Why do human beings lie and cheat? Not interesting. What is fascinating is why we don’t soil our souls.

I’ve been sitting on this article from the Wall Street Journal because I had feared it would go behind a paywall. It seems to have survived that fate, and it’s an interesting read — a discussion of the widespread, banal and pathetic cheating that ordinary people undertake in their everyday lives. The article exists to promote yet another EZ-reading non-fiction book, and so, of course, it takes absurdly extreme positions:

We tend to think that people are either honest or dishonest. In the age of Bernie Madoff and Mark McGwire, James Frey and John Edwards, we like to believe that most people are virtuous, but a few bad apples spoil the bunch.

Do you hold that view? My experience is that most people are lying in stupidly inconsequential ways virtually all the time. They will highlight their virtues and conceal their vices, but mostly what they do is try — and fail — to portray the person they seem to think the people around them are looking for.

Because you have been indoctrinated to despise the self, you might want to condemn these pandemic dumb-shows as being “selfish,” but it is the self that is being destroyed by these abominable displays. As a ransom for permission to exist at all, we imagine that other people are demanding that each one of us hold the self hostage: You are free make manifest any behavior except those actions you most want to take. We are liars and cheaters not in pursuit of our values but only in their despite. How sick is that?

This is right where I live, of course, and people who live this life of lies — that is to say, most people — do not enjoy my company. That’s sad all around, but there is no cure for it except for those folks to change their way of thinking. I’m willing to help with that process, but I cannot cause it to happen.

Meanwhile, for all of me, this is the most interesting part of the article:

There’s a joke about a man who loses his bike outside his synagogue and goes to his rabbi for advice. “Next week come to services, sit in the front row,” the rabbi tells the man, “and when we recite the Ten Commandments, turn around and look at the people behind you. When we get to ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ see who can’t look you in the eyes. That’s your guy.” After the next service, the rabbi is curious to learn whether his advice panned out. “So, did it work?” he asks the man. “Like a charm,” the man answers. “The moment we got to ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ I remembered where I left my bike.”

What this little joke suggests is that simply being reminded of moral codes has a significant effect on how we view our own behavior.

Inspired by the thought, my colleagues and I ran an experiment at the University of California, Los Angeles. We took a group of 450 participants, split them into two groups and set them loose on our usual matrix task. We asked half of them to recall the Ten Commandments and the other half to recall 10 books that they had read in high school. Among the group who recalled the 10 books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating. But in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools’ honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result. We even reran the experiment on a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again.

This experiment has obvious implications for the real world. While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.

Right back in my territory, yes? This is me from Man Alive!:

Liars always quibble, alas. They are quibbling with this entire argument, even as they internalize in its entirety — and I will be in their heads forever. And they will try to quibble with you, when you catch them in their lies — to temporize or to shade the truth or to maneuver you into taking their side — but inside their own minds the quibbling can come to be a silent roar of cognitive dissonance. The reason for this is simply that every action is taken first by the self upon the self. A liar has to invent his lie before he mouths it, obviously, but usually the lie and the evil idea it purports to rationalize are born together, monstrous conjoined-twins of the mind. Younger children can get caught flat-footed telling fibs, but older kids and adults, if they plan to try to “get away” with something, will have their lies ready to roll out before they take any externally-observable actions.

There are some interesting conclusions that fall out from that observation. If you prepared your lies in advance, it is because you knew in advance that what you were planning to do was morally wrong — by your own ethical standards. That is the naked essence of evil, just as the good can be understood as doing those things you know in advance are morally righteous. You may want to argue that either doing nothing or not knowing in full consciousness what you are doing are morally neutral acts, and I might just give you a pass on that claim. Behaving that way persistently cannot be anything but a net negative for your future self-adoration, but anyone can make a simple mistake. I can express all of this in a very simple mathematical syllogism: 1 > 0 > –1. And while you might be thinking that this expression is so obvious as to be outright dumb, here is what I think: Now that you have learned that little bit of moral arithmetic, you can’t unlearn it. Like it or don’t, I just took away your future capacity to quibble about lies in a pantomime of feigned innocence. You can still try to pull that kind of stunt — but I will be in your head forever.

Your benevolent and malevolent thoughts, your virtuous and vicious impulses, your vigilantly-guarded secrets and your carefully-crafted rationales — you think these are unwitnessed unless you make them manifest in your behavior. But no purposive human action is ever unwitnessed. Every action is taken first by the self upon the self, so there is always an unimpeachable witness to every action you take, externally-observable or purely introspective — your self. No one ever gets away with anything, hence “the guilty flee where none pursueth.” The people of the lie are even now, even as they read these words, affecting to pretend to make believe that they have “gotten away” with cheating the universe of the truth. But just look at their faces, frozen in a rictus that is half fear and half resentment, terrified that they might let the mask slip and reveal the true self hidden behind it. What thug, what brute, what jailer could ever construct a prison so perfect — invisible, intangible and yet utterly inescapable.

Are you looking for the bright side? It’s there, I promise. It is for the exact same reason — because every action is taken first by the self upon the self — that “virtue is its own reward.” If other people are aware of your good behavior, if they like you more and treat you better because of it, that’s a bonus. But your own interior knowledge of your fundamental goodness is all the compensation you will ever need to pursue still more goodness, now and enduringly. Do you want proof? If you were all alone, your goodness would be no less potent than it is in a throng of millions. But liars and thieves and tyrants are impotent without other people to prey upon — to deceive and despoil and dominate. All of this is obvious to any five-year-old child, of course. Nature is always just, when you see it for what it really is. You have to memorize a library full of unintelligible dogma to affect to pretend to make believe otherwise.

I told you that I do not intend to “should” you in detail. The essence of human behavior — the nature of it and the inescapable consequences of virtue and vice — are by now undeniably clear to you. No one in your life has ever told you why your behavior, good or bad, really matters — until now.

If you commit your life to uninterrupted, undiluted virtue, Splendor will be yours, now and enduringly — and the greater your virtue, the greater that Splendor will be.

And if you devote your life to vice — to lying, to cheating, to stealing, to conniving and maneuvering and temporizing, to dominating other people physically or emotionally, to drowning your own mind with drink or drugs or indiscriminate sex or compulsive gambling — you will get to live with all the Squalor you can stand and ten thousand times more.

No one is good — or evil — by accident, and, in the long run, each one of us gets from his one, unique, irreplaceable human life exactly what he has earned and deserved.

Every time you lie, every time you cheat, every time you shade the truth to frustrate what you know in advance is true justice, you are soiling your character, damaging your own self-adoration, now and enduringly. But once you have trained your mind to think in terms of your transit along the number line of morality, your progress toward Splendor or Squalor, you cannot behave that way any longer.

Why do we lie and cheat? Why do we deceive and dissemble, despoiling our own souls? Why do we affect to pretend to make believe that we can portray a character who does not exist, while constantly striving and failing to conceal the true character hidden behind our haphazard masks? Why do you spend so much of your finite mental energy trying to shout your self down? Why do you have to keep reciting the same palpably obvious lies in the silence and solitude of your mind? You know why: To cheat your self.

Why don’t we engage in this awful self-destruction? Why do we pursue only self-adoration instead — if we do? That’s easy: Because we are acting upon human nature — upon the self — as it really is.

The lies you tell to other people are meaningless, just so much static. The lies you tell your self are killing you. And the truths you can tell about your self instead? Those truths are the only path to Splendor.

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