Trying to Be Honest About Honesty

On the Skill and Importance of Telling the Truth

Perhaps it is a fool's errand to write an essay on honesty in this insane political climate. Or perhaps it is necessary. Either way, the flight doors are armed for takeoff. Let’s start with a question.

Is it a virtue to tell the truth?

By the time I'm done with this essay, I hope to have persuaded you that anyone who asks such an ill-formed question is not being honest, either with you or themselves. Or, perhaps both.

If you haven't spent a lot of time thinking about words, it may surprise you to learn that honesty doesn't mean 'telling the truth.' In its original sense, it meant honor. The Latin root word means, the honor received from others. Which makes it something like reputation or character."

An honest person is worthy of being honored by others.

Which sounds like it should be true. I mean it's hard to see who would seriously argue for the opposite statement. A dishonest person is certainly not worthy of being honored by others.

So what I think we're really after when we use the word honest involves telling the truth, but something more. Someone who is not trying to mislead, that is as transparent as possible about their agenda. Who is sincere and open. Maybe an honest person is one who tells the truth well.

This is the quality of having an honest bargain or an honest judge. Take for, example, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was an honest judge. Even people who disagreed with her thought her honorable. One of her good friends, and staunch opponents, Antonin Scalia, was also an honest judge, Antonin Scalia. Maybe you don't like one of the teams they played for, but they both seemed, to each other and the world at large to be playing a fair game.

There is something about an honest person that allows you to trust and be friends with them even when you disagree with them. You know where they are coming from. They have the courage of openness about them. There is unfeigned sincerity.

So what of truth? Does an honest person always tell the truth? What truth, and how? To what end and in what situation? The devil is in the details. There are very few truths that are simple.

Let's say you go to a man's funeral. A nasty sort of man who had insulted and bullied you and others, but you endured in your life because you were friends with his family. And his widow asks you, "He was a good man, don't you think?" Perhaps even she knows the 'truth' of it, and asks the question in vulnerability, looking to you for comfort or support.

What's the honest thing to do in that moment?

And, before you answer, recognize that the truth of this situation is complicated. The truth might be that nobody is very good, not in a strict accounting. Or the truth might be that he was terrible to you on occasion, but very, very good to other people over a long period of time.

People are complicated and morality involves conflict and depth. And that's the truth. What we think of as virtues often conflict. And a lot of being a good person is figuring out which virtue takes precedence. Or how to run the gauntlet of seemingly conflicting virtues with your words and deeds.

Because here's the thing. You shouldn't lie. But you also shouldn't be cruel. Perhaps kindness and honesty are in conflict in my hypothetical situation. Or perhaps the thing to do is to tell the grieving widow that her husband was, in fact, a bastard, so that it is easier for her to let go and move on. All of these things depend on the particulars. So I think that hypothetical situations and sweeping rules are in themselves somewhat dishonest.

As a rule "always tell the truth" doesn't work without other considerations. Which is why I like virtues rather than commandments. Commandments don't bring out the best in people. Strict rules let people off the hook. Thou shalt not kill is not quite enough. You can lawyerball that rule into some truly awful behavior.

"You let him die."

"Hey man, I didn't kill him."

"You stood on the dock and watched him drown!"

"But I didn't kill him."

I think it is a perverse feature of our bureaucratic age that we think we can actually lay out good conduct with sets of rules. We make words taboo, rather than the spirit of what is said. And, further, we seem to think that a rulebook of sorts is of any use to someone who's trying to improve themselves -- to know better and do better in the messiness of the real world. But all of this petty moral accounting degenerates into vapid, powerless slogans. "Just Say No to Drugs."

We should demand that every individual bring their full powers to bear on the problems of living well. For example (and contrast) Moses gave laws and commandments. Christ gave principles and parables. Law requires only understanding and obedience -- and those are not easy things, but what a legalistic approach doesn't do inspire is real creativity.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is information of a dramatically different character than "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife." The Golden Rule is, fundamentally, a challenge to the individual. It demands that you get your head into the game and figure out what you should expect from others and yourself. It is much harder than following the rules. But, given the complexity of life, I don't think anything else works.

