To Be Perfectly Honest . . .

Honesty is cool.

In Gospel Doctrine this week, the class discussion revolved around how we can be more honest, and the subtle forms of dishonesty that creep into our lives.  According to one study [1], 10% of communication in marriage is dishonest.  Another study showed that 38% of interactions between college students were deceptive [2].  And as we all know, 83% of statistics are made up [3].  Why do people lie?  Does everyone do it?  How can we be more honest?

“It’s not a lie if you believe it!”  George Costanza [4]

A friend shared an experience from her temple recommend interview.  She was asked if she was honest in all her dealings, and her honest answer was, “No.  I work in HR.  I’d be fired!” [5] It’s not always possible or even a good idea to avoid lying, particularly in the workplace.  Sometimes in a sales environment we are explaining how the service “should be” rather than how we suspect it really is.  Is aspirational selling lying or just part of doing business?

Although intimacy is overrated.

One criticism I hear from those with doubts is that they feel they have to live a double life or hide who they are at church.[6]  And yet church is supposed to be a place to help one another live the gospel better, not a place for people who are perfect.  Pres. Uchtdorf has noticed that the focus on outward appearance creates issues in our Mormon communities.  He spoke about this type of hypocrisy in his talk about the Potemkin Village at the Priesthood session of General Conference in April.  Whenever we feel pressure to look a certain way to fit in, lying is a temptation, maybe even a given.

“The best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.”  Samuel Butler

Many people lie as a social lubricant, without even thinking about it. Underlying motives can include:

  • Insecurity
  • To avoid rejection
  • To make others feel good
  • To avoid consequences
  • To protect others

Well said, Abe.

Despite these seemingly pro-social reasons to lie, lying creates distance in our relationships.  We are deliberately rejecting this person as not worthy of our intimacy or not able to handle our truth.  We lose respect for those whom we deceive because the mind needs to be right; when our actions are wrong, it’s important to feel we can blame the other person rather than accept the idea that we are acting badly.

And yet, in a highly conformist culture, there is great pressure to hide the aspects of yourself that are unique.  This creates dissonance for those who prize authenticity and who see conformity as encouraging dishonesty.  Authenticity in its present form is a relatively recent virtue, one that came to the fore as backlash against the questionable virtue of duty.  Simplistically, you could see duty as putting the needs of others or the community above the individual, while authenticity places self-expression above the community; someone erring on the side of duty might call authenticity selfish.

Authenticity would say that if you don’t fit, say you don’t fit rather than faking it.  If you disagree, you don’t pretend you agree.  Instead of being who others seem to want you to be, you are who you are, and others can accept that or not.  And yet that can cause rifts in relationships.  Additionally, human beings are always growing and changing.  We are not being so much as becoming. Declaring who we are denies our very transitory nature.  Perhaps we are only deceiving ourselves in such declarations.

“With any part you play, there is a certain amount of yourself in it.  There has to be, otherwise it’s just not acting.  It’s lying.”  Johnny Depp

And yet, authenticity can be a trick, too.  We aren’t always who we think we are.  Sometimes our self-identity is just conformity to a different norm.  Sometimes our self-image is an act to change how others perceive us, to seek approval of a different group.  A great example of this is evident when we consider teen angst. Whether it’s being a hippie, a punk rocker, a wannabe gangsta, or a hipster, all of these personas conform to a type as well, even while being non-conformist in other settings.  Conservative country club kids aren’t the only conformists.

Takes one to know one.

I posted on this topic earlier, and I’ll re-post the questions I asked then.  Are the following examples dishonest?

  1. Omitting facts, particularly when the omitted facts would materially change perceptions.
  2. Not sharing your opinion when you disagree with the majority expressed opinion.  Is silence a dishonest act?  Is having a poker face dishonest?
  3. Giving someone false encouragement, leaving a door open that you think is actually closed.  Is being a tease being dishonest?  Is negotiating?
  4. Responding to the subtext rather than the stated question, the meta-question rather than the actual question.  (E.g. Answering that you think someone is beautiful who asks if an outfit makes him or her look fat.)
  5. Answering the question you wish they had asked rather than the one they asked.  This is an evasive tactic.  What if the question is inappropriate?  Isn’t it OK to evade an impertinent question in order to maintain boundaries?
  6. Lying to protect others.  Sam Harris would say even if lives are at stake, you are merely kicking the danger down the curb.  For example, telling a murderer that the person they seek isn’t home merely means they will go kill someone else.  Of course, conversing with sociopaths may get you featured in a Flannery O’Connor story.
  7. Lying when the person can’t be trusted with the truth.  Of course, not trusting someone doesn’t always mean they are not trustworthy, and yet some people are not.

If you think these are examples of dishonesty, defend your answer.  What’s your standard for honesty?


