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The virtue of honesty requires more than just telling the truth | Psyche

An honesty box on Dartmoor, England. Photo by Loop/Getty

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The virtue of honesty requires more than just telling the truth

An honesty box on Dartmoor, England. Photo by Loop/Getty

by Christian B Miller + BIO

There is little controversy that honesty is a virtue. It is an excellence of character. It also promotes trust, fosters healthy relationships, strengthens organisations and societies, and prevents harm.

Sadly, though, honesty has gone missing in recent decades. It is largely absent from academic research. It seems to be rare in society. And it is not commonly found in discussions of how to become a better person.

What is honesty? How is honesty related to integrity, courage and tact? Is it always best to be honest? What are the ways of failing to be honest? These are important questions, but you will be hard pressed to find discussions of them among scholars. In my field of philosophy, for instance, outside of the work of my own team, there have been only two articles on honesty published in the past 50 years.

So what is honesty? It is a character trait that leads us to think, feel and act in honest ways. Let’s focus on the acting for a moment. Naturally, honesty stands in contrast to lying. But it is much broader in scope than that. It also is opposed to cheating, stealing, promise breaking, misleading, bullshitting, hypocrisy, self-deception, and still other forms of wrongdoing. It works against all of them, and so is extremely broad and impactful in scope.

What do all these behaviours have in common? What is at the core of honesty that enables it to cover so much moral ground? The answer, I think, is that honest behaviour is a matter of not intentionally distorting the facts as the honest person sees them.

Consider a student who lies about his grades to his parents. He is misrepresenting his academic performance on purpose to his parents. Or consider an athlete who knowingly uses a banned substance. She is mispresenting her performance as being due to her own efforts, rather than in part to the contribution of the substance.

Honest behaviour is tied to how a person sees the world, to the facts as subjectively understood. If someone genuinely believes the Earth is flat, then, when he reports that belief to a friend, he is being honest, even though the statement is false. Were he to say that the Earth is round, he would be acting dishonestly, even though the statement is true.

If the only reason why the shopkeeper doesn’t cheat his customers is that he is worried about losing business, then he is doing the right thing for the wrong reason

That’s a bit about honest behaviour. How about motivation? In order to be a virtuous person, it is not enough just to act well. One’s heart behind the action matters too. Honesty is no exception. Telling the truth, even if one is reliable in doing so, won’t be an expression of the virtue of honesty if it is done just to make a good impression on others, or to avoid getting punished, or to secure rewards in the afterlife.

Indeed, in my view, any self-interested motive isn’t going to count as a virtuous motive for honesty. The philosopher Immanuel Kant made a similar observation with his example of the shopkeeper who charges fair prices even when he has a chance to overcharge certain customers. Kant claims that if the only reason why the shopkeeper doesn’t cheat his customers is that he is worried about losing business, if he were to be found out, then this would be a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The same point applies for any other self-interested reason.

What would count as a right reason for honest behaviour, then? A variety of other motives, including:

  • loving motives (eg, ‘because I care about you’)
  • justice motives (eg, ‘because it would be unfair if I cheated on the test’)
  • friendship motives (eg, ‘because he’s my friend’)
  • dutiful motives (eg, ‘because it was the right thing to do’)
  • honesty motives (eg, ‘because it would be honest’)

If someone tells the truth for any of these reasons, it is hard to fault the person’s character. But they are rather different reasons. I think we should be pluralists here, and allow any or all of these to count as what could motivate an honest person to act.

There is much more to say about the contours of this virtue. But already I have said more than most have in a long while.

Here is another way that the virtue of honesty has gone missing – it seems to be rarely possessed by people today. You might conclude this from the nightly news or from your own lived experience. But I am especially interested in what can be concluded from empirical research in psychology and behavioural economics. In a variety of different types of experiments – using die rolls, coin flips, self-graded exams, and other measures of honest behaviour – participants regularly exhibit a pattern of behaviour that does not fit with our expectations of an honest person.

For instance, in a commonly used experimental set-up for assessing cheating, participants are given a 20-problem maths test, and are told that they will be paid for every answer they get right. In a study by Lisa Shu and colleagues, this was $0.50. In the control condition, there was no opportunity to cheat, and participants scored a 7.97 out of 20. In the experimental condition, participants got to grade the test themselves and shred their materials. Given the freedom to cheat if they wanted to, participants ‘scored’ a 13.22 out of 20. That’s a big difference.

As in many areas of psychology, some cheating studies have failed to be replicated

To take another example, online participants in a study by Christopher Bryan and colleagues had to flip a coin 10 times, knowing they would be paid $1 for each heads. The average ‘performance’ was 6.31 heads, well above chance. Even when another group of participants was warned, ‘Please don’t cheat and report that one or more of your coin flips landed heads when it really landed tails! Even a small amount of cheating would undermine the study,’ the average was still 6.22 in that group.

