Monday 19th February, 2007

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When honesty is not enough

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 I’ve implied, a close affinity with integrity. A simple definition of an honest person is one who doesn’t 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 one’s 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, that’s 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 wife—soon to be his widow—miserable 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 have had.

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 risk.

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 know—whether the context is a new love, buying a house, or being under some obligation of disclosure—should 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 integrity—and 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 don’t tell him that. I say I can’t offer you a dollar more than a flat million.

He in turn may want $1.3 but says instead, I can’t 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. It’s 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 didn’t 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 honesty—or integrity—meant total disclosure.

“The whole truth and nothing but the truth”—the 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.

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