Studies have shown that the average person lies several times a day. Sometime the lies are little untruths – “That new haircut looks great.” Other times they’re pretty major and could lead to life changing actions were the truth to come out. Take a moment to consider all the stories of politicians and celebrities who’ve fallen from grace due to lying to the public about any number of things from infidelity to money laundering. Almost every person on the planet has seen or participated in some form of deception in their lifetime. While we typically like to think that our misdirections are for the “greater good,” if we’re honest with ourselves our motivation for telling lies is usually to make our own lives easier. And, while any deception we engage in has its own inherent likelihood to harm, the lies we tell ourselves are by far the most dangerous.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying is morally wrong. He argued that all people are born with human dignity or what he called an “intrinsic worth.” This intrinsic worth derives from humans ability to make their own decisions, set their own goals, and guide their conduct by reason. Kant believed that human rationale made us unique creatures. To be human, according to Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, is to respect that power in oneself and others.
By Kant’s standards, lies are morally wrong on two grounds. First, deception corrupts the most vital quality of humanness: the ability to make unhampered, rational choices. Each lie told challenges the portion of a person that gives him/her moral worth. Second, lies deprive others of their ability to choose rationally. When lies prompt individuals to choose a path other than they would have had they known the truth, their human dignity and autonomy has been discounted and harmed according to Kant. He believed that in order to truly value ourselves and others, we must avoid damaging, interfering with, or misusing the ability to make free decisions. In essence, we should speak to one another truthfully.
If we assume that Kant is right in his assertion that lying corrupts the most important aspects of our personhood and denies us the ability to choose our paths in life rationally and freely, it stands to reason that self-deception is more harmful than lying to others. Self-deception, or what Paulhus terms auto-illusion, is best defined as an honest belief in a false characteristic of the self due to cognitive or informational biases. By deceiving ourselves, we limit our ability to be truthful to the people around us because we ourselves are unaware of the falseness of our statements. Thus, failing to respect their intrinsic worth and condemn ourselves to a life half-lived, in which we stumble through our days only moderately aware of the choices available to us.
In a society that espouses the importance of honest communication amongst individuals, self-deception can prove a major challenge to engaging in meaningful interactions. After all, we can hardly be expected to be truthful and direct with those around us, if we cannot be honest with ourselves. As we over- or underestimate what we can do, need, or want, we limit our own and others ability to help us achieve the things we desire. We become content to live within the bare minimum of our potential and character, to afraid to step out and risk disapproval, failure, and other negative responses; although, often we’re even more afraid that we will succeed and be expected to constantly perform and embody a higher standard.
Clearly, self-deception is an issue worth examining, as we seek to better understand ourselves and the world around us. A Time magazine cover story once claimed, “Lies flourish in social uncertainty, when people no longer understand, or agree on, the rules governing their behavior toward one another.” More likely, the problem is that too few persons are comfortable accepting the plethora of responses than may accompany the truth when facing a situation that tempts a lie. Either way, it seems that the solution to our dissatisfaction begins with acknowledging the value of ethical reasoning, continues with the ability to acknowledge and accept our own truths, and ends with a commitment to treat ourselves and those around us with honesty and integrity. In order to accomplish this, we must determine what holds us back from our own truths and keeps us lying to ourselves.
Originally posted May 17, 2011