Lying by Omission

Lying is wrong, but most people think that lying by omission is special. I partly agree.

Lying by Omission is not

You don’t have to share every detail of your life with everyone, especially when they are not asking for it. For example, if you are afraid to tell your parents about your religious beliefs, you don’t have to (you also shouldn’t be afraid). If you feel compelled to tell a girl walking by that you want to have sex with her, you don’t have to (= shouldn’t). If you are gay and not ready to come out of the closet, you don’t have to (unless you have a girlfriend or boyfriend). If somebody expresses an opinion, and you don’t want to reply with your own, you don’t have to. However, in a perfect world, we would all be able to express ourselves freely to anyone. You also don’t have to tell people what you think of them, just because they are in front of you. That’s just being mean.
What about so called ‘little white lies,’ telling your wife she looks good when she looks bad? I don’t believe it. You married your wife. She’s always beautiful. End of story. If her new haircut sucks, tell her the truth.

A Simple Test

Lying is intentionally giving someone wrong information, while lying by omission is intentionally leaving out information that someone deserves. Lying by omission, I think, is wrong when you are asked a question and don’t fully answer it. You leave out facts that are relevant, details that the person asking would probably want to know. However, a person doesn’t have to ask the question. Some people simply have a right to information, whether they ask or not. When? A good test is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you want to know? Then yes, pray tell sir. The golden rule shows up again. The fact that your information will hurt someone is not the relevant consideration, although it helps to think about. Do they deserve the truth? – that’s more relevant.

“Nazis. I hate these guys.” -Indiana Jones

Immanuel Kant would say the same thing, considering this ridiculous example that breaks down the rule that lying is always wrong. Nazis show up at your door. “Are you hiding Jews?” they say. “No,” you say. “I’m not hiding any Jews.” But, secretly, in your head, you’re thinking: “I’m hiding people, but not Jews; I don’t consider them ‘Jews,” as you do. Well, that’s very crafty wordplay, but clearly that’s lying by omission. If you put yourself in their shoes (scary), they clearly want to know that information. And of course, looked at in hindsight with all the information about what the Nazi’s were up to, it’s the right call. You should not let Nazis kill people. When faced with radical evil, the rules bend I suppose. Statistically, a case like this will not happen to you. It’s just a philosophical thought experiment which helps to prove the rule it was intended to break: that lying is wrong (except when Nazis are at your door and you know the future).

Lying by Omission

Morality: Does it Depend on the Situation? (No)

When it comes to doing the right thing, we have all heard people say “it depends on the situation.” I’m convinced that’s false; it’s a trap, it’s a temptation to justify the wrong we are about to do.

You cheat on your wife. Do you tell her? Yes.
You lie on your resume. Is that okay? No.
You accidentally ran over the pet dog and killed it. Do you tell the owners? Yes. Do you tell your kids a different story? No.

Upon reflection, everyone agrees that lying, for example, is wrong in most situations. Honesty is the best policy. Of course we could make up silly little hypothetical scenarios where lying would be okay, and that would be jolly fun, and that’s what freshmen philosophy majors are best at – but let’s get real for a minute here. Moral decisions are made in real time, in real life, involving real people. When is lying actual okay?

How about never. Smoke that in your pipe, son. Let’s think about the psychology of lying. It’s not until people get into hot water that they consider lying to be a viable option. That should be an immediate hint: it’s wrong, whispers the angel on our shoulder. But, when emotions are involved, we don’t think right. “Well,” we say, “in this situation, lying is okay because of x, y, and z.” We calculate, add, subtract. But that’s backwards. (1) We do something stupid. (2) Then we lie. (3) Then we justify. Coward! Your situation is not special. You are not more special than anyone else.

How about this: (1) we rationally conclude that lying is wrong. (2) We do something stupid. (3) We tell the truth. Even better: we don’t do something stupid in the first place. Morality, after all, is good habits of thought followed by good habits of action. The goal of morality is to live such a virtue-filled life that vice has no place, no time, no situation to live in.

Jesus might have said something like this: You are only honest when the cost is low. Even sinners do that! Be honest when the cost is great. Then you will know sacrifice and forgiveness. Now live in honestly and truth: now you enter the Kingdom of God.

Lying Contradicts the Idea of Communication

Everyone deserves the truth, including yourself (we lie to ourselves perhaps most of all). The fundamental purpose of communication is to tell the truth, to share information. If you think about lying abstractly, you realize that it goes against the very core of human communication; it explodes the whole system. It’s an exception to the rule which breaks the system. Immanuel Kant saw the absurdity in lying and all other irrational vices.  He had the brilliant, simple mind to see that morality involves a few, simple, rock-solid principles that should be followed: never lie, never cheat, never steal, never hurt people, etc. And the means do not justify the ends. Day-to-day morality doesn’t have to be so complicated.  He simplified morality into a test: do not act on those principles that cannot be universalized for everyone. Everyone can’t lie; therefore you can’t lie. We are all legislators in the same moral community. Don’t be the dick head with special interest groups writing your legislation and ruining our lives.

