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Honesty As A Commandment

In his book, “Lying,” Sam Harris has argued that lying is always wrong in every situation. While I think honesty is a good general rule, I don’t think it ought to be an absolute commandment.

For starters, it is not altogether clear what being honest fully entails. I knew a girl is college who didn’t lie, but she also rarely told the truth. Yes, you can actively deceive people with the truth. There is an art to it, but if done well it is much more dishonest than an outright lie. Then there are lies of omitting. My point is that not lying doesn’t mean that someone is being honest and it is not entirely clear what honesty actually means on a practical level.

When we deal with other people, we have to use our judgment even if we are committed to always telling the truth no matter what. How do we phrase the truth in a tactful manner? Are we deceiving people with the truth? Are we omitting information that might be important? So if we are already using judgment, than we might as well learn to use that judgment to assess the situation more fully and to decide whether or not honesty is really the best policy in that situation.

Even if we can’t think of any situation where lying would be the right course of action, it doesn’t mean that we should be lazy in our judgment of the situation. The purpose of morality is to advance the wellbeing of society and of individuals. So we should evaluate every situation and decide what actions best do that rather than to make dogmatic rules that limit our options rather than brag about how honest we are as an ego boost.

In general, honesty does tend to be the best policy. But I am unwilling to turn that policy into a one-size-fits-all commandment at the expanse of the purpose of being moral in the first place.

Religious believers often criticize atheists for having a situation based ethical system, morality is situation based. Sure, it is guided by general principles like honestly but the main guiding principle is toward the wellbeing of individuals and society as a whole. That is the goal and it just so happens that honesty generally moves us closer to that goal post. But sometimes it doesn’t and we have to adapt with the situation and use our best judgment in those situations with that goal in mind. To do otherwise is intellectual laziness.

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