Damaging Self-Honesty

Posted in Belief, Ethics, Islam at 2:16 pm by Haider

I was about to write an exercise on self-honesty and self-examination, and how we can clarify our thinking and tackle the thoughts we’ve been desperately avoiding. However, I came to the unexpected realization that self-honesty might not be the best solution for everybody. This was a surprise for me, because I thought that self-honesty can help us resolve the major problems we face in life. But the problem isn’t really with us, but with the ideas that we have come to accept.

Part of self-honesty is to examine whether you are evading some issues that you would not like to think about, out of fear of acting on the conclusions you will reach. A person who is honest with himself will not avoid any issue, because he doesn’t want to hide anything from himself. However, what if our thinking about this issue will lead us to accept wrong conclusions, and make us feel guilty for not treading the wrong path?

Let me give an example: many people brought up by religious parents are taught to believe that we must dedicate every breathing moment in performing Islamic rituals, or gaining Islamic knowledge. Activities such as walking, swimming and archery are tolerated, if not encouraged, only because they are encouraged in Islam. But sports, such as football or basketball, are frowned upon because they have not been recommended by Islam, and are pastimes that distract us from our worship and making the most use of one’s time. Therefore, watching TV (other than Islamic programs or the news), or watching movies, or spending time with friends, etc are all discouraged, if not banned.

When someone associates religion to such an outlook, or when he believes that the “right thing to do” would be to dedicate one’s life to rituals and reading, he will naturally feel guilty for doing anything else. Therefore, if he is not personally convinced that this is what he wants to do, and to ease this guilt, he must evade the ideas that he was brought up to accept. He would play football, or watch movies, but ignores the instructions that he has been given. His sense of guilt can only be numbed if he does not address the issue lurking in his head: “Why aren’t you doing what you believe is right?”

The reason why he avoids the question is because he doesn’t want to accept the answer. He doesn’t want to admit that what he’s doing is wrong, and so he chooses to avoid thinking about the whole issue. His life can go on as long as he doesn’t open the subject up. But by abandoning the issue, he compromises his self-honesty. He’s not discovering for himself why he’s not dealing with the issue, and what he can do to resolve the conflict between his actions and the conclusions that he would reach if he thought about the issue.

The result of self-honesty in this case, is that it would lead him to admit that he should be doing what he thinks is right, and to abandon all the activities which he believes are a waste of his time. He may not question his parents’ teachings, because he’s not aware of an alternative. The danger, here, is in accepting what his parents have taught him, even when it’s wrong and will lead to unhappiness. We are obliged to follow any moral principle we accept to be true, not because others say so, but because we cannot accept to do what we are certain to be wrong. Otherwise, we would be damaging our souls by living a contradiction. A human being cannot tolerate a contradiction for too long, but we always have the option of looking away. This “looking away” can be healthy when the contradiction is between sensible actions and a corrupt “moral” principle.

There are many cases in which the ideas about morality and theology that we have come to accept are wrong, but we do not properly understand both fields, and so take these ideas for granted. We avoid thinking about morality because our personality and the life we would enjoy leading are in conflict with our understanding of morality. We assume that what we are doing is wrong, but don’t want to admit it to ourselves, even when what we are doing is right, and what we are taught is wrong.

This is when self-honesty becomes damaging.

I wouldn’t totally dismiss the importance of self-honesty, but cannot encourage it in examining the issues that one lacks understanding in. Otherwise, he will feel compelled to accept wrong conclusions. I have come across many Muslims who think that their Islamic responsibility is to travel to some distant land and engage in jihad, but feel guilty that they are leading “normal” lives. Some Muslims feel guilty for having a profession, when they think they should isolate themselves in an Islamic seminary to study Islam. I can’t possibly enumerate the different ideas that people have blindly accepted to be true, but are false and damaging, yet they choose to ignore thinking about them because they want to lead their lives according to how they “feel” they should lead it.

Their “feeling” is not whim or sinful desire to do wrong things, but their human nature, which the false ideas they have accepted to be true are in conflict with. Their “feelings” are more accurate in determining what is right and wrong than their beliefs, and by considering their ideas with all honesty, they may label their “feelings” as sinful, and adopt the ideas that will deform their nature and take them on a path of misery.

The solution isn’t to abandon self-honesty, but to be aware of our feelings towards our ideas, and to broaden our understanding of the issues that we have been avoiding, so we can discover the interpretations that we were not aware of, and to reach the correct ideas that we should embrace.

