Honesty requires a good faith intent to convey the truth as best we know it and to avoid communicating in a way that is likely to mislead or deceive. In the language of the courtroom oath, an honest person tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There are three aspects to honest communication: truthfulness, sincerity (non deception), and, in relationships of trust, candor.
Truthfulness. Honest people are truthful. They do not intentionally misrepresent facts, intentions, or opinions (we call this lying). Intent is crucial to the distinction between truthfulness and truth. We can be truthful and, therefore, ethical, even if what we say is not actually true. Being wrong is not the same thing as being a liar. An untruth told as the result of a mistake or error in judgment is not an act of dishonesty. Of course, honest mistakes can still hurt trust to the extent they reveal deficiencies in terms of reliability and carefulness, but a person who makes a mistake is not dishonest.
An unfortunate confusion on this issue, one that has trivialized the significance of lying is the phrase, “So, I lied,” as a flip response when caught in error. Lying is an honesty issue, not a competency issue. Honest people make mistakes. Liars lie. Because lying is a moral transgression of intent, it is far more serious from a moral perspective. When we expand the domain of lying to honest mistakes we tend to increase our tolerance of lying.
Sincerity/Nondeception. Honesty requires more than truthfulness. Deception is an act (sometimes including silence) intended to cause another person to believe something that isn’t true. We can deceive and mislead without ever telling a lie, but it is just as dishonest to deceive with half truths and tricky wording. It is as wrong to deceive as it is to lie.
An Illinois legislator was named by a local magazine as one of the ten worst lawmakers in the legislature sent out a mailer to his constituents proudly proclaiming that he had been “singled out for recognition.” Now, what he said was literally true, but he said it in a way that was clearly intended to mislead.
What about advertising claims that announce “one-third less calories” when this glorious achievement was actually accomplished by reducing the recommended portions by one-third? A particularly audacious example of advertising deception was reported by Consumer Reports. Brut spray deodorant came out with new packaging prominently featuring the words “Now More Brut.” The can was indeed bigger. Well, the cap on the can was one quarter inch bigger. What was in the can? Less product. The manufacturer defended this odiferous ploy with the argument that the amount of musk (the ingredient that gives that Brut-ish smell), had not been reduced. Therefore, it said, the proportion of the musk to the other ingredients was greater, resulting in more Brut smell. That explanation stinks. Perhaps that technical evasion could dodge a charge of lying, but there can be no question that the packagers intended to deceive consumers into thinking that they were getting more deodorant for their money.
The test to uncover deception, however subtle, is very simple: If the person communicated to comes to learn the truth concerning the facts, motivations and intentions behind the communication, does it undermine trust? Are you more or less likely to believe the state legislator once you realize his out of context reference? Do you feel the manufacturer of the deodorant was honorable in its relations with customers?
Sincerity is an important virtue because it breeds trust, just as insincerity breeds distrust. Unfortunately, people who want to be trusted but are unwilling to be trustworthy also are willing to be insincere about sincerity. Oscar Wilde, in his inimitable fashion, said that sincerity is a most important human virtue; once you can fake it, you have it made. Real sincerity precludes all acts intended to create beliefs or impressions that are untrue, misleading, or deceptive, including deliberate omissions, half truths, and out-of-context statements.
Candor. So far, I’ve dealt with lies and deceptions resulting from statements and deliberate half truths, but does being honest sometimes require us to volunteer information even when we are not asked? Yes.
In personal and business relationships, which create special expectations of mutual trust, honesty requires candor, the obligation to volunteer information that the other person needs or wants to know. Candor is required in our closest relationships — those between parent and child, coach and athlete, teacher and student, husband and wife, movie star and plastic surgeon. It is also required between employer and employee and between business partners.
This does not mean we have to volunteer everything we know or think — your hair looks awful, the speech was boring, my mother hates you, I hate the sweater. The moral duty of candor exists only in trust relationships and only when forthrightness is expected. That is, we don’t always expect or want others to give us their unsolicited opinions or foist upon us facts that could ruin positive feelings or assassinate other relationships.
When we ask others to trust us, we assure them that they can rely on us to act on their behalf, to protect them. That is why trust relationships require us to be candid, sincere, and guileless. We are obliged to reveal things that those who trust us ought to know for their own good, or want to know so that they can make informed decisions.
Suppose, for example, that your high school daughter has been suspended from school for three days. By accident, you see her in the mall on one of those days and you accuse her of cutting school. She says she isn’t cutting — because she was suspended. “Why didn’t you tell me?” is the likely response. “You never asked,” might be her answer. “Knock it off! You betrayed my trust. And you know it,” you might conclude. Her failure to be candid in this setting probably is no less damaging to your trust than if she had blatantly lied. You have a right to expect that your children will tell you about such matters. It is important and they know it is important. Similarly, an employer has a right to know that a project will not be finished on time or that the computer was broken.
Justifiable Dishonesty. Honesty is an extremely important quality, but it is not, an inviolable principle of ethics. All lies are dishonest, but not all lies are unethical. There are times when an ethical person can be dishonest. Police, for example, are morally authorized to lie in undercover operations to catch drug dealers and corrupt politicians. In such cases, society has concluded that its interest in the ethical principles of citizenship and lawfulness outweighs the suspect’s interest in being treated with honesty. If that were the only exception, however, the rule of honesty would be pretty much intact since few of us can use this excuse (even police officers can use it only under judicial supervision). There are other times when lies are morally justifiable, when the end clearly justifies the means. Lying to the Nazis to save Anne Frank or to terrorists to save the lives of innocent people makes moral sense.