In the first of a newly posted set of podcasts entitled Minds Almost Meeting, Agnes Callard and Robin Hanson tackle the two horned paradox of honesty. Agnes explains that the first horn is to “hold up your communication to the standard of it’s being honest, which is to say, being as truthful as you can.” They define honesty as a form of communication which seeks to work toward actions which results in good. And this is where life is complicated as being truthful can be at odds with an action outcome from such communication.
On the one hand we have a standard for what it is to be honest, and on the other we have the desired action of a good outcome through honest communication. The tension occurs when the words, phrases or inactions are not uniformly applied. Here’s an example. Say the mom of the ace pitcher on a Little League teams says, “We’ll be there” in response to the coach’s tally of who will be at a final playoff game. Earlier that same day the mom told her neighbor, “We’ll be there” when asked about the couples’ interest in a night of canasta.
The same words. The same intentions. But not the same level of commitment. Being a no show to the playoff game is completely different than missing an evening with neighbors over cards and a few beers.
Let me backtrack a minute, to be sure your thoughts have not settled into the neglected neighborhood life, to be sure we are still talking about economics and not social niceties. Youth sports is known to have several benefits. Kids who participate learn about teamwork, prioritize their time, do better (on average) in school and exercise regularly. The persistent advantages from youth sports surface in public health and well being. (There are costs, of course, to the infrastructure which supports these games– but that’s for another post.)
Even occasional gatherings of neighbors for beer and a barbeque or game of cards can generate economic benefits. People hear about jobs or set up connections to contractors or suggest areas in the community which are in need of support. The network marketing that transpires at social gatherings is of value. It is not resented in the way that cigar smoke filled rooms at men’s clubs were in days of yore. The neighborhood is not exclusive in that way. In fact it is a priority to make attendants feel welcome and comfortable.
And for that reason when a guest wears a colorful dress with animals print, she will more than likely receive a compliment. Since the priority in this platter of economic activity is create an ambiance which is fun and upbeat, to be sure that the people are happy to be present, and thus will do their best to get along, little lies are very permissible. It is not a deceit as it goes towards the action of the good of the group activity.
Whereas social niceties is not what is expected for the Little League playoff game. The commitment here is to the team and to winning the game. A no show by any family would be a considerable let down.
Lives are big and messy. We are involved in many activities that vary throughout our lives. The paradox of dishonesty as presented by Agnes Callard is minimized when you align the various economic platters with their expected norms. It’s much easier to accept that in social gathering there will be a lavishing of less than honest flattery.