In this blog I will talk about honesty – something I think many well-intentioned people struggle with. This is because sometimes it seems like lying is the right thing to do – and in some rare cases, it is. To paraphrase Sam Harris, when Nazis came looking for Anne Frank and her family, anyone lying about them not being hidden in the building was certainly doing the right thing.
That said, in all but the most extreme cases, people choose dishonesty for misguided reasons. This happens because sometimes the truth hurts. In fact, sometimes, truth is used as a weapon.
The confusion is, in part, because while honesty can be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it always is. Honesty must be wielded virtuously, which is not automatic. In fact on its own, honesty is not a virtue.
Honesty is not a virtue
In classical antiquity, there are the four cardinal virtues. In brief, here they are (these definitions are mine – for more formal details, check this link):
- Prudence: The ability to judge the appropriateness of a possible course of action.
- Courage: The strength to act in the presence of fear.
- Temperance: The exercise of restraint in feeding an appetite.
- Justice: The purest form of fairness, in a righteous sense.
So honesty is not a cardinal virtue. Now over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have added more virtues to the cardinal four. Of these there are three that I think are moral necessities. These are “love”, “charity” and “kindness”.
Still, on it’s own, honesty is not there. This is because honesty can be used morally (specifically in the context of love, charity and kindness), but it can also inflict pain – intentionally or not. Let’s have a look at that second situation first – the “brutal” honesty.
“I am going to be brutally honest with you.”
How many times have you encountered that sentiment? How many times have you said it? Let’s stop to consider what it prefaces: that the person is about to lay some bit of perspective on you that they know is going to hurt.
This is usually justified by the idea that you are deluded somehow, and need to “snap” out of it. Or you need a “hard” dose of reality. Or any other number of violent paradigm shifts the perpetrator feels they are uniquely prepared to impose. Because, after all, the world is full of people willing to coddle you, creating the need for someone righteous enough to tell you the truth, even though it will hurt.
This is bullshit.
This “brutal” honesty is really an attempted behaviour modification through punishment. The shock it is expected to impose is designed to somehow shine light on a deficiency in perception, so that you cease your persistence in pursuing some vision. A vision which, according to the person with the flashlight, is a fantasy. It tends to come from a place of anger and – make no mistake – is meant to make you suffer for whatever pain your apparent delusion has been causing them.
People who use this phrase like to project pride in their willingness to use it. You may hear them boast such claims as “Hey, I call it like I see it”, or “I’m a straight-shooter”. It comes with admonishments like “The truth hurts”, or “If you don’t want to hear the truth then you don’t want to be around me”. They may be offering honest assessments, but they are nested in dishonest motivation, even though the motivation is sitting right there in the phrase. Brutal is not a nice word.
Check out that definition. There is nothing in there that speaks to any kind of morality or good intention, and certainly nothing virtuous. Even the entry about brutal truth contains no compassion. Accurate? Yes. But unpleasantly and incisively so.
So then someone who prefaces the delivery of truth with “I am going to be brutally honest” is – by their own admission – embarking on a non-virtuous wielding of honesty as a weapon to deliver misery. I propose that in the vast majority of situations, the fundamental reason for this is that even though they are using the word, they are not being honest about their own motivation – the desire to be brutal.
But I don’t want to be brutal!
It’s okay – I know. This notion of brutal honesty leads to a concern from good people who don’t want to be brutal. There is a perception that if the truth is brutal, or perhaps unsavoury, then a lie would be better. Keep in mind though that lies come with a heightened anxiety of their being discovered. This often leads to uncomfortable situations, where additional and more elaborate lies are needed to maintain the facade of truth.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to be honest and virtuous. I call it “graceful honesty”.
Honesty with grace
First, let’s have a look at the definition of grace, so that you can understand why I chose that word. Grace has many meanings, so I have highlighted the ones I am applying in this context:
Recall earlier, when I spoke about the three virtues of “love”, “charity” and “kindness”. In many ways, the word grace encapsulates these, and so I choose it to describe the type of honesty I mean.
First, be honest with yourself
Graceful honesty isn’t difficult, but it does require some practice if you are not in the habit. The key to it is when you find yourself either tempted to be dishonest, or about to be brutally honest, you stop and spend some time being honest with yourself first. If your motivations are virtuous, then there will be a way to communicate honestly with grace. Conversely, if your intentions are nefarious, then hopefully you will be honest with yourself about that and choose some other course, having recognized the toxicity of your initial instinct. The key then, is to use self-reflection to uncover and put words to your motivation. I don’t want to use too many specific examples here, because it is easy to make arguments about the inaccuracy of an example as it applies to yourself, and then decide the concept is flawed, but I’ll indulge in one in the hope that it will be a good springboard.
