What is honesty?

We intuitively sense that honesty is a disposition toward the truth.  In particular, it is a disposition to tell the truth or at least a disposition against lying.  But, when we begin to think about honesty in more detail, several questions arise, and these questions sometimes make it difficult to determine when and if people are lying or telling the truth:

  • Must we always tell the truth?
  • Is it permissible to withhold truths?  If so, under what circumstances?
  • Is it ever permissible to obscure the truth or outright lie about it?  If so, under what circumstances?
  • Is it sufficient to believe that what we say is true, or must what we say actually be true?
  • How much are we obligated to verify that what we believe to be true is actually true?
  • Is it a requirement of honesty that we share all the relevant information we know to be true, or is it permissible to withhold some of this information?

As these questions demonstrate, what it means to be honest is not as simple as it might initially seem.  This is why it is so difficult to call someone a “liar” or something they’ve said a “lie.”  By withholding certain information or presenting it in a tendentious way, speakers can claim to have told the truth.  While they may not be able to claim that they have been honest, they can at least escape the charge of having lied.  They do this by what we call “innuendo,” “hype,” “propaganda,” “deception,” “insincerity,” “salesmanship,” “casuistry,” “rhetoric,” “bullshit,” “jive,” or “crap.”

Then there are all the errors in reasoning that philosophers refer to as “fallacies.”  These are mistakes rather than lies or dishonesty, but they are often used by people who know better so as to make people believe things that are not true.

Needless to say, politicians make use of all of these tools to convince us of what they want us to believe.  This is probably an inevitable part of politics, and we may not even want our politicians to tell the whole truth all of the time.