Don’t Let the Kiddos Win Easy!

 Posted by on 20 January 2014 at 1:00 pm  Children, Competition, Ethics, Honesty, Parenting
Jan 202014

I hate the practice of allowing kids to win games, although I’ve never really considered the alternatives.

Two weeks ago, when Paul and I were in Los Angeles visiting his family, I played Connect Four with my five year old nephew, Jeremy, and I hit on a strategy that I really like.

Basically, I played all my best moves, but throughout the game, I gave him hints about his moves and strategy, as well as explained what I was doing and why. I enjoyed that, he enjoyed that, and he learned how to play better. That felt so much better — and more honest — than pretending to be slow and dumb.

As a result, I checkmated him in the first game, but then I lost the second game to him, because I got too excited about the move that I’d make next, and I forgot to block him. Doh!

Another option is to handicap games. That’s fair, since the adult knows so much more. The goal, after all, is to play an enjoyable and competitive game!

Good times!


Alas, yes:

Coming Out of Closets, Gay and Otherwise

 Posted by on 12 November 2013 at 10:00 am  Ethics, GLBT, Honesty, Secrets
Nov 122013

“At some point in our lives, we all live in closets and they may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.” Hear, hear!

There’s so much awesome in this TEDx talk by Ash Beckham. Don’t miss it!


Before Lance Armstrong confessed to doping, I blogged about the possibility of such a confession here: The Moral Implications of Lance Armstrong’s Possible Confession to Doping. In that post, I said:

I don’t fault Armstrong for doping, nor for lying about that to a quasi-governmental agency. However, if he sued people for millions for telling the truth about his doping… well, that’s remarkably sleazy. Even if he felt backed into a corner, that’s no excuse for abusing the law in order to intimidate people into silence.

However, after watching this video montage of his denials of doping, I couldn’t be so forgiving.

The basic problem is that he’s such a skilled and credible liar. That makes him worse than a bugling, incompetent liar. How so?

By the time that the skilled liar’s deceptions are finally exposed, he has zero credibility left. Given that he was so believable for so long, how can anyone trust him now? He might just be spinning a new web of lies. That seems like the most likely scenario, in fact. By lying effectively for so long, the skilled liar has utterly destroyed his character. He had to make a slew of ever-worse compromises in order to protect his lies from discovery, including maligning the good people who’ve discovered the truth about him. In Lance’s case, he sued people for defamation for telling the truth about him, which is even worse.

The abysmal liar is likely to get caught early. That’s to his benefit, in fact. He experiences the harms done by his lies early and often. His moral character has not been eroded over the course of years, so he’s more likely to be able to redeem himself.

Basically, skill in making yourself persuasive or believable to others is exactly the kind of moral amplifier that I’ll discuss at ATLOSCon in May. That skill helps a good person do better… and it helps a bad person do worse.

Mar 262013

I wrote this damn fine essay on why protecting your privacy doesn’t require dishonesty back in 2002 for an email list. I recently dug it up to include in the Philosophy in Action Newsletter, and I was so impressed with it that I thought I should blog it! So… here you are!

Privacy Lies

[Person X] wondered how to overcome the presumption of guilt that naturally emerges with “none of your business” responses to privacy-invading questions. For example, imagine that Lucy’s friend and co-worker asks her whether she is sleeping with the new boss. If Lucy has been willing to answer questions about her lovers in the past, then refusing to answer the question this time is in itself revealing. Replying “none of your business,” in such cases, will not protect privacy. In other words, there is no right against self-incrimination in everyday life, for refusal to answer is generally (and often reasonably) considered positive evidence of guilt.

In isolation, these sorts of examples certainly do give the impression that dishonesty is often necessary to protect privacy. But there is no need to choose between honesty and privacy if we take a long-term, full-context approach to these apparent dilemmas. First and foremost, the majority of these examples are compelling only because the individual has done little or nothing in the past to protect privacy — in which case, privacy is not likely the real value at stake.

