COMMENTARY 763.4: Being Basically Honest

After a workshop, a fellow came up to me and complained that I had made him feel uncomfortable. “I’m not perfect,” he said, “But I’m basically honest.” His implication was that it’s unfair to expect people to be honest all the time.

His comment reminded me of a cartoon where one fellow confided to another, “I admire Webster’s honesty, but his insistence on being scrupulously honest is really annoying.”

Look, I’m not an honesty absolutist. I think it was okay to lie to Nazis to save innocent lives, and I approve of police lying during undercover operations to catch drug dealers or corrupt politicians. I also think it’s okay to tell your grandmother you really like the sweater she knitted or let young children believe in the Tooth Fairy.

But be careful. It’s easy to stretch these special situations into an endless chain of rationalizations that justify lying whenever it’s convenient.

Every lie must be justified by competing moral principles, not simply self-interest. Some lying during criminal investigations pass muster because they are subjected to judicial review and advance a long-term public good. And there are times when “white” lies can be justified when kindness trumps truthfulness.

Otherwise, being scrupulously honest is not only possible; it’s desirable and morally mandatory.

Being basically honest is not enough. It’s like saying, “I really want to be honest, but not if it costs too much, not if it prevents me from getting what I want.”

Honesty is crucial, not only to uphold an abstract moral principle, but to preserve one of our most important personal assets – credibility. Despite self-serving excuses, almost all lies breach trust and undermine credibility.

Once someone lies to us, even on a small thing, we always think, “What else have you lied to me about?” How many times do you get to lie before you are a liar? How many times does someone get to lie to you before distrust sets in?

Being honest only when it suits our purpose isn’t honesty at all.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 1

  1. I feel like you are actually too lenient with lying. Kind honesty is better. Tell grandma the truth about the sweater, but kindly. Because what would make her most happy is to be able to knit you something that would thrill you and if she knows what you actually like and dislike, she’ll have a better chance at that. I am fortunate to be part of a family where we can be honest and laugh about it and admit when our knitting projects turn out rather goofy. I think a good rule of thumb for when it’s okay to lie is sort of like when it is okay to kill, only in self-defense. Will your lie save a life? Only if the answer is yes is it morally acceptable. I’m not perfect, but I try to tell the truth as often and as kindly as possible.

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