A few days ago, I finished David Nyberg’s book The Varnished Truth. I’m going to offer a brief review here, as well as a few offhand comments.
In recent years, defending dishonesty has become rather fashionable in the philosophical and psychological literature. Within the crowd of these defenders of dishonesty, The Varnished Truth stands out as perhaps the most interesting, savvy, and sophisticated work. Nyberg’s goal is to challenge the assumption that dishonesty is always wrong and to show how deception is often a critical aspect of moral decency. In making his case, Nyberg clearly demonstrates a grasp of much of the subtlety and complexity of honesty in daily life. His style of writing is also clear and engaging, with plenty of examples. And he often lays bare his philosophical presumptions for all his readers to see, if they care to notice.
The book also presents some interesting challenges to the conventional view of honesty, such as that honesty goes hand in hand with trust in relationships (140-6). Altruism is certainly no good foundation for the virtue of honesty, as Nyberg so successfully demonstrates.
The most frustrating aspect of the book is Nyberg’s cavalier attitude, his utter lack of appreciation for the seriousness demanded by the subject. He claims that his book is “serious but not scholarly,” but the book is not nearly serious enough. Mere footnotes do not make a book serious.
In many places, it seemed as if Nyberg’s intent was to create confusion in the minds of his readers. Generating such confusion by highlighting the complexity of an ethical issue is all well and good, so long as the goal is to present a theory which helps make sense of all of that complexity. But Nyberg offers no such theory; he even seems to think it foolish to attempt one. This focus on complexity was not all bad, for it motivated me to develop my basic theory that we ought to be telling the contextually relevant truth rather than the whole truth or the technical truth. (I’ll have to write about that later.)
Those familiar with the Objectivist theory of evasion ought to be particularly interested in the chapter on self-deception. Nyberg clearly understands self-deception as evasion in the Objectivist sense. But his metaphysical subjectivism and malevolent universe premise lead him to the conclusion that such self-deception is both necessary and proper. If I ever write a mainstream academic paper on the Objectivist theory of evasion, that chapter will certainly provide many quotes.
For those of you interested in the virtue of honesty, I would recommend The Varnished Truth as part of a “know thy enemy” and “understand the complexity” strategy. But be sure to also read the discussion of honesty in Tara Smith’s Viable Values (164-174). It’s absolutely the best analysis of the virtue of honesty from an egoistic perspective available.