business-women drinking coffee

Author’s note: The following is a section on the virtue of honesty from chapter 6 of my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002). The book is an introduction to Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism.

Honesty “is the refusal to fake reality—i.e., to pretend that facts are other than they are.”1 It can be described as the flip side of rationality: Whereas rationality is the commitment to think, judge, and act with respect to the relevant facts, honesty is the commitment not to do otherwise.

Since reality remains what it is regardless of any efforts to ignore or deny it—since facts are facts and cannot be wished away—the consequences of recognizing reality can only be positive, and the consequences of evading it can only be negative. The following examples will bear this out.

Generally speaking, a job applicant who presents his actual qualifications, and does not pretend to possess qualities he does not have, will be able to perform his responsibilities successfully if he is hired. Thus, he will likely be retained and might even be promoted. But an applicant who misrepresents his qualifications, by pretending to possess qualities he does not have, will be unable to perform his responsibilities successfully if he is hired. Consequently, he might be demoted but more likely will be fired.

Similarly, if a married man maintains fidelity to his wife, and lives his life rationally in all other regards as well, he will know that he is a faithful husband and a good person. Consequently, he will be able to respect himself and enjoy his marriage—which, due to his honesty, will be intact. By contrast, if a married man cheats on his wife, regardless of whatever else he does, he will know that he is a lying adulterer. Thus, he will be unable to respect himself or enjoy his marriage—which, due to his dishonesty, will be in tatters.

Of course, there can be circumstances in which an extramarital affair does not involve dishonesty. For instance, if a woman’s husband is in a coma for some length of time and she loses all hope of his recovery, falls in love with another man, and decides to move on with her life, she is hardly dishonest for doing so. Likewise, if a married man wants to divorce his wife but she or the government will not allow him to do so, it is not dishonest of him to have an affair with another woman. Nor is a person being dishonest if he has an extramarital relationship to which he, his spouse, and the third party agree. Such choices and actions are not dishonest, because they do not entail the pretense that facts are other than they are.

Brief and straightforward examples about honesty versus dishonesty can be multiplied end over end, but there is more involved here than such examples can reveal. To better understand the meaning and implications of honesty, we need to consider a few examples in greater detail and from several perspectives.

Let us compare the life of an honest bank manager to that of a dishonest one. The honest manager acknowledges his commitments, works hard, reconciles his books, and refuses to take money that does not belong to him. Thus, he is able to face his associates and customers with a clear conscience—knowing that he is doing a good job, upholding his chosen obligations, and treating everyone fairly. Further, since he has nothing to hide, he is able to talk about his work to his family and friends without having to worry about what he says or to whom he says it. Whether at work, home, or play, he is able to live his life openly and fearlessly with no need to “cover his tracks.” By being honest, he is living in harmony with reality and reaping the consequent rewards.

The dishonest manager takes a different course of action. He “cooks” his books and embezzles from his customers. He is acting in conflict with reality—that is, against the fact that he does not own the money he is taking. Consequently, he has big problems. Besides the fact that he might get caught and thrown in jail for embezzlement, in order to maintain the illusion of his innocence he will have to engage in additional acts of dishonesty to cover up the initial one. Then he will have to tell even more lies to cover up the cover-up lies, and so on. Each act of dishonesty will necessitate further lies in an ever-expanding web of deceit. The following are, in pattern, just some of the kinds of lies he will have to tell as a result of his one act of dishonesty.

If his family or friends ask about the nature of his financial “success,” he will have to lie to them about it. If he tells them that he got a raise, he had better hope they never run into his boss and mention the alleged achievement. If they do, the liar will then have to lie to his boss about why he lied to his family and friends about getting a raise; and he will have to lie to his family and friends about why his boss claimed to know nothing of it. If, instead, he tells his family and friends that he is working a second job, he had better hope they don’t ask “Where?” If they do, he will have to tell them something. If he makes up a company, he had better hope they don’t try to contact him there. If they do, he will have to lie about why the company is “unlisted” or “top secret” or something like that. If, instead, he names an existing company, he had better hope they don’t call looking for him there. If they do, he will have to lie about why the receptionist has never heard of him. If he knows the receptionist, and if she is willing to lie for him by also pretending that he works where he does not, he will be at her mercy thereafter—and we already know the nature of her character. If over the course of his cover-up efforts he tells different lies to different people (as he will have to do), he had better hope they never communicate with one another about anything having to do with him. If they do, he will have to lie again to all of them about why he lied to the others. And so forth.

