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Below are the 6 most recent journal entries recorded in The epicenter for radical honesty's LiveJournal:

Monday, August 24th, 2009
9:45 am
Shih Shih Wu Ai
Honesty is insurance. The problem isn't with accurately predicting first-order consequences, which is typically pretty trivial: you can have the best model of those in the world and it wouldn't alter the point, which is about a inability to control higher-order consequences. Feeding a lie into someone's decision process doesn't just affect a particular decision; it propagates outward through their entire light cone, affecting every subsequent decision after that -- not only theirs, but the decisions of every other sentient being they cross paths with.

Truth is recognized by its tendency for us to converge on it: it forms a common basis on which various agents make decisions, enforcing a level of coherence upon their activities that's robust to individual errors of judgment and idiosyncrasies of motive. As a result, recognition of truth increases the overall predictability of the system and reduces each agents' exposure to hidden risk. Falsehood, likewise, can be deduced by the divergence it evokes: a structure that incorporates false elements is prone to systematic disturbance, and when the agents in a system are acting on incompatible models of their universe their actions will tend to become increasingly incoherent.

Lying is a trading of tangible, localized gain for invisible, diffuse harm. A liar is willy-nilly a gambler -- with other people's wealth as well as his own -- and the odds always favor the house. One lie can very well pay off, but the problem is that it's habit-forming: the very reward you get for doing it makes it more likely that you're going to keep rolling the dice until you go broke or everyone else does. (That "or" is inclusive.) Enforcing honesty is largely a matter of making it obvious that the alternative is a trap.

So how do we do that? One approach is simply to promote truthfulness as a moral obligation, but are there others?
Friday, May 22nd, 2009
10:43 am
Epistemic Opacity & Honesty via Identity
Some of the most compelling arguments for being honest, to my mind, are the epistemic ones: lying exposes you to adverse black swans -- potentially large risks that you can't possibly quantify because you simply can't imagine all the possible ways in which the lie could be exposed. Life is too complicated and your imagination too bounded for that. So you're essentially banking that either 1) the lie is about something so transient and unimportant that nobody will remember it in the event of something contradictory coming to light, or 2) that the conditions which enable the lie to seem plausible will hold until you're well past the point where it can bite you, or 3) that by the time it's found out, any punishment you might receive won't be worse than the consequences of being honest now.

Gamble (1) seems petty and pointless -- once you think of it explicitly in those terms the question naturally arises of why you'd even consider it worth exposing yourself to the risk in the first place. It's also dangerously seductive because it's habit forming: any given small lie might be a safe bet, but given a large enough number of them the people you interact with regularly will pick up on a pattern and revise their mental model of you accordingly -- and because the stakes are so small this means they'll be more likely to not say anything about it when the lightbulb clicks on. The most insidious dangers are the ones you don't notice until it's too late.

Gamble (2) is extremely open to wishful thinking based on the same poverty of imagination and perspective that makes dishonesty attractive in the first place. So in practice it probably means circularly justifying one cognitive failure by doubling up -- not quite an epistemic Martingale, but too close for comfort.

Gamble (3) rests on your rate of temporal discounting and as such is a tacit betrayal of your temporally extended self: you're devaluing a distant possibility in a manner that's "rational" from your current point of view, but when you're actually living that punishment it'll probably feel a lot worse than your past estimate of it. You're offloading your externalities onto another part of yourself that's currently unable to object, what with not having come about yet and all.

This all seems obvious when you sit and reflect on it, but of course that's the point: dishonesty is approximately always a knee-jerk response to being caught in a corner or having lie-bait (e.g. social approval) dangled in front of you. (Excluding, for now, cases where something more sinister like self-sabotage or malice is in play -- those are an important minority which spring from a different source.) So the only way to overcome it is by cultivating opposing instincts that are stronger than whatever force is making dishonesty attractive.

One way is simply to cultivate an acute awareness of your epistemic limitations in relation to the complexity of the world, such that it permeates every activity you engage in. But this is a hard path to walk even for the devoted who know it, let alone being a thought that just doesn't occur naturally to people. Parrhesia might be an intellectual virtue, but if non-intellectuals were more honest it wouldn't need to be. For most people a simpler message is much more likely to be effective.

The idea that an omniscient and omnipotent God will squash you like a bug for your infidelity does, after all, have something to recommend it. But in addition to being grim and aesthetically displeasing, this has side-effects that make its net worth questionable. Firstly, it corrodes people's moral instincts by externalizing them: to the extent that your conduct is conditioned on the premise that only an external authority is keeping you in line, your brain will make the reasonable deduction that you're a scoundrel, which perversely provides additional impetus to act the part because so much of what we do is guided by expectations. This in itself wouldn't have too much practical force if people consistently lived the notion as saints do, but the assimilation is never total: there will be times when you forget Big Brother is watching and the system will fail, leading to exactly the kind of sin-guilt cycle that the Abrahamic religions capitalize ably on.

All systems sometimes fail, so what's needed is a system that fails gracefully: one that's not built on punishment but rather reward, and will pull people toward honesty because it feels right rather than push them into it because the alternative is scary. This would not only lessen the chances of falling off the wagon, but make people more eager to get right back on again immediately. Here is one idea that seems so simple it can't possibly work, but does: simply telling people at any reasonable opportunity that they're basically honest. It's something they want to believe anyway, and reinforcing that self-image will make it feel more "right" when they're honest and more "wrong" when they're not. This isn't a panacea but if anyone's got anything better . . .
Wednesday, April 8th, 2009
1:21 pm
There are situations where honesty is otiose because everyone involved sees things clearly enough on their own without anyone needing to say it. Then there are situations where no amount of gesticulating at the elephant in the room is going to get someone to acknowledge it because it's just too big for them to deal with. Where parrhesia is a virtue is the places between: where the right word at the right time can flip perceptions in the minds that influence events, or give courage to people who can see the fnords but tremble to act on their perception.

But how do you tell the difference, other than brute phronesis? Can we have a sophia of triage?
Tuesday, April 7th, 2009
10:27 pm
A Worthwhile Dilemma
Let's say you're in a situation where injecting a bit of cynicism feels like the right thing to do in order to keep someone from walking into what you think might be a trap, but that damping the person's euphoria is likely to be unwelcome. It's this sort of situation -- where the challenge is one of being honest without being counterproductive -- that I often find the thorniest to navigate. My preferred method is to make a general statement that obliquely raises the point you want someone to consider, without referring to any specifics of the current circumstances. It's a crude trick, but a serviceable one.

Does anyone else have any accumulated wisdom about what works and what doesn't on this kind of problem?
Monday, January 26th, 2009
7:47 am
Here's a problem we sometimes hit: someone expects something from us at a particular time when we're not really "feeling it" -- even though we might under slightly different circumstances. I struggled with this a bit: should I go through the motions to satisfy them, or frankly admit that I'm not feeling up to it even though it will probably displease them?

Radical honesty says the answer is obviously the latter, but this feels unsatisfactory since if it happens recurrently it can put tremendous strain on interpersonal relationships. But then I realized that *this is the point* -- to show you that you're doing something wrong. If people are getting what they psychologically need from you, then they'll understand perfectly if you're just not available now and then. But if they're not, they'll feel neglected -- like you're not holding up your end. The way to deal with this is to make a special effort to do things for them when you *are* feeling up to it, completely unprompted. If you don't ever feel like doing that spontaneously, then there's probably something more deeply wrong with the way you're relating to the people in your life.

This is why RH is so vital -- often the cited ethical justification is a respect for other people's right to know what's going on, but the deeper reason is to make sure that even *you* know what's going on.
Tuesday, January 6th, 2009
4:50 pm
Quote of the Day
In my experience, most of us are terrified of being told the truth, even about something as seemingly trivial as email. It’s so much easier and more comfortable for all the parties in a relationship to fall back on the pseudo-polite non-communication that lets us pretend to pay attention to each other on a massive scale. And, right now, this is a really important thing that very few people are talking about.

Even if we call this something less than “a lie,” we’re still stuck with the depressing prospect of a secret and shameful existence in which pretending to pay attention to people is less damaging than simply admitting we don’t have the cycles to be a big phony. That pretending is a more important use of your time than doing things. That anyone who pretends to pay attention to each of us is entitled to the same nonsense courtesy.

Stress comes from dissonance. When two things in your mind can’t be resolved and you start thinking you’re going to be stuck with the incongruity forever, you stress.

But, as much as our minds and our hearts encourage us to believe the fault goes to our will or our lack of industry — rather than our thinking and cognition — the true cure for stress is to cut the Gordian Knot. To change your mind about at least one thing you think you’re not allowed to change your mind about.

You alter the game when you re-write the rules. And, in this instance, if you find yourself more occupied with maintaining the lie than you are with doing the real work that the lie’s meant to support, it’s probably time to drop the lie. And, it also wouldn’t hurt to get unbelievably real about what you really do, rather than how and when you move bits.

Thing is, it’s not kindness that makes you see honesty as a dick move; it’s fear. And whenever you let fear drive, you’re going to end up in some dark, weird places where email ends up seeming like the least of your problems.

-- Merlin Mann, "The High Cost of Pretending"
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