reasons, I have chosen to allow to become deeply entangled in my life. If one of my boyfriends or my fiancé decides to ask me if our relationship has a future I will tell him in considerable and thoughtful detail where I'm at on that topic, and because I choose to date reasonable human beings, this will not be an intolerable disaster. Occasionally if I'm really wedged (at a family holiday gathering, parent asks me something intrusive, won't back off if I say it's none of their business) I can solve the problem by deliberately picking a fight, which is usually sufficient distraction until I am not in their physical presence and can react by selectively ignoring lines in emails, but I don't like doing that.

I don't stare at people in silence a lot, but I do often give the visual appearance of wandering attention, and often fail to do audio processing such that I do not understand what people have said. Simply not completing the steps of refocusing my overt attention and asking people to repeat themselves can often serve the purpose when it's not someone I have chosen to allow to become deeply entangled in my life; if we're the only people in the room it works less well, but if I know a person well I'll only be in a room alone with them if I trust them yea far, and if I don't know them well and they start asking me weird questions I will stare at them incredulously even if the answer is in fact completely innocuous ("Have you ever committed grand theft auto?"; "are you a reptilian humanoid?").

Comment author: Lumifer 08 February 2014 08:41:30PM 3 points [-]

I think of such tactics as Aes Sedai mode :-)

Comment author: Vulture 08 February 2014 07:26:00PM *  2 points [-]

It upset me. I don't like to see lying defended. I would react about the same way to an equally cogent "Defense of Pickpocketing" or "Defense of Throwing Paint On People", though I imagine those would be much more difficult to construct.

I knew you were a deontologist (I am a cosequentialist), but I had sort of assumed implicitly that our moralities would line up pretty well in non-extreme situations. I realized after reading this how thoroughly alien your morality is to me. You would respond with outrage and hurt if you discovered that someone had written a defense of throwing paint on people? Or pickpocketing? Although I have never practiced either of those activities and do not plan to ever do so, my reaction is totally different.

Pickpocketing is a perfectly practical technique which, like lockpicking, might be used for unsavory purposes by shortsighted or malicious people, but is probably worth knowing how to do and makes a great party trick. And throwing paint on people? Hilarious. It's not a terribly nice thing to do, especially if the person is wearing nice clothes or is emotionally fragile, but I think most people who can compose a cogent philosophical essay can also target their prankstering semi-competently.

Comment author: Alicorn 08 February 2014 07:29:58PM *  7 points [-]

Pickpocketing-as-theft is to lying-in-general as pickpocketing-as-consensual-performance-art is to, say, storytelling, I suppose I should clarify. I think we legitimately disagree about throwing paint on people unless you are being facetious.

Comment author: Vulture 08 February 2014 07:35:17PM *  2 points [-]

In terms of pickpocketing, I agree that we seem to pretty much agree; I think that pickpocketing for the purposes of stealing what doesn't belong to you is rarely justified. I was not being facetious about the paint part, though.

Comment author: Lumifer 08 February 2014 11:17:06PM 2 points [-]

Consider you were asked in a public setting whether you've ever fantasized about killing someone. Asked in an insistent manner. Dodge this!

Why is this is problem? I'm not Alicorn but I wouldn't have any issues admitting in public that yes, I've fantasized about killing someone. And the situation is very easy to steer towards absurd/ridiculous if the asker starts to demand grisly details :-)

Comment author: Jiro 08 February 2014 05:23:13PM *  16 points [-]

This post makes me less interested in inviting you over for dinner again. What has to happen in your head for you to be willing to come to my house and eat food I cook and participate in charming conversation and then blithely slash our tires if we ask the wrong question because you think we're going to become hysterical or behave immorally should we gain access to information or be told that we cannot have it?

I think it's a mistake to interpret "I will sometimes do (extreme thing)" as "my threshhold for doing (extreme thing) is low enough that I'd be likely to do it in everyday situations".