Each new lie will require the dishonest manager to tell additional lies in order not to get caught in his previous lies. Of course, there is no way to predict the specific lies he will have to tell, since they will depend on the particular circumstances surrounding his various attempts at deception. But what is certain is that if he wants to avoid exposure, he will have to lie again and again. What is also certain is that he will not be able to escape the consequence of his dishonesty: self-destruction.

Until and unless the dishonest manager decides to change his ways, atone for his wrongdoings, and start doing what is right, each lie he tells will further chip away at any remnant of self-esteem that might be left within him. And he will be lying more often than one might suspect. He will be lying a lot. He will be lying to his customers when he tells them that their money is in “good hands” (chip . . . ); to his subordinates when he reminds them of his alleged standards (chip . . . ); to his boss when she asks, “How go the books, Joe?” (chip . . . ); to his date when she asks, “What do you like most about your career, Joe?” (chip . . . ); to his friends when they marvel at his “lifestyle” (chip . . . ); to his future employer about his past “performance” (chip . . . ); even to the grocer when he exchanges a dollar he does not rightfully own for a banana he does not actually deserve (chip . . . ).

The point is twofold: 1) Dishonesty cannot be contained, and 2) its effects cannot be escaped. Once a person begins lying, his dishonesty spreads like cancer throughout his life, creating anxiety and destroying his self-esteem. While he might not get physically “caught,” his need to continuously “cover his tracks” combined with his irrepressible knowledge of the fact that he is a fraud will spiritually thwart every significant aspect of his life.

Just as a person cannot wish facts out of existence, so he cannot wish knowledge out of his mind. He cannot expel what he knows to be true. He can ignore or evade his knowledge—that’s precisely what dishonesty is—but he cannot get rid of it. He cannot un-know what he knows. Reality won’t let him.

Until and unless a dishonest person stops lying, makes appropriate reparations, and commits himself to being honest, he will continue to destroy himself, lie by lie, chip by chip.

Another telling angle on the vice of dishonesty is that it puts a person in the position of relying on peoples’ inability to discover the facts surrounding his so-called life. While to an honest person, a friend or colleague’s keen eye and good judgment provide a benefit—to a dishonest person, these same qualities pose a threat. A dishonest person has to surround himself with people whom he can deceive, and he has to avoid those whom he cannot. In other words, his character trait of choice in others is their gullibility. The only people who qualify for partnership, friendship, or romance with him are those whom he, a degenerate, can delude. As Ayn Rand put it, a dishonest person is “a dependent on the stupidity of others . . . a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling.”2

That fact alone speaks volumes. But there’s more.

Perhaps the most revealing fact of all regarding the selflessness of dishonesty is that the time and energy a dishonest person puts into deceiving the deceivable could have gone into achieving the achievable. It could have gone toward creating values rather than fooling people. It could have gone toward promoting his life rather than retarding it—which is all that dishonesty can do.

If a person attempts to gain a value by means of dishonesty, even if he appears to “get away” with it, he actually does not. The ill-gotten gain does not and cannot bring him happiness; it necessarily creates spiritual conflict, anxiety, and self-contempt. Since he was dishonest to get the “value,” he will have to continue being dishonest to keep it. And since he knows that he gained the “value” dishonestly, he also knows that he is not worthy of having it. Consequently, the “value” cannot serve its intended purpose; it cannot promote his life; thus, it is not—in the moral, life-serving sense of the term—a value. It is a disvalue; it can only thwart his life and work against his happiness.

To understand why this is so, we must bear in mind the fact that a person can value something that is not in his best interest. He can act to gain or keep things that harm or destroy his life—such as an abusive spouse or a heroin “high.” And we must acknowledge that, morally speaking, such things are not legitimate values, because they do not and cannot promote human life; they can only harm or destroy it.

