What it Means to be an Honest Person

What is honesty? The question should be easy enough to answer given how frequently we use the word honesty in everyday life. Yet, the question is not at all that easy to answer. For starters, there are many things which honesty overlaps with, though ought to be viewed as mostly distinct from honesty. And secondly, the conscious experiences around honesty make difficult the creation of an all encompassing definition for honesty. Let’s deal with those two challenges in turn.

The Siblings of Honesty

Honesty has at least three siblings that I can think of. Honesty is related to openness, honesty is related to inaction, honesty is related to preaching. Of course, those words are only approximate, but they shall do for now.

Honesty and openness. Though these two are often co-occurrences, they are indeed distinct. If someone wants to be honest, they do not likewise have to be open. As example, someone can restrict themselves from speaking their entire mind, while at the same time saying things which are honest or free of deceit. Or, someone can be honest to who they are as a person by being restricted rather than open. So, honesty can be distinct from openness.

But why then do people conflate honesty and openness? Because being honest can sometimes require openness, or simply result in being open. Sometimes we speak up when others don’t, and sometimes we tell the truth when others don’t; singular acts of honesty, by definition, require some degree of openness. Someone who is free of deceit or free of pretence in some particular action is likewise free of secrecy in precisely that action; meaning, their particular act of honesty is also an act of openness. So, there is overlap between honesty and openness, but when we consider the total picture of a person, there is a distinction between honesty and openness.

Another common overlap is honesty and inaction. Honesty and inaction are more obviously distinct, as inaction can be applied to a machine, for instance; and we would not fathom any thing of honesty in our considerations of the machines’ inaction. But where inaction and honesty relate is at the same intersection where honesty and openness meet. Some people, as cheeky as we may find this, call those who do not tell a lie and opt for inaction as being honest; only because honesty can simply mean free from deceit or pretence. I will have more to say about that worldview later, but inaction and honesty do overlap. It is important for us to keep in mind, however, that the two are distinct. Someone indeed can opt for inaction as a means of pretence.

The last thing which I believe is commonly associated with, to the point of being equated with, honesty is talkativeness. Someone who is extremely open or speaks on nearly everything can be viewed as being very honest. Their zealous conversation style is deemed to mean they have no secrets; hence, they are deemed honest. Of course, some talkers, as we know, are pathological liars and so talkativeness is not the same thing as being honest.

So, the siblings of honesty are openness, inaction, and talkativeness. Each can be heavily mixed with honesty, yet each is separable from honesty.

What is Being Honest?

Now that we know what honesty is commonly mistaken as, let’s discuss what being honest is. The definition of honesty is simple enough, but that is exactly the problem with the definition as well. Whenever we consider occasions where honesty arises or is used, free of deceit or pretence simply does not tell us enough. 

There is a phenomenology of honesty, there is what it is like to be honest. And there are often real time dynamics involved with the classification of honesty which complicate our interpretations. On top of that, the definition of honesty doesn’t tell us much about radical honesty, a topic we will explore at the end. So, what is being honest?

A lack of restriction seems to be involved with the process of being honest. Suppose we want to say something in a group setting, but we opt not to because of our prediction that people will respond negatively to us. Here, we are not being true to ourselves, we are restricting ourselves for the sake of others. That is not who we honestly are, that is who we are when conditioned by society. Now, to be clear, someone could suppose, “being conditioned by society is who you honestly are,” but doing so would miss the point. There is an impulse that stems from our inner wants and desires, and then there are things which hinder those impulses: i.e., a conditioned fear response. In other words, we are excluding from our notion of self learned behaviors. 

Take as example someone who has a want to harm others. Let us say that said person works inside a charity that helps people five days of the week. And, whenever said person is helping others, he or she thinks only of harming them. Now, suppose said person one day comes into the charity for work, but decides to finally act on the impulse to harm others; suppose he or she indeed harms fifteen people.

The expressions applicable to such a situation are as follows: “that entire time, the person was putting on an act,” or, “they really hid who they truly were,” or, “they pretended to be x, when they were really y”. Those expressions are acceptable because we recognize someone can fake the external, not be genuine to who they are on the inside. And sure, someone could delude themselves; but, impulses and wants are not willed or controlled.

So, in our case, where someone has the impulse to speak, but does not, they are not being honest to themselves. They are opting for silence because they have been conditioned, but their true self wanted to speak, evident by the impulse. Which is not to say we should act on our impulses at every moment. Our true selves do have dark sides, and some impulses are dark. We should try our best to resist some impulses, obviously. In addition to that, some of our impulses and wants are in conflict, and in order for us to decipher which is more true to who we are, we need to weigh them.

Thus, a lack of restriction is involved with some instances of being honest. Another element of being honest, related to lack of restriction, is revealing information. Someone who is forthcoming about information, and is at the same time not lying or deceiving, is being honest. Put another way, someone who is not only removing restrictions but also actively putting forward information without deceit or pretence is being honest. But that, as some will realize, is not essential to honesty, so why mention it? For one simple reason.

Not everyone is equal in honesty, some people are more or less honest than others. Being honest means being honest. As said before, inaction can, technically speaking, mean someone is not dishonest. But a common mistake I see is that people then infer that those who are not dishonest are therefore honest. Someone can not be a liar, but that does not make them a truth teller; by the same reasoning, someone can not be dishonest, but that does not make them honest. Not telling a lie is not the same thing as telling a truth. And when we say, being honest, we mean an active process. 

And so, putting forward information will be involved with the process of honesty for this very good reason. If I play hockey once, I am not going to label myself a hockey player; despite whatever technicality we want to use. In ordinary English, when someone says, “I am a hockey player,” in most cases, they mean they are a professional; they mean, they have spent thousands of hours refining their craft. Which makes sense. Yet when it comes to saying, “I am an honest person,” we apply a different standard. However, I am of the belief that someone who spends thousands of hours putting forward truthful, sincere, information is far more an honest person, to the point of professionalism, than someone who merely sits on a couch for thousands of hours saying nothing. To equate these two people as equally honest people is absurd. Someone who is simply not dishonest is not honest, and someone who puts forward information more routinely, in an honest manner, is an honest person; they are the professionals of honesty.

So, in the same way that a hockey player puts forward effort, an honest person puts forward information as well. The technicalities of the English language aside, being a hockey player or being an honest person is more than playing hockey on the weekend or telling the truth once a week. Perhaps another way of saying, “being honest is putting forward information,” is: “being honest requires sufficient and continual effort toward committing honest acts, not merely being devoid of dishonesty”. 

Now, given that being an honest person involves a lessening of restriction and an increased effort toward situations where truth telling and sincerity are used, we can understand what radical honesty means: a person who goes beyond the normal levels of effort and lessening of restrictions. And that can manifest in many different behaviors.

Someone who opens up more, and thus talks more, during a conversation will be more honest than someone who sits quietly – again, said quiet person will not be dishonest, but they are not necessarily being honest. So, the more open and the more talkative we are, the more opportunities for honesty will arise; and when they arise, the less restrictions and more effort we put forth to be honest, assuming we are successful at our attempts, the more honest we will be. We can take that to the point of being radically honest. We can be more open than the average person, we can fulfill more of our impulses or place less restrictions than the average person, and we can try to put ourselves in situations where opportunities for honesty arise to a degree greater than the average person. We can be honest to an extent far beyond the average person. That is radical honesty.

This all leads us to ask yet another question of honesty. How honest should we be? The answer to which I am uncertain.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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