Honesty is a huge bug-a-bear for me. (Is that the expression? Whatever. If it wasn’t before, it is now.) I struggle with honesty, for several reasons.
I don’t want to make people feel bad.
I don’t like being wrong.
I’m often wrong and people are harsh and judgmental about those who are wrong.
I don’t like putting myself in a vulnerable position for no good reason.
While I am firmly in the cliche camp that “honesty is (generally) the best policy” and think that, even though there do exist good and moral reasons to lie, honesty should be our default, I think the kind of honesty that is “best policy” is wholly dependent on each situation. I think there is a sliding scale of how much honesty is best, and even what kind of honest is best.
I’d go so far as to say that honesty in its pure form, as we tend to think of it, is not a virtue. (Aristotle’s virtuous mean, son!!) If I’m going to commit to that statement, I also have to admit that lying, either directly or by omission, is not purely a vice. And I don’t even need to invoke the “Should you lie to hide Jews from the Nazis?” question, because OF COURSE YOU SHOULD HOW IS THAT EVEN A QUESTION FOR THE LOVE OF PETE. For Pete’s sake.
I think that honesty should be considered with its consequences in mind. There are different consequences that should be weighed appropriately:
- How will this revelation affect my relationship with this person?
- How will my perfect honesty affect my job security?
- Is this a moral issue or an issue of interpersonal consideration?
- Will this accomplish something good, something I want, or both?
- Even if it does hurt my relationships, is it still the right thing to do?
- What Good will my full honesty accomplish? Is that the highest Good in this situation?
There are many answers to the above questions that would make perfect honesty wholly inappropriate, maladaptive, and harmful. I find this rather amusingly basic, because it reflects reality. We are rarely as honest as we claim to be in a normative sense. When speaking in broad generalities, we always proclaim that yes! Honesty is best and liars suck. But we lie all the time. We hide or obfuscate the truth in order to preserve our relationships, our jobs, and our general social standing. And this is good!
I can be a very judgmental person, because I can be a very insecure person. I would hate to be perfectly and openly honest about my judgments, because they so often need correcting. Part of the reason perfect honesty is not what I would ever prescribe is because I am and we are so rarely right. At least, we are so rarely perfectly right. Most of our honest opinions about others are based on woefully incomplete information, such that we should probably put more effort into refraining from forming opinions so that we then don’t have to put as much effort into refraining from expressing bad opinions. It’s not good or right to be perfectly honest about many of our thoughts, because we could end up hurting someone unnecessarily, for all the wrong reasons. (Hence why I tend towards building people up as a policy — it really does help me see them in a more truthful and real way. Everyone deserves compassion.)
Then there are truths about us, and how and when we reveal deep, personal, vulnerable truths about ourselves. Again, that is wholly dependent on the situation — in this case, the relationship. I am much more free and also much more obligated to be fully honest with my husband about my desires, needs, wants, feelings, past, and self than with anyone else. This is because I trust him more than I trust anyone else, and because we are literally building a life together. He needs to know how I am affected by things in order for us to build a happy life, and he deserves to know who he is in relationship with. I do not owe, nor do I get the same benefit from, this level of honesty with coworkers, strangers, even friends. A certain level of honesty is required for productivity, intimacy, and any kind of relationship, of course, but the depth of honesty required is wholly dependent on the nature of the situation itself. And frankly? Not everyone deserves it.
Does this mean I advocate lying? To be honest (ha), yeah. Sometimes our honesty needs to be earned, and not everyone deserves our honesty. Some people don’t deserve our honest judgments because they are better people than our insecurities recognize, and some people don’t deserve our self-revelations because they haven’t earned our trust. Sometimes lying is the best policy. Don’t @ me.
I really do think one of the best things we can develop in ourselves is a determination to be intentional and careful about the kind of honest we are in each situation, making our honesty tailored to what is deserved — deserved from us, deserved of us, and deserved by us. Calling honesty a blanket, perfect virtue does a disservice to ourselves and others.