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1 False Excuses and Moral Growth Diana Mertz Hsieh University of Colorado, Boulder “I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have.

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Presentation on theme: "1 False Excuses and Moral Growth Diana Mertz Hsieh University of Colorado, Boulder “I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have."— Presentation transcript:

1 1 False Excuses and Moral Growth Diana Mertz Hsieh University of Colorado, Boulder “I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, memory yields. — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 6 th International CMU-UPitt Graduate Philosophy Conference 20 March 2003

2 2 Defending Dishonesty? Shelley Taylor, Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind (1989) David Nyberg, The Varnished Truth (1993) Charles Ford, Lies! Lies!! Lies!!! (1996) Also: Jeremy Campbell, The Liar’s Tale (2001) & Daniel Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths (1985)

3 3 What Are False Excuses? False excuses are deceptions of self or others disavowing wrongdoing so as to avoid harm to the self.

4 4 Concealing Wrongdoing from Others We tell false excuses largely for fear that knowledge of our wrongdoings will damage the good opinion in which others hold us. Three risks of false excuses to others: The discovery of deception can damage the trust necessary to good relationships. To remain plausible and concealed, the initial false excuse may need to be propped up with further lies. False excuses can make our problems more difficult to resolve in the long run.

5 5 Concealing Wrongdoing from Oneself Self-deceptive excuses are erroneous internal explanations of our actions that we know or suspect to be false. Self-deceptive excuses promise an uneasy truce with our misdeeds by whitewashing our moral history.

6 6 The Necessity of Self-Deception? Robert Solomon: In light of our “flaws and failings,” clearly understanding our thoughts, desires, and motivations can be “devastating to our self-image and sense of self.” David Nyberg: “Given the distance between what we are and what we wish we were, some amount of other-deception and self-deception is an essential requisite for carrying on.” However: Self-deception is unlikely to fully insulate a person from disturbing reminders of the truth. Self-deception cannot be contained and controlled to only the desired issues.

7 7 Trouble #1: Reminders of the Truth Self-deception is unlikely to wholly insulate a person from disturbing reminders of the truth. Nagging doubts, unexplained evidence, and confounding reminders will likely persist. Others may not play along with the pretense of moral innocence. The painful emotions of moral failure may be festering below the surface.

8 8 Trouble #2: Containing the Self- Deception Self-deception cannot be contained and controlled to only the desired issues. Attempting to regulate self-deception would bring the unpleasant facts too much and too often to mind. Daniel Goleman on our need for “a skillful mean” between truth and falsehood. The tension between truth and falsehood pressures the self- deceiver to either admit the lie or deceive himself further. False excuses may precipitate a slippery slope of self- deception.

9 9 What Are Positive Illusions? Positive illusions are mild but enduring forms of self- deception that bias the judgments of psychologically healthy people towards themselves. 90% of drivers consider themselves above average The “creative self-deception” of positive illusions is claimed to be so integral to mental health that its loss or absence is associated with mild depression. The seminal article: Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown, “Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health,” Psychological Bulletin 103, no. 2 (1988).

10 10 Troubles with the Theory of Positive Illusions A cognitive hypothesis of unintentional bias also explains overestimations of positive qualities. We are well aware of our own aggravation with other drivers, but not theirs with us. The errors of those who misjudge do not taint the accuracy of those who judge well. Judgments of depressed people more negative, but not necessarily more accurate.

11 11 Judging the Theory of Positive Illusions From a psychological perspective, Brown and Taylor’s data fails to demonstrate the thesis of widespread and beneficial illusion. From a philosophical perspective, positive self- image is not an unconditional moral good; people who do wrong deserve to think less well of themselves.

12 12 False Excuses and Moral Growth False excuses to self and others impede moral growth in two ways: Blinding a person to his character flaws Diminishing incentives for change

13 13 Identifying Character Defects A person who refuses to acknowledge his individual moral failings through self-deceptive excuses will not see any general pattern of moral failings.

14 14 The Habit of False Excuses Individual self-deceptive excuses can promote habits of self-deception by: Honing the skills of self-deception Setting the precedent that desires trump facts Eroding “tendencies to… reflection and self-scrutiny” Encouraging recklessness toward future bad acts Atrophying the skills of moral courage, etc. False excuses to others may indirectly promote self- deceptive excuses.

15 15 Emotional Motivations for Moral Change False excuses insulate a person from the constellation of temporarily painful but motivating feelings naturally evoked by moral failure, e.g. guilt, shame, and remorse. Self-deception dulls our feeling of having fallen short of our own moral standards. Deception of others blinds us to having violated other people’s reasonable expectations of us.

16 16 Other Motivations for Moral Change False excuses insulate a person from the external penalties often justly imposed by others for misdeeds. By adopting a policy of honesty about our wrongdoings, we are motivated to act well from the outset – and doubly motivated against repetition. False excuses keep us ignorant of the full nature and extent of harm caused and prevent us from benefiting from the insight and assistance of others.

17 17 Defending Honesty Traditionally, the most common argument for honesty is that dishonesty endangers the trust that makes good relationships (and thus society) possible. This argument loses its force when a deception is unlikely to be exposed and seems to benefit others, as with false excuses. A sufficiently rich conception of egoism can provide a firm foundation for the virtue of honesty.


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