The Most Important and Most Neglected Virtue

Research is done on the mating habits of the duck-billed platypus or the mosquito’s affection for cheese. Philosophers inquire deeply into nausea, zombies, and the solidity of the chair upon which you sit. Yet precious little work has been done on one of the most fundamental traits of human character, the one we use to decide whether to like or love, hire, or trust.

As director of The Honesty Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Dr. Christian Miller wants to rectify the omission. “Honesty was neglected in the realm of academic philosophy for much of the twentieth century,” he points out, “and there’s no clear answer why.”

Maybe it scares us.

Author of The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, Miller has a far stricter definition of honesty than I do. He notes that it permeates our lives, spanning “cheating, stealing, misleading or deceiving people, breaking promises, deceiving ourselves, hypocrisy, bullshitting. You can’t be an honest person unless you’re doing well in all those areas.” Which means I am screwed, because I deceive myself regularly, ignoring the raw selfishness of my deepest thoughts and the childish fears tugging my decisions in the wrong direction. I also cheerfully tell white lies when a friend is eager for reassurance. Or rather, I grope for something to say that is true but hide my private recoil. She does not need my private recoil.

Or does she?

A social psychologist who is also part of The Honesty Project, Dr. Taya Cohen, asked research subjects to be scrupulously honest in every conversation they had for three days, then reflect on the outcome. If that strikes fear in your heart, you are not alone. Cohen and her collaborator had a good bit of trepidation—would participating in this project rip apart relationships? Participants went in fully aware of the risks, but they, too, dreaded the ramifications.

As it turned out, “the results weren’t what they expected at all,” Cohen says. “It was socially connecting. And even if they had difficult conversations, they were conversations that needed to be had.” We dread honest disclosures, she has realized, because we focus on the short-term discomfort and not the long-term feelings of relief, release, intimacy, meaning, depth, trust. Also, adds Cohen, who is president of the International Association for Conflict Management, “we are not good at gauging how the other person will react.” To avoid finding out, we break up by text or quit without explanation or manage by parachute—and do far more damage, in our squirming cowardice, by failing to respect the other person.

Women, especially, have been socialized to be indirect, tiptoeing around anything that might be hurtful, faking joy or orgasm, and hiding rage or need. It took a few years of marriage for me to realize that all my dancing about and doublespeak was maddening to my straightforward husband, then a few more years to simply blurt out what I wanted, what I thought, what I felt. Honesty is addictive; I could never go back. But with people I do not know well, I still tread carefully. I wonder if Miller will bless my white lies—or rather, selective honesty, polished to sound a little happier than I feel.

(That qualification is my desperate attempt to prove I am not actually lying when I gush about somebody’s hideous kitchen renovation or ruffled velvet dress. This is a delicate subject, because when I was very small, just learning to step into that dark Roman Catholic confessional booth, a brusque old priest asked me if I had lied. I said, truthfully, no. “Are you lying now?” he thundered.)

“You can think a white lie is wrong,” Miller says, “or you can think it is dishonest but not necessarily wrong, because there are other considerations in play as well.”

Not quite a blessing. “So is it better to be brutally honest?” I challenge, aiming the adverb like a dart in a pub tournament.

“There is such a thing as too much honesty,” he concedes. I nod hard. Conversations that begin with “Let me be honest,” I have found, are often exercises in sadism. Real honesty does not require the carte blanche of a preface.

“Brutal honesty can be a vice, not a virtue,” Miller continues. “What has to go alongside honesty is another virtue: tact. Virtues should go in packages.” Which complicates the matter, as does his conviction that “motivation matters to honesty as much as behavior does. Even if someone reliably doesn’t cheat or lie, that is not enough to qualify them as honest, because it matters why they are like that. What’s in their heart?” He is willing to accept any motivation other than self-interest—we are honest if we want to be true to ourselves, if we want to be “a good person,” if we are adamant about fairness, if we believe real communication requires clarity, if we are following a code of conduct learned in kindergarten, if we have transcended the base impulses that prompt deception. But if we think honesty will advance us in the world, or we just want to land in heaven instead of hell? We have already blown it.

Research has shown Miller just how variable the trait is. Cheating increases later in the day, when people are tired, or when the room is darker. People are more honest when there is a mirror in the room. In other words, our moral behavior is sensitive not just to an internal compass but to our surroundings—a finding I find vaguely depressing. Study after study indicates that most of us are not reliably honest. Our default assumption, upon meeting someone, should be to doubt their word.

But what about Goethe, I want to wail. I cling to his promise: Treat someone as though they are already the person they ought to be, and they will become that person. Besides, studies in business negotiations have shown that the U.S. predisposition to trust wins better outcomes.

There is a way to be both honest and benevolent, Cohen is sure of it. “Brutal honesty trades off benevolence,” she says, “and giving false hope trades off honesty.” Why are we not taught, from kindergarten, how to be honest gracefully? Most of us still have not learned, in our casual or professional relationships, how to hear and speak the truth without rupturing relationships.

Some cultures lie to save face, and it may not even be a lie, per se, because everyone knows it is simply a detour, circling to avoid uttering a painful truth. In the United States, we do not lie to protect others as often as we lie to make ourselves look better. Or to avoid discomfort, because somewhere along the line (and why?) we became convinced that it was impossible to be kind and honest at the same time. Even with ourselves. My Catholic schooling emphasized those slippery “sins of omission,” but Cohen puts it more simply: “There’s dishonesty, and then there’s a lack of honesty. There’s all this research on lying and dishonesty, but what about self-deception? We focus on some parts of the truth and not others.”

It feels easier, but in the end, it is exhausting.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.