Can honesty ever be unvirtuous?
I think initially many of us would say “no”. After all, many of us feel understandably that honesty is the best policy, as the saying goes.
However, recently, I have become concerned about a troubling trend that I will call unvirtuous honesty. To explain what unvirtuous honesty is, it may be helpful to start with an example.
I have a friend who posts a lot on her wall about her journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. She posted a lovely picture the other day. And some person posted a rude comment and said, “Just being honest.”
I have heard people say “I’m just being honest” in this context quite a bit lately, and there is something puzzling about such proclamations.
The person who says “I’m just being honest” in a situation like this suggests that they are being virtuous by telling someone a difficult truth of some sort. However, for many people, their declaration of honesty seems unvirtuous.
And I think such demonstrations of “honesty” often are unvirtuous.
Why is this?
To suggest a possible answer to this question, let me give another example that more clearly illustrates my point.
Let’s say that the mother of a man name Peter is extremely ill. And let’s say that Peter’s friend Sam goes to visit Peter’s ailing mother. And as Sam is standing by the bed of this sick woman, he looks around the room and says, “This room is really ugly. I’m just being honest.”
Is Sam being virtuous in this situation?
Certainly not. Why?
The philosopher Aristotle can help us better understand the problem with Sam’s behavior.
Aristotle, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that virtue is the habit of self-mastery by which we learn to respond rationally to various pleasures and pains. By responding rationally, Aristotle means that we respond in moderation.
He suggests that fully virtuous behavior is like good physical health. It is a type of inner balance and harmony. And Aristotle points out that both excess and defect can ruin virtue. He writes,
“First then this must be noted, that it is the nature of such things to be spoiled by defect and excess; as we see in the case of health and strength (since for the illustration of things which cannot be seen we must use those that can), for excessive training impairs the strength as well as deficient:
meat and drink, in like manner, in too great or too small quantities, impair the health: while in due proportion they cause, increase, and preserve it.”
Accordingly, Aristotle argues that a virtuous person is moderate in their actions in specific situations, avoiding excess and defect.
For instance, in regards to courage, a virtuous person responds to fearful situations with moderation. She avoids excess of action, which would be recklessness, as well as defect of action, which would be cowardice.
As another example, let’s consider the virtue of wittiness, which is one of my favorite virtues Aristotle discusses.
Aristotle suggests that in situations calling for humor and lightheartedness, a virtuously witty person avoids an extreme of wit, in which case she would act like a buffoon. And she also avoids a defect of wit, in which case she would be boorish, or overly morose.
This brings us back to Sam and the first problem with his statement “I’m just being honest.”
When Sam comments that Peter’s mom’s room is ugly, Sam fails to hit the mean of virtue in regards to honesty and truth telling.
While we might think it is strange to think that virtuous honesty must be moderate in some way, it makes sense if we consider what our life would be like if we constantly told the “truth” in every situation at every moment of the day.
For example, if we told everyone at all times exactly what we thought, we would probably lose most of our friends, start quite a few fights, and possibly lose our jobs.
And, in fact, most of us recognize that telling everyone what we think all the time, all day long is not really a good example of honesty. Rather, it is a case of foolhardiness and a lack of impulse control.
A court jester, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, Aristotle discusses the problems that arise when people are immoderate with truth-telling. He argues that when we are immoderate in regards to truth-telling, we fall into braggadocio, which is boastful and arrogant behavior.
And this is certainly one of the problems with someone who goes around telling everyone what they think all the time. Such a person believes their opinion of the matter is the most important thing at all times.
Have you ever heard someone say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything”? This admonition developed as a way to correct the behavior of people (usually children) who believe their opinions are always the most important thing, which is certainly a sign of arrogance and immaturity, not virtue.
Honesty is more than just saying what you think all the time. Honesty is deeply concerned with other virtues as well. This reminds me of the Old Testament proverb, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”
Virtuous honesty is graceful and beautiful, even when it is painful sometimes.
So, the first problem with Sam’s behavior is that Sam is immoderate in his action. As a result, he demonstrates arrogance, believing his opinions, true or not, are the most important thing.
In the case of Peter’s sick mother, Sam’s words are neither fitting nor helpful.
For instance, we might say to Sam, “Your opinions about room décor are not at all important right now. This woman’s suffering is important. You need to demonstrate self-control and keep your opinions to yourself and show compassion for Peter’s mother.”
But there is a second problem with Sam’s behavior that Aristotle’s philosophy helps us understand.
Aristotle argues that the perfectly virtuous man hits the mean of all virtues, not just one of them.
For example, here is a table that illustrates all of the virtues Aristotle discusses in Nicomachean Ethics.
On the left, you can see the type of situation that calls for a specific response. When our response is moderate, we hit the mean of virtue, like courage, moderation, and generosity.
But when we respond poorly to a situation, we fall into excess and defect, as you can see on the left and right of the mean. Both excess and defect, according to Aristotle, are unvirtuous, immoderate, and irrational states of being.
Aristotle’s Table of Virtues in Modern Language
|Type of Situation
|Fear and Confidence
|Pleasure and Pain
|Lack of Self Control
|Getting and Spending
|Getting and Spending
|Tacky and tasteless
|Honor and Dishonor (major)
|Honor and Dishonor
And my point in sharing this chart is to remind us of something we already know. There are more virtues than truth-telling and honesty. There are also virtues like moderation, generosity, taste, and friendliness.
Aristotle argues that we are only fully virtuous and just when we hit the mean of all these virtues. He says,
“Now . . . Justice is in fact perfect Virtue, yet not simply so but as exercised towards one’s neighbor.”
So, not only is Sam immoderate in truth-telling, he fails to hit the mean of other virtues like moderation, generosity, taste, and friendliness.
Therefore, his truth-telling is unvirtuous. Aristotle would also say it is unjust.
Now someone might be concerned that Aristotle’s philosophy suggests we can never say anything that is offensive to anyone.
But Aristotle would disagree.
In fact, he would argue that speaking hard truths can sometimes demonstrate the virtue of courage.
An example of this (and this my example) would be when someone acts cruelly towards others and degrades them in a public setting.
To speak the truth in such a situation and say, “You are being rude and offensive, and you need to stop”, shows the virtue of courage.
It also shows the mean of the other virtues like generosity (towards the abused), confidence, and friendliness.
As another example, pertinent to classical Greece in which Aristotle lived, Aristotle certainly would have believed that denouncing unjust rulers demonstrated the mean of courage, truthfulness, and proper outrage. Such honesty might have outraged some people. But Aristotle would have thought this kind of honesty was virtuous in at least some situations.
So, if we ever wonder whether our honesty is virtuous or not, it seems that there are two questions we can ask ourselves:
One: Is my honesty in this situation truly moderate, or it is more a demonstration of arrogance and the belief that my opinion is the most important thing?
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Two: Does my honesty in this situation hit the mean of many other virtues like moderation, generosity, taste, and friendliness?
This brings me back to my story about my friend at the beginning of the post.
As I mentioned, my friend posted a lovely picture on social media, and someone posted a rude comment and said, “Just being honest.”
This rude commenter demonstrated unvirtuous honesty. They were arrogant and acted as though their opinion was the most important thing, rather than recognizing that my friend’s expression of her growth and discovery is important.
And the commenter also failed to hit the mean of other virtues like moderation, generosity, taste, and friendliness.
The apostle Paul seems to echo this sentiment in 1 Corinthians when he writes,
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1).