Now, I don’t want to sound like morality is so simple all the time. But I do think it’s simple most of the time, especially when it comes to negative morality (the “thou shalt not” stuff). However, sometimes we really do find ourselves in a moral predicament. Sometimes our values clash and compete with each other. Good luck!

Morality: Does it Depend on the Situation? (No)

Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound

If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  After you’re done laughing, let’s think about this. This is not a stupid question: it brings up fundamental questions that are still fundamental, even for scientifically minded people.

Before indulging in The Matrix hypothesis and talking about how the external world doesn’t exist, I’m going to start with what’s not controversial. First, animals perceive the world differently than humans (some drastically different). Second, among humans there is variation (due to various physical and psychological causes). Conclusion: the external world and the world we actually perceive are two different things. It is interpreted, processed, constructed, measured–by our sense organs and brain. In other words, the diagram above is a fiction; we do not see an exact copy of the tree “out there”; our eyes are not giant gaping windows that “let the tree in” so to speak. Naive Realism is false. Again, not controversial so far.

And if you’re still not convinced that your eyes are playing tricks on you and that your sense organs are all sacks of shit, consider two more facts: (1) sense organs evolved (like everything) and thus survival are their main concern–truthful representation of the external world is not necessary their concern at all. Whether you see the berry as white or red, all it cares about is what works. As Williams James would say, the truth is what works. For us believing folk, a nice way to put it would be: God made you so that you would survive rather than be an astrophysicist–be happy He did. (2) sense organs detect change more than anything. Vision is not like a video camera that is always recording everything like a faithful steward, not even close.  Not to mention that memory, state of mind, personality, beliefs, language, societal norms–they can all affect the way we perceive things, literally. Let’s stop here.

Representational Realism

So what is happening here? Most common sense people will say there is a physical tree “out there”, made of physical stuff (atoms) having certain fundamental properties: size, shape, texture, mass. Those properties are “really out there” and our sense organs pick up on them the best we can. Okay, cool. But notice color is not on that list. Green is nothing more than the way light reacts with our retina/brain. Color is not “out there,” light is. The tree has the potential to be perceived as green and brown when light bounces off it and hits our eyeballs, that’s all. This isn’t controversial either. Qualities like color, heat, loud, bitter, the smell of a fart–they are all quasi-real, in limbo, secondary, dependent. I hope you feel the world crumbling. Color seems pretty fucking real to me thank you very much!

Enter the Idealists

Some people just scrap the whole idea of an external world altogether. We don’t need it. When I’m dreaming, I see green trees, I move through space, I eat cake, I cry (hell, I even have sex and ejaculate sometimes). All in the mind, mental, not caused by physical objects. There is no external tree causing my perception of a tree in the dream. So why can’t reality be the same way? Well, it can. The Matrix, although improbable, is possible. We could all be “plugged in” right now. Descartes imagined a powerful Evil Demon that might be tricking us, pulling this fake reality over our eyes just for the hell of it. George Berkeley simply replaced the external world with God. God doesn’t need physical matter, a useless middle man, when He can just implant sense experiences directly to our mind. We are living in God’s dream, God’s mind; God holds up reality. As a believer, this is a very tempting position to take. There is a simplicity to it, sort of. Kant replaced the external world not with God, but with an unknowable world, a foundation, a world that causes our perceptions but one we can know nothing about–except that it must exist.

So does a tree make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? No. Or, sure, God hears it. Or, the question itself makes no sense. That’s really the point here. What do we mean by a tree, after all? Green, brown, particular shape, particular feel, particular smells, etc. A tree is nothing but a group of sense experiences or possible sense experiences, therefore to talk about an unperceived tree makes no sense at all. To be is to be perceived in some way. Yes a tree has size, shape, texture, and mass. All those qualities are real. But notice those qualities, just like color, are qualities we perceive the tree to have. They are real because we perceive them, simple as that. Yes we can say the tree is made of atoms, but that just means if we look in a microscope we see it’s made of smaller stuff, and smaller stuff, etc. We can speculate about what’s really “out there,” but all we really have is our perceptions, all we have access to is the end product (in my diagram above, it’s the thought bubble). We can only look at the world through eyes, smell the world through noses, and feel the world through touchers. We cannot float above our body and brain to see what the world really looks like when nobody is looking at it. Human reality is human reality. There is something out there, but who knows what that is? Perhaps it’s really a pink, squishy ball that’s causing my perception of a green, hard Sugar Maple. As long as we all perceive the tree, nobody cares.

Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound


Transcendentalism was a group of intelligent, socially conscious men and women walking around Massachusetts around the mid 1800’s. Think Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau (although several women were major parts of the movement). Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” the most uplifting words that have flooded my eyes, changed my life forever and continue to do so. I re-read Emerson yearly. Also Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I will warn readers that the language and writing style of these transcendentalists can be rough-going and non-sensical at times, but for me it always penetrates my soul, leaving me with wisdom that is non-propositional, felt, based in conduct.

They took their name partly from Kant‘s “transcendental idealism”. They accepted that a world exists beyond our perception of reality. There is a “transcendent” reality. Secondly, the world as we perceive it is, in part, a mental construct interpreted by our brains, “in our minds” so to speak, mental rather than physical. At bottom, Emerson says, Mind is primal, not matter; mind comes first. Thus they were “idealists”. They were not anti-science.

They were anti-establishment, anti-authority. In other words, they agreed with Kant’s definition of Enlightenment: think for yourself. They lived it. They were against slavery well before the Civil War. When Thoreau disagreed with paying taxes to pay for a senseless war, he didn’t pay them. He went to jail instead. This inspired Gandhi. When Thoreau disagreed with the materialistic consumption of America, he lived in the woods and wrote one of the most influential essays in the world. They disagreed with each other and themselves. “Do I contradict myself?” said Whitman. “Very well. Then I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”

They believed in the indomitable spirit of man, the amazing power of the self. We are God. “I am part and parcel of God,” said Whitman. Therefore, we can do anything. Yet, amazingly, they were humble men. Emerson, an incredible man, was also tortured by his potential and his struggle to do great things; it haunted him.

They were unabashed optimists. Emerson, whose life was a series of family tragedies and suffering, was the most optimistic among them: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

They shared the religious and moral impulse, yet a fierce individualism found most of them in the ranks of Unitarianism, a pluralistic form of Christianity at the time. They hated dogma and loved the Divine so much they could not keep a religion. Emerson was a Unitarian preacher for a time; Thoreau’s religion was nature; Whitman’s God was in daily events: “I know nothing else but miracles.”


Immanuel Kant

If Jesus saved my soul, Kant saved my mind. He brought together faith and reason, heart and mind, religion and science. He gave my Christianity a rational, philosophical grounding. He gave me a worldview, brought it all together. It still gives me delight to think about his synthesis of science and religion, of the phenominal and nuemenal worlds, and especially about his simple, rock-solid morality.

In his most important book the Critique of Pure Reason he said “I had to do away with knowledge in order to make room for faith.”

It’s a tricky quote. What knowledge is he doing away with? To figure it out is to figure out the man Kant, his philosophy, his scientific and religous beliefs, his humility. First, he disliked those religious people who claimed to have “knowledge” about God and His ways, to be dogmatically “certain” about “facts” like the trinity, virgin Mary, angels, or various other metaphysical beliefs. His philosophical system does away with that “knowledge” in the most respectful way–he brings it to the realm of faith and belief, where they belong. In this sense, he is “making room for faith.” He was a humble Lutheran that was content to have his own religious beliefs and let others have theirs. Secondly, he disliked those scientists who claim to have “knowledge” about things that have no basic in experience or possible experience (alternate universes would be a present-day example, but he probably had Leibniz in mind). It’s another form of dogmatism. Science, the pursuit of knowledge about nature, is tempted to delve into metaphysical speculations. And that’s okay; it can’t help it. But that’s not knowledge either (and then there’s people like Dawkins, a good scientist who has dogmatic beliefs against religion…I know God doesn’t exist). Anyway, so when it comes to real knowledge, we are left with real science, all the things we can know about nature by testing, analysing, experimenting, deducing, falsifying.

Science deals with the physical world, but the world beyond our experience–the “nuemenal” world, the transcendent–is very real for Kant. This is the world we speculate about and have beliefs about and hopes for. This is the realm of freedom, morality, and God. If we could somehow peel away our senses, our filters, our concepts–then we could experience that world (hint: we can’t). Perhaps some day we will.

Kant also saved my soul by teaching me what morality consists of, by giving it strong philosophical principles–namely the “categorical imperative”–which resonated in my mind as much as the command to “love thy enemies” did. “Nothing fills my mind with greater awe,” he said ” than the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” The moral law within is imprinted on our hearts and minds. It’s not a complex thing. The fundamental rule of morality is this: only act on principles that could be also universal principles for everyone. Simple as that. Lying, stealing, cheating, and killing don’t pass the test. He tries to deduce the virtues and invalidate the vices from this one principle. He does a descent job, but his legacy for me is really this: being a good person is nothing more than following a few principles and never wavering. Never lie; never steal or cheat or harm others. Always tell the truth, love others and help those in need. That is the secret. Whenever we waver, that’s when we sin; that’s when we start justifying our actions. That’s when we think morality is “complex,” or situational, or “it’s different this time” because of x, y, or z. Don’t fall into that trap. It might save your life.

I’m naming my baby Immanuel after this great hero of mine.

Immanuel Kant