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“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, memory yields. — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. False Excuses and Moral Growth. Diana Mertz Hsieh diana@dianahsieh.com University of Colorado, Boulder.

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false excuses and moral growth

“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, memory yields. — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

False Excuses and Moral Growth

Diana Mertz Hsieh

diana@dianahsieh.com

University of Colorado, Boulder

6th International CMU-UPitt

Graduate Philosophy Conference

20 March 2003

defending dishonesty
Defending Dishonesty?
  • Shelley Taylor, Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind (1989)
  • David Nyberg, The Varnished Truth (1993)
  • Charles Ford, Lies! Lies!! Lies!!! (1996)
  • Also: Jeremy Campbell, The Liar’s Tale (2001) & Daniel Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths (1985)
what are false excuses
What Are False Excuses?
  • False excuses are deceptions of self or others disavowing wrongdoing so as to avoid harm to the self.
concealing wrongdoing from others
Concealing Wrongdoing from Others
  • We tell false excuses largely for fear that knowledge of our wrongdoings will damage the good opinion in which others hold us.
  • Three risks of false excuses to others:
    • The discovery of deception can damage the trust necessary to good relationships.
    • To remain plausible and concealed, the initial false excuse may need to be propped up with further lies.
    • False excuses can make our problems more difficult to resolve in the long run.
concealing wrongdoing from oneself
Concealing Wrongdoing from Oneself
  • Self-deceptive excuses are erroneous internal explanations of our actions that we know or suspect to be false.
  • Self-deceptive excuses promise an uneasy truce with our misdeeds by whitewashing our moral history.
the necessity of self deception
The Necessity of Self-Deception?
  • Robert Solomon: In light of our “flaws and failings,” clearly understanding our thoughts, desires, and motivations can be “devastating to our self-image and sense of self.”
  • David Nyberg: “Given the distance between what we are and what we wish we were, some amount of other-deception and self-deception is an essential requisite for carrying on.”
  • However:
    • Self-deception is unlikely to fully insulate a person from disturbing reminders of the truth.
    • Self-deception cannot be contained and controlled to only the desired issues.
trouble 1 reminders of the truth
Trouble #1: Reminders of the Truth
  • Self-deception is unlikely to wholly insulate a person from disturbing reminders of the truth.
    • Nagging doubts, unexplained evidence, and confounding reminders will likely persist.
    • Others may not play along with the pretense of moral innocence.
    • The painful emotions of moral failure may be festering below the surface.
trouble 2 containing the self deception
Trouble #2: Containing the Self-Deception
  • Self-deception cannot be contained and controlled to only the desired issues.
    • Attempting to regulate self-deception would bring the unpleasant facts too much and too often to mind.
    • Daniel Goleman on our need for “a skillful mean” between truth and falsehood.
    • The tension between truth and falsehood pressures the self-deceiver to either admit the lie or deceive himself further.
    • False excuses may precipitate a slippery slope of self-deception.
what are positive illusions
What Are Positive Illusions?
  • Positive illusions are mild but enduring forms of self-deception that bias the judgments of psychologically healthy people towards themselves.
    • 90% of drivers consider themselves above average
  • The “creative self-deception” of positive illusions is claimed to be so integral to mental health that its loss or absence is associated with mild depression.
  • The seminal article: Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown, “Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health,” Psychological Bulletin 103, no. 2 (1988).
troubles with the theory of positive illusions
Troubles with the Theory of Positive Illusions
  • A cognitive hypothesis of unintentional bias also explains overestimations of positive qualities.
    • We are well aware of our own aggravation with other drivers, but not theirs with us.
  • The errors of those who misjudge do not taint the accuracy of those who judge well.
  • Judgments of depressed people more negative, but not necessarily more accurate.
judging the theory of positive illusions
Judging the Theory of Positive Illusions
  • From a psychological perspective, Brown and Taylor’s data fails to demonstrate the thesis of widespread and beneficial illusion.
  • From a philosophical perspective, positive self-image is not an unconditional moral good; people who do wrong deserve to think less well of themselves.
false excuses and moral growth1
False Excuses and Moral Growth
  • False excuses to self and others impede moral growth in two ways:
    • Blinding a person to his character flaws
    • Diminishing incentives for change
identifying character defects
Identifying Character Defects
  • A person who refuses to acknowledge his individual moral failings through self-deceptive excuses will not see any general pattern of moral failings.
the habit of false excuses
The Habit of False Excuses
  • Individual self-deceptive excuses can promote habits of self-deception by:
    • Honing the skills of self-deception
    • Setting the precedent that desires trump facts
    • Eroding “tendencies to… reflection and self-scrutiny”
    • Encouraging recklessness toward future bad acts
    • Atrophying the skills of moral courage, etc.
  • False excuses to others may indirectly promote self-deceptive excuses.
emotional motivations for moral change
Emotional Motivations for Moral Change
  • False excuses insulate a person from the constellation of temporarily painful but motivating feelings naturally evoked by moral failure, e.g. guilt, shame, and remorse.
    • Self-deception dulls our feeling of having fallen short of our own moral standards.
    • Deception of others blinds us to having violated other people’s reasonable expectations of us.
other motivations for moral change
Other Motivations for Moral Change
  • False excuses insulate a person from the external penalties often justly imposed by others for misdeeds.
  • By adopting a policy of honesty about our wrongdoings, we are motivated to act well from the outset – and doubly motivated against repetition.
  • False excuses keep us ignorant of the full nature and extent of harm caused and prevent us from benefiting from the insight and assistance of others.
defending honesty
Defending Honesty
  • Traditionally, the most common argument for honesty is that dishonesty endangers the trust that makes good relationships (and thus society) possible.
  • This argument loses its force when a deception is unlikely to be exposed and seems to benefit others, as with false excuses.
  • A sufficiently rich conception of egoism can provide a firm foundation for the virtue of honesty.