In the broadest, goal-directed sense of the term, a value is anything that one acts to gain or keep. But in the narrower, moral sense of the term, a legitimate value is a value that actually promotes one’s life.3

For instance, if a person earns money and buys a car with it, the car is a legitimate value; it can promote his life, and he can enjoy driving it. His possession of the car is a result of his virtue; thus, it is a reward and a reminder of his accomplishments. But if a person steals a car, the car is not a legitimate value; it cannot promote his life, and he literally cannot enjoy driving it—not unless chronic fear and self-doubt are the hallmarks of joy. His possession of the car is a result of his vice; thus, it is a penalty in the form of a reminder that he is a thief. In addition to the fact that he might get caught and thrown in jail for stealing the car, driving it will always remind him that he is a parasite, and anything he uses the car to “accomplish” will be tainted by that fact. If he picks up a deceivable date, even though she may not know it, he will know that she is getting into someone else’s car with an incompetent who can’t earn money to buy his own. Likewise, if strangers admire the car, the thief will know that they are admiring someone else’s hard-earned accomplishment, which he (the thief) could only muster the “guts” to steal.

Now, the thief might say that he is enjoying the car. But his words cannot reverse cause and effect. Genuine joy comes from achieving values, not from stealing them. Happiness is an effect—of which personal achievement is the cause. No one—no matter how stupid he might be—can make himself “believe” that he has achieved something when he knows that he has not. The one person no one can fool, in this respect, is oneself.

Dishonesty cannot lead to values. Reality won’t let it.

To further illustrate this point, consider a student who cheats on an exam. Even if he does not get caught and expelled from school, the cheating cannot promote his life. For starters, since higher-level knowledge is built on lower-level knowledge, if he has not learned how to write a sentence or do arithmetic, how will he learn to write a paragraph or do algebra? And if he cannot write a paragraph or do algebra, how will he ever write an essay or do calculus? He won’t. Like the book-cooking bank manager, he will have to cheat again to cover up his initial cheating, and then again to cover up that cheating, and so on. And like the car-stealing incompetent, if the cheating “gets” him a “good” grade, since he will know that he did not earn it, every “accomplishment” built thereon will be spoiled by his irrepressible knowledge of the fact that he is not an achiever but a deceiver.

For instance, if his cheating gets him into a college, then in addition to being ill-equipped to do the necessary schoolwork, he will know that he does not deserve to be there in the first place. If he continues cheating throughout college and that gets him into a law school, then in addition to being ill-equipped to do his coursework, he will know that he does not deserve to be there, either. If he persists and cheats his way through law school and into a law firm, then in addition to being ill-equipped to do his casework, he will know that his entire “career” is built on a pile of sham. What kind of life will he then have? Will he be genuinely happy? Or will he be spiritually eaten by his knowledge of the fraud that he actually is?

Dishonesty is incompatible with life and happiness for the simple reason that it pits a person against the very source and realm of values: reality.

Morality is a matter of the immutable laws of identity, causality, and non-contradiction. An action either promotes a person’s life and long-term happiness or it does not. If it does, it is virtuous; if it does not, it is not. For someone to “get away” with being dishonest—for dishonesty to “promote” a person’s life—would literally take a miracle: a violation of natural law. In other words: It can’t happen.

Ill-gotten gains are not and cannot be values; they are and can only be disvalues. They are not rewards, but penalties. They do not promote one’s life; they thwart it—and they do so every time. Thus, not only is it true that honesty pays; the deeper truth is that only honesty pays. Such is the nature of reality.

In the above examples, the acts of honesty and dishonesty are rather obvious. But the requirements of honesty are not always so easy to discern. Consider another kind of situation.

Suppose a robber walks into a store, points a gun at the owner, and demands: “Empty your cash drawer into this bag, or I’ll blow your head off!” Fearing for his life, the owner complies. The robber then demands to know if there is any more money on the premises. Here is the tricky part: Since the owner keeps a few hundred dollars hidden in the back room, is he morally obligated to inform the thief of this fact—or can he lie and still maintain his honesty?

To answer such a question we must bear in mind the purpose of morality. The purpose of morality is to guide a person in living as a human being. The purpose of moral principles is to guide a human being in gaining and keeping his life-serving values. Thus, in order for a moral principle to be valid, it has to serve that purpose. With this in mind, we can begin to answer the question.

