Character Defects: Dishonesty

17 Williams Street, Newark, NJ, 1st AA Headquarters

Dishonesty is probably the single biggest obstacle to recovery. The Big Book suggests as much when it says that “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” Such people “are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty (p. 58).” 

Understood as a defect of character, dishonesty is an ingrained, habitual disposition to intentionally and self-servingly misrepresent the truth. This affects not only what we say and do, but also what we think and feel, and not only with respect to others, but also with respect to ourselves. Indeed, as Bill W. tells us in the passage cited below, being dishonest with others almost always requires that we be dishonest with ourselves. We will always try to hide a bad motive underneath a good one (12&12, S10, p. 94), find a good reason to explain the wrong we do so that it doesn’t seem to be wrong.

In the form of self-deception, dishonesty is probably also the single biggest obstacle to making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We’re told that taking inventory is “a fact-finding and fact-facing process,” that “It is an effort to discover the truth” about ourselves (Big Book, p. 64). But if we are self-deceived, we don’t want to find or face the facts; we don’t want to discover the truth. We want to mask, conceal, distort, and otherwise manage and manipulate reality. We will only see what we want to see.

Of course, we won’t admit that’s what we’re doing. Often we won’t even know we're doing it. Such is the power of self-deception to render us opaque to ourselves. Hence the need to do our major inventories with a sponsor who can help us to spot the instances of dishonesty in the situations and relationships we examine. The sponsor will help us see through the deceptive ploys we utilize to hide the truth from ourselves: denial, rationalization, exaggeration, minimization, suppression, self-justification, and blame-shifting.

In the process of doing so, we will become increasingly good at recognizing the many manifestations of dishonesty in us. Dishonesty takes multiple forms, some quite blatant, others very subtle. Lying, cheating, and stealing are the most obvious. But even within these categories, there are many shades of dishonesty, some  harder to detect and admit to than others. 

Take lying. There are lies of commission, as when we actually tell a falsehood, and lies of omission, as when we simply fail to tell the truth. We may make a patently false statement, or we may deliberately provide inaccurate, partial, or misleading information; we may withhold the truth altogether, remain silent, be ambiguous, evasive, or vague, or we may fudge, waffle, or prevaricate; we may exaggerate, stretch, or play down the facts; we may say what a person wants to hear though we may not believe it ourselves; we may make a promise we don’t intend to keep or, more often, just fail to keep our word; we may pretend to be something we are not or to know something we don’t; we may hypocritically claim to believe one thing while practicing another; we may abstain from looking deeper into an issue because we are not really interested in knowing the truth about it, or because what we find may contradict what we believe or force us to make choices we don’t want to make; and so on ad infinitum. The possibilities are endless. They are equally manifold for cheating and stealing, as well as for the many other forms dishonesty takes, such as unfaithfulness, disloyalty, and betrayal.

Becoming good at taking inventory of the dishonesty in us requires therefore that we become acquainted with its multiple manifestations. For some of us, this may also involve expanding our vocabulary a bit: we cannot identify a form of dishonesty we cannot name. Conversely, naming it helps us to identify and understand it.

It also requires that we become familiar with the various drivers of dishonesty in us. These are always other defects of character or emotion. Pride, jealousy, envy, greed, sloth, and lust, for instance, can drive us to lie, cheat, and steal, or to harm others in ways that we must then try to cover up and hide from ourselves as well as from others. The same with anger, fear, guilt, and shame, among other emotions.

Thus, if we are doing an inventory of anger, resentment, and fear, as in the Big Book sample, we need to look into the ways those emotions and dishonesty interact with each other. In that sample, it is evident that the alcoholic’s problems stem from two blatant acts of dishonesty: cheating on his wife and stealing from his employer. His anger and resentment are a response to his being exposed for these acts; his fear a response to the consequent threats to his marriage, his home, and his job. At the same time, his anger enables him to shift blame and deny the real cause of his problems. It’s all their fault. His dishonesty causes him both to do wrong and to hide the wrong from himself.

Whatever the wrong we may have committed, and whatever the defects of character or emotion driving it, dishonesty will almost always be present. Our job as we take inventory is to detect it and understand its function. As we see and admit it, dishonesty diminishes and honesty grows. But because of the motivating role of other defects, it follows that dishonesty will also diminish to the extent that those defects do. We grow in honesty then by admitting, not only the specific manifestations of dishonesty in us, but the specific manifestations of the other defects that tend to generate it. 

[Image: 17 William Street in Newark, N.J., first AA headquarters at office of "Honor Dealers," a car dealership owned by Hank P. where Bill W. wrote much of the Big Book and Ruth Hock typed it. For Ruth’s recollections of this and an audio of this post, please click on links.]

Bill W.
"The deception of others is almost always rooted in the deception of ourselves.” – Bill W.   

