I’ve been noticing a topic I’ve dealt with repeatedly in other contexts but would like to address head on: the possibility of deliberately lying to oneself, of intentionally believing things that aren’t true. I spoke before of “noble lies” to others, but not to oneself.
The point seems to come up again and again, for there are many reasons why trying to believe false things might prove valuable. In cases where one’s children make one less happy, one is still a better parent if one falsely believes that children make one happy. Some psychologists suggest the possibility of depressive realism: the idea that depressed people actually view the world more accurately than others. In a comment I noted the happiness often radiated by evangelical Christians: should one perhaps try to become such a person even if their God doesn’t exist? Last time the point came up in speaking of prayer: there seem to be real benefits from prayer, but it might require belief in an entity that isn’t real.
Now in every one of these cases, the good thing about lying to oneself has something in common: it is a good result. If one believes false things, one will treat one’s children better, be happier, be more successful, be stronger, as a consequence of that false belief. And so the goodness of lying to oneself in these cases seems to rest primarily on the truth or falsity of consequentialism: the idea that whether actions are good or bad (and a belief is a kind of action in this case) depends entirely on their consequences.
Consequentialism has a real intuitive appeal. To do something for a reason other than its consequences – well, that seems literally pointless. And yet, in cases like these, it seems to land one in outright contradiction. It’s one thing to tell other people false things for the sake of their happiness or success. But oneself? It doesn’t even seem possible to believe something one believes to be false. For to believe something is just to believe it to be true.
What is possible, and indeed frequent, is to believe contradictions. People hold beliefs that contradict each other all the time. And yet, it is difficult for those beliefs to survive reflection. In speaking of contradiction previously, I noted Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance: something feels wrong about contradiction, makes us uncomfortable. (And we would seem to feel this cognitive dissonance for good reason, since even contradiction’s most sophisticated defenders, like Graham Priest, admit that “[i]f we have views that are inconsistent we are probably incorrect.”) Also, practically, contradiction can lead us to acting at cross-purposes with ourselves, foiling our own goals (spiritual or otherwise).
It would seem that a pure consequentialism requires us to believe false things. Peter Railton’s defence of consequentialism relies at least in part on a distinction between truth and justification, so that on consequentialist grounds one could be justified in believing things that are false. But if we believe false things, the false things we believe are very likely to contradict other true beliefs. And such contradictions get us in various kinds of trouble.
It seems to me, as a result, that a pure consequentialism may well be wrong. Certain kinds of action, especially believing, will have to be good even though they bring worse results than their absence. I guess this takes me back to an earlier post on the idea that pleasure is the only good: truth must be a good in itself. For that reason, as far as I can tell, we should try never to lie to ourselves.