I'm a firm believer in markets, that dying form of societal organization. And by market, I mean nothing more than what happens when people are free to contract on their own and when there's no regulatory protection for established players. This is not the situation we are in at all. Horrendous amounts of wealth are extracted from the masses through regulatory fiat. It's not a fair game. It's dishonest.

But that's not what I'm taking exception to in this essay. Reality is so complicated that no individual can comprehend even a fraction of it. It's so complicated that no theory can explain it. We are adrift in a wilderness of our own errors, making progress slowly and painfully, if at all.

The only thing to do, it seems to me, is have the people who have the most information about a situation, the people who directly bear the costs of their decisions, make those decisions. And to be fully engaged in the seriousness of this with all their being.

An expert may be right about something, often by accident, but an expert can never be right for you. A great marriage counselor does not make a great marriage. A parenting "expert" cannot raise your children for you. The unavoidable locus of moral action is the individual. It's all on you.

But, it's not all about you. And, I think, the question of honesty, reveals this.

Why is it good to tell the truth? There are two categories of reasons. Internal and external.

Internal Reasons to Tell the Truth

For the individual, it is important to be honest with yourself so you can see things clearly. To know right from wrong. To not delude yourself about your capabilities, your worth, and what you are really like. I think, that when you lie to yourself, degrade your ability to know what you should do. Your moral compass becomes unreliable and you get lost. Even seeking the truth of your situation becomes terrifying.

Being honest with yourself can be painful. The more you've lied to yourself the worse it gets. Perhaps there is a point of no return. Where you have lied to yourself so much that the journey of return is just too much. The personality fragments and disintegrates into something like madness. And what was once a person becomes a thing damned beyond redemption.

I can imagine this as buoyancy. Near the surface of the ocean, you will float. But dive deep enough and the pressure overcomes your buoyancy. Now the cold depths start to drag you down, and the deeper you go the more energy it takes to ascend.

But what is true of physics does not seem to be true of souls. At least not overwhelmingly so. The Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation suggests that no one is beyond redemption, as does almost all of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even the stories of the Old Testament aren't about paragons of virtue, but about deeply flawed people, transgressing and coming good in the end. Even when they are seemingly too old to change. Which is a comfort to me in our youth-addled culture.

"Once was lost, but now I'm found," seems to be a theme in all religions.

When my life has been at it's worst, I observe that I had been lying to myself and others. I was dishonest. And to the extent that my life isn't all that it could be, I think a failure of honesty is involved. If you're not honest about your situation, you are out of touch with the reality of it. And if you don't understand reality, you don't' stand a very good chance of operating it to get what you want.

Now if you think that's harsh, you are really going to hate the external reasons to tell the truth.


I am not a moral relativist. All ways of being in the world are not equally good. Truth is not socially constructed. You can't make up a random way to be in the world and have it work. And to expect differently is, I think, somewhat paradoxically, a failure of education. At the very least, it's a failure to read history.

It's not that you have to figure out what's good for you now, but also what's good for you in the future. And then what is good for everyone else around you. Or at least won't anger them too much. And there aren't too many modes of living with yourself and others that can thread all three of those needles.

And if I fumble towards what these workable solutions would be I would call them civilizations or, in the broadest sense, cultures. It's something like Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, Persian, Chinese, Egyptian, Mayan, Indus Valley, Medieval through Enlightenment. I don't know what the perfect schema is here. But there haven't been too many of them. I would argue that the ones that engaged in human sacrifice are far worse than the ones that didn't.

What this means for virtue is that any virtue has to work not only for the individual but also for the society. Now and in the future.

So how does the honest person benefit everyone else?

I can see two ways. First, when you deceive someone, you give them incorrect information. And that limits their agency. It's a form of coercion. You've manipulated their choices. Think of the Boy who Cries Wolf, there is power in his lie, but it wears out. There's only so many times you can fool people. And the downside of this dishonesty is that you lose all persuasive power with your fellow humans.

One might reasonably object that this doesn't apply in politics. But I think that's not exactly right. No thinking person believes that any politician is honest. But currently, our culture believes in this way of playing the public game of governance. We endure this game because we think we can operate it to get what we want or need. For example, news organizations love lying, scandalous politicians because the more extreme they are, the more clicks they get.

