Honesty is a virtue that seems not only self-evidently but
self-sufficiently important. It is often used interchangeably
with integrity, though the two qualities are not the same.
One cannot have integrity without being honest, but it is
quite possible to be honest and be lacking in integrity.
Honesty runs into problems similar to those that afflict sincerity.
Sincerity is an important value, but a sincere racist is no
contradiction in terms.
Honesty has, as Ive implied, a close affinity with integrity.
A simple definition of an honest person is one who doesnt
lie. If we take a lie to be, as Sissela Bok suggests, any
intentionally deceptive message which is stated, one
can see immediately that one can be honest, truthful, and
still not pass muster where other qualities are concerned,
notably, as I suggest, integrity.
A life of integrity is at the least an examined life. One
examines what one believes, or stands for, and chooses to
adopt a particular attitude in the light of this. Integrity
thus presumes some work of discernment. One takes time to
figure out whether ones convictions are right, or true,
or worthy enough to be held.
Honesty, on the other hand, appears to give the impression
that no work and no scrutiny are required. One simply has
to be what one is, which normally means what one appears to
be. Thus people would often say, Well, thats just
how I am, as a way of ending all argument, as if how
they are was self-evidently a good way to be.
But honesty that takes no time to look at things, or is heedless
of self-scrutiny, may hardly qualify as honesty at all. Consider
the following example.
A man who had been married for 50 years confesses to his wife
on his deathbed that he was unfaithful 35 years earlier. The
dishonesty was killing his spirit, he says. Now he has cleared
his conscience and is able to die in peace.
Has the husband been honest? Well, sort of. He has certainly
unburdened himself. And he has probably made his wifesoon
to be his widowmiserable in the process. Even if she
forgives him, she will not be able to remember him with quite
the same vivid images of love and loyalty she may otherwise
Arranging his own emotional affairs to ease his transition
to death, he has shifted to his wife the burden of confusion
and pain, perhaps for the rest of her life. Besides, he attempts
his honesty at the one time of his life when it carries no
One can even say more. The husband may have been honest in
an unexamined sense, but he has been unfaithful for a second
time in the process. Contrary to his marital promise to treat
his wife with love, he treats her here with naked, perhaps
even cruel, self-interest.
Can honesty be salvaged after this?
People in other contexts often confuse honesty not only with
telling the plain truth but with telling everything
one knows. Telling others what we knowwhether the context
is a new love, buying a house, or being under some obligation
of disclosureshould be governed by a sense of proportionality.
The issue is just how much disclosure is fitting in this particular
context. Telling everything may be either harmful or non-beneficial.
Honesty needs to be referred to some higher-order principle.
Many lovers, for instance, rue the day they told their partners
everything, under the feeling of obligation that honesty meant
coming clean. It does, but coming clean may imply
not total disclosure, but telling what I need to tell to give
my relationship integrityand keep integrity with myself.
In other contexts still, other considerations are appropriate.
If I am negotiating to buy a house and the seller lets it
be known that the selling price is $1.5 million, I may want
to offer $1.3, but I dont tell him that. I say I cant
offer you a dollar more than a flat million.
He in turn may want $1.3 but says instead, I cant let
it go for less than $1.4. This negotiation is not a lie. What
they two are doing is bargaining. To call this dishonest or
acting without integrity is rather foolish.
There is a famous case in contract law that first-year law
students (in the US) tend to be exposed to. Its the
Supreme Court case Laidlaw v Organ (1817). The case involved
the purchase of tobacco in New Orleans at depressed prices
because of the British blockade during the war of 1812.
The buyer had evidently heard that the war was over, which
meant that the price of tobacco was about to skyrocket. Communications
being what they were, the seller didnt know, and the
buyer was trying to take advantage of an opportune spread
in the price. When the seller learned that the war was over,
he took the tobacco back, and the buyer sued.
Did the buyer have an obligation to tell the seller that the
war was over? The court said no, there was no duty to speak.
If bargaining parties had to tell each other everything they
know, they would have less incentive to go out and get information.
Secondly, in the real world, we never tell the other party
everything we know. This does not mean we are free, either
morally or legally, to commit fraud through active misrepresentation.
But it does mean that bargaining would be impossible if honestyor
integritymeant total disclosure.
The whole truth and nothing but the truththe
expression seems to summarise all that honesty stands for.
It has a nice, absolute ring to it, but the phrase usually
means that obligations of disclosure are governed by integrity
combined with practical wisdom. That is really what determines
honest forms of speech and honest courses of action.