[1] B.M. DePaulo and D.A. Kashy, “Everyday Lies in Close and Casual Relationships,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no.1 (Jan. 1998): 63–79.

[2] B.M. DePaulo, et al.,“Lying in Everyday Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70, no. 5 (1996): 979–995.

[3] Did you really expect a citation on this one?

[4] Seinfeld, Season 6, Episode 16:  The Beard.  Yes, I just cited Seinfeld.

[5] I actually like HR people, but if you don’t, you’ll love this article.

[6] There are a few I wish would quit letting their freak flag fly, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.



  1. Have you looked at the wikipedia entry? It lists 33 different kinds of lying/dishonesty/deception!

    Also, for fun reading, this Evangelical bible scholar argues that God uses deception here, with a follow-up here.

    I think “authenticity” is the pop-psych of the moment. It’s actually quite hard to pin down what it is, as you know from your post on it… two weeks ago. (Had to google to find it.)

  2. Something I think about sometimes: if you are radically honest, you may convey the wrong impression because of others expectation of dishonesty. I used to work in drug and alcohol counseling, and we were trained in the assessment stage to basically double any self report of usage. That meant that anyone who gave an honest report of their usage was incorrectly assessed to be using more than they were. I think we often automatically minimize or exaggerate because it’s a societal expectation, and to be honest can ironically give the wrong impression.

  3. I believe there is a right to privacy and protection that often trumps revealing all truth about one’s self or the situation. For example on the extreme end, if I were hiding my Jewish friend in Nazi Germany and I was asked if I were hiding anyone in my house, and telling the truth would lead to their capture and likely death, I believe telling the truth would be immoral and an act of cowardice.

    So in a lesser circumstance, like most cases that might fall in your #2, even if it could be considered not truthful, I believe there is no moral wrong committed.

    I’m sure there is a lot of self-deception and wrongful justification used in cases where lying is not truly justified, nonetheless I believe sometimes it is indeed the right thing to choose and embrace keeping the truth un-revealed.

  4. …which is to say, hiding information is not the moral wrong, it is what you are hiding and why you are doing it that determines the morality of the choice, imo.

  5. I agree with Steve S, which is why I prefer the virtue of integrity of honesty. I would argue that every single one of your scenarios above are dishonest (except maybe #2), but that doesn’t necessarily make them immoral or unethical.
    I also think that even integrity is not the highest of virtues. When it comes into conflict with virtues such as compassion and respect for life it might lose out. Every situation is different and trying to make a blanket statement of when it is ok to lie and when it is not ok to lie is extremely difficult.
    And to finish off, I tend to be wary of people who often proclaim that they don’t conform. It is true that some people are quite different from the norm, but those people usually don’t need to declare it all the time. Most of the people I’ve known in my life who proclaim their nonconformity to the world are being less authentic than people who are conforming. Purposeful nonconformity is still letting the main bulk of society decide for you how you’re going to be.

  6. “1. Omitting facts, particularly when the omitted facts would materially change perceptions.”

    I am a corporate tax attorney, have been for over 30 years. When my clients are audited by the IRS, I invariably advise them that, in their dealings with the government, they should: (i) never lie or destroy documents, and (ii) never volunteer information not requested, i.e., answer only the question you have been asked.

    Is this immoral? Would it be unprofessional for me NOT to give this advice?

    By the way, the older I get the more I am convinced that honesty is the foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that everything else is an appendage to it. As the OP highlights, this concept defies simple heuristics and platitudes. But if you can figure it out—and live it—everything else will fall into place. (By the way, I haven’t figured it out nor am I living it the way I should.)

  7. Coffinberry says:
  8. FarSide,
    My father is also a tax attorney, and has more integrity and honesty than almost anyone I know. I think he would give the exact same advice. is it dishonest not of volunteer information that is not requested even when it would materially change the outcome? I would say probably. But I think it is also dishonest to be a practicing attorney, accepting clients, and not give them the best advice you can. There are plenty of situations in life that put you between a rock and a hard place as far as honesty goes and you have to do your best to make the moral decision. I echo my comment from above that not all dishonesty is immoral.

  9. mjbigelow says:

    My thoughts, hastily written.

    TL;DR: saying anything other than what you believe to be true is dishonest. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. You’re under no obligation to give your opinion or answer a question. Dishonesty to avoid uncomfortable conversations is dishonest, cowardly and does a disservice to the other person, in most cases.

