Self-deception and self-knowledge (with a brief excursus on the Socratic elenchus)

I think it a good starting point to claim that someone would’t think of deceiving himself unless that about which he were about to deceive himself were thought to be painful for him to confront. The thought of someone trying to deceive himself about something pleasant sounds patently absurd. It could only be that someone who got a chocolate cake for his birthday were trying not to be disappointed when he says, ‘This was the kind of cake that I really wanted.’ In this case, he would have been pained to have felt that his desire for angel food cake wasn’t actually satisfied and so he tells himself instead that it is chocolate cake that he always wanted.

Self-deception does seem to be like this: telling ourselves the things we would like to believe rather than examining whether something we think or said is, as a matter of fact, true. The reason we would like to believe that the world is cheery and bright in its everyday aspect is that believing this seems to make our lives a lot easier. Isn’t it great? This is the best of all possible worlds!

I can now make more sense of the distinction I wanted to draw between ‘passive self-deception’ and ‘active self-deception.’ Recall a slightly modified definition of the former: passive self-deception involves my persistently overlooking something that, being obvious to any perceptive observer, would be manifestly painful for me were I to acknowledge it to be the case. It now seems clear that the passive self-deceiver occludes fact X, occurrence Y, or action Z in order to maintain a set of basic views or beliefs about himself or the world that would otherwise be called into question. He does not want to confront himself.

For instance, I may continue to believe that I’m a great friend to John even though I betrayed John. But if I deliberately overlook the fact that I betrayed John, then I can continue to believe that I’m a great friend to John. As a consequence, my view of myself as great friend goes unexamined and therefore unchallenged. Having glossed over the possible uncomfortableness, I can remain easy with myself, believing that life is going along without a snag. It is rather like every prayer coming true.

In other words, the passive self-deceiver is out to maintain a set of beliefs he has by ruling out from the beginning, so to speak, any possibility of there being evidence to the contrary. In contrast, the active self-deceiver actually states a false belief about himself while believing it to be true. In this way, he can intensify the strength of some of his beliefs about himself, ratcheting up his beliefs that he is an excellent parent and a dependable colleague. He too denies the possibility of any evidence to the contrary, yet he does so by making more vivid the false beliefs he has about himself.

Each kind of self-deceiver has his own exercises that he performs well. It is as if the passive self-deceiver had developed such an excellent backhand that he could parlay away any tennis balls coming his way whereas the active self-deceiver had learned to speak ever so loudly that he grew enchanted with the songs his voice were singing to him. They were the only songs he heard.


There is no sense in having a conversation with someone who is very good at self-deception. For he wouldn’t be able to engage in some quite basic epistemic questions:

1.) Do I believe that P?

2.) Is P, as a matter of fact, true?

3.) What warrant or justification do I have for believing that P?

The second question is already bypassed since he does not care whether his belief is true, only that it is what he would like to believe. It follows that he cannot pursue self-knowledge.


Looking at the self-deceiver, one begins to have more appreciation for the Socratic elenchus in connection with the pursuit of self-knowledge. After Socrates’s interlocutor proposes a definition of virtue or justice or piety, Socrates gets him to assent to additional views, ones they both can agree with. By means of inquiry, Socrates then shows that the proposed definition is logically inconsistent with the set containing the other views. One of these must therefore be rejected (and it has been a difficult question for Socratic studies how Socrates can reject the definition when he is not logically warranted to do so).

Notice how Socrates has required his interlocutor to look at his basic belief together with other basic views he has. All of them are not only examined but examined together. This is holism. The elenchus, provided it is conducted correctly and provided the interlocutor begins and continues in good faith, therefore safeguards against self-deception. That is beautiful. Minimally, the kind of self-knowledge it supplies is knowledge of the incompatibility of one’s views. Beautiful as well as humbling. Aporetic.