Looking back at Lucy’s dilemma, she was perfectly willing to reveal information about her love life to this friend and co-worker in the past, so her problem is not in revealing private information in answering honestly. Rather, her problem is that an honest answer might reveal her wrongdoing of an inappropriate relationship with the boss. So for Lucy, like in so many of these alleged dilemmas, the goal a lie would not be the preservation of privacy but rather the concealment of wrongdoing. Lies to conceal wrongdoing have rather pernicious effects upon moral character, as I discussed in my paper False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth.

Of course, people do face legitimate dilemmas about how to effectively protect privacy without lying. For example: Parents of multiples are often queried by total strangers as to how their children were conceived. Neighbors might ask how much you paid for your house or how much you make. Relatives might press an infertile couple about when they are doing to have children. Co-workers might ask what the boss said to you in your yearly evaluation meeting. A competitor in business might inquire as to the status of a client’s account. And so on. Such situations do not require dishonesty in order to protect privacy. Rather, they require a bit of forethought and some simple skills of etiquette.

First, we need to invest a bit of thought into what information we wish to keep private from whom. And then we need to consistently refuse to answer questions we consider to be invasive, whatever our answer would be. So if Lucy genuinely wanted to keep her love life private, she ought to have refused to answer any questions about the identity of her lovers, rather than trying only to weasel out the unpleasant question about the boss. In other words, we need to create and enforce our own zones of privacy. We need to take responsibility for our privacy preferences before we get stuck on the horns of a privacy-honesty dilemma.

Second, we need to cultivate the etiquette skills of deflecting inappropriate and invasive questions. After all, there are many more ways of refusing to answer a question than simply saying “None of your business.” We might just casually say “Oh, I don’t answer questions about that” or perhaps exclaim in shock “Oh dear! That’s private!” or jokingly reply “Now why would I tell you that?!?” In egregious cases of strangers asking personal questions, glaring and walking away is a good option.

In her excellent book The Right Thing to Say, Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) discusses a wide variety of methods of deflecting inappropriate questions. These are skills of etiquette that no person should be without. Interestingly enough, we can quickly develop these skills of deflection into easy habits by fully committing to honesty, but we lose that opportunity if we allow ourselves to slide into lies when the going gets rough.

So we can protect our privacy without sacrificing our honesty. Additionally, by being honest, we avoid all the usual risks of lying: the slippery slope of lies, the distractions of creating and maintaining lies, and the risk of damaging trust in our relationships and reputation within the community. Those risks are substantial.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the way in which openly refusing to answer privacy-invading questions serves an important positive function in our relationships. In our relationships, we communicate in a background way all the time through what we choose to reveal to and conceal from the other person. For example, a woman might be willing to tell co-workers that her dog died, but be unwilling to discuss the painful details or the emotional upheaval. By revealing some information and concealing other information, she is implicitly communicating that her relationships with her co-workers are moderately intimate.

So when someone asks a privacy-invading question, honestly refusing to answer implicitly communicates “Hey wait, the relationship isn’t that close!” Lying, of course, provides no such information. So speaking abstractly, honesty about private matters is an important means of indirect communication about the intimacy of a relationship. Speaking practically, if we don’t want people to ask privacy-invading questions, then we need to let them know what constitutes an invasion of privacy for us. Again, we do this by honestly refusing to answer invasive questions, not by lying. So we can dramatically reduce the frequency of these apparent privacy versus honesty dilemmas by honestly communicating and upholding our preferences for privacy.

In short, adopting a policy of lying to protect privacy can too easily turn into vicious circle, where a person doesn’t have a clear understanding of his preferences for privacy, doesn’t have the skills to effectively and benevolently deflect questions, and doesn’t communicate his preferences to privacy to others. That’s not a good situation for anyone to be in.

Speaking more personally, I wouldn’t jump down a person’s throat for lying to protect legitimate privacy. But I would recommend that the person reflect in a deep way upon the situation to see if honest alternatives were available. If so, then the next step is to train the brain to serve up those honesty alternatives before the dishonest ones, particularly when time is tight. I have yet to find a genuine, irresolvable privacy versus honesty dilemma.

