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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Myth of Honesty

There's this idea that being an honest person is respectable. An example of this is Abraham Lincoln who was later, as everyone knows, nick named Honest Abe because he could never tell a lie. The name Honest Abe, at least to my understanding, is not used nowadays to be pejorative.

Nowadays, and perhaps this has been going on for centuries, people will be malicious to someone but excuse their behavior by stating "I'm just being honest." For example, imagine Tom asks Steve if he looks good in his new shirt. Steve takes a look at Tom and says "That is the ugliest shirt I've ever seen! Why would you buy that hideous thing?" Tom replies with "why are you being so mean?" and Steve responds "I'm just being honest." Tom, the victim of brutal honesty is then forced to evaluate the situation by weighing the fact that Steve is both hurtful and honest.  Steve's behavior is without a doubt hurtful, but his actions are shielded by the virtue of honesty; and this is the problem.

In our society we have an understanding, at least to my knowledge, that honesty is the best policy, that you can never go wrong with telling the truth, and that honesty is the basis of good relationships. But like so many general statements, this isn't true, honesty is not always the best policy, you can go wrong with telling the truth, and honesty is not always the basis of good relationships (I'd argue that it is never the basis of good relationships). Instead honesty is only the best policy in situations where it is the most appropriate answer. For example, when one is in court on trial, honesty is the best policy because it is the most socially desirable response. When someone asks for directions, honesty is the best policy because it is the most socially desirable answer. But in many social situations, honesty is not the most socially desirable answer. For example, if you run into someone that you haven't seen in a while, like an old co-worker, and they say "it's so good to see you," the most socially appropriate answer is not "well I don't ever think about you, and I actually think you're a little dumb, and I really don't miss you at all," but something along the lines of "it's so good to see you too."

But what does it mean that honesty is not always the best policy? One interpretation is that protocol is the best policy, that you can never go wrong with following protocol, and that protocol is the basis of good relationships. We are not a society that respects unrestrained honesty, but a society that respects honesty when it is appropriate, and therefore we are a society that values protocol more than the truth.

1 comment:

  1. that's an interesting point, and you could go as far to say that being polite would mean that you would sometimes have to lie. if I could make it otherwise, I would abolish phrases like 'how are you?' or 'it's nice to meet you' unless they were genuine, but as a culture we have decided that being polite takes priority over what is true and at the end of the day we do live with others and need to be on relatively good terms with each other to survive, so I go with the flow in that sense.

    in close relationships, though, I think you could make the argument that honesty is still best. in the Steve-Tom example, Steve could say something like "it doesn't fit my taste, but as long as you're comfortable in it" and by doing so he would be still be honest without offending anyone (unless Tom was an extremely sensitive person). so while you could use 'I'm just being honest' as an excuse for saying something unpopular or disagreeable, I wouldn't take it as an excuse to insult people or to be insensitive, since you can still present your opinion honestly without being rude.