I’m taking a break from maths this week to think about a slightly “softer” subject – philosophy. Specifically, I’m thinking about the first Guide Law:
A Guide is honest, reliable and can be trusted.
On the face of it, this is a very simple rule. A Guide does not tell lies.
But there are three words here, and none of them are as simple as you would like to think. I was going to talk about all three words today, but I ended up saying so much about honesty that I decided to split it over a couple of posts.
Note: I am not a philosopher by training. There are probably several holes in this analysis. But that’s kind of the point – if we’re expecting 10-year-old Guides to promise to keep the Guide Law, it should be understandable by those without special training.
What is Honesty?
: good and truthful
: not lying, stealing, or cheating
: showing or suggesting a good and truthful character
: not hiding the truth about someone or something
: not meant to deceive someone
Where does the line come between telling the truth and being honest? If I tell the exact truth, I can still mislead you.
I once saw a man jump off a cliff. (On TV, and he was wearing a parachute.) I’ve been told that my neighbours are drunk all the time. (By someone who doesn’t like them, who I don’t trust, and I’ve never personally seen them drunk.) Most people liked this product. (From a sample of three, all of whom have previously bought our other products.)
Even without going so far as to deliberately mislead you, there are still questions.
If I tell you something I honestly believe, and later I discover it’s not true, am I under an obligation to go back to you and correct my earlier statement? Is it enough to correct it if it comes up in conversation, or do I have to make a point of letting you know?
Am I allowed to use sarcasm?
Or lie about where I am taking someone if I’ve organised a surprise party for them?
How Much Honesty is Enough?
Nobody suggests that being honest requires you to tell the whole truth about everything, all of the time. Imagine this:
Bob has been away on a work conference for a week. He’s tired and grumpy when he arrives home, and all he wants to do is sit on the sofa and hug his wife, Carol. But he knows that relationships take work, and he wants to show that he cares, so once he has a cup of tea in hand he asks her about her week.
“What did you do with yourself while I was gone, love?”
“Well,” begins Carol, “on Monday after you left I washed up the dishes from breakfast, and then I put a load of washing on. It was a white load, because I noticed that we’re running low on pants…”
Yeesh. Bob is banging his head against a wall within five seconds! Wouldn’t it be better if she answered with:
“Oh, this and that. A bit of housework, and I met up with the girls for a drink on Thursday. Alice sends her love, by the way, and Joan’s baby is starting to roll over. The cats did the most hilarious thing, let me tell you about it…”
On the other hand, there are situations where it is advisable (and sometimes legally required!) to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. How much truth is the right amount in any one situation?
Ultimately, this comes down to specifics and experience. You have to be able to recognise the situations to know how to react. For many situations, it’s pretty easy. If you’re in court or being interviewed by the police, it’s probably better to tell the entire truth. If you’re taking your friend to a surprise party, feel free to obfuscate a little.
It’s the bits in between that are harder. Does my bum look big in this? Would you like to come to my party? I spent hours making and decorating this cake yesterday, what do you think of it?
Telling the exact truth in these situations might result in hurt feelings. But telling lies might cause problems later.
“The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” ~ Aristotle
This is something I’ve often struggled with, and the problem is that there are no hard and fast rules. I’ve come to the conclusion that you do the best you can, and sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t.
Why be Honest?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in an article on Virtue Ethics, has this to say:
An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, practices honest dealing, and does not cheat. If such actions are done merely because the agent thinks that honesty is the best policy, or because they fear being caught out, rather than through recognising “To do otherwise would be dishonest” as the relevant reason, they are not the actions of an honest person.
So simply telling the truth is not enough to make you honest. You also have to be doing it for the right reasons.
Why should one tell the truth? Is it because telling the truth is simply a “good” thing to do (as the quote above says, “recognising that to do otherwise would be dishonest”)? Or because it will have good consequences, or avoid bad ones? Perhaps it is because there are moral rules which must be followed, such as “do unto others as you would be done by”?
Telling the truth, and having a reputation for doing so, can definitely have good consequences. Remember the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. It is a wonderful side effect, but should that be the reason for being honest? I don’t think so.
I don’t think fear of being caught out is a good reason to be honest either. Being publicly embarrassed at best, or sent to prison at worst, would be bad, and spending your whole life scared of being caught would be worse. I don’t think either of those are really a good enough reason to be honest.
“The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think.” ~ Aristotle
For me, the “why” of honesty is hard to answer, in the same way as the “why” of donating blood, or giving to charity, or being polite. I’ve been brought up to believe that these are things that you just do. I don’t give blood because I might need it in the future, or because I want people to know that I’m generous. It’s just the right thing to do. Being honest is the same.
Who are you being honest with?
I’d like to finish with this quote from Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. This is actually all one sentence – but I found it hard to read, so I’ve spread it out a bit.
Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud
— that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness becomes the enemies you have to dread and flee
— that you do not care to live as a dependent, lest of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling
— that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.
That’s pretty strong stuff, right there. A slave to the non-thinking of those I deceive? Dreading and fleeing from other people’s intelligence? Honesty is selfish?
I think the phrase that resonates most with me is this one: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others. This brings home to me that honesty is not just about your relationships with others, but with yourself.
At first glance it sounds like refusing to believe others, as if we are saying that to be honest you have to believe that you always know best and others are fools. It sounds like the worst of the possible interpretations of “be true to yourself” (if you’ve been following the Promise reactions, you know what I mean).
But, like that whole debate, a look beneath the surface reveals a much more sensible interpretation.
The key word here is “reality”. If we are honest with ourselves, we acknowledge the reality of the world. In my reality, I am fully aware that I don’t know everything. I also know that the same applies to everyone else.
If someone tells me I am a fool, I need to examine that statement and honestly admit – does it reflect reality or not? If it doesn’t, then I should refuse to sacrifice the reality of my own existence. If it does, then I should admit that the reality of my own existence is that I am a fool (and do something about it).
Of course, the same applies if someone praises me. Honesty compels me to examine the statement. Does it reflect reality?
If I can honestly admit my mistakes, I can change for the better. If I can honestly admit my strengths, I can build self-respect.
If I am dishonest with myself, I can do neither.
What do you think “honesty” means? Do you agree with my interpretation? Or disagree wildly?