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?by Christian B. Miller / April 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
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.