Honesty: Beyond Internal Truth

by Eliezer Yudkowsky6 min read6th Jun 200986 comments

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Honesty
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When I expect to meet new people who have no idea who I am, I often wear a button on my shirt that says:

SPEAK THE TRUTH,
EVEN IF YOUR VOICE TREMBLES

Honesty toward others, it seems to me, obviously bears some relation to rationality.  In practice, the people I know who seem to make unusual efforts at rationality, are unusually honest, or, failing that, at least have unusually bad social skills.

And yet it must be admitted and fully acknowledged, that such morals are encoded nowhere in probability theory.  There is no theorem which proves a rationalist must be honest - must speak aloud their probability estimates.  I have said little of honesty myself, these past two years; the art which I've presented has been more along the lines of:

SPEAK THE TRUTH INTERNALLY,
EVEN IF YOUR BRAIN TREMBLES

I do think I've conducted my life in such fashion, that I can wear the original button without shame.  But I do not always say aloud all my thoughts.  And in fact there are times when my tongue emits a lie.  What I write is true to the best of my knowledge, because I can look it over and check before publishing.  What I say aloud sometimes comes out false because my tongue moves faster than my deliberative intelligence can look it over and spot the distortion.  Oh, we're not talking about grotesque major falsehoods - but the first words off my tongue sometimes shade reality, twist events just a little toward the way they should have happened...

From the inside, it feels a lot like the experience of un-consciously-chosen, perceptual-speed, internal rationalization.  I would even say that so far as I can tell, it's the same brain hardware running in both cases - that it's just a circuit for lying in general, both for lying to others and lying to ourselves, activated whenever reality begins to feel inconvenient.

There was a time - if I recall correctly - when I didn't notice these little twists.  And in fact it still feels embarrassing to confess them, because I worry that people will think:  "Oh, no!  Eliezer lies without even thinking!  He's a pathological liar!"  For they have not yet noticed the phenomenon, and actually believe their own little improvements on reality - their own brain being twisted around the same way, remembering reality the way it should be (for the sake of the conversational convenience at hand).  I am pretty damned sure that I lie no more pathologically than average; my pathology - my departure from evolutionarily adapted brain functioning - is that I've noticed the lies.

The fact that I'm going ahead and telling you about this mortifying realization - that despite my own values, I literally cannot make my tongue speak only truth - is one reason why I am not embarrassed to wear yon button.  I do think I meet the spirit well enough.

It's the same "liar circuitry" that you're fighting, or indulging, in the internal or external case - that would be my second guess for why rational people tend to be honest people.  (My first guess would be the obvious: respect for the truth.)  Sometimes the Eli who speaks aloud in real-time conversation, strikes me as almost a different person than the Eliezer Yudkowsky who types and edits.  The latter, I think, is the better rationalist, just as he is more honest.  (And if you asked me out loud, my tongue would say the same thing.  I'm not that internally divided.  I think.)

But this notion - that external lies and internal lies are correlated by their underlying brainware - is not the only view that could be put forth, of the interaction between rationality and honesty.

An alternative view - which I do not myself endorse, but which has been put forth forcefully to me - is that the nerd way is not the true way; and that a born nerd, who seeks to become even more rational, should allow themselves to lie, and give themselves safe occasions to practice lying, so that they are not tempted to twist around the truth internally - the theory being that if you give yourself permission to lie outright, you will no longer feel the need to distort internal belief.  In this view the choice is between lying consciously and lying unconsciously, and a rationalist should choose the former.

