Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Virtues - Honesty

Honesty is quite a complex concept. Nearly every ethical system forbids lying in some manner, though there are numerous exceptions.

First, what is honesty? Intent is at the very heart of honesty (and dishonesty). An honest person may say something untrue, but if they believe what they say, it is not a lie; it is a mistake. So while honesty may seem to be related to truth, it is not. Whether a statement is a lie depends not upon the objective truth of the statement, but in the intent of the speaker. In fact, a true statement may be made by someone lying.

Suppose a used car dealer sells you a car which he says is in great shape and was only driven by a little old lady to church on Sundays. It runs great for 15 years, with no major problems. You think he is an honest salesman. What you don’t know is that the salesman knew the car had recently been in a major accident, was repaired for a bargain, and he believed the car would fall apart in a year or two. In this case, the salesman is still dishonest, even though the results (luckily) did not victimize someone.

The most interesting lies are not the lies we tell others, but the lies we tell ourselves. It becomes stranger still if we begin to believe those lies. Our very perception of reality may be altered by the lies we tell ourselves. No woman I know can look in a mirror and see how beautiful she is, and no man I know says he has a small penis, but I assume most think it… which is why we buy nice cars.

One cannot discuss honesty without dealing with “the white lie,” or as I like to call it, the polite lie. The polite lie is a statement made by a speaker who knows it is not true when telling the truth would insult or upset others. The classic example is:

A wife asks her husband if she looks fat in something. The husband replies “no,” either without even looking or without any consideration for whether it is a true statement.

I don’t particularly like this example, as it seems to imply wives always look fat, but I assure the reader this is not what I mean (everyone knows they only look fat around when they’re getting their period). In this scenario, the husband knows the “right” answer before making any observation. The woman does the same thing when she tells her husband she enjoys sex.

I try not to do this. You may not believe me, but ask my friends (or lack thereof) and you’ll see I’m telling the truth. Truth is all I am ever concerned with. I openly criticize everything and everyone, even those I love. It does not make one popular among fools, but it can earn respect among the intelligent. Some people want friends who will tell them the honest truth.

What if the wife in question is in fact wearing something that makes her appear fat? Perhaps the pants are too tight, and as a result she has developed a muffin top. Wearing something that bears the midriff would not be very flattering. An honest comment and simple change of clothes (baggy sweater) would be all that is necessary to rectify the situation. For guy problem, see also: cars.

This is innocent enough, but the board rooms of America are filled with opportunities for an even more dangerous, though equally infantile, game of denial. Perhaps our current economic situation might have been avoided if less “yes men” had encouraged the activities of the ignorant few at the top. There are many endeavors which have failed solely because no one had the guts to correct the boss.

We call these people whistleblowers, which isn’t too flattering. It reminds me of hallway monitors or something equally irritating and shrill. These people are more than whistleblowers. Anyone can nod their head in agreement and go with the flow. It takes a hero to stand against the stream, and even divert it elsewhere.

Honesty is something the world could use more of. Sometimes it appears that there is less integrity, reliability and authenticity in the world today. I attribute this to advertising, which is the industry of bullshit. America has perfected the fine art of deception. In a nation obsessed with appearance, honesty is in short supply. I sometimes wonder if it’s also in short demand as well. Better to just jack ourselves off as everything burns, right?

There simply isn’t enough candor anymore. People are afraid to speak up. This is a form of dishonesty: the lie of omission. This is not a lie in the traditional sense, because a lie is a knowingly false statement made by the speaker with the intent of deception. The lie of omission is deception, as the “liar” in this case knows something and purposely does not divulge it.

Worse yet, some people will not only omit the truth, they will inundate the us with meaningless drivel in an attempt to divert all attention away from the deception. Bush was a master at this. Some say he was a fool. I think he was a tactical genius. He achieved far more of his goals during his eight years than Obama or any liberal ever would.

It’s just truly unfortunate Bush felt it was more important to avenge his daddy, funnel money to the wealthy, deregulate our markets to the point of major recalls on a monthly basis, and let’s not forget assault weapons galore. All he had to do was rile up the liberal base on meaningless issues that affect almost no one, and while the liberals flooded talks shows with snide remarks about Bush not being about to complete a sentence, he was off cutting brush at home while his people did all the work in Washington. Bush got what he wanted, and he got it while staying home; that is the American dream, right there.

But I digress…

Honesty, while important, is only the tip of the ethical iceberg. It is superficial. Actions are the true measure of one’s morality. Words would have no power to them if they did not inspire, or incite, action.


  1. Very interesting post.

    Now I wonder that I serious lack virtue because I'm in the closet. And ironically, people assume I have virtue because they assume I'm a Christian.

    My intent is not to hurt or disappoint others. And, of course, my intent is to protect myself from criticism.

    Hmmmm . . . you've given me a lot to think about. Maybe I am a scoundrel-- a fool.

    But another aspect of your point that I see is that an non-believer in religion can still maintain virtue of honesty in his or her quest for truth.

  2. I think you'd hurt or disappoint people more by telling them. Your situation is not an easy one, having to make a decision between being open and rejected or mute and accepted.

    Like I said with my post, I think intent is more important than truth. If you let others believe what they do about you because you seek to keep peace, then I think what you're doing is acceptable.

    You're most certainly not a scoundrel or a fool (maybe a scruffy looking nerf-herder). It does not hurt other people and you seem willing to accept the burden.

    There's nothing wrong with not wanting to be "that guy."


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