Dinner at Kelly’s
Suppose you have been invited to dinner at your friend Kelly’s house, and you just don’t feel like going. The likelihood is that if you decide not to go, you will fabricate an excuse. Further, the excuse probably has a half-life greater than a few hours. What I mean by that is that it’s probably a concocted scenario that will likely be referred to at a later date. For example, you may claim “my kid is sick”, which you can bet Kelly will ask about in the next day or two, and may even ask your child. In this case you will have to remember the excuse so that you don’t accidentally contradict it later, and you may even have to recruit your family to perpetuate the dishonesty – something they are more likely to forget about, since they are not vested in the lie. Result? Anxiety.
Instead, consider this. You really do value your friendship with Kelly. You also don’t feel like going. Before choosing to be dishonest, you can spend some time in honest self-reflection. Why don’t you want to go? Be super analytical about that. You may discover that you actually do want to go, or you will confirm that you don’t. If you truthfully don’t want to go, you will now be better able to put into words what the real reason is, which will of necessity consist of the factors that are outweighing your legitimate desire to spend time with Kelly.
If you tell Kelly exactly that reason, and if Kelly is a good human, she will understand, because you have been fully honest and presented the reason in full context of how you struggled with the decision. She will appreciate the conflict, and understand the conclusion, even if she is disappointed.
But wait you say! I know Kelly! She would never understand! She would just be insulted! Well, I’m not foolish. I know this is also a possibility. But here’s the thing: this is only the current state of your relationship because of a history of implicit dishonesty about motivation. Which means there is room for more honesty – on her part and on yours. See, if at the core you both value each other and the friendship, then you mean no insult, and so how can she be insulted? And the core is all that actually matters – because it is impossible that either of you wants the other to be upset. That core exists, and honesty will land you there. Graceful honesty.
Graceful honesty doesn’t mean everyone is happy
In the example above, Kelly is probably going to be disappointed. You might also. That may seem contrary to virtue, but it isn’t. Not if you were honest about the factors that outweighed your desire to go. Disappointment isn’t a monster to be avoided at all costs. It’s a natural consequence of not being able to implement more than one choice at a time.
One of the great contributors to dishonesty is a desire to keep everyone happy – or at least not miserable. But it’s a trap. Lying by definition creates a false narrative. Perpetuating this to maintain a state of happiness, in fact maintains a state of delusion. One from which the participants (barring tragedy) must eventually emerge, and who’s discovery is unlikely to legitimize the illusion of peace they were enjoying. Put simply, the lie just sets everyone up for a bigger fall.
But life isn’t about being happy all the time! We all know this. We all experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment. For the most part we don’t let these things impact the zoomed-out graph of our lives. Yet we find ourselves willing to skirt honesty with others to somehow shield them from these normal experiences.
Have you ever said something to someone in anger that you later regret? I’m betting you have. I’m betting some if it was pretty damn poisonous, and required a lot of apology, replete with the sentiment “I didn’t mean it”. But is that really true? More specifically, does “I didn’t mean it” mean the same thing as “it wasn’t true”?
My experience tells me that what we are really trying to say is “I regret using honesty to hurt you – it isn’t consistent with how I feel about you.” This can be about something you’ve been holding in for a while, or it can be about an emotion that was real in that moment, instigated by the anger. For example, “I hate you!” during an argument isn’t totally untrue, just imprecise: it really means “I hate this feeling I’m having right now that you are causing”, and it is 100% true. It is also 100% forgivable, because it is 100% understandable.
If you think about this for a while, you will see that the real mistake is not being honest earlier, when graceful honesty would have worked: “I love you, and I’m in it for the long haul, but I do get irritated when you don’t put the cap on the toothpaste. I do not equate this behaviour with you, and my irritation is therefore not aimed at you, but the behaviour.”
That last quote is wordy and annoying, I know. But it’s the idea I am trying to communicate, not a recipe for how to tell your husband to put the damn cap on the toothpaste. Very often we don’t disclose little irritants like that because we are concerned it will be taken as criticism of a loved one we don’t want to hurt, as opposed to observation of a behaviour that is independent of the reasons we care about the person exhibiting it. Graceful honesty would disclose all of that, and keep the barbs from growing onto a club that could be wielded in anger.
See, hiding the truth is silly. We are all in this reality together. We should share it. All of it.
Honesty is the sharing of reality.
Think about it. How can honesty be anything else? But as I said earlier, to do it with grace requires a deeper searching of our own motives than we normally do. So the next time you feel like a lie is warranted (or if you are tempted to inflict pain with truth), ask yourself why. What is motivating you? Who are you trying to protect? Who are you trying to help? When you feel the truth needs to be hidden, put away the issue whose truth is troubling you for a moment and look at the feeling itself – it will be the source of the honesty you should embrace. The reality you should share. It is the only way to build and maintain relationships that have value.
Thanks for reading,