Forced Apologies

 Posted by on 20 December 2012 at 3:00 pm  Children, Ethics, Forgiveness, Honesty, Parenting
Dec 202012

I hate the practice of forcing children to apologize. The wrongdoing child is required to lie by apologizing when he’s not sorry. Plus, the wronged child is required to pretend to believe that usually-obvious lie.

Yet such dishonesty is not the only problem with forced apologies. Children forced to apologize don’t have the opportunity to work out their problems for themselves — and to learn the consequences of doing so well or poorly.

So, I have to admire little Liam, who stuck to his guns and refused to offer a false apology.

(Via 22 Words)

Dec 122012

Family meetings are an excellent way for people to smooth the rough edges of life together. And I love Rachel Miner’s suggestion of each person talking about a mistake they made and what they learned from it too:

We start our family meetings with compliments. Each person gives each of the other family members a compliment. Not only does this help us focus on the positive, it also helps us recall times during the week when we admired each other. About six months ago, I was thinking about the growth vs. fixed mentality* and decided to add one more thing to this intro, a mistake. So, each person also shares a mistake that they’ve made during the week and what they’ve learned from that experience. The goal here is to make mistakes OK and recognize them as part of the learning process. I want my kiddo especially to see how common it is for grown ups to make mistakes and how the important thing is how we respond to those opportunities.

It’s crucial for kids to learn that people of all ages make mistakes routinely — and that the sensible response is to recognize and correct those errors. Absent explicit training in that process, kids learn to “manage” their mistakes by dishonesty — meaning, by denying their mistakes, concealing their mistakes, ignoring their mistakes, and rationalizing their mistakes. That’s disastrous, not just for a person’s life but also for his character.

If you’re interested in more, I published a paper on this very topic in the Journal of Value Inquiry back in 2004: False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth.

Apology on Southwest

 Posted by on 20 August 2012 at 2:00 pm  Benevolence, Ethics, Forgiveness, Funny, Honesty
Aug 202012

Busted Kid Apologizes To Plane For Cutting In Line:

“As a high school lacrosse team was waiting to board a flight to a Summer tournament, one athlete took it upon himself to sneak into the pre-board group for “young passengers”. He thought he had beaten the system, but his coaches saw the whole thing go down. One hastily written speech and a nice bit of cooperation from the crew of Southwest Airlines Flight 592 later, this video was born.”

I abhor forced apologies for kids: they just teach dishonest obedience. But this case is pure awesome! The young man is clearly old enough to take his lumps for his silly stunt, and the applause from the passengers is pure benevolence.

Aug 102012

When I saw this image on Facebook a few weeks ago, I was utterly aghast. See for yourself:

Communism has been attempted in a multitude of countries around the globe. The result has always been shortages, privation, starvation, labor camps, misery, and death. What kind of evasion must be required to think that the results would be any different in America?!?

Alas, we see the same kinds of evasions from the mainstream progressives and conservatives in America. They demand more spending on welfare programs, even while deficits balloon. They want to stop the drug trade, heedless of the cost to innocent lives and civil liberties. They want stricter immigration laws, even though that makes criminals of hard-working people seeking to improve their lives. They want more government regulation, even at the cost of strangling business. In essence, they continue to advocate policies that they know have failed in the past — and that they should know will only fail in the future.

I love the quip, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the way of politics these days. The vast majority of people deeply misunderstand individual rights — or worse, ignore them entirely. Without the guidance offered by those fundamental moral principles, the result can only be one variant of bad judgment after another.

(If you were hoping for an optimistic ending to this post… sorry!)

May 232012

In late April, I answered the following question on padding your application:

Is doing activities just to pad you application or resumé dishonest? Some people work on mastering playing the violin, competing in tennis tournaments, learning calculus, and other activities – not because they have any interest in them or because they think they might develop an interest once tried, but rather because they think these activities will look good on an application or resumé. Is that dishonest? Is it unwise?

I’ve already given my answer, but Rachel Garrett wrote up the following comments that I thought pretty interesting and worth posting here. She wrote:

My answer is premised on the idea that you have a purpose and a career that you’re serious about. Peter Keating, of course, was merely into architecture to gain social prestige. So he had no problem with the idea of striving to master badminton (“the game of kings and earls”) in order to kiss up to a potential client. If someone is second-handed in choosing a career, of course they will choose second-hand hobbies that will look good to the clients or colleagues whom they seek to please.