For a person to be able to keep his values, he must also be able to protect them from people who wish to steal, harm, or destroy them. And for honesty to be a virtue, it has to allow for such protection. Thus, honesty cannot mean “never, under any circumstance, tell a lie”; it cannot be the virtue of “always telling the truth, no matter what the consequence.” Such a “virtue” would not permit a person to protect his life-serving values; thus, it would defeat the very purpose of morality.

If honesty required a person to “always tell the truth no matter what,” it would be opposed to life; in other words, it would not be a virtue. What honesty does require a person to do is to account for all of his knowledge—and to ignore or evade none of it.

Honesty means never faking reality in order to gain a value. It is the virtue of refusing to pretend that facts are other than they are. As such, it requires recognition of all the relevant facts of a given situation—and only the facts.

Given the purpose of morality, honesty does permit a person to lie—if the lie is intended to protect a legitimate value from a person (or group) that seeks to steal, harm, or destroy it.

Thus, unless the storeowner has reason to believe that doing so would further endanger his life, lying to the thief would not be an act of dishonesty. On the contrary, it would be an act of honesty. He would be accounting for all the facts and only the facts—including the fact that his money is rightfully his—and excluding the fiction (the non-fact) that the thief has any right to take it.

Honesty requires that one take into account the full context of one’s knowledge. Dishonesty consists in ignoring or evading some aspect of one’s knowledge. In attempting to steal the storeowner’s money, the thief is trying to gain a value that is not rightfully his by ignoring this and other relevant facts. In lying to the thief, the storeowner is trying to keep a value that is rightfully his by acknowledging this and all the relevant facts. The thief is placing his fantasy over reality; the storeowner is placing nothing over reality.

Whether one should tell the truth or not depends on the context of the situation in question. Lying to a friend in order to lure him to his surprise party is not a breach of morality; the context makes such a lie morally appropriate and thus perfectly honest. Nor is it dishonest to lie to a person who is unjustly prying into one’s private life. If the snoop has no morally legitimate reason to be asking certain questions, one is morally entitled to answer as necessary to thwart his unwarranted inquiry.

The broader point here is that morality is not a matter of categorical imperatives or contextless commandments. Rather, it is a matter of purposeful principles and contextual absolutes: principles formed for the purpose of making human life possible—which are to be applied absolutely with regard to the full context of one’s knowledge.4

The full context of one’s knowledge is simply the sum of one’s knowledge—all of what one knows. A person is morally responsible for acknowledging all the relevant items of his knowledge pertaining to any given situation with which he is faced.

Should I store the Drano in the lower cabinet or the upper one? It depends on the context: Is there a toddler in the house? Can the lower cabinet be locked? What are the surrounding facts? To ignore the context would be immoral. If my refusal to think rationally and act accordingly leads to the death of my child, I am morally responsible for his death. I am morally responsible for the consequences of my choice to be rational or irrational.

Take another situation: Should I enter the burning building or not? It depends on the context: Is someone in there? If so, who? Is it possible for me to save him—or is the building already fully engulfed in flames? What are the conditioning factors? Again, to ignore the context would be immoral. It would be quite a sacrifice to risk my life in order to save the life of a person who is clearly already dead. And it would be an even greater sacrifice to risk my life in order to save the likes of Joseph Mengele, Pol Pot, or Osama bin Laden from the flames they so richly deserve.

One more example: Should I get the money out of the drawer before I go? It depends on the context: What drawer? Whose money? What are the relevant facts?

You get the idea.

Questions of good and bad, right and wrong can be answered only by means of moral principles in reference to the context surrounding and conditioning the given situation. Honesty requires that we always account for that context—in full.

With this in mind, let us turn to our next virtue: integrity. . . .

[To read or purchase the chapter from which this excerpt is drawn, click here. To purchase Loving Life, click here.]


1 Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), p. 267.

2 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), p. 129.

3 Cf. Leonard Peikoff, Unity in Epistemology and Ethics, taped lecture (New Milford: Second Renaissance Books, 1997).

4 Cf. Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. 274–76.

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