Big Book
"Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened?” – Big Book  

"If we lie or cheat, we deprive others not only of their worldly goods, but of their emotional security and peace of mind." – 12&12   

Life Recovery Bible"Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator." – Col. 3:9-10  /  “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much." – Luke 16:10-12 

"False words are not only evil in themselves, but also infect the soul with evil." – Socrates  

"Honesty is for the most part less advantageous than dishonesty." – Plato 

"The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand-fold." – Aristotle 

"Ill-gotten wealth will never be secure." – Euripides  

"To pretend to know when you do not know is [a sign of] a disease." – Lao-Tzu  

Thomas à Kempis"We blame little things in others and pass over great things in ourselves; we are quick enough in perceiving and weighing what we suffer from others, but we mind not what others suffer from us." – Thomas à Kempis

Jonathan Swift
"Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it." – Jonathan Swift  

George Washington
"It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one." – George Washington 

Abraham Lincoln
"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." – Abraham Lincoln 

Friedrich Nietzsche
"The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others." – Friedrich Nietzsche  

Mark Twain
"There are people who exaggerate so much that they can't tell the truth without lying." – Mark Twain  

Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Accuracy is the twin brother of honesty; inaccuracy, of dishonesty." – Nathaniel Hawthorne  

James Cardinal Gibbons
"Like all valuable commodities, truth is often counterfeited." – James Cardinal 

Edgar J. Mohn
"A lie has speed, but truth has endurance." – Edgar J. Mohn  

"A lie may take care of the present, but it has no future." – Anonymous

Lemuel K. Washburn
"Honesty is never seen sitting astride the fence." – Lemuel K. Washburn  

"If you want to ruin the truth, stretch it." – Anonymous  

Tad Williams"We tell lies when we are afraid . . . afraid of what we don't know, afraid of what others will think, afraid of what will be found out about us. But every time we tell a lie, the thing that we fear grows stronger." – Tad Williams  

Winston Churchill
"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on." – Winston Churchill  

Albert Einstein
"Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters." – Albert Einstein  

Christian Nestell Bovee
"The dishonest conceal their faults from themselves as well as others; the honest know and confess them." – Christian Nestell Bovee  

Marcel Proust
"It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying." – Marcel Proust  

Steven Soderbergh
Lying is like alcoholism. You are always recovering." – Steven Soderbergh

Anaïs Nin
“When one is pretending, the entire body revolts.” – Anaïs Nin

Karl Ove Knausgård
"Saying what you believe others want to hear is, of course, a form of lying." – Karl Ove Knausgård  

Tennessee Williams
"The only thing worse than a liar is a liar who is also a hypocrite." – Tennessee Williams  

Bill Copeland
"When you stretch the truth, watch out for the snapback." – Bill Copeland  

Barbara Kingsolver
"The truth needs so little rehearsal." – Barbara Kingsolver  

Yevgeny Yevtushenko
"When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie." – Yevgeny Yevtushenko  

Michael Josephson
"Honesty doesn't always pay, but dishonesty always costs." – Michael Josephson  

Eli Siegel
"When truth is divided, errors multiply." – Eli Siegel  

Adrian Rogers"There are two types of doubters: honest and dishonest. An honest doubter doesn’t know but he wants to know. A dishonest doubter doesn’t want to know. An honest doubter will make an honest investigation and follow the results where they lead." – Adrian Rogers  

Bosnian Proverb
"Who lies for you will lie against you." – Bosnian Proverb  

Yiddish Proverb
"A half-truth is a whole lie." – Yiddish Proverb  

"Beware of the half-truth; you may have gotten hold of the wrong half." – Anonymous  

Dishonesty - Anonymous
"If you tell the truth, it becomes part of your past. If you lie, it becomes part of your future." – Anonymous  

Tim Keller
"Self-deception is not the worst thing we do, but it is the reason why we do the worst things." 
– Tim Keller  

Sam Harris"As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies. Acts of adultery and other personal betrayals, financial fraud, government corruption—even murder and genocide—generally require an additional moral defect: a willingness to lie." – Sam Harris, Lying  

PTP123"My inability to be honest with myself spills over into dishonesty with everybody and everything else, for . . . if I deceive myself, I will of necessity try to deceive others. I live a double life, rife with deceitfulness, dissembling and duplicity." – PTP123 

PTP123"When we look back from the vantage point of sobriety, many of us realize that when drinking we often felt like a fake, a fraud, and a phony. That’s because we were." – PTP123  

For more PTP123 passages on dishonesty, see pp. 73–75.  For PTP4 passages, see dishonesty and cheating/stealing, pp. 27, 77, 104, 158, 180, 238, 242, 246, 400, 412; and hypocrisy, 363; and lying, 51, 297, 335; and pride, 240, 343; and self-righteousness, 407; and unfaithfulness, 27, 28; as acquired disposition, 316; as default disposition, 297. See also index entries for denial, minimization, rationalization, and self-justification. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search dishonesty and deceive and their cognates. See also entries under honesty in As Bill Sees It. On this website, see Appendix 4: Common Manifestations of Self: Character Defects - Dishonesty, and The Virtue of Honesty.

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