I wondered at this suggestion, and then I suddenly had a strange idea.  And I asked the one, "Have you been hurt in the past by telling the truth?"  "Yes", he said, or "Of course", or something like that -

(- and my brain just flashed up a small sign noting how convenient it would be if he'd said "Of course" - how much more smoothly that sentence would flow - but in fact I don't remember exactly what he said; and if I'd been speaking out loud, I might have just said, "'Of course', he said" which flows well.  This is the sort of thing I'm talking about, and if you don't think it's dangerous, you don't understand at all how hard it is to find truth on real problems, where a single tiny shading can derail a human train of thought entirely -)

- and at this I suddenly realized, that what worked for me, might not work for everyone.  I haven't suffered all that much from my project of speaking truth - though of course I don't know exactly how my life would have been otherwise, except that it would be utterly different.  But I'm good with words.  I'm a frickin' writer.  If I need to soften a blow, I can do with careful phrasing what would otherwise take a lie.  Not everyone scores an 800 on their verbal SAT, and I can see how that would make it a lot harder to speak truth.  So when it comes to white lies, in particular, I claim no right to judge - and also it is not my primary goal to make the people around me happier.

Another counterargument that I can see to the path I've chosen - let me quote Roger Zelazny:

"If you had a choice between the ability to detect falsehood and the ability to discover truth, which one would you take? There was a time when I thought they were different ways of saying the same thing, but I no longer believe that. Most of my relatives, for example, are almost as good at seeing through subterfuge as they are at perpetrating it. I’m not at all sure, though, that they care much about truth. On the other hand, I’d always felt there was something noble, special, and honorable about seeking truth... Had this made me a sucker for truth's opposite?"

If detecting falsehood and discovering truth are not the same skill in practice, then practicing honesty probably makes you better at discovering truth and worse at detecting falsehood.  If I thought I was going to have to detect falsehoods - if that, not discovering a certain truth, were my one purpose in life - then I'd probably apprentice myself out to a con man.

What, in your view, and in your experience, is the nature of the interaction between honesty and rationality?  Between external truthtelling and internal truthseeking?

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I find that there is often a conflict between a motivation to speak only the truth and a motivation to successfully communicate as close approximations to the most relevant truths as constraints of time, intelligence and cultural conversational conventions allow.

4slr12yEli, you can get away with wearing whatever buttons you want because you can back-up all your claims by pointing out your writings, works etc to skeptical people. But say I am a rationalist and I prefer honesty over dishonesty. And say I am trying to win someone's confidence/trust/love/respect and I believe in 'rationalists should win' principle. And this person doesn't necessarily care about rationality or honesty other than to the extent that was passed on to her by the prevailing social norms in her community/church etc. Moreover she doesn't see me as some ultra-rationalist guy and there is nothing I can do to prove otherwise, short of saying, hey check out all the websites I browse everyday or hey see all the books I have. Now, when I talk to her, I twist the truth (or lie outright) to make sure I send a friendly signal to get what I want. If I am talking to some person I've known for years, still, I'll probably calibrate my words to send a message that I know would be received in a way I want it to be received to eventually get what I want. My gut feeling is that this way of thinking is surely not right, but why? It surely is the 'less wrong' way in some situations. So, does it just boil down to personal preferences where the line should be drawn? I think so.
2patrissimo12yI think the problem is that lying to other people will tend to reinforce lying to yourself and to others. Your brain can't just separate the circumstances like that. Rationalists win when their hardware lets them - and our hardware is very limited.
4MendelSchmiedekamp12yDefinitely. There is a significant risk in failing to communicate accurately by deciding that honesty is all we are obligated to do. This seems inconsistent with the ideal that rationalists should win, in this case winning over the difficulties of accurate communication, rather than simply trying virtuously. More broadly, though, there is an ambiguity about what exactly honesty really means. After all as Douglas Adams points out, speaking the truth is not literally what people mean when they tell each other to be honest - for one thing this is neither a sane or a terminating request. I suspect this is one of those cases where the graceful failure of the concept is socially very useful, and so the ideal is useful, but over achievement is not necessarilly any better than under achievement (at least not in societal terms).
3Douglas_Knight12yI wouldn't say "trying virtuously," though maybe that's right. I definitely wouldn't talk about a "motivation to speak only the truth." It seems so rigid that I would call it a ritual or a superstition, a sense that there is only one correct thing that can be said. Perhaps the problem is that the (unconscious) goal is not to communicate, but to show off to third parties, or even to make the listener feel stupid?
1AspiringRationalist9yA good working definition might be "attempting to communicate in a way that makes the recipients map match the territory as closely as is reasonable."
3AndrewH12yThat's teaching for you, the raw truth of the world can be both difficult to understand in the context of what you already 'know' (Religion -> Evolution) or difficult to understand in its own right (Quantum physics). This reminds me of "Lies to Humans" as Hex, the thinking machine of Discworld, where Hex tells the Wizards the 'truth' of something, coached in things they understand to basically shut them up, rather than to actually tell them what is really happening. In general, a person cannot jump from any preconceived notion of how something is to the (possibly subjective!) truth. Instead, to teach you tell lesser and lesser lies, which in the best case, may simply be more and more accurate approximations of the truth. Throughout, you the teacher, have been as honest as to the learner as you can be. But when someone has a notion of something that is wrong enough, I can see these steps as, in themselves, could contain falsehood which is not an approximation of the truth itself. Is this honest? To teach a flat-Earther the world is round, perhaps a step is to consider the world being convex, so as to explain the 'ships over the horizon disappear'. If your goal is to get someones understanding closer to the truth, it may be rational, but the steps you take, the things you teach, might not be honest.
0johnlawrenceaspden9yOnly nitpicking, and I do like the example, but 'the world is convex' is actually less false than 'the world is round'.

