What is Honesty?

A search for a definition of honesty yields mostly synonyms such as integrity, the absence of lying, and trustworthiness. To be fair, a clear and simple de nition for this concept isn't easy, as honesty is not so much a thing as it is a process. Our experience of the world comes pre-filtered. As the late philosopher Alan Watts said, there is no hard in the universe without soft skin as a contrast to feel it (I paraphrase). We see only part of the light spectrum, hear only a small range of potential vibrations as sound, we speak in words already defined, and use rules of grammar made by our culture that reflect adopted values. Into this relatively predictable hallucination we refer to as reality, we attempt to build a connection to another locus of consciousness via the unsteady rope-bridge of human communication. It is along this tenuous bridge that we, who desire to be genuine, try to offer our reality to another (and re ect our experiences to ourselves) in ways that are consistent and as absent of bias as possible.

When we get up to move toward anything, we are motivated at the deepest root by a desire to survive, to have our experience of being conscious and of being somewhat uniquely sentient continue. We move toward food to eat it and continue to live. We go to work to buy the food to eat and then not die. We pay the lease on the car to take us to the job to buy the food to eat... and so on. This is the root bias of almost all of humanity - to keep ourselves alive, and to justify our actions in accord with that motivation.

There are of course exceptions, and one could say part of a growing wisdom

is understanding the value of dissolution when the time is right. Our desire to survive bests our desire to be honest, and this truth permeates so much of our communication. Are you a good person? Most of us would say yes, for as well as goodness being a virtue, there is a great utility in being regarded as a good person. A more impartial response would be, "What do you mean by good?"

Honesty is not the same as not lying. You can refrain from lying (which is a great start) and still lack the motivating desire to be as clear as possible. Honesty, in the way I am defining it, implies going further than not lying. It suggests doing more than the minimum to ensure you've been understood and have not misled others. Trying to be more honest is like regularly washing a few more dishes than you know you have used when living with roommates. It is in some sense, a heroic attitude, for it faces the inevitability of our dissolution and places truth higher than survival. We may never have the ability to be completely unbiased, but we can warn others about our known biases, and listen when they tell us they perceive bias in our thinking or actions. We can de ne the words we use so as not to mislead, and acknowledge the vast areas of our ignorance. This requires humility and patience, but remember - the game of survival cannot be won in any case - you will eventually lose the struggle to stay alive. If there is no higher value that transcends the duration of one human life, then what do we hope for the future of our species?


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