Statement XIII

by zenquaker

Derivative 8: Abstain from Deception (The Honesty Derivative)

When we deceive someone, we create a false expectation in their mind. As sort of noted in the Cause Principle (P6) when that expectation is not met, suffering is created. Therefore, by the Hippocratic Corollary (C3-3) we should abstain from deceiving people.

This has been a concern of mine for a long time. The hardcore honesty of the Quakers was one of the things that attracted me to Quaker practice, and I appreciated that Buddhism gave it double emphasis in Pure Speech and Pure Action. The thing is that I used to lie a lot. Being a drug addict when I was younger sort of made this a necessity, but my dishonesty went beyond that. I used to tell a lot of stories about myself that actually happened to other people, to try and make my life seem more interesting. Which was really stupid. My life was crazy and messed up enough on its own without me having to embellish it.

The issue really came to a head for me when I worked in the game industry for Iron Crown Enterprises. There was a real culture of not doing your work. I remember the first book I had to edit. I was running a bit behind, so I went down to the production department to tell them the manuscript would be a day late. They gave me an odd look. The next day I finished the manuscript and brought it down to them. They looked at me like I had two heads. What I didn’t realize was that no one did their work on time. The art director hadn’t even started soliciting the artwork for that manuscript, and it ended up sitting on a shelf for three months waiting for the art. No one else was working, so I stopped working, and so I had to lie on my time sheets because I wasn’t working. That really started to bother me. As I’ve said elsewhere??, failure is a problem for me, and I think not working was like failing to me.

So I started trying to be honest, which caused all sorts of problems. My boss got mad at me when I started putting down on my time sheet that I wasn’t working because my last paycheck had bounced. My girlfriend started getting mad at me because I told her what I was really thinking about after we had sex. And, oh, what a nightmare that was. It got to the point where I’d be laying there after sex trying to think of something to think about when my girlfriend asked me what I was thinking about.

And that brings us to the subject of white lies. The one thing that always trips people up about being totally honest is white lies: those little lies they tell to spare the other person’s feelings. Some people are very attached to their white lies, and come up with unrealistic Nazi situations to try and show you that sometimes lies are okay. But I don’t think people are telling lies to spare other people’s feelings. My experience, as a former big fat liar, is that you tell those lies to spare your own feelings. And in my experience as the recipient of many white lies, it doesn’t work. Most of the time the lie is eventually found out, assuming the target doesn’t catch on immediately. Then, they not only have the suffering resulting from whatever truth you were trying to hide from them, but they have the added suffering of knowing you lied to them.

Both Quakers and Buddhists go beyond just not telling lies. For Quakers, honesty isn’t enough. The Quaker phrasing of it is “open and honest.” You don’t just tell the truth when asked, but you reveal the truth even when not asked. You don’t try to hide it, or dance around the issue. For Buddhists, honest speech is not enough. Pure Speech recommends not telling lies, but Pure Action recommends not deceiving. I have always found that an interesting distinction to make. We can lie with our actions and our inactions, and that is as much of a source of suffering as lying with our mouths.

All of this hardcore honesty can be a bit of a problem sometimes. My job involves handling confidential medical records. It would be against the law (and I think immoral) to tell you the confidential information in those records even if you asked (and every now and then someone does ask). That’s an extreme case of confidentiality, but it also crops up when you have one friend tell you something that they don’t want you to tell another friend. I have seen the toxic effects of breaching that sort of confidentiality in my own family.

Generally I deal with this by telling people that I can’t tell them that because it’s confidential. This works pretty well with the medical records. Usually people asking about them haven’t thought through their question to realize it’s breaching medical confidentiality. Once the realize the problem they don’t press you on the answer. The situation with family and friends talking in confidence is different. Then you are concealing information that they want to have. But who suffers more, the person whose confidence you betray (or refuse to share in the first place), or the person you are concealing information from?

I don’t know, but that is part of the reason for this whole exercise. In systematically examining my beliefs I am find where the conflicts lie, and where the uncertainty is. I will think on this more and get back to you.