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Everyone feels they are in possession of truth—not all of the truth, but just enough of it to operate honestly during daily hours of wakefulness. We think we hold truthful positions on many mundane matters and certainly on all really important matters, like politics, religion, and morals.

But we are surely wrong about some things, or numerous things, inasmuch as we are ignorant of many things. I’ve started thinking about the role that self-deception plays in our ignorance and whether willful ignorance is immoral, or whether willful ignorance is not immoral but psychologically therapeutic. You’ll see what I mean below.

Self-deception is not an easy concept to grasp. It’s a paradox in that it assumes we are, at one and the same time, the deceiver and the deceived. Our casual speech indicates that we all accept the concept of self-deception. We say, “Oh, I was just fooling myself” Read that again: “I was fooling myself”—as if two distinct people were involved in the trickery.

“Fooling myself” is a common phrase. We might utter it in the throws of romance when we falsely imagine that the object of our passion reciprocates our love. We might say it when we are not offered the job we aimed too high for. “I was just kidding myself that I’d get that job.”

“Fooling myself” is in the same league as “I gave myself a good talking to” and “I said to myself…” Again, idiomatically, we regularly speak as if we are two entities in one person.

I wanted to delve further into the concept of self-deception and I’ve done so with the help of Swedish-American philosopher Sissela Bok, who retired from Harvard in July 2022 and was the daughter of two Nobel laureates. Her father Gunnar Myrdal won for Economics in 1974, and her mother Alva Myrdal received the Peace prize in 1982. Dr. Sissela Bok wrote the entry on “self-deception” for the Oxford Companion to Philosophy. What follows is an adaptation of her thinking on the matter, blended with a bit of my own.

There are two ways to explain what appears to be self-deception without calling it self-deception. First, we might simply be ignorant about some area of knowledge that we cannot necessarily be expected to know. And so what may appear to be self-deception is really and merely just our own ignorance about topic x. Second, we might simply be ignoring unpleasant information. And so what appears to be self-deception is really and merely only the psychological ploy of avoidance, of not wishing to entertain disagreeable information, of not wishing to confront information that is too unpleasant for us to address.

These two examples can be used to sidestep a claim of self-deception and thereby dodge the chief problem in the concept of self-deception, namely, that it takes two to tango, that it takes at least two aspects of one’s self to deceive one’s self. The problem in self-deception is this: How can one part of us deliberately mislead another part of us?

The Freudian unconscious could explain self-deception. Here’s how it works: Our unconscious mind does not wish our conscious mind to know the truth of something. This means some part of us does know the truth and masks that truth from ourselves, possibly for perfectly healthy reasons, as when it would be better not to know everything about ourselves. Socrates’ dictum “know thyself” is not a properly therapeutic prescription, lest by fully knowing ourselves we come to view ourselves with revulsion! Might our subconscious also suppress information that would require us to alter our lives and challenge our biases?

(Whether it’s self-deception at work, or ignorance, or avoidance—whichever, there are inflexible, doctrinaire political and religious people who will see our lack of acceptance of their worldview as a logical error and also as a malevolent and blameworthy mistake. To these people, we are willfully blocking important truths. Our un-acceptance of their worldview is not only an intellectual blunder but also an evil, and thus morally culpable. Such a sensibility is only one or two cognitive stepping stones away from stigmatizing “unbelievers” and persecuting them for their recalcitrance. History provides ample examples of this occurring, both in political and religious arenas.)

To me, self-deception, though problematic in the notion that I am both the deceiver and the deceived, seems possible. Two questions persist: Is self-deception morally objectionable? Or is self-deception morally permissible for managing one’s interior life? To put a finer point on the second question: Is it ever healthy to hold life-enhancing false beliefs?

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...