a born nerd, who seeks to become even more rational, should allow themselves to lie, and give themselves safe occasions to practice lying, so that they are not tempted to twist around the truth internally

I'm starting to think that this is exactly correct.

As we all know, natural language sentences (encoded as pressure waves in the air, or light emitted from a monitor) aren't imbued with an inherent essence of trueness or falseness. Rather, we say a sentence is true when reporting it to a credulous human listener would improve the accuracy of that human's model of reality. For many sentences, this is pretty straightforward ("The sky is blue" is true if and only if the sky is blue, &c.), but in other cases it's more ambiguous, not because the sentence has an inherently fuzzy truth value, but because upon interpreting the sentence, the correspondence between the human's beliefs and reality could improve in some aspects but not others; e.g., we don't want to say "The Earth is a sphere" is false, even though it's really more like an oblate spheroid and has mountains and valleys. This insight is embedded in the name of the site itself: "Less Wrong," su... (read more)

I have a small theory - "enhancing reality" is normal part of human social interactions, we are designed to lie exactly for this reason, and not doing it properly hurts your signaling skills and lowers your ability to achieve your social goals (including getting mates and so on).

So based on the premise that rationality is about success, rationalists should have no qualms about lying when situation is right. I'm quite good at lying, and also I'm pretty sure I'm extremely honest with myself.

3dclayh12yIn particular, those who can tell an entertaining anecdote are widely praised, and I've been told by such people that my anecdotes suffer because I adhere too closely to the truth.
9taw12yThat's amusing, I always enhance my anecdotes, at least by dropping the irrelevant parts. Now that will sound funny but I think posting on 4chan helped me quite a lot with learning this. In real life (or online where you have long term identity you care about) it's difficult to train enhancing the truth, because failure makes you a known liar, and has negative consequences. On 4chan on the other hand - just go for it - nobody really cares.
3pwno12yWhen it comes to good storytelling, using emotive language, suspense, good timing, exaggerated facial expressions, etc., are much more important than embellishing the truth.

It is a good question, but I fear I'm lacking data to answer. It is much harder to see my own self-deceptions than my lies, making it hard to see the sign of the correlation between them.

I have noticed that, in addition to being honest, rationalists (or those striving toward rationality) seem to also speak very precisely (although not necessarily accurately) . This is a trait that they seem to share in common with philosophers, lawyers, programmers, etc.

I suspect this is because these people recognize the confusion caused by the vagueness of language.

