There is little controversy that honesty is a virtue.It is an excellence of character. It also promotes trust, fosters healthy relationships, strengthens organizations and societies, and prevents harm.
Sadly, though, honesty has gone missing in recent decades. It is largely absent from academic research. It seems to be rare in society. And it is not commonly found in discussions about becoming a better person.
What is honesty? How is honesty related to integrity, courage, and tact? Is it always best to be honest? What are the ways of failing to be honest? These are essential questions, but you will be hard-pressed to find discussions of them among scholars. In my field of philosophy, for instance, outside of the work of my own team, there have been only two articles on honesty published in the past 50 years.
So what is honesty? It is a character trait that leads us to think, feel and act in honest ways. Let’s focus on the acting for a moment. Naturally, honesty stands in contrast to lying. But it is much broader in scope than that. It is also opposed to cheating, stealing, promise-breaking, misleading, bullshitting, hypocrisy, self-deception, and other forms of wrongdoing. It works against all of them and is extremely broad and impactful in scope.
What do all these behaviors have in common? What is at the core of honesty that enables it to cover so much moral ground? The answer, I think, is that honest behavior is a matter of not intentionally distorting the facts as the honest person sees them.
Consider a student who lies about his grades to his parents. He is misrepresenting his academic performance on purpose to his parents. Or consider an athlete who knowingly uses a banned substance. She is mispresenting her performance as being due to her own efforts, rather than in part to the contribution of the substance.
Honest behavior is tied to how a person sees the world, to the facts as subjectively understood. If someone genuinely believes the Earth is flat, he is being honest when he reports that belief to a friend, even though the statement is false. If he said that the Earth is round, he would be acting dishonestly, even though the statement is true.
If the only reason why the shopkeeper doesn’t cheat his customers is that he is worried about losing business, then he is doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
That’s a bit about honest behavior. How about motivation? To be a virtuous person, it is not enough just to act well. One’s heart behind the action matters too. Honesty is no exception. Telling the truth, even if one is reliable in doing so, won’t be an expression of the virtue of honesty if it is done just to make a good impression on others, to avoid getting punished, or to secure rewards in the afterlife.
Indeed, in my view, any self-interested motive isn’t going to count as a virtuous motive for honesty. The philosopher Immanuel Kant made a similar observation with his example of the shopkeeper who charges fair prices even when he has a chance to overcharge certain customers. Kant claims that if the only reason why the shopkeeper doesn’t cheat his customers is that he is worried about losing business if he were to be found out, then this would be a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The same point applies to any other self-interested reason.
What would count as the right reason for honest behavior, then?
A variety of other motives, including:
- Loving motives (eg, ‘because I care about you’)
- Justice motives (eg, ‘because it would be unfair if I cheated on the test’)
- Friendship motives (eg, ‘because he’s my friend) dutiful motives (eg, ‘because it was the right thing to do’)
- Honesty motives (eg, ‘because it would be honest’)
If someone tells the truth for these reasons, it is hard to fault the person’s character. But they are somewhat different reasons. We should be pluralists here and allow any or all of these to count as what could motivate an honest person to act.
There is much more to say about the contours of this virtue. But already, I have said more than most have in a long while.