By contrast, I have a hard time imagining a career first-hander pursuing any long-term, systematic course of action (including hobbies) for the sake of a mere resumé blurb or interview talking point. Maybe that’s how they account for the origin of their interest, or they semi-joke about it in conversation (“I’m only doing it for my resumé.”) But calculus? Tennis? Violin? Seriously? I can’t see how that’s practical or effective.

“I’m going to spend hours of leisure time every week keeping advanced mathematics fresh in my mind, working problems, and reading math textbooks and journals — not because I actually want to or because the knowledge is required for my chosen career, but because at the intervals every few years when I change jobs, I think there’s a chance that the line about calculus on the Hobbies/Interests section of the second page of my resumé will make a positive impression on the HR admin who’s screening applications. If I’m lucky, maybe the person who interviews me will also notice it and think nice thoughts about me.”

*sigh* “I guess I’ll go practice that Brahms sonata again. I’m getting good at the solo on the second page. Too bad I don’t actually like playing violin. I hope I get an interview at PharmCo. I heard the vice president of the division I want to work in likes classical music. Maybe if I get interviewed, he will see that part about violin on my resumé and get a warm fuzzy. We might even casually chat about it before we get down to the actual business of the interview. Yeah, that would be real nice. Crap, I’d better buy tickets for the symphony concert next week. I hate to go — there’s a violin concerto on the program — but the VP might mention it as we’re chit-chatting, and it would look weird if I claim to be into violin but hadn’t gone to see that famous soloist when they were in town.”

Let me generalize and take the question less literally. You have an objective need to signal your positive qualities to people who will make decisions about whether they want to be your friend, marry you, hire you, etc. Is it ever OK to engage in activities for the sake of sending the right signal to people who you want to befriend, work for, etc.? I already indicated that I thought this was impractical for learning-intensive, lifelong hobbies. But what about ordinary activities that don’t take that kind of investment? Are they legitimate “padding” candidates? Some of the questions you have to answer are:

1) Are you telling the truth? E.g., are you taking on a nonprofit project in order to showcase organizational skills on your resumé, when in fact you have pitiful organizational skills and it’s your professional Achilles’ heel?

2) What’s your motive for wanting the other person to have this information about you? Do you think they really need it in order to make an objective decision? Does it open up the door to conversations about shared interests and values? Or do you merely want to bask in their approval?

3) If you think you have a positive quality, you must already have supporting evidence from your own life. Why can’t you share that evidence with the other person? Why do you have to take the indirect route? You’re proposing doing an activity in order to have evidence suitable to give to someone else about something about yourself that you already know – it’s circituitous. I’m not saying it’s impossible or improper. But you might be overlooking something or making erroneous assumptions about how well the other person can evaluate you based on already-existing evidence.

Sticking to hiring, here are some further considerations. If you are assessing your professional qualifications, and you realize that you’re deficient in some area, it’s not wrong to look for a volunteer activity or hobby to fill that gap. For instance, volunteering at a local nonprofit might result in developing your leadership or project management skills. Maybe the nonprofit will let you run a big project end-to-end, while at work you’re in a junior, coordinating role under a senior project manager.

But if you are really doing it “just for the resumé,” I would question the wisdom of that. If you want to add an activity or project to your resumé, it’s because you want to show potential employers that you have a particular skill or strength. There’s two logical possibilities:

1) If in reality you don’t yet have that skill or strength, or you haven’t reached your desired level, then you want to develop it. Naturally and secondarily, you’d follow up by putting the developmental experiences on your resumé. But if this is the case, you’re not just “doing it for the resumé” – you’re doing it for development.

2) If you do have the skill/strength already, and you feel that you have to go do something extra outside of work so that people will see it, that’s a red flag. It says that here’s a characteristic that you want potential employers to find in you, but you’re not using it in your current job. You need to find or create aspects of your job that would use that skill. Then you can figure out how to frame it on the resumé.

Thank you, Rachel!

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