If I visited your house, ate your food, and then you asked me "I want to kill my son by running him over with my car because he told me he's gay. What's the best way to do this without being caught by the police?", depending on circumstances, I might slash your tires, or do things that cause as much damage to you as slashing your tires.

So if you asked me if I would slash your tires if you told me something bad, I'd have to say "yes". But it doesn't mean that if you invited me to your house you would have to watch what you say to me in fear that I might slash your tires, because the kinds of things that would lead me to do that would also imply that you're seriously messed up. Nobody would just say those things by accident.

I see this fallacy a lot in rational idea discussions.,

Comment author: Benquo 10 February 2014 05:29:49PM *  19 points [-]

to come to my house and eat food I cook and participate in charming conversation and then blithely slash our tires if we ask the wrong question

It seems like this is an example of my new favorite conversational failure mode: trying to map an abstraction onto the reference class of your personal experience, getting a strange result, and getting upset instead of curious.

ChrisHallquist said there are some circumstances in which he feels compelled to lie. It seems like Alicorn assumed both that this must include some circumstances she'd be likely to subject him to, and that what he thinks of as a lie in that circumstance is something that will fall into the category she objects to. Of course, either of those things or both could be true - but the way to find out is to consider concrete examples (whether real or fictional).

Personally I used to make this mistake a lot when women complained (in vague abstract terms) about being approached by strangers in coffeeshops, and talk about how they're not obligated to be polite or nice in those cases. Once I got curious and asked questions, and found out that "approached" meant a guy persistently tried to engage her in conversation with no affirmative encouragement from her, and "not polite" didn't mean "fuck off and die, asshole" but just failing to throw a lot of warmth and smiling into the conversation, it made perfect sense, though I was surprised that it wasn't already obvious to everyone that no such obligation exists.

Comment author: drethelin 10 February 2014 10:57:48PM 6 points [-]

I really really like this comment. I really want more clarification now. But from my perspective, someone who has a categorical rule against lying is like learning I'm being graded on everything I say. I suddenly have the massive cognitive burden of making sure everything I say is true and that I mean all the implications or I can suddenly be shunned and outcast.

Comment author: ntroPi 17 February 2014 08:50:37AM *  1 point [-]

Lying is saying something false while you know better. Not lying doesn't imply only saying true things or knowing all implications.

The added burden should be minimal as between friends most people already assume that they are not lied to without making it an explicit rule.

Comment author: Prismattic 09 February 2014 05:05:28AM *  9 points [-]

I think behaviorly I act almost exactly as you do in terms of trying never to lie but often to evade questions. But for some reason the comment I'm responding to rubs me incredibly negatively. I'm reflecting on why, and I think the difference is that you actually have it easy. You're trying to live radically honestly in, if I'm not mistaken, the middle of an enclave that has far more of the sort of people that would appreciate Lesswrong in your immediate vicinity than most people do. So you can basically choose to be extremely choosy about your friends in this regard.

Try holding everyone around to the same standard you live by when most of your neighbors and colleagues are not associated with the rationalist movement at all, and let's see how far you get. Let me tell ya, it's a wee bit harder. For most of us, "be lenient with others and strict with thyself" is a pretty natural default.

I suspect, from Chris' perspective, if his choices are "be invited to Alicorn's parties" and "be friends with other people at all," he may go with the latter.

Comment author: Alicorn 09 February 2014 08:21:26AM 0 points [-]

I believed lying was wrong during times of my life when I didn't live in a rationalist enclave, too. Curating your friends is easier when you are willing to maintain friendships online. Dinner parties are a luxury I am happy to avail myself of, that's all.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 15 February 2014 07:30:04AM 6 points [-]

I find the reaction to this comment, both in the downvotes and some of the responses, interesting in light of the recent discussion about Tell Culture. That post was highly upvoted, but some people in the comments expressed the opinion that even the people who claim to endorse Tell culture really don't, and that people who actually consistently operated on Tell Culture would end up getting punished, even in a community where most people claimed to endorse Tell.