How do these findings line up with our expectations about honesty? A person who is honest will not cheat in situations where she is a free and willing participant and the relevant rules are fair and appropriate, even if by cheating she is assured of acquiring some benefit for herself. That’s what you might expect of an honest person, but it’s not what we see happening in these results.

Of course, these are only two examples. To draw any conclusions about character from just a few results such as these would be very unwise. Fortunately there are dozens and dozens of additional findings that I have reviewed elsewhere, including many more studies using shredder and coin-flip paradigms. The important point here is not what any one study shows, but rather what the patterns of behaviour look like in general and whether they align with our expectations for honesty.

This is also relevant to recent worries about the replication crisis and about fraudulent data. As in many areas of psychology, some cheating studies have failed to be replicated. For instance, a well-known shredder study initially found that recalling the Ten Commandments was effective in reducing cheating, but this result did not hold up in an attempted replication with many more participants from 19 separate labs. Furthermore, it was well documented that an influential study, which purported to show that insurance customers were more honest in their mileage reports if they signed at the top of a form rather than the bottom, was fraudulent.

Again, this is why it is so important to not rely on just a few studies when trying to think about how honest people tend to be. It is the broader patterns that hopefully tell a reliable story.

Finally, this story is about what the majority of people tend to be like. It is based on average performances. But averages can cover up exceptional behaviour. So we may have a bell curve, with some people who are highly honest and others who are highly dishonest, while the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, the story should be taken to apply, in the first instance, only to inhabitants of North America and Europe, since they tend to be the participants in the existing studies. The story may apply more broadly, but we don’t have nearly enough research yet to say.

Assuming that many of us are not honest people in a variety of circumstances, and assuming that honesty is an important virtue that we should cultivate in ourselves and others, it is important to take practical steps to do so. And here is a third place where the virtue of honesty has gone missing. For very little has been said about strategies for growing in honesty, and about testing those strategies to see if they are really successful.

In my own classes, we all read aloud the honour code before the students sign it and begin their exam

Here are three preliminary suggestions that might be fruitful, but that also need empirical confirmation. One is seeking out and better understanding exemplars of honesty. These can be historical exemplars such as Abraham Lincoln, or contemporaries such as a family member, friend, co-worker or community leader. Admiring role models for their honesty can lead to a desire to emulate those people, to make our own character better reflect the exemplars’ character. Sustained engagement with the exemplars can typically be more effective than one-time interactions, and relatable and attainable exemplars can have a greater impact than their opposites.

Another suggestion is to have regular moral reminders of honesty in our lives. Such reminders can make our moral norms salient, such that they more actively work against a desire to cheat, lie or steal. Honesty reminders can take a wide variety of forms, including diaries, readings, signs and emails. There can also be institutional reminders, which we encounter at work or school. One such moral reminder in many schools is an honour code, which students have to sign before taking a test. And there is some very preliminary experimental evidence that such a reminder can be effective in preventing cheating. Returning to Shu’s research, she and her colleagues also had groups of participants take the maths test after reading or signing an honour code. When there was an opportunity to cheat, the honour code made a difference: participants who did not read the honour code gave themselves an average score of 13.09 out of 20; those who only read the honour code scored 10.05; while those who both read and signed the honour code scored 7.91 (a realistic score for the test, suggesting that they did not cheat at all). In my own classes, we all read aloud the honour code before the students sign it and begin their exam.

A final suggestion is to work against our desire to cheat, a desire that can be especially powerful when we think we can get away with cheating, and benefit in the process. Such a desire seems to be at work in studies such as those by Shu and Bryan, mentioned earlier, and introspectively we can all recognise moments in our lives when it has influenced us as well. One straightforward way to try to reign it in is to increase the policing of cheating and impose harsher penalties on those found guilty. For instance, with the move in education towards take-home exams during the COVID-19 pandemic, computer surveillance of students taking those exams has become a big business, although not without giving rise to a number of moral and psychological concerns.

Increased policing and punishment for cheating might be effective in curbing dishonest behaviour, although that, too, is an empirical claim that needs further study. But, even if it does, that’s not enough to foster the virtue of honesty. As I said earlier, motivation matters too. Here, the motivation for not cheating would be punishment avoidance, and that is a purely self-interested motivation. While I tried to be very ecumenical about what can count as an honest motivation, this is one that’s not going to make it on the list.

Instead, the desire to cheat could be diminished in a more virtuous manner by fostering other virtues alongside honesty, such as friendship and love. If someone is genuinely my friend, I want what’s best for that person, even if it is at the expense of my own self-interest. Similarly, if I love others and care deeply for them, then I am concerned about their own good. The deeper the friendship and love, the less likely it is that we would be dishonest with others for our own gain.

This article draws on Christian B Miller’s book Honesty: The Philosophy and Psychology of a Neglected Virtue (2021), with permission from Oxford University Press.

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13 December 2021