On the Philosophy of Honesty

What Does It Take to Be "a Good Fellow"?

Statue, located in Aristotle`s park, Stagira, Halkidiki, Greece'
What can Aristotle's "virtue ethics" tell us about honesty?. sneeska / Getty Images

What does it take to be honest? Although often invoked, the concept of honesty is quite tricky to characterize. Taking a closer look, it is a cognate notion of authenticity. Let’s see why.

Truth and Honesty

While it may be tempting to define honesty as speaking the truth and abiding by the rules, this is an overly-simplistic view of a complex concept. Telling the truth – the whole truth – is at times practically and theoretically impossible as well as morally not required or even wrong.

Suppose your new partner asks you to be honest about what you have done over the past week, when you were apart: does this mean you’ll have to tell everything you have done? Not only you may not have enough time and you won’t recall all details; but, really, is everything relevant? Should you also talk about the surprise party you are organizing for next week for your partner?

The relationship between honesty and truth is much more subtle. What is truth about a person, anyway? When a judge asks a witness to tell the truth about what happened that day, the request cannot be for any particular whatsoever, but only for relevant ones. Who is to say which particulars are relevant?

Honesty and the Self

Those few remarks should be sufficient in clearing up the intricate relationship there is between honesty and the construction of a self. Being honest involves the capacity to select, in a way that is context-sensitive, certain particulars about our lives.

At the very least, hence, honesty requires an understanding of how our actions do or do not fit within rules and expectations of the Other – where the latter stands for any person we feel obliged to report to, including ourselves.

Honesty and Authenticity

But there's to the relationship between honesty and the self.

Have you been honest with yourself? That is indeed a major question, discussed not only by figures such as Plato and Kierkegaard, but also in David Hume’s "Philosophical Honesty." To be honest to ourselves seems to be a key part of what it takes to be authentic: only those who can face themselves, in all their own peculiarity, seem to be capable of developing a persona that is true to herself – hence, authentic.

Honesty as a Disposition

If honesty is not telling the whole truth, what is it? One way to characterize it, typically adopted in virtue ethics (that school of ethics that developed from Aristotle’s teachings), makes of honesty a disposition. Here goes my rendering of the topic. A person is honest when she possesses the disposition to face the Other by making explicit all those details that are relevant to the conversation at issue.

The disposition in question is a tendency, which has been cultivated over time. That is, an honest person is one that has developed the habit of bringing forward to the Other all those details of her life that seem relevant in conversation with the other. The ability to discern that which is relevant is part of honesty and is, if course, quite a complex skill to possess.

Further Online Readings

Despite its centrality in ordinary life as well as ethics and philosophy of psychology, honesty is not a major trend of research in the contemporary philosophical debate. Here are, however, some sources that can be useful in reflecting more on the challenges posed by the issue.