5JGWeissman12yI think the ideal here is to speak with a level of precision that matches your confidence in your accuracy. For example, I would say that an event is probable to indicate I have a vague impression it is more likely to occur than not, if I say it has a probability of .62, that means I have done an explicit mathematical analysis of my uncertainty.

Agreed about the non-universality and impact of personal history. I got an 800 SAT verbal and have been reasonably popular and hanging with a smart and very accepting crowd from college on. I have also never had to financially rely on any entity more conservative than Google. And I live more unusual and transparent life than most people, being open about things that most people are private about.

It is tempting to think that my open approach is the best way for everyone, but the fact is that I have not suffered for my openness at all and lots of other pe... (read more)

Interesting Esquire article on Radical Honesty.

When I noticed this sort of thing in myself (I don't remember exactly when, but probably in my teens), I started intentionally pausing and rehearsing what I was about to say before saying it, in most situations. This might or might not have made me less of a liar, but it sure made me say less, because after vetting what I'm about to say, it's often the case that I don't feel the need to actually say it. Most things I would say in person don't seem worth saying once I've reviewed them for a bit.

In general I'm honest with people I think are at least moderately sane and high in agreeableness and openness, in a cooperative context. Otherwise I tend to think of myself as an actor in an improvised play that's "based on a true story." I don't seem to have too much difficulty keeping track of this, but I admit the possibility I'm self-deceived.

There are competitions that honest people regularly do poorly at, because liars have an advantage. Mating and attracting venture capital are examples. I knew a kid who claimed to have had sex with 100 women by the time he was 20. "How?" I asked. "I told them all I loved them," he said.

(Though, in my experience, telling women you love them before you've had sex with them is more likely to get you labeled 'creepy' than get you laid. Maybe it's different for teenagers.)

9Alicorn12yHave you considered the possibility that this dishonest person was not honest about how many women he'd had sex with?
4PhilGoetz12yYes. I have no way of knowing.

If detecting falsehood and discovering truth are not the same skill in practice, then practicing honesty probably makes you better at discovering truth and worse at detecting falsehood. If I thought I was going to have to detect falsehoods - if that, not discovering a certain truth, were my one purpose in life - then I'd probably apprentice myself out to a con man.

I've heard from many sources that con men are actually among the easiest to deceive. The rationale seems to be along the lines that con men have utter contempt for their marks, and therefore... (read more)

7[anonymous]12ydel
6Cyan12yI recall watching a television show just as microexpressions [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microexpression] were receiving pop-science attention which claimed that tests against videotaped gold standards showed that the only people who were reliably able to distinguish liars from truth-tellers at a rate above chance were either people explicitly trained to detect microexpressions or professional spies.

I never before thought of poor social skills as simply a disregard for the standard signals. I have a problem with that interpretation though because I often find that groups with poor social skills have their own sets of in-group signals and that they jockey for position just as much as the rest of us.

We're all operating using human brains. It simply isn't safe to assume we don't lie or decieve ourselves constantly. The failure to notice self-deceptions is, I expect, one of the most pervasive forms of akrasia, if not, obviously, one of the most self-evident ones.

I doubt focused honesty or even radical honesty will have a major effect on the frequency of self-deception. It seems too much like sympathetic magic. So I expect it to work like any other placebo ritual.

I expect combating self-deception will require working against the akrasia directly. But most anti-akrasia approaches asume at least a small window of consciousness of the akrasia, which in this case is often not possible.

I had fun writing Lies. I do not know if it is a fun read.

0cousin_it12yGreat metaphor at the end. And great piece "Thrice woe" [http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk/thrice_woe.2.html]. Thanks! Edit: and also thanks for the Simpson's paradox [http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk/simpsons.2.html] essay.
0orthonormal12yI enjoyed it, as well as some of your other Soapbox pieces. Ever thought about adapting some of them for LW?