Rather than present the exercise for now, I think I should deal with some of the fundamental issues that form our understanding of morality and religion, so that I can offer a perspective of these topics that is not in conflict with our human nature, and which we can consider with all honesty.


  1. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Damnit, Haider, what happened to “Don’t rationalize the irrational”? I feel like my brain got turned upside down about halfway through this.

    To admit to oneself that he has some to learn in a given area, this is an example of self-honesty, right? And so the overall message is the same: all cognitive development begins with self-honesty. Self-honesty cannot become damaging, only self-deceit (“I must accept these teachings because my mother said so…”). I would agree that some people are engaging in self-deceit while believing they are practicing self-honesty, but were they to truly practice self-honesty, I do not think the results could ever be considered damaging.

  2. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Seth, I may not have made myself clear:

    If you lack the knowledge to realize that you have misunderstood morality, then your only option is to accept what you already know about it. Some Muslims are so entrenched in the idea that “this world” and money are evil, that they think it’s wrong to earn money. Therefore, they ignore this issue, and don’t tackle it head on. If they did, they will quit their jobs and starve to death, or beg for food.

    They can’t understand that their understanding of money is wrong. This possibility hasn’t registered in their brain. If they are to honestly think about this issue, they will reach their honest conclusion that they should quit their jobs, which isn’t something I’m prepared to encourage.

    It is precisely because you cannot rationalize the irrational that I wouldn’t promote self-honesty to some people, given their level of knowledge (ignorance). They will not be able to make proper sense of their ideas, but will feel compelled to accept the irrational because they can’t rationalize (i.e. use rationality).

  3. Ralf Wilmes said,

    March 23, 2008 at 2:22 am

    haider, I’m still not sure that I understand what you write. Do you say that it’s better to avoid to be honest towards yourself because if you do you could be forced to rethink your values and ethics?

  4. Haider said,

    March 23, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Dear Ralf,

    No, this isn’t what I’m saying. You should always rethink your values and be prepared to change your ethics. But some people are not exposed to the right ethical principles, and their self-honesty will lead them to embrace the only understanding of ethics they were brought up to know.

    Let me give you an example which you might be able to relate to: some people do not have a proper understanding of ethics, but they were always brought up to believe that ethics means that you should make sacrifices for others. Some would agree with this principle and act on it, others might struggle to act on this principle, knowing that there’s something missing or wrong in their lives, while others might *avoid* acting on this principle and, instead, pursue their rational self-interest.

    Since the last group isn’t able to connect their actions to morality, they think that pursuing their self-interest is wrong, and so they choose not to think about morality. If they are honest with themselves, and still lack the knowledge to view self-interest as moral, they may say to themselves that it is immoral for them to do what’s wrong (being selfish), and should, therefore, do what’s right (sacrifice for others).

    Here, self-honesty is damaging, because it led them to embrace the wrong understanding of ethics. They weren’t being dishonest, but they do not know any other way of understanding ethics. They are not lying to themselves, but they were lied to, and their honesty will lead them to accept the lie.

    Therefore, the solution for them wasn’t to be honest with themselves, but to first gain the proper understanding of ethics, and then compare their actions to that. If one is open to considering new ideas, then his honesty will serve him. But if he’s not exposed to such ideas, then he’ll only be led to accept the falsehood he inherited.

    To clarify, I’m not asking people to abandon self-honesty. I’ll be writing more about it in upcoming posts. But I won’t be going through the self-honesty exercise before I elaborate on some tools that we require for self-honesty to serve us, rather than harm us.

    I hope I’ve made it clear what I consider the danger to be. If I haven’t, let me know.

  5. Ralf Wilmes said,

    March 24, 2008 at 2:40 am

    Thanks for your extensive answer Haider. You’ve made your point clear to me now.

    But it’s leads me to another question. You talk about ‘being exposed to different ethics’, which I understand as ‘initiated by the outside world’ rather than initiated by the individual in a pro-active sense.

    In other words, I am not sure that the challenging of ethics must come from the society, but should be searched for by the individual. Otherwise the ‘blaming’ will be on society and this will lead to a sense of helplessness for the individual. Also it has implications on the issue of accountability to think about.

    The example of rational self-interest you mention is a global one. As I see it there is at present no society which proclaims it, and I do not foresee any society to proclaim it in the near future.. So that leaves us on an individual level to ‘play the game’.

    Staying with that example: I was brought up with the virtues of altruism too. My school taught it. My parents taught it. My present social context is acting on it.

    As I see it: you first need to be aware of your values, only than you will be able to challenge them, not the other way around. I see self honesty as a function of self-awareness.

    Sure enough it can happen that in life you meet people that inspire you to rethink your values. To others it may not happen. Still, it is the responsibility of every individual to choose the set of values he wants to live by. As I see it he cannot escape this responsibility, regardless if he has the opportunity to be exposed to it.

    Difficult is that is, and it really is, it is not a privilage of those who are lucky enough to be exposed to it, but the self-responsibility of every mature human being. You can choose to ‘expose yourself to it’ or not.

    I still do not see how self honesty ever can be damaging. I see that it can be very difficult and hard at times. I know it is. But damaging no. Self honesty, meaning admitting and seeing the inner reality improves your relation with reality. Improving your relation with reality always makes you stronger as I see it.

    Hope it makes sense to you. Take care, Ralf

  6. Haider said,

    March 24, 2008 at 7:13 am

    Dear Ralf, your point is clear, and I certainly agree that it is our responsibility to search for the right values, rather than expect people to present us with the right values. I have certainly benefited enormously from self-honesty, and recognize it as the foundation of ethics. I don’t intend on writing a mini-article to deal with self-honesty, but a series of articles, because it’s such an important issue.

    And I’m certainly not postponing the topic for a later time, but only the exercise I wanted to go through.

    Self-honesty involves evaluating yourself to a criteria, and being willing to admit whether you are fulfilling this criteria or not. The criteria is not reality. If you are objective and rational, your view of reality can be very accurate. But if you will assess yourself based on a corrupt criteria, you will only damage yourself by forcing yourself to conform to this criteria, because you are being honest.

    The solution isn’t to abandon self-honesty, as I have said before, but to approach it correctly. We need to be honest and willing enough to question the criteria itself. This is what I wish to deal with before presenting the exercise.

    Your point is extremely valid, and I don’t intend to undermine self-honesty. But I want to equip my readers with the tools that will help them gain as much as they can from self-honesty, without forcing themselves on wrong paths.

  7. Haji Razali said,

    May 14, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Another provoking issues that need to be addressed by people like Haider and myself Plus whoever they may be. It sounds philosophical as well as ethical but a very difficult topic. It needs quite an intensive explorations thus will lead us to an “opened interpretations” to what Self-Honesty and Morality.

    Interestingly as Haider [as I interpered] put that someone will be in a state of confusions if he finds out that doing some thing which he knowingly feel dishonest would be against the ethical norms as well as morality.And this is “damaging”.

    I Totally agree with that Haider. But then I would consider other parameters that engulf our sense of self-Honesty. Factors such as norms,pre- knowledge, morals/value, judgements and alike play significant role towards our sense of HONESTY. I find that most of our respectful parents, religious gurus, scholars define or set the above set of parameters are so rigids and restricted which are contradicted to the true teaching of Islam [to a certain degree].

    I remembered a day when our nation was full of publisities about Man First Mission of Apollo by the American Astonauts. And I asked my parent is it possibile for a man to go to the moon? My parents as wll as the majority of my muslim elders denied the possibility. And somebody said, “God will punished” them for entering His universe. I tend to agree at that age. But then as years passed the Muslim have to redefine, re-tune and upgrade their knowlege about space explorations [sciences].

    Giving that scenerio above is that, if for instance a Muslim scientists were assigned for that mission, they would surely having a parodoxical state of situation. More over they might be labelled as KAFIR. But we cannot blamed the muslim societies at that time because their religious guru said so.
    By Allah Will, late last year, Malaysia had sent their first Muslim to joint the Russian aerospace mission.No Muslim make an out-cry.

    What I am trying to postualate is that Self-Honesty will be deterimental if our preknowledge in Islam is ill-equipped.

    I hope I am not “beating around the bush”.

    Salam from Bruneian.

  8. Haider said,

    May 14, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Salaam Haji Razali,

    You read my post correctly. When we take for granted what we have been taught to be true, self-honesty means that we come to act on these teachings. And this is where self-honesty harms us, to the degree that the teachings are harmful.

    There are many Muslim scholars that prohibited many, many things that Islam has not only classified as permissible, but as valuable or even essential.

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