From monogamy to politics, the concept of honesty is more complex than you think

It's hard to name public figures who we think of as truly honest. Are standards slipping—or is honestly just more difficult than we give credit for?

April 19, 2018
Washington Dc Lincoln Memorial Abraham Lincoln
Washington Dc Lincoln Memorial Abraham Lincoln

We have seen plenty of examples of dishonesty in recent decades. Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton are well-known for their marital infidelity. Ken Lay defrauded Enron and Bernie Madoff betrayed investors with his Ponzi scheme. Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez broke the rules by using banned substances in their sports.

Dishonesty is easy to come by, it would seem. But what about its opposite? Who stands out today as a prominent example of honesty? I find it hard to come up with examples. Indeed, I suspect we would have to go all the way back to Abraham Lincoln (“Honest Abe”) to find someone who is a popular choice of most Americans.

Why is that? Is it because it is really hard to qualify as an honest person? For that matter, what does it even take to be an honest person in the first place?

Surprisingly, there has been very little written on the virtue of honesty. In my own field of philosophy, for instance, there has not been a single article on honesty in a leading peer-reviewed journal in over fifty years.

So let’s start from scratch, and see where it takes us. I want to highlight three different features of an honest person, although there are others worth noting as well. These particular ones will help us to see why it is no surprise that the truly honest person is so rare.

Honesty Covers a Tremendous Range of Moral Behaviour. When I ask someone to tell me what being honest means, the usual response I get is that it means to tell the truth. Now to be sure, honesty certainly does have to do with truth-telling. But that is only one narrow focus of the virtue.

Consider someone who is very good at cheating at her sport to gain a competitive advantage. She is so good, in fact, that she never has to lie about it, because no one suspects the cheating is going on. Yet even without the lies, she is still being dishonest. As a rule, an honest person does not cheat.

Or consider someone who is an expert thief for his own personal gain, never getting caught or even arousing suspicion. Still, he is dishonest. As a rule, an honest person does not steal.

What about making false promises or willfully breaking genuine ones only to benefit oneself? As a rule, an honest person does not do those things.

How about cases of non-lying deception, like this one:

Smith’s wife says, in an accusatory voice: “Where were you last night?” Smith quickly answers back: “I was with Joe.” This is true; he is not lying. But what he failed to mention, on purpose, is that he was only with Joe for the first part of the night. He was with Sarah for the rest of it.
This is dishonest too. As a rule, an honest person does not withhold information in an attempt to deceive others.

So the first feature of honesty that is worth highlighting, is how incredibly broad it is. Honesty prevents habitual lying, cheating, stealing, promise-breaking, and deception. Fail in any one of these areas, and one fails to be honest. Success of some form or other is needed in all of them, and that is hard to do.

Honesty Requires Discernment and Restraint. Now consider the following case:
Thomas is riding the elevator with a co-worker whom he barely knows. To avoid an awkward silence, the co-worker asks Thomas how his day is going. Thomas proceeds to rattle off a long list of what he has done, including what he ate for breakfast and how many times he has visited the bathroom.
To his credit, Thomas is telling the truth, and he is also not misleading or deceiving his colleague in any way. Nevertheless, he is not displaying honesty virtuously. He is being too honest, and that is a vice, not a virtue.

In a different context, what Thomas does could be entirely appropriate. Suppose he is on the stand in a criminal trial, and it is crucial to the case that he be able to reconstruct what he was doing that day. Then he would be falling short if he didn’t rattle off this long list.

The key, then, is to have discernment, not just about when to tell the truth, but also about how much of the truth to tell, and to whom.

Motivation Matters To Honesty Too. Consider yet another example, this time involving Ellen:
Ellen seems remarkably honest in her behaviour. She never steals supplies from work, never cheats on her taxes, and never tells very serious lies (perhaps only a few white lies here and there). Why does she choose to live this way? It turns out that she is really obsessed with making a good impression on other people, and thinks that if she slips up in one of these ways, she might be condemned by her peers.
Despite her admirable behaviour, Ellen is not exhibiting the virtue of honesty. Her motivation is not virtuous; it reveals that she is ultimately concerned only with herself. The same would be true if, instead of making a good impression, Ellen were doing these things to avoid feeling guilty, to not be punished, or to earn rewards in the afterlife.

What then would count as acceptable motivation? There is no simple answer. In the case of Ellen, all of these would have been fine reasons to not lie to or steal from other people:

“Because it would be dishonest.”

“Because they are my friends.”

“Because that is disrespectful.”

“Because I care about them.”

What do these all have in common? They are not focused on her. They are not egoistic or self-interested reasons but instead display a heart that is moved by something larger than herself. That is the essence of honest motivation.

No wonder, then, that honest people are hard to come by, especially when we look to public figures in politics, business, and sports. Among other things, they need to act well in many different situations, in a way that is sensitive to what each involves, and primarily for selfless reasons.

On a personal level, setting the bar for honesty this high might be discouraging. But it shouldn’t be. It can serve as a challenge for us to work hard at becoming better than we are. Indeed, there are few challenges in life which are more important.