I don't think Zelazny's statement makes out that "detecting falsehood and discovering truth are not the same skill in practice". He just seems to be saying that you can have good 'detecting falsehood' skills without caring much about the truth ("I’m not at all sure, though, that they care much about truth").

If I thought I was going to have to detect falsehoods - if that, not discovering a certain truth, were my one purpose in life - then I'd probably apprentice myself out to a con man.

I think that's equating 'detecting falsehood... (read more)

I know I'm a really crap rationalist. Lots of the ways I fail at reason are in the category of "lying to myself", "making things easier by adopting a role", "maintaining a bubble of cosy normality". When I'm not lying to myself overtly, manipulating others can be a means to untruth-maintenance.

Honestly, even if lying were useful, I don't think I can trust myself with it.

Maybe a graduate Beisutsukai can lie, but an student ought to be scrupulous with truth.

2Annoyance12yYou don't have to run faster than the bear, just faster than your slowest friend. In explicitspeak: You may be right, but your being right on this matter makes you a better rationalist than the vast majority of people who claim that title.

I suggest that competitive bear races, metaphorically speaking, are so rare that even looking for them is positively harmful. Nearly all tests of reason, from frying with hot fat to investing your money to buying cryonics, the only people in the race are you and the bear, and you really do have to be faster.

Aside: I don't think its really verbal ability, e.g. as measured by the SAT, which truthtelling requires. What is more important is having a good theory of mind and knowing what deserves emphasis. An aspect of emotional intelligence, no?

What, in your view, and in your experience, is the nature of the interaction between honesty and rationality? Between external truthtelling and internal truthseeking?

Could it be as simple as forming a habit?

Being honest as much as possible 'by default' turns into a habit that can be very helpful when it comes to being rational. I have the feeling that external truthtelling helps form that habit, which leads to fewer internal lies. But I can't prove it (maybe it's just me).

The chain goes something like: habit of external truth -> helps internal trut... (read more)

After I first read this article about a year ago, I set out to be more honest in all my conversations. (At this point in time it has become a part of my persona and I no longer do it consciously.) There are a few things I've noticed since I made the switch:

  • It is easier for me to think clearly during social events. I suspect this is because I no longer have to generate lies and keep track of all of them.

  • I have become more outgoing, although undoubtedly more socially awkward. Occasionally, a person will be shocked at how carelessly I reveal something con

... (read more)
5Swimmer9639yI am like this. It occasionally creates a false note in a conversation, but for the most part it doesn't harm my relations with other people...and it feels good to realize that people don't actually judge me for the things I might be judging myself for.
2Jakeness9yHow can you be sure you aren't being judged?
3Swimmer9639yClarify that to "people don't display all the usual behaviours of judging someone, i.e sharing looks and smirking with each other, avoiding me afterwards, etc." Maybe they go on to judge me behind my back, but I've seen no reflection on my overall social standing...except that I've possibly developed more of a reputation since then, in the sense that I went from being semi-invisible to fairly interesting.

I think there is a link between external truth-telling and external truth-seeking.

Say I make a decision for the reason that it is my best guess at the right thing to do in a given situation, based on the facts I have. Suppose further it is not viewed as the right thing to do for social or political reasons among my peers. (This has happened to me now and then.)

I'd like to be able to defend my decision against vaguely stated, uninformed, logically inconsistent or otherwise irrational objections, by reference to measurable and demonstrable facts. I can o... (read more)

[-][anonymous]12y 2

del

3Eliezer Yudkowsky12yTAWME: not on first Google page or Urban Dictionary.
2SoullessAutomaton12yThis Agrees With My Experience [http://lesswrong.com/lw/dr/generalizing_from_one_example/ah2]. It seemed obvious to me from context but that may merely be a sign that I spend too much time around people who enjoy acronyms.
0[anonymous]12ydel
0MichaelBishop12yCan you elaborate?
3[anonymous]12ydel
1MichaelHoward12yI hope that was a joke.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky12yHe means that lies get voted down on LW.
0[anonymous]12ydel
0MichaelHoward12yI used to myself. Hope this helps :) Excluding the Supernatural [http://lesswrong.com/lw/tv/excluding_the_supernatural/] Joy in the Merely Real [http://lesswrong.com/lw/or/joy_in_the_merely_real/] All stories that invoke ontologically basic mental quantities have turned out to be wrong.
4[anonymous]12ydel
0MichaelHoward12yAh, that's good. :) Most people I've known who believed in karma meant something quite different.
0[anonymous]12ydel