    1. If the intent here is to deceive somebody into believing something you don’t believe is true, this is dishonesty.
    2. This is only dishonesty if you’ve made a commitment to make your opinion known. There’s no obligation to divulge your thoughts unless you’ve made one.
    3. Giving someone false encouragement is not only dishonest, it’s potentially disastrous. And selfish, as you’re really only trying to prevent an uncomfortable situation for yourself. Being a tease…again, if your intent is to deceive, yes, this is dishonest. Finally, negotiating is only dishonest if you’re a terrible negotiator. The best negotiators are direct and honest. Note, this doesn’t mean they divulge every bit of information to which they’re privy. Just that the information they divulge is the truth.
    4. Depends on the intent. Could be dishonest but for a good reason. Being honest isn’t the only commandment.
    5. Anytime I give an answer that isn’t true according to my knowledge, I’m being dishonest. Rather than be dishonest, I can simply refuse to answer the question. Answering a question other than the one being asked is not dishonest, just weak.
    6. Yes, lying is dishonest. Again, no, it’s not the only commandment so it may be the right thing to do.
    7. Here again, you can refuse to answer the question or to divulge the information requested. Lying is really only protecting yourself from an uncomfortable conversation and the other person from learning something about how they are perceived.

  10. I am not familiar with the book by Sam Harris. For a thorough and sophisticated (academic?) treatment of Lying, I highly recommend a book by Sissela Bok:

    She quotes from Kant, Augustine, Grotius, and several other writers of the early 20th Century and covers “Paternalistic Lies,” “Noble Lies,” “Lies for the Public Good,” ” Lies for Protecting Clients.” “Lying to Enemies,” and “Justification and Publicity.”

    She concludes
    “It should be noted in passing that what I call the Kantian principle does not condemn all lies. A lie is justified when the balance of pain or loss of pleasure is such that, if a lie was told in all circumstances when there was no less a balance of pain or loss of pleasure, the harm due to the total loss of confidence did not exceed the sum of harm due to truthfulness in every case. This doctrine, which I believe to be conformable to the common moral consciousness, puts the human interlocutor into a much stricter strait-jacket with regard to truthfulness than the crude utilitarian principle quoted at the outset. ”


  11. Number 1 is interesting because it is a common complaint among people who leave the church. They feel like the church lied to them by omitting difficult information about it’s history. I think it is a common tactic used in persuasive speech and interactions meant to convince someone that they should feel a certain way, or make certain decisions. In these situations, I feel its mainly the audience’s burden to investigate what information might have been left out, but that feels disingenuous to say with regards to the history of the church mainly because the church also has a history of encouraging people to not look outside of the correlated materials to find information.

    So long story short 1 is probably lying but I don’t think it is immoral except when the person/institution is also actively warning against or encouraging to the audience to not believe any facts they don’t present.

  12. So long story short 1 is probably lying but I don’t think it is immoral except when the person/institution is also actively warning against or encouraging to the audience to not believe any facts they don’t present.


    As the mother of a teenage child who believes in living 100% authentically 100% of the time, I can testify that it is not the way to win friends and influence people. It can, in fact, be extremely destructive, harmful to both yourselves and others. My daughter is a terrible liar, which is probably a good thing, but I do wish she’d become more proficient at lies of omission. If she could just avoid saying what she’s thinking even half of the time, she’d be a lot more successful in life.

  13. I’m been thinking about this in a dating aspect. I think I’ve used nearly all forms of the potential dishonesty you listed above, mostly to save face and be able to look people in the eye the next Sunday. I know many people omit facts (“yes, I’m 6’1”), give false encouragement (“I’ll go out on a second date” while internally thinking they aren’t as interested), answer the subtext rather than actual question (“are you interested in him?” “well we’re going out again on friday”), answer questions you wish they had asked (“do you like her?” “due she’s hot, how could I not?”), lying to protect others (“I’m sure he didn’t mean to say you were ugly/overweight/stupid”), and lying when someone can’t be trusted with the truth (if saying you have a boyfriend means the guy goes away, you say you have a boyfriend).

    But many of those seem like the lesser of two evils, like madhousewife says. So maybe the intent plays into the morality of it?

    Regardless, really great post. Thanks!

  14. Josh Smith says:

    (I should almost certainly use an anonymous name for this. But where’s the fun in that?)

    I think deceipt is naturally built in to our natures. There’s explicit, verbal lying. And then there’s non-verbal deception:

    Breast implants, fake illnesses, feigned orgasms, phony smiles, hairpieces. Dyes. Jewelry. Hell, what about clothes? Cosmetics. And the scents we put on ourselves to hide our other smells

    Innuendo is a form of deception. … Ambiguity, omission.

    Then there’s self-deception. I’m persuaded that life is definitely better for people who are capable of deceiving their own minds.

    Deceit is what we do.

  15. Yes, deceit may be built into our natures, but from a christian context that doesn’t exactly justify it. :)

    As to self-deceit, I can understand the short-term benefit of it, but the long-term effects of self-deceit (hurting relationships, inhibiting progression, suppression of emotion) far outweigh the short-term difficulty of facing up to painful realizations.

