I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately.
They say that a philosopher is by definition a lover of wisdom.
Because the philosopher loves wisdom, he realizes that to genuinely know something, that something must be true.
That is, the acquisition of wisdom requires some degree of factual accuracy.
Now, when I was in high school, a friend of a friend of a friend claimed that she believed that honesty is the best policy. That is, she claimed in any situation, no matter the consequences, that the best thing to do is to always tell the truth.
Most people who say they believe in always telling the truth think they’re like this:
But more often than not they’re like this:
I suppose, though, a philosopher would agree that that honesty is the best policy a good idea to live by.
Unfortunately, in the non-philosophical world, those whose personal creed is honesty is the best policy tend to use their insatiable need to be honest in all situations as an excuse to say rude things.
Personally, I haven’t seen anyone guided by a philosophical need to be truthful as much as I’ve seen someone who completely lacks a sense of tact.
Case in point: In a March, 2010 interview with Playboy magazine, well-known douche nozzle musician John Mayer unloaded intimate info about relationships, his preferences in pornography , and masturbation. Mayer confessed that he had tongued Perez Hilton “almost as if I hated fags”, and that, so far as his preference in sexual partners goes, Mayer described his penis as comparable to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke.
That is to say, John Mayer’s penis prefers to have sexual intercourse with white women.
I’m guessing that John Mayer was probably thinking that honesty is the best policy.
It‘s absolutely no surprise that the reaction to Mayer’s comments was less than admiring of his public display of honesty.
And videos like this:
Unfortunately for John Mayer, being honest not only tarnished his reputation (ok, he had a rep for being kind of douchy before that) but Mayer’s comments also offended some of his fan base.
This can be a bad consequence if one’s livelihood necessarily depends on the spending habits of the music-listening public.
Now, as philosophers we can appreciate the pursuit of truth – in the interest of achieving
the greater good. We want to know the situation as it truly is. Because, as whistle-blower Chelsea Manning said when asked why she disclosed classified government information:
without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.
However, if severe career damage is just as likely an outcome of oversharing truth-telling as achieving the greater good, is honesty really – practically and philosophically speaking -always the best policy?
How honest do we have to be?
Wait, I realize that I’m doing something here. I’ve used the words “honesty”, “honest”, “true”, and “truth” interchangeably. This may be a problem for some people. Philosophy is all about using precise language. Unfortunately, our colloquialisms tend to do to the language the opposite of precision.
However, I assume that we can all agree that being honest is the same as being truthful.
Ok – let’s say that I make a claim that something is true; or rather, I insist that I am being truthful. I claim that I am currently living in the USA and I am approximately 64 inches tall.
These claims are true, by the way.
I am, in fact, currently in the United States. And I am indeed approximately 64 inches tall.
Both of these claims are demonstrably true.
But if I go further and claim that I am an honest person it’s obvious that I am making some ethical claim about myself.
Of course if we’re making ethical claims, answering the question “how honest do we have to be?” is all about moral obligation. Are we morally obligated to be honest and to whom do we owe our moral obligation? The answer depends on who you ask.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) says that our moral obligation is a matter of duty – that is, it is our duty to do good (acts) no matter the consequences to others or ourselves. That means if your wife asks you if the dress she’s wearing makes her look fat, it is your moral duty, according to Kant, to inform your wife not only does she look fat in the dress, but also that no matter what she wears she looks fat.*
Because it’s not the dress.
Following Kant’s ethics may ruin your relationship with your wife
… but at least you were honest.
It wouldn’t take much time before you realize that being a Kantian will seriously impair your ability to throw shade
Ok, let’s put Kant aside for a moment.
According to Aristotle’s virtue ethics practicing virtues such as being honest (telling the truth) makes us a good person.
And so the truthful man as observing the mean, is praiseworthy, while the untruthful characters are both blamable, but the boastful more than the ironical
Since society can function only if its citizens are virtuous, Aristotle says, it is necessary for everyone to tell the truth.
Still, if you’re a utilitarian or an egoist it’s perfectly alright to lie to people. An occasional flirtation with dishonesty may do you or everyone else some good. Telling your wife that her dress doesn’t make her ass look fat might not win you points with Kant, but it might keep your marriage happy.
So… is honesty the best policy?
I guess the answer is still “it depends on who you ask”. But then, if the answer is “it depends” that gets us right back to where we started; no closer to figuring out if it is our moral obligation to always tell the truth to everybody at all times.
I suppose, though, we can all agree that if your honesty has anything to do with declaring that your penis would join David Duke at a cross burning, your honesty may not be the best policy.
In fact, it may be time to shut the hell up.
* One particular reason why Kant argues that we shouldn’t lie has to do with something Kant calls the Contradiction of the Will. According to Kant, before we perform any act we should first ask if we would want that act the be universalized – would we want others to do as we do? So if one is about to tell a lie, one should ask, “would it be morally correct if everyone told lies?”. Kant says that our answer should be no, we don’t want everyone to lie. If we hold that honesty is the morally right thing to do and everyone lies, lying undermines the point of not lying.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2004 . Trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. NY: Barnes and Noble Books. p. 91
Michael Scherer. “The Geeks Who Leak”. Time. Vol. 181. No. 24. June 24, 2013. p. 24