As far as I can tell, the reactions to this comment are support for that hypothesis, as I see you as a person who consistently operates on Tell, and then (as in this case) occasionally gets censured for that, even in a community where a lot of people previously claimed that Tell sounds awesome.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 16 August 2014 03:50:08AM 2 points [-]

I think you have it backwards. Chris Told, Alicorn punished him for it, and the community retaliated. This is a great victory for Tell culture and radical honesty, as long as you don't believe Alicorn embodies them.

A key difference is that the community is incrementalist and consequentialist, while Alicorn is absolutist and deontologist. A lot of the comments don't believe that Alicorn accurately identifies liars. Expelling him is a step backwards from her claimed goal of honest associates. And, indeed, she did specify it was instrumental to this goal and not just a rule she follows without regards to consequences. But it's probably also that. The community's failure to grasp the deontological aspects may make its reaction unfair; but I cannot judge for the same reason. The basic reaction is that she is a very strong instance of Guess culture, where her associates have to guess how much to lie to her and are strongly discouraged from talking about it.

Comment author: Jiro 15 February 2014 07:00:21PM *  2 points [-]

I don't think that follows. The fact that we punish people for telling others about X, and we don't punish them if we don't, doesn't mean we're punishing them for telling; it means we're punishing them for X. We'd really like to punish them for X whether they tell or not, it's just that telling makes it easier.

It may be more understandable to think about it as cheating. You can either lose, or cheat and win. If you lose, you suffer all the effects of a loss. If you cheat, you may not suffer at all. But we don't describe that as "punishment for not cheating". It's the same here: you can lose (have your opinions judged poorly) or cheat (conceal your opinions by not telling anyone, and escape being judged for them).

Comment author: drethelin 10 February 2014 06:44:09AM 7 points [-]

My instant urge when you compared polite lies to slashing your tires is to insult you at length. I don't think this would be pleasant for anyone involved. Radical Honesty is bad for brains running on human substrate.

Comment author: Alicorn 10 February 2014 06:50:25AM *  1 point [-]

I do not and have never endorsed indiscriminate braindumping.

I advocate refraining from taking actions that qualify as "lying". Lying does not include, among other things: following Gricean conversational maxims, storytelling, sarcasm, mutually-understood simplification, omission, being choosy about conversational topics, and keeping your mouth shut for any reason as an alternative to any utterance.

There is no case where merely refraining from lying would oblige you to insult me at length. I don't know why everyone is reading me as requiring indiscriminate braindumping.

Comment author: drethelin 10 February 2014 07:19:38AM 16 points [-]

An emotional response to your statement is not indiscriminate braindumping. I'm not talking about always saying whatever happens to be in my mind at any time. Since I've probably already compromised any chance of going to a rationalist dinner party by being in favor of polite lies, I might as well elaborate: I think your policy is insanely idealistic. I think less of you for having it. But I don't think enough less of you not to want to be around you and I think it's very likely plenty of people you hang out with lie all the time in the style of the top level post and just don't talk to you about it. We know that humans are moist robots and react to stimuli. We know the placebo effect exists. We know people can fake confidence and smiles and turn them real. But consequentialist arguments in favor of untruths don't work on a deontologist. I guess mostly I'm irate at the idea that social circles I want to move in can or should be policed by your absurdity.

I don't think the above constitutes an indiscriminate braindump but I don't think it would be good to say to anyone face to face and I don't actually feel confident it's good to say online.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 10 February 2014 04:17:21PM *  6 points [-]

I guess mostly I'm irate at the idea that social circles I want to move in can or should be policed by your absurdity.

Upvoted for the entire comment, but especially this.

But consequentialist arguments in favor of untruths don't work on a deontologist.

And this.

Comment author: Sarokrae 11 February 2014 12:31:57AM 7 points [-]

This is a summary reasonably close to my opinion.