    I agree with many of the thoughts above: in many cases honesty would either cause hurt to another, ourself, or damage our relationships. I think it is essential to incorporate consideration of intimacy. Intimacy is related to how much you trust another person to support you and not hurt you. In a relationship of complete intimacy, ideally, you should be completely honest. I know it’s the cliche example, but when your partner asks you if they are gaining weight, I’d like to think we could be honest in a loving way: sharing whatever pain they feel as a result and finding ways to support them.

    Further down the scale, it is wiser to be less open to someone you do not know and trust. In these cases, radical honesty can be jarring, especially when you don’t know how your honesty could actually hurt the other person unnecessarily (trigger warning!) or leave yourself vulnerable.

    At the far end of the scale, I used to work with victims of domestic violence: in these situations, deception was essential to their safety and well-being, as the perpetrator would use any information they could to harm them and make them unsafe.

    Christ said to be as wise as a serpent, yet as harmless as a dove. I’m interested in the use of the serpent in this teaching, traditionally associated with deception. Is it possible that Christ was making allowance for deception to protect one’s self and others, but never to be used to harm others?

  16. Josh Smith says:


    We probably understand “self-deception” differently. Here’s what I mean:

    We hold certain “beliefs” about the world. By “beliefs” I mean religious beliefs, but also beliefs about our abilities, beliefs about others’ abilities, beliefs about our relationships, beliefs about history, politics, government, etc., etc., etc.

    It is costly to change beliefs (it costs time and effort and leaves us very vulnerable). Also, confidence in our world-view leads others to be confident in our world-view, which is often a very good thing. So we have certain built-in mechanisms for preserving our beliefs and portraying our beliefs as genuine to others:

    Confirmation bias–we overemphasize evidence that confirms our beliefs and deemphasize evidence that contradicts our beliefs.




    Personal validation

    By “self-deception” I’m talking about how we naturally process information. Many successful people are excellent at self-deception. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I think we do it naturally. People who are poor at self-deception are often depressed.

  17. Josh Smith says:

    And just for kicks and giggles, What’s your position on lipstick? Deceptive? ;-)

  18. Josh, I have to admit that lipstick was my first thought when the GD teacher asked if we could think of subtle examples of dishonesty.

  19. :) is all grooming dishonesty? I mean, I don’t actually smell like my cologne. Just to be clear: I smell much, much worse.

    Josh, your idea of self-deception has some implicit values around maintenance of belief for self and others and achieving success in life that others might not share. For me, I’d rather learn to be comfortable with an honest appraisal of myself, warts and all, rather than ambitiously driving forward using fabricated confidence, even if I don’t achieve as much “success” in this way. In fact, I think I actually feel more confident this way. I’m also learning to be more comfortable in a perpetual state of doubting my beliefs. Either way, I hope people are finding their own answers rather than leaning on my own convictions.

  20. Interesting discussion. I’ll hazard a distinction between honesty and honesty claims. I’m glad to see the commonsense suggestion that of course not all claimed dishonest acts are morally wrong. Of course not all forms of honesty claims are morally right either: as noted, the phrase “to be perfectly honest” often precedes profoundly imperfect, otherwise unjustifiable, and even awful statements–a phrase that justifies the wielding of words as blunt cudgels. Perhaps we could analogize honesty *claims* as a form of public intoxication, or that which excuses loose behavior and social slips, and instead think of honesty itself as the inverse, a kind of silent sobriety that asks for personal discipline in our relations with others. Honesty then is a foundational value for all private moral life, with honesty claims, its public forgery. To be honest is not to tell others what we really think; it is to discern what we need to hear from others.

  21. Josh Smith says:

    Hygiene, adornment, cosmetics, dress, lipstick–definitely deceptive. Their entire point is to change something that is essential to the individual (physical characteristics) in order to manipulate another’s perception of us (larger eyes, fuller lips, more hair on the head, sweet smells, cut pectorals, hypersexual bosom, sparkly ears or wrists). I don’t view hygiene as “evil.” Not at all. It’s what makes us human. Deception is fundamental to who we are. It’s what we do from the moment we wake up.

    Self-deception is built in. God or nature built us in such a way that we don’t fairly weigh the evidence regarding our own person.

    “I’d rather learn to be comfortable with an honest appraisal of myself, warts and all.” Ironically, our perceived ability to do this may be self-deception. We may try and tell ourselves that we alone are able to see ourselves for who we really are. That we alone can take the truth. Is that further self-deception? It may be that we are physically incapable of even telling the truth to our own selves.

    (I’m not usually this nihilistic. I teach my children to “tell the truth.”)

%d bloggers like this: