On Honesty

“I love it!”
“Of course I remember you!”
“Sorry, I can’t make it I’m under the weather.”
These common ‘white lies’ are probably said at least once daily by the average person. We lie all the time, but how can we qualify our lies? Many lies are harmlessly deployed to keep social niceties up with both strangers and acquaintances. These are of the “Of course I remember you” variety, where there is no harm done in ones attempt to avoid any possible awkwardness and carry out a polite conversation.

We exaggerate often by saying we absolutely adored a gifted we received even though we re-gifted it or let it collect dust in our closet. We add embellishments to our stories for dramatic effect or to get bigger laughs. These types of lies we may use to get ahead or impress others. Usually these lies are harmless but when used often and indiscriminately, they can wreak havoc on the giver and receiver as stories get spun and become unwieldy false identities or even multiple lives.

And what of the heavy, emotion laden lies that can disrupt lives in major ways? I think of these as the fundamental lies. These lies penetrate the fundamental elements of our relationships with ourselves and others. A fundamental element in a personal relationship is something that is part of the believed, shared story of the individuals involved, something that goes unquestioned and is trusted by all parties. Perhaps the most catastrophic example of such is when a child is raised to believe they are biologically related to a parent(s) that they are in fact not biologically related to. This is a lie that can call into question someones entire identity, or at least the identity they have come to believe is theirs. Another example could be someone carrying on multiple serious romantic relationships lying to their partners about their exclusivity status and monogamy. Both examples are extreme but they aren’t as rare as one would think.

When looking at the entire spectrum of lies, from small harmless white lies to the catastrophic life altering lies, one must also think of honesty. Honesty, is a universal facet of morality that involves virtuous attributes like trustworthiness, integrity and authenticity. It’s a vital part of being good to others and oneself. However, as with lies, honesty can sometimes cut both ways depending on the scenario. Imagine telling someone close to you what you honestly think about the new haircut they are excited to show off. Perhaps this isn’t a dilemma because you may in fact think the haircut is flattering and they look great, but what if you thought they looked terrible? If you were honest and said “I think your haircut is bad.” What might that do to your existing relationship? Now imagine, always being completely honest and what that might do over time to any of your relationships.

“I hate what you did in your home re-model.”, “I think your partner is a loser.”, “You have terrible breath.” “I fantasize being with other people.” Extreme honesty, can clearly go awry rather easily by hurting those you care about, permanently damaging your relationships and getting in the way of you successfully building new ones. Quickly we can see how honesty is much more complex than simply telling the truth. Moreover, telling the truth, the entire truth all of the time, is practically impossible, unnecessary and at times even the wrong thing to do. This is where the distinction between the nominal definition of honesty and the real definition of honesty must be made.

If we believe that honesty is a vital yet complex part of moral character than we must treat it as such by being contextually sensitive when selecting certain truths to share. We must be cognizant that the actions informed by honesty may or may not be deemed sufficient to others or even ourselves. However, this doesn’t necessarily make said actions right or wrong. I previously shared a few examples of when being completely honest could potentially hurt your relationships, but there do exist dynamics where highly vocally honest people have strong enough relationships in which they can be as honest as they need to be without it negatively impacting said relationships. In some cases, that level of honesty could be one major reason as to why those relationships work. Having a trustworthy friend that you know is always going to give you their honest opinion no matter the circumstances can be immensely beneficial.

Understanding truth is another can of worms. Nietzsche believed that truth should be used as long as it promoted life and the will to power, and he thought untruth was better than truth if it enhanced said will to power as a consequence. Nietzsche described will to power as an irrational yet driving force, found in all individuals, that can be channeled toward different purposes. Michel Foucault found truth to be problematic when seen as an “objective” quality. Foucault preferred not to use the term truth itself but “Regimes of Truth” as he found truth to be something that was embedded within a given power structure. Perhaps one of the most interesting views on truth I found is that of Jean Baudrillard who considered truth to be largely simulated. His take on truth was influenced by iconoclasts who he claimed knew that the images of God proved that God didn’t exist. Baudrillard wrote in Precession of the Simulacra “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” Some examples of simulacra that Baudrillard cited were prisons which simulate that society is free; scandals like Watergate simulate that corruption is corrected; Disney simulates that the U.S. itself is made for adults only.

If honesty does not necessarily mean always telling the entire truth, what is it? One way I like to look at honesty is via the lens of virtue ethics (informed by the teachings of Aristotle and Plato) which characterizes virtues such as honesty as being part of a disposition. According to virtue ethics, a person is honest when they possess the disposition to be moved to action by a generous impulse such as the desire to give or speak the (relevant) truth. I included the word relevant here because I feel like this is an importance part of honesty that gets overlooked. It should also be noted that the honest disposition is one that is cultivated over time by sharing details and facts that are relevant to particular persons and scenarios.

Living a truthful life is a wonderful thing to strive for, but we must not forget that just like the many virtues discussed here, life is often complex and requires us to act in different ways based on the situations we find ourselves in. From my perspective, in order to be our authentic selves, live with integrity and be trustworthy, we must always remember to forgive ourselves when we fall short, learn from our missteps and acknowledge where we may have failed others and ourselves so we may cultivate a honest disposition we can be proud of.

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