There is a line from Seinfeld that cuts to the heart of the distinction between sincerity and ethical candor. In a desperate attempt to beat a polygraph machine, Jerry turns to George, a practiced liar, for advice. As Jerry gets up to leave, George offers this:
The humor in this lies, I think, in the gap it establishes between sincerity and ethical candor.
Sincerity requires earnest belief, even if what is believed is untrue. One can actively assent to a lie one tells oneself. Ethical candor, however, is conscience bound to truth. Self-deception is the opposite of ethical candor, the cultivated disposition to be honest with yourself. At the depth of human conscience is an inviolable connection with truth. We can deceive ourselves in the face of that truth, we can chose to believe the lies we tell ourselves, and we can affect the deepest sincerity as we convey the lie we have decided to believe. But duplicity of conscience is impossible. Truth has a quiet insistence, and quietude is required to hear it.
Contemporary life, however, is harried, filled with distractions that allow self-deception to take root and grow. The human capacity for self-deception is as debilitating as it is dangerous; debilitating because it hinders us from living in alignment with our deepest selves, dangerous because it corrodes our capacity to love.
In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky emphasizes the connection between self-deception and love when he has Father Zosima tell Fyodor Karamazov:
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect, he ceases to love…¹
There is an inverse relationship between our capacity for self-deception and our capacity to love: The more we deceive ourselves, the less capable we are of loving ourselves and others.
This diminished capacity to love has hindered our ability in these United States to respond to a debilitating pandemic and the reckoning with systemic racism we are called to undertake.