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Honesty is the human quality of communicating and acting truthful and with fairness, as best one is able. It is related to truth as a value. This includes listening, reasoning and any action in the human repertoire — as well as speaking.

Superficially, honesty means simply, stating facts and views as best one truly believes them to be. It includes both honesty to others, and to oneself (see: self-deception) and about ones own motives and inner reality.

Honesty is an important element in interpersonal relationships, particularly intimate relationships and the social perception of dishonesty can seriously undermine judgements of likeability and social attraction, leading to distrust .


Two theories of honesty exist.[1] First, the ‘‘Will’’ hypothesis in which honesty comes from the active resistance of temptation and links to the controlled cognitive processes that enable delay in regard to reward. Second, the ‘‘Grace’’ hypothesis in which honesty comes from the absence of temptation and links to research upon the presence or absence of automatic processes in determining behavior. Most people tend to favor the Will hypothesis.[1] However, functional imaging and reaction time research supports the latter hypothesis since individuals who are honest in a situation in which they can lie showed no sign of engaging additional controlled cognitive processes.[1]


In discourse a statement can be strictly true and still be dishonest if the intention of the statement is to deceive its audience. Similarly, a falsehood can be spoken honestly if the speaker actually believes it to be true, assuming the speaker doesn't unfairly reject or suppress evidence. Conversely, dishonesty can be defined simply as behavior that is performed with intent to deceive or to manipulate the truth.

Brutal honesty should also be considered. The speaker can be honest but if they are to say exactly what is on their mind, it might be taken as brutally honest, depending on how harsh the words are.

Morality and national formations might be so characterized, but so too might be many family structures, and other small social collectives). In these cases honesty is frequently encouraged publicly, but may be retroactively forbidden and punished in an ex post facto manner if those invested in preserving the system perceive it as a threat. Depending on the social system, these breaches might be characterized as heresy, treason, or impoliteness. So ultimately, there are a great number of opinions about honesty. Even in moral systems which approve in general of honesty over dishonesty, some people think there are situations in which dishonesty may be preferable. Others would not define preferable behaviors as dishonest by reasoning that they are not intended to deceive others for personal gain, but the intent is more noble in character, for example sparing people of opinions that will upset them. Rather than dishonesty, that behavior is often viewed as self sacrifice - giving up one's voice for the happiness of others. But it can hardly be a universal approach to either determining honesty or morality. In many circumstances, withholding one's opinions can legitimately be viewed as cowardice, and a betrayal of those who will be hurt, discriminated against, or unfairly judged due to false beliefs left unchallenged. For this reason, many people insist that an objective approach to the truth, rather than an ideological or idealistic approach, is a necessary component of honesty. Honesty means telling the truth.

Honesty travels on a larger arc than merely telling the truth. Telling the truth involves answering a question directly without lying or attempting to deceive. Honesty involves context and answering even the unasked question. For instance an honest person will rarely exhibit surprising behaviour in the lives of others due to having kept others informed of personal opinions. Additionally an honest person will inform others of opportunities for growth and self-actualization. Secrets allowing people to be harmed, self-deception - not being aware of one's own environment, and remaining silent when duty calls forth an opinion become silences which hurt others in the long-run. Honesty means being open about one's life.

Western views on honesty

Since the quality of honesty applies to all behaviors, one cannot refuse to consider factual information, for example, in an unbiased manner and still claim that one's knowledge, belief or position is an attempt to be truthful. Such a belief is clearly a product of one's desires and simply has nothing to do with the human ability to know. Basing one's positions on what one wants — rather than unbiased evidence gathering — is dishonest even when good intentions can be cited — after all even Hitler could cite good intentions and intended glory for a select group of people. Clearly then, an unbiased approach to the truth is a requirement of honesty.

Because intentions are closely related to fairness and certainly affect the degree of honesty/dishonesty, there is a wide spread confusion about honesty--and a general belief that being dishonest means that one ALWAYS correctly understands if their behavior is either honest or dishonest. Self-perception of our morality is non-static and volatile. It's often at the moment we refuse to consider other perspectives that there is a clear indication we are not pursuing the truth, rather than simply and exclusively at the moment we can muster up evidence that we are right. Socrates had much to say about truth, honesty and morality, and explained that if people really understood that their behavior was wrong — then they simply wouldn't do it — by definition. Unfortunately, honesty in the western tradition has been marginalized to specific instances — perhaps because a thorough understanding of honesty collides with ideologies of all types. Ideologies and idealism often exaggerate and suppress evidence in order to support their perspectives — at the expense of the truth. This process erodes the practice and understanding of honesty. To an ideologist the truth quite often becomes insignificant, what matters most are their ideals and what ever supports their desires to enjoy and spread those ideals.