Do I think this feedback system is out of control? Absolutely. I think our culture is a mess. You can say that we need to return to some earlier set of values and virtues and practices that lead to success, and I will sympathize -- I even want to agree because I see very good ideas throughout history that we should not discard -- but I think you are wrong. The arrow of time only moves in one direction. We cannot go backward. We cannot step in the same stream twice.

So think of it this way. Egyptian civilization was very successful. It lasted for 3100 years, three times longer than the Roman empire. They enjoyed tremendous artistic and architectural accomplishments. So you might want to argue that we should all start worshiping Horus and Osiris, building pyramids, and preserving our loved one's organs in canopic jars. But none of that is going to fit.

Or consider seated mediation as a path to enlightenment. I think meditation is great, but the seated part is foolish. We're a fat, sedentary people. What we need is moving meditation. That seems to fit.

To thrive, we need to take our past understanding and update it.


Updating is a problem all civilizations and organizations face. They succeed because their rules, institutions, and behaviors work for a moment in history. But time doesn't hold still. The underlying conditions keep changing. So any fixed set of rules or beliefs about human organization need to be updated. Because they were assuredly flawed to begin with.

To be clear, I'm not negating science here. Gravity is gravity. You can choose to ignore it, but it will never ignore you. But physics is simper to human relations. For example, what's the proper role of women in society? Is there a right answer? Sure. Can we know what it is all in one stroke? Not a chance in hell. The best we can hope to do is move progressively to less wrong answers.

History shows that can answer this question a number of ways and have a "successful" civilization, but what we can't do now answer this question in any of the ways we have in the past. Much of the "success" is ethically unacceptable to us today.

We have to update. And updating is where honesty really shines as a societal virtue. The person who tells the truth is the person who brings the new information that allows the structures of society to be updated. Which someone who is honest enough to speak the truth when it is dangerous -- and skillful enough to do it in a productive way. Very, very valuable.

The HBO series Chernobyl is about this question. Consider this fantastic monologue.

To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not. Whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn't care about our needs or wants. It doesn't care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask, what is the cost of lies?

The cost of lies, if unchecked, is, ultimately, the destruction of civilization. Not because lies are in and of themselves destructive, although they certainly can be, but because the civilization stagnates and crumbles when the people in it can no longer come to grips with the underlying reality of their situation. I think this becomes more true the more technologically advanced that we become. But our technological power might be blinding us to this fact because we imagine that we can use lies to control populations without wildly unintended consequences.

So if I'm being honest about honesty, the truth seems to be, that we are not very good at telling the truth anymore. And we don't reward or venerate those who do. Consider the fate of whistleblowers -- Julian Assange, Edward Snowden come to mind, but pick any whistleblower and see what their reward has been?

Right now there is great concern about the honesty of information on social networks and what can be done to regulate speech online. This seems like a disastrous idea to me because the question is too complicated for a top-down solution. But beyond that, I don't think any individual can abdicate their responsibility central authority. You can't outsource virtue.

All of us are charged with the responsibilty of being honest and demanding honesty of others in return.

I'll give you an example. A few years ago there was a sudden and unexpected change of personnel at my son's preschool. There had been problems with a teacher in my son's class and then the teacher was gone. But nothing had been explained. So we had a conference and I asked, "What happened?"

As a response, I got one of those, "To uphold our standards and policies, a change has been made." Bullshit often speaks in the passive voice. Since I didn't get an answer to my question, I asked it again, "Yes, but what happened?"

I got another bullshit response. This one including something about upholding confidentiality, blah, blah. So I asked again. In fact, I said, very calmly, "You haven't answered my question. And I need an answer. So I'm going to keep asking this question until you tell me the truth, and I don't care how long it takes."

And, to my surprise, it worked. They told me everything. And they were relieved to do so.

I've thought about this situation a lot. I had no real power. But I refused to let them off the hook. I refused to politely ease the burden of their lying. I wasn't a jerk about it. I was just honest about the dishonesty.

I'm left with the idea that the only reason it worked was because they knew they weren't being honest and they knew that it was a bad way to be in the world. In that moment, I didn't get angry or tell them that they were terrible people, I invited them to be better. To be honest. To be worthy of being honored by others.

And they stepped up. Because who doesn't want to be honored?

It's hard to tell the truth well. Because the truth is complicated, and so is every situation into which you might have to speak truth. But we can be honest about that with each other. And we can be honest about when someone's not telling us the truth.