In particular, outright denouncement of ordinary social norms of the sort used by (and wired into) most flesh people, and endorsement of an alternative system involving much more mental exhaustion for the likes of people like me, feels so much like defecting that I would avoid interacting with any person signalling such opinions.

Comment author: moridinamael 13 February 2014 08:47:00PM 2 points [-]

Incidentally (well after this thread has sort of petered out) I feel the same sort of skepticism or perhaps unenthusiasm about Tell Culture. My summarized thought which applied to both that and this would be, "Yes, neat idea for a science fiction story, but that's not how humans work."

Comment author: Nominull 08 February 2014 07:42:02AM -1 points [-]

You favor lying to people to scam money out of them because it would be inconvenient for your education plans to not be able to scam money out of them? That seems unethical.

Comment author: gjm 08 February 2014 10:29:16AM 6 points [-]

This seems like a wilfully unfair description of Chris's position.

It's a scam if you take someone's money intending to do something other than what you tell them you'll do with it, or (maybe) intending to do it for very different reasons from the ones you give them, or with very different prospects of success. But Chris's hypothetical youngster is doing with the money exactly what his/or her parents expect (getting educated), with the same purpose and the same likely outcomes as if s/he were straight. Where's the scam?

And the donors in question aren't generic "people". They're hypothetical-youngster's parents. Maybe that makes it worse ("you'd lie to your own flesh and blood?"), maybe it makes it better (arguably they owe him/her an education, if they can afford it and s/he would genuinely gain from it), but it certainly makes a difference.

I think there is an argument to be made against Chris's position along those lines, but such tendentious language isn't the way to start it.

Comment author: Strange7 09 February 2014 07:52:52AM 4 points [-]

The parents are presumably intending to support their child along a particular path, which leads through college, and involves a good career, marriage to a nice woman, and grandchildren.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 09 February 2014 05:48:18AM *  0 points [-]

Another factor is that the student is protecting their parents from doing something that they will likely later regret.

I've known a number of folks who came out to their parents and got fearful and hostile responses — which the parents later apologized for and tried to make amends for. This seems to be a pretty common pattern, in fact. Broadly, people want to have good relations with their families, but they may not always act that way in the moment — and they come to regret actions that harm those relations.

Putting people in situations where they will predictably behave in ways they will later regret is widely regarded to be pretty crappy social behavior. It's certainly not the sort of thing that people endorse doing to those they love. If avoiding that situation requires a certain amount of narrowly targeted deception, so be it.

Adopting a deontological-style rule of not explicitly lying (using evasion or refusing to answer, for instance) may be worthwhile. Avoiding deception in general is a good idea for consensual relationships willingly entered and willingly left. Parent/child is not that kind of relationship, though — not in our society and economy. Even though it would be desirable to cultivate a world in which there were no violent outbursts in response to true facts, it would be negligence to the point of malice to advise people in dependent social situations to pretend that they live in such a world.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 09 February 2014 06:55:58AM 2 points [-]

Even though it would be desirable to cultivate a world in which there were no violent outbursts in response to true facts,

Um. Think about that statement for a second, if you don't see what's wrong with it try replacing "gay" with "pedophile" or "rapist" in your example.

Comment author: wedrifid 08 February 2014 10:51:50AM 3 points [-]

You favor lying to people to scam money out of them because it would be inconvenient for your education plans to not be able to scam money out of them?

You present a compelling argument that "scamming money out of people because it would be inconvenient not to" can be an entirely ethical and appropriate course of action.

Lumping a particular scenario already analysed on merit seems reasonable into a despised reference class serves to change the reference class, not the instance.

Comment author: Prismattic 09 February 2014 05:10:35AM 1 point [-]

And the worst argument in the world rears its ugly head once more.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 16 February 2014 06:51:41PM 1 point [-]

Is there a named fallacy of using words which radically downplay or upplay the seriousness of a situation?