Human beings are inherently biased about what they believe to be good due to individual tastes & backgrounds, but once one understands that a decidedly biased approach to what is true — is inherently dishonest, one can also understand how idealism and ideology have poorly served the quest for an honest, moral society. Both honesty and morality require that we base our opinions about what is good — upon unbiased ideas of what is TRUE — rather than vice versa (determining what is true based on what we feel is good) — the way all ideologies would have us believe.

Some people think that this definition is too simplistic, or that it is specific to western culture. For example, some people think that not telling the truth is acceptable in some situations, and that persons who lie in such circumstances are not being dishonest. Examples of such situations are lying as a part of etiquette ("little white lies") or lying under grave risk of bodily harm to self or others. There are some that seek a much more comprehensive ethical certainty about what one says, such as Immanuel Kant. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Some people think that education is especially important for the promotion of honesty, because they think that it is impossible to be considered honest without acquiring some terminology with which to state truth as understood by the society. In their opinion, ignorance can itself generate dishonesty. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Others think that it is not some esoteric definition of truth that holds the understanding of honesty -but in one's attitude toward pursuing information to establish belief & opinion without bias. For example, not wanting to suppress information or dialog simply because it MIGHT lead to contradicting one's desires, opinions or ideologies. In this view, it isn't so much that ignorance generates dishonesty, but that cultures and ideologies teach & require dishonesty by giving preconceptions of what is good, bad, true and false — and then by requiring support based on faith and loyalty while discouraging unbiased examination. Honesty requires one to base one's values and beliefs on unbiased evidence gathering, meaning that one must always be willing to subject their conclusions to the preponderance of the evidence — which is often in direct conflict with the values of faith & loyalty.

The studies of Confucius about honesty

Confucius recognized several levels of honesty, fundamental to his ethics:

His shallowest concept of honesty was implied in his notion of Li: all actions committed by a person to build the ideal society - aiming at meeting their surface desires of a person either immediately (bad) or longer term (good). To admit that one sought immediate gratification could however make a bad act better, and to hide one's long term goals could cloud a good act. A key principle was that a "gentleman" must strive to convey his feelings honestly on his face, so that these could help each other coordinate for long term gain for all. So there was a visible relation between time horizon, etiquette and one's image of oneself even in the mirror. This generates self-honesty and keeps such activities as business calm, unsurprising, and aboveboard. In this conception, one is honest because it suits one's own self-interest only.

Deeper than Li was Yi or righteousness. Rather than pursuing your own interests you should do what is right and moral - based on reciprocity. Here too time is central, but as a time span: since your parents spent your first three years raising you, you spent three mourning them after they die. At this level one is honest about one's obligations and duty. Even with no one else to keep you honest or to relate to directly, a deeply honest person would relate to ancestors as if they were alive and would not act in ways that would make them ashamed. This was part of the moral code that included ancestor worship, but Confucius had made it rigorous.

The deepest level of honesty was Ren, out of which flowed Yi and thus Li. Confucius' morality was based upon empathy and understanding others, which required understanding one's own moral core first, rather than on divinely ordained rules, which could simply be obeyed. The Confucian version of the Golden Rule was to treat your inferiors as you would want your superiors to treat you. Virtue under Confucius is based upon harmony with others and a recognition of the honest reality that eventually (say in old age) one will come under the power of others (say one's children). So this level of honesty is to actually put oneself in context of one's whole life and future generations - and choose to do or say nothing that would not reflect one's family's honour and reputation for honesty and acceptance of truth, such as eventual death.

Partially because of incomplete understanding of these deeper notions of honesty among Westerners, in Asian countries it is common to refer to those who do not have them as barbarians. While sometimes Asian cultures sanction an almost intolerable degree of delay and ambiguity for Western tastes, it is very often to avoid lying, or giving a positive impression where doubt exists. These would be thought dishonest by Asians. Thus pressing for a decision on a matter where it is not yet possible to give an honest commitment or answer is seen as extremely rude - in effect, forcing someone to choose to be either rude or dishonest. Both being unthinkable in traditional culture, one thus delays.

A Buddhist teaching on honesty

Thanissaro Bhikkhu taught: “Real honesty is being honest about what your possibilities are, what your potentials are. That’s where true honesty lies. It stretches us. It’s not simply admitting where we are - that’s a beginning step, it’s not the end step. So be honest about where you are but also be honest about what your possibilities are. That keeps the challenge of the path always before us.” From “True Honesty”

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 (2009). Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106 (30): 12506–11.

External links

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