When is Honesty Not Honest? Can There Ever Be an Absolute Standard?

When is Honesty Not Honest? Can There Ever Be an Absolute Standard?

Tuesday, 15. September 2009

Michael SmithThe headline in The Times, 8 September, was startling enough: ‘Don’t dismiss dishonesty, it can be virtuous’. How could dishonesty be virtuous, I wondered?  

In fact the article was slightly less sensational than the headline implied. The author, the philosopher Professor A C Grayling, was commenting following research by Emil Finch and Stefan Fafinski at Brunel University which found that there is no consensus in society as to what honesty is. Grayling stressed, rightly, that honesty makes possible trust: ‘an honest person is a trustworthy one, and the workings of an honest society can be relied upon.’ But, he pointed out, the problem arises in grey areas where honesty needs to be tempered by courtesy and respect for different cultural traditions.

There is no point, for instance, in being ‘honest’—in the sense of always saying what one thinks, if it simply causes offense; no point in saying what one thinks of another person—of the ‘I-don’t-like-your-hair style/clothes/taste-in-music’ variety—without regard for the consequences in that person’s life. My honesty may encourage, or it may destroy. Grayling quotes Church of Scotland teaching which says that ‘it is a sin to tell an untimely truth’.

Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group and its campaigns for ‘moral and spiritual rearmament’, always held to the notion of ‘absolute honesty’ as an ideal—a fixed point like the North Star. But honesty always had to be in the context of, and tempered by, love and respect for the other person. Conscience would tell us when we were woefully short. And forgiveness would recognize that we rarely achieve the ideal anyway.

Buchman took his teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Christ told his disciples: ‘Be ye perfect even as our heavenly father is perfect’—another uncompromising if unachievable objective, if ever there was one. And only achievable perhaps occasionally through the grace of God in one’s life.

This was what I faced as a teenager, on reading the Sermon on the Mount for the first time with any serious intent, and knowing I was living hopelessly short of the ideal. I instinctively knew the areas in my life where I was far from perfect and, thanks to a conversation with a friend, resolved to do something about it. That conversation turned out to be surprisingly liberating and decisive. It shaped my future.

Absolute honesty’, or any other virtue for that matter, cannot be separated from a deep-seated spiritual dynamic and the grace that comes with it. People of other faith traditions would acknowledge this too. Does this mean that we should no longer hold up the ideal of an ‘absolute’ honesty, in a secular age, any more than one might hold up the ideal of ‘absolute’ unselfishness, purity of heart or love for people? The ideal remains a fixed point, but it should not lead to a false burden of guilt—except where a guilty conscience prompts us to a change of heart. We all fall short; we all sin; we are all in the same boat together. We all need redemption and forgiveness for our patent shortcomings. How many of us have experienced the burden of guilt falling away when we’ve made a clean sweep of things, confessed our wrong-doing and found a surprising liberation? Without that grace of forgiveness the accumulating burden of guilt becomes intolerable. As St Peter says in his first letter: ‘Love covers a multitude of sins.’ God may see through us, know all our shortcomings and compromises, and love us just the same. The same applies in human relationships—loving partners know this all too well.

Notions of an absolute standard, therefore, highlight even more the need for a spiritual basis of conscience in decision-making, in private and public life. The spiritual is the first priority on which honesty and other virtues can be based. And, as many would argue, there is only one true absolute anyway: God himself. All the rest seem to recede as you approach them. But the ideal remains.

An ‘absolute ’honesty, informed by conscience, would have avoided, for instance, the scandal of MPs’ expenses claims and the gross ‘liar loans’ given to borrowers in the mortgage market with such catastrophic consequences for the banking profession.  What we don’t need to do is to dilute the challenge of absolute honesty, or any other virtue, to fit our own comfort zones.

Michael Smith is the author of ‘Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy’ and a coordinator in the UK of Caux Initiatives for Business.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.