You favor lying to people to scam money out of them because it would be inconvenient for your education plans to not be able to scam money out of them? That seems unethical.

Teenagers sometimes get thrown out of their families for coming out. This is more than an inconvenience, and affects more than their educational plans.

Comment author: brazil84 16 February 2014 08:20:59PM *  2 points [-]

Is there a named fallacy of using words which radically downplay or upplay the seriousness of a situation?

If there is a fallacy here, I would say it's the fallacy of the "loaded question" or the use of "loaded language." Here, the question presupposes that it's a "scam" to lie to one's parents about sexual orientation in order to obtain their financial support for college.

Nominull makes an interesting argument but he ruins it by loading by his use of the word "scam."

Here's a charitable interpretation of the point:


You don't have an entitlement to educational support from your parents and your parents have the right to withhold that support for any reason. So by lying to them about your sexual orientation, you are fraudulently depriving them of their rights; in effect you are scamming your own parents.


I still disagree with this argument but I think it's a close call. Part of the problem is that in determining financial aid, colleges assume there will support from one's parents. If you tell the college financial aid office that your parents have cut you off because they disapprove of homosexuality, chances are the college won't step up and help you. So there is kind of a quasi-right to college support from one's parents.

The other thing is that the parents probably already know at some level that their child is a homosexual just like fat people already know that they are fat and cheated-on spouses often know that they are being cheated on. So there's something to be said for allowing the person to continue in their state of denial or at least not reminding them of things they prefer not to know.

And last, there is an idea that it's wrong to discriminate based on sexual orientation. I'm not sure how strong this argument is in the context of personal and family relations.

Comment author: blacktrance 10 February 2014 04:14:20PM 1 point [-]

Lying is acceptable when done to protect your life or livelihood, but for most of our lives, most opportunities to tell lies won't be in situations like that. You shouldn't lie to friends or romantic partners, because if you can't communicate with them honestly, they shouldn't be your friends/partners in the first place. And I'm not going to respect other people lying to me. Instead of teaching men to accept lies (as in your date example), teach them to accept a "no".

Comment author: More_Right 07 May 2014 09:49:36AM *  1 point [-]

Hierarchical, Contextual, Rationally-Prioritized Dishonesty

This is an outstanding article, and it closely relates to my overall interest in LessWrong.

I'm convinced that lying to someone who is evil, who obviously has immediate evil intentions is morally optimal. This seems to be an obvious implication of basic logic. (ie: You have no obligation to tell the Nazis who are looking for Anne Frank that she's hiding in your attic. You have no obligation to tell the Fugitive Slave Hunter that your neighbor is a member of the underground railroad. ...You have no obligation to tell the police that your roommate is getting high in the bathroom, ...or to let them into your apartment.)

For example, I am a subscriber to the ideas and materialist worldview of Ray Kurzweil, but less so to the community of LessWrong, largely because I believe that Ray Kurzweil's worldview is somewhat more, for lack of a better term, "worldly" than what I take to be the LessWrong "consensus." I believe, (in the sense that I think I have good evidence for) the fact that Kurzweil's worldview takes into account the serious threat of totalitarianism, and conformity to malevolent top-down systems. (He claims that he participated in civil rights marches with his parents when he was five years old, and had an early understanding of right and wrong that grew from that sense of what they were doing. This became a part of his identity and value system. The goal of benevolent equality under the law is therefore built into his psyche more than it is built into the psychological identity of someone who doesn't feel any affinity with the "internally consistent" and "morally independent" mindset. Also, the hierarchical value system of someone who makes such self-identifications is entirely different than someone who is simply trying to narrowly "get ahead" in their career, or optimize their personal health, etc.)

