This odd question appeared over on Quora today.

It prompted the following exchange with me and a passing Quoran posing follow-up questions (edited for simplicity). Full version here.

Is Negotiation Dishonest by Default?

No. It’s possible to be a dishonest negotiator. But when haggling over a price (‘This is my VERY final offer!’) both sides are in a ritual where they know that the other side might be bluffing or exaggerating or whatever. So different rules of what is or is not ‘honest’ typically apply.

Are you saying the morals involved in honesty are situational? “The doctrine of flexibility in the application of moral laws according to circumstances.”

As with any principle, there are some fuzzy edges in real life. No-one in a negotiation is expected to reveal his/her bank account even if it might be ‘honest’ to do so. Plus there may be situations where people freely choose to suspend some of the normal rules of honesty for their own reasons and get along just fine.

What is the defining factor that makes a negotiation honest? If there is so much ambiguity, is there an actual distinction between honest and dishonest negotiations?

Yes. They’re honest if both sides agree the rules then play within them. They’re dishonest if one side is actively trying to cheat the other somehow (eg explicitly lying on how many accidents a car has), and the other side is then cheated.

So a negotiation is honest if the 1st party intended cheat the 2nd party, but was unsuccessful?

Maybe honest enough! If you’re trying to trick me and I see through your feeble ploys/lies so that we reach a happy deal, fine by me. It’s a bit like ‘insulting’ someone. There’s the intention to insult and the fact or not that the other side is thereby insulted. I

Interesting … so the intent is important only if the intended action is successful?

Not what I said! When in doubt on what words mean and how we use them, head for Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

See also the Trolley Problem. In the Case of the Century you’re acquitted for murdering a fat person by shoving her off the bridge to stop a runaway trolley and thereby save five other people. But then the police find creepy videos on your PC of you fantasising about squelching fat people under trolleys.

What was your real intention here? How might anyone including you know it? How if at all might such new ‘evidence’ affect the court’s decision?

Is the moral quality of an OUTCOME of an action affected by the actor’s INTENTION? Why?

Aaaargh. Too much philosophy.

The underlying thought in all this is that if during a negotiation you are ‘holding back’ information or your real intentions (as you typically should, to try to get whatever you want at the lowest cost to you), either you or the process or both are ipso facto dishonest.

Not really. It’s arguably like boxing. It’s morally wrong to hurt someone [at least, that’s the accepted view these days haha], but not wrong to enter a contest where you and another person aim to hurt each other pretty significantly within some agreed limitations. That sort of contest is all about summoning the greater will or strength to battle on through pain. But blows ‘below the belt’ are not allowed (in principle)…

So in negotiating, if you know that neither side needs to reveal their ‘bottom line’, the process is all about guileful misdirection, studied ambiguity, careful listening and quite a lot of brazen bluff. And it’s none the worse for that.

Which is not to say that all negotiating ploys are honest or not dishonest. Telling a deliberate lie or saying things that grossly mislead crosses a line towards dishonesty.

Or does it?

P is buying a second-hand car from Q. P is a cynical sort, and does not not trust anyone selling second-hand cars. In fact he is so cynical that he does not even believe that the car is in fact Q’s car to sell!

P therefore insists that as a condition for buying the car at a price they’ve agreed, the car will be checked by an independent person to confirm its ownership trail and as far as possible its accident history and state of repair. P also mentions that if it turns out that Q has been lying, P will wrote about it vociferously on social media and Q will suffer heavy reputational costs.

Here, even if Q is flat-out lying on different key issues, Q’s dishonesty doesn’t matter. Q’s lies are bouncing off P’s mighty armour, and life goes on.

This is why the issue of Trust in negotiating is often overestimated. Yes, it’s good to trust the other side. But it’s also wise to make precautions to verify whatever the other side is saying before committing yourself

One of my first-ever posts here ten years ago(!) looked at the Art of Lying:

My best ever professional lie experience was in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in the mid-1990s. We were having a tetchy bilateral exchange over some visa issues. A few days earlier I as Embassy Political Counsellor had sent a fax to the MF.A with our latest position. I turned up for the meeting as arranged to discuss it all.

The Russian head of department and I had some inconclusive exchanges. It dawned on me that he had not read my fax. So I asked him if he had read it. He denied flatly all knowledge of it!

I said that that was impossible – it had gone through as usual days before, and he must have seen it. He again denied having seen it.

Then, a miracle. His friendly young diplomat assistant unsteeped in Soviet ways could not resist being helpful and chipped in: “I saw it on your desk this morning!

Bluster and annoyance. My heart went out to the assistant – the ensuing one-way cattle-class train ride to Siberia would not be much fun.

Yet I misjudged things. The assistant stayed and flourished – last sighted in the President’s office.

His boss did not care that he had been exposed lying, and that I knew he had lied, and that he knew that I knew he had lied.

In post-Soviet  bureaucratic terms it did not matter – lying was a deliberate technique for State Purposes which might work, or it might not – nothing else.

In short, yes, if you want to put it that way, much negotiating may be ‘dishonest by default’.

But so what? Does that matter?