A 'Machiavellian rationalist' would only speak truths when in its in his/her own best interests, and lie when that is more useful.

However, I think Eliezer wants to be a 'friendly rationalist'[1]. Then, speaking the truth becomes the optimal thing in many more cases. It could also make it harder to succeed in fields like trade, politics, war, where bluff, misrepresentations etc. are important. And what about 'Daddy, do you like this drawing I spent three hours making for you?'

And sometimes lying seems simply the best choice - no matter what Kant thinks. The... (read more)

From what i've read and able to understand(a little) after spending 3 months reading this blog is that rationality is (just to put what has already been said lot of times by eliezer) "something that helps us getting more of what we want", please correct me if i have got it dead wrong, else i might be "de-rationalised" in a rational way. Im a pathalogical liar, i have little to hide (nobody who knows me visits this blog, i think, and if somebody does and happens to read this, then he wouldn't mind it i'm sure).

"........- the theory ... (read more)

2billswift12yWhat you say, or write down, tends to be more strongly remembered than what you just think. (This is the basis for writing down your ideas whenever you get them (speaking them aloud is helpful if you can't stop to write).)

If detecting falsehood and discovering truth are not the same skill in practice, then practicing honesty probably makes you better at discovering truth and worse at detecting falsehood.

It seems to me that the hard part of both is being "more confused by fiction than reality", and that the only relevant additional concern when detecting falsehood to have a reasonable prior on deliberate deception.

The problem, as I see it, is that it's not possible to lie to people and simultaneously act in their interests.

Lying to someone is an inherently hostile act, and indicates that (at least in regard to the matter at hand) you're enemies. There may be very special cases in which it's the act of an ally or friend (in the same way that semi-hostile microorganisms may be beneficial to our immune functioning) but they must be quite rare.

Even if some of the consequences of the lie are 'good', you're reinforcing the other person's tendencies towards irrationality by getting them to believe untruths and profiting by it.