Perhaps I can't do justice to the LessWrong community by communicating such a point. I'm trying to communicate something for which there might not be adequate words. I'm trying to communicate a gestalt. Whereas I think that Eliezer has empathy on the level of Kurzweil (as indicated by his essay about his brother Yehuda's unnecessary and tragic death), I don't think the same is true of the LW community. So far as I can see, there is little discussion of (and little concern for) mirror neurons differentiating sociopaths from empaths in the LW community. Yet, this is the primary variable of importance in all matters of social organization. Moreover, it has been recognized as such by network scientists since the days of Norbert Weiner's "Cybernetics."

A point I've often made is that "lying to the police" or "lying to judges and prosecutors" is different from lying in other areas. Lying to an (increasingly) unjust authority is, in fact, the centerpiece of a moral society. Why? Because unjust authority depends entirely on "hijacking" or "repurposing" general values in perverted narrow situations in order to allow sociopaths to control the outcome of the situation. As the example of primary importance, let me cite the stacking of the jury, before the trial. The purpose of "voir dire" (AKA "jury selection") historically, is to determine whether there is a legal "conflict of interest" (ie: whether a juror is a familial or business relation to one of the parties to the action, which might introduce an extreme bias of narrow self-interest into the trial) in the proposed construction of the jury. (Since the 1600s this has been true.) However, by expanding the definition of "voir dire" to assume that all existing laws are morally proper, correct, and legitimate, the side of the prosecution (and judge, since judges are subject to the exact same perverse incentives as the prosecutors) is itself morally wrong in most cases. Why "most" cases? Because most of the laws currently on the books criminalize behavior that lacks injury to a specific, named party, and also lacks intent to injure the same specific, named party (it lacks a "cause of action" or "corpus delicti" that targets a specific aggressor, for a specific act of aggression).

"Voir dire" actually translated to "to see the truth." It is the judge and prosecutor "seeing the truth" about the philosophy of the juror. Shouldn't this be considered a good thing? If you mindlessly (too narrowly) assume that the judge and prosecutor have good intentions, then "yes." If you make no such assumptions, then the answer is definitively, obviously "no, quite the opposite."

Too narrow honesty is actually the height of immorality. Honesty always involves a question of what goal is being served by the honesty. Honesty is simply one tool available aid human goals. When "human" goals are malevolent or destructive, the communication disruption caused by dishonesty is a blessing.

This is where the legitimate empathic priority hierarchies described in Kurzweil's The Power of Hierarchical Thinking presentation / speech / slideshow are vitally important. You see, both judge and prosecutor are commonly sociopaths. Their career choices have selected them as such, because in their professions, if seeing the destruction of young people's lives for "victimless crime offenses" or "mala prohibita" is bothersome to your brain (if it activates your mirror neurons, causing you pain), you cannot take the stress imparted by believing your job requirement to be immoral. So, you quit your job, or are outperformed by people who thrive on the misery and suffering of people who are sentenced to 10 years in prison for "crimes" like drug possession. And what of the people who dare to stand up for property rights, boldly declaring themselves "not guilty" in order to fight the unjust system? Well, the commonly-accepted view amongst prosecutors is that those heroic people (who stand in defense not just of their own property rights, but of the entire concept of a system that protects property rights) are to be crushed. Those heroic people don't get to "plea bargain" for 4 year sentences, they are sent to prison for the maximum term possible, as a punishment and disincentive for daring to declare themselves "not guilty," and standing up for such ideas as individual property rights, the constitution, individual freedom. Those who don't accept a plea "bargain," but who instead risk their lives to fight injustice at great personal risk are targeted for extreme "cruel and unusual punishment." At one point in the history of the USA (and the American colonies before the US was created) the most popular law book in the colonies was considered to be Giles Jacobs' book "The New Law Dictionary." His follow up book, almost as popular, was "Every Man His Own Lawyer." These two system-defining books, more than any others, afforded the view in the colonies that "All men are created equal," ie: "all men are (or should be) equal under the law."

Such a view was a high-level "honest-to-goodness" view. ("Honest to goodness" is an interesting concept. It bears repeating, because it implies that there can be "honest to evil" or "evil-serving honesty.")