4PhilGoetz12yWhat is your reasoning or evidence? See the radical honesty link below. You can lie to people to avoid hurting their feelings. You can lie to children for their entertainment, their protection, or their cognitive development. (IMHO, speaking from experience, exposure to too many brutal truths of the world at the age of 5 is not a good thing. Also, training very young children to act as self-interested expectation maximizers has bad results.) You can lie to people to protect them from their predictable self-destructive responses (eg., I once told an alcoholic "No, I haven't got any whiskey in the house.")
0Annoyance12yAccepting a lie means accepting an understanding of the world that is less accurate than it could be, and that in turns limits your ability to react appropriately to reality. Any so-called positive consequences of believing the lie could also be produced by choosing a rational strategy in awareness of the truth. Viewed as an abstract hypothetical, preferring to have believed a comforting lie rather than an unpleasant truth just isn't compatible with rationality; more importantly, it's incompatible with the desires that cause people to be rational. Is it wrong? I happen to believe that irrationality is wrong, not merely a pragmatically poor choice, but the line of reasoning that brought me to that conclusion is a rational one; I recognize the limits to that argument. If you're a rationalist, or you wish to be, preferring the irrational is the wrong way to get there.
4PhilGoetz12yPerhaps, if everyone were perfectly rational, you would be right that lying is inherently hostile.
1Vladimir_Nesov12yOnly all else being equal is the truth clearly preferable to deceit. If the choice of deceit allows to save the world, it's inevitable for any notion of human morality to prefer deceit.
0Annoyance12yIt's not inevitable. Nor is it likely, in balance, that deceit would have such large and positive effects. Far, far more probable is a shallow but wide flood of corrosive harms.
3Jack12yHow do you feel about lies of omission? What about other forms of deception (make-up, dress, aires of confidence when really nervous etc.) I'm really sympathetic to you view but I think it profoundly underestimates the amount of deception we routinely engage in for the purposes of avoiding conflict, smoothing things over, maintaining privacy, keeping promises, avoiding delay, and generally not being a jerk. I'm really not sure our society could function in a state of obligatory information symmetry. Deception is so enmeshed in our institutions and conventions that I don't know if you could eliminate it without destabilizing everything else. Obviously the solution isn't going to be "lie away!" but the practice of 'radical honesty' is a genuinely revolutionary act and it should be taken with appropriate seriousness and caution.
-1Annoyance12yYou're right that most interpersonal relationships, even (and especially) casual ones, absolutely require deception and silence on certain matters. But most humans are not rational and don't desire to be rational. That only harms them, but it can't be helped. In such situations, probably the best way to salvage things and limit the total amount of harm is to play along and deceive them. Would it be even better to refuse to play that game, to insist on interacting only upon a rational basis, or even to refuse interaction with people dedicated to being irrational? I don't know. I can't even guess. Maybe. But the cost would be terrible.
3Alicorn12yThis would be true if we lived in a world in which there was always plenty of time to communicate before action needed to be taken. But we don't; occasionally action is urgent and a lie is the only thing that can induce an urgent action in a small number of syllables.
2Annoyance12yIf you yell fire when there is none, and people take your word for it and rationally respond appropriately, then it's overwhelmingly likely that their reaction would not be what they would perceive to be their optimal or appropriate response to the real situation. You presumably benefit from their reaction, profiting from their inappropriate response. If there was a real situation where the best response is approximately what the response to a fire would be, there was no pre-awareness of the possibility of this situation, and there wasn't enough time to explain, yelling "Fire!" might truly be in everyone's interests. But that would be an exceptional and highly unlikely (a priori) circumstance.
2Alicorn12yShould I take this to mean that you think the advice to yell "fire" [http://www.justyellfire.com/] instead of "rape" or something else more accurate than "fire", when one is assaulted, is ethically misguided and indicates hostility to people who hear the exclamation, or do you just think that it's an "exceptional and highly unlikely" situation? For example. Not every possible situation is a weird fringe case where you could accurately yell "Godzilla!" but, to avoid people thinking you're making a joke, you go with "fire".
1Annoyance12yNot at all. But that's just another example of other people's interests not being compatible with your own, and choosing to trick them into actions that they wouldn't take if they knew the truth. In that situation, you are their enemy, and vice versa.
3Alicorn12yActually, what yelling "fire" in that situation does most effectively is get the attention of a group. Fire individually endangers every passerby, so they're motivated to assess the situation and call the fire department. Whereas in a moderately well-traveled area, the bystander effect can yield tragedy. It's (probably) not against a passerby's interest to join a dozen other people in calling the fire department and/or serving to scare off a would-be attacker with excess attention, unless the passerby is a sociopath (or unless the passerby is never going to find out about the assault and you agree with pjeby on preferences being about the map only [http://lesswrong.com/lw/zv/post_your_utility_function/sbv]). It's only against their interests to stop and see what's going on and try to help if, in so doing, they put themselves in danger, and they don't care about the victim in particular. Yelling "fire" gets the attention of multiple people and reduces the danger. So every helpful passerby gets to think, "Well, I am certainly a good person and would have helped even if she had yelled "rape", but it's a good thing she yelled "fire", because if she hadn't, these other self-interested jerks would have just walked right by and then I would have been in trouble and so would she." No enmity is required, just psychological facts.
3Annoyance12yOr people want to avoid the personal risk without gain of confronting a potentially violent rapist, and would choose to not become involved if they knew the reality of the situation. I'm sure few people want to consider the possibility that such considerations motivate them, and I'm equally sure that many people are in actuality motivated by them.
0SoullessAutomaton12yThe ends justify the means--how delightfully consequentialist! Further, of course, sometimes, the situation is severe enough that the business end of a weapon is the only thing that can effectively induce action. The heart of the question is how to choose the least bad approach that is sufficient to attain the necessary results when you may not even have enough time to follow Yudkowsky's exhortation to "shut up and multiply". Ethics is difficult.
0Adaptive12yIt seems to be a questionable assumption that other people's interests are best served by * my subjective evaluation of what is true * the communication of this in full, regardless of circumstance I am reminded of the Buddhist terms upaya and prajna which I believe are commonly translated as "insight" and "means" respectively, but which I first encountered as "truth" and "utility". The principle, as I understood it when studying the subject, was that while one may feel in possession of a truth, it is not always useful to simply communicate that truth directly. I have personally taken true/useful as dual criteria for my own interpersonal (though not intrapersonal) communication. I'll leave the ends-justifies-the-means implication of such a truth/utility formulation for a separate time and place.

Truth-telling is necessary but not sufficient for honesty. Something more is required: an admission of epistemic weakness. You needn't always make the admission openly to your audience (social conventions apply), but the possibility that you might be wrong should not leave your thoughts. A genuinely honest person should not only listen to objections to his or her favorite assumptions and theories, but should actively seek to discover such objections.

What's more, people tend to forget that their long-held assumptions are assumptions and treat them as facts. Forgotten assumptions are a major impediment to rationality--hence the importance of overcoming bias (the action, not the blog) to a rationalist.

For a long long time I've tried not to say anything false. Usually this take the form of caveats or 'weasel words'. This can make me seem less confident than I actually am, so I guess they're misleading in their own way.

Not sure how this influences self-deception. It probably makes it easier for me to misremember my confidence.

In practice, the people I know who seem to make unusual efforts at rationality, are unusually honest, or, failing that, at least have unusually bad social skills.

It's the same "liar circuitry" that you're fighting, or indulging, in the internal or external case - that would be my second guess for why rational people tend to be honest people.

I have another alternate hypotheses: most normal people are such poor rationalists, that it simply isn't worth the effort to develop proper "lying skills" (if that's an acceptable term - yes, i kn... (read more)

Now that you mention it, I have kind of noticed this. Social skills appear to consist of a certain amount of glossing over details that you don't want to derail the more important thought processes. You don't mention aloud exactly everything you are thinking, because if you do you end up labeled "dork".

Writing/typing is a little different because you know in advance that whatever comes out is not going to be percieved immediately by anyone, so it goes through fewer filters at first. Afterwards you have the chance to edit it to be less embarassing... (read more)

My view of the relationship between honesty and rationality is similar to taw's theory 'enhanced reality' in his comment on this page, but I would think of it as a 'augmented reality theory', I don't think we are designed to lie just that the truth is normally very complex, and we are designed to simplify.

I think there are two basic factors that limit honesty Language, and the way the human mind works.

LANGUAGE

Even a person who is trying to tell the truth and be honest is always going to have language problems, it's important to remember that new words ar... (read more)

E.-

I think you are refining yourself for very good reasons. It could happen that you help 'raise' a seed AI someday. Like the quote on your pin there is, 'be the person you are seeking'. Perhaps your personal honesty practices are very important for your AI work. If you ever find yourself working with an evolving machine consciousness, it might be very good that you've taken time to search yourself.

I like your comment about feeling your nervous system change while run into that inconvenience-of-reality-what-to-say-or-do-myaaa!... thing. I think it's... (read more)

There is no theorem which proves a rationalist must be honest

I'd like to see the non-existence proof of that claim. Absent that, it should really start "I am not aware of the existence of a theorem which..."

How do we know that there is